Across the Simpson without a clue

Mark Watson can’t ride a motorcycle. He doesn’t have a licence and has never been off-road. Luckily, his mate Grant has a KLR. So, two gumbies with no preparation and no clue set themselves one goal: to cross Australia’s Simpson Desert. Why? Because it’s sandy…

The Road to the Simpson

Going from non-rider to crossing the desert in 10 easy-to-do steps:
  1. Drink beer and decide to buy a bike (why the hell not?)
  2. Check out magazines to see what’s cool
  3. Do a five-day Direct Access course incorporating CBT, theory test, Direct Access training and practical test modules 1 and 2 (approx £740)
  4. Buy a bike off shop floor (because it’s shiny)
  5. Find mate who is into crazy-arse underprepared adventures (but very adept at logistics, planning, mountain climbing, piloting, 4×4-ing etc). Agree with him that crossing a desert would‘rock!’Tell him you’ll be crash-test dummy
  6. Ask wife… plead, buy flowers, chocolates, lingerie – whatever it takes
  7. Derestrict bike and add off-road setup
  8. Fill bike with go-go juice and ride. (Alternatively, get a mate to source support and supply and drive 4×4 and bikes to intended start)
  9. Ride
  10. Drink beer and celebrate getting off your sorry arse to cross a desert

I wanted the KTM! Everybody wants a KTM, right? I hadn’t ridden in 20 years but the 640-Adventure just looked so ‘Dakar’, I needed it. Maybe I’d always been a biker… I just hadn’t known it.

I remember racing a Yamaha-80 against the old Valiant paddock-bomb in the 1980s. The rules were simple: a straight drag race, the car in reverse, the bike whichever way you wanted it and when the oldies weren’t looking the judge was allowed to pick off the rider from the far side of the paddock with the air rifle.

But today’s liability-scared, politically correct world was quick to inform me, “the 640-Adventure is not a ‘learner approved’ bike.”Fortunately,Kawasakihasremodelled the dual sport KLR-650 and it now looks kinda cool. My wife was off visiting the in-laws in the UK and couldn’t give me ‘that look’, so off to the showroom I trotted.

Later that night I knew I was in trouble… There was silence on the other end of the phone.

“You don’t even have a licence!” she scolded. But I was grinning madly; I was the owner of a shiny new green machine – now all I had to do was figure out how to ride it. I dropped my KLR-riding mate Grant a line. “We should cross the Simpson!” he randomly announced, and I was stupid enough to say, “Hell yeah.” I now had a bike with 0kms on the clock, no licence, no clue, no skills and a seriously pissed-off wife. I’d also just agreed to cross 1,100 sand dunes comprising Australia’s fourth largest desert… What the hell was I thinking?

But I figure this bike-riding thing can’t be too hard, right? It’s basically a heavier version of my mountain bike. You point it downhill, pin it, counter steer, throw up rocks and smile like an idiot… except the KLR has a throttle. I decide to hit some trails, to prove to myself how easy motorcycling is. It doesn’t take me long to realise this ain’t no mountain bike.

I decide to do what any sensible bloke would do; I grab a beer and settle down in front of the TV. A few episodes of The Long Way Round and highlights from Red Bull X-Fighters is surely all I need to get me started… but I resolve to hit the internet as well, just in case.

After an hour of You-Tube Dakar crashes I somehow start a new thread on one of those forum thingies. I’m no Facebooker and Twitter’s something birds do, so I’m amazed when I notice my post has accumulated more followers than Moses – and they all ride dirt bikes.

A random email suggests I drop Australian Dakar god Christophe Barrierie Varju a line, so I do. The next day, he calls me back from Santiago Airport, Chile. “You don’t know how to ride and you want to cross the Simpson Desert on L-plates?” he  says incredulously. I’m starting to feel very small, getting a grilling from such an accomplished rider, until he exclaims, “Bloody brilliant! That’s awesome! I’ll be back next week, you can stay at mine and I’ll take you into some huge dunes.” Sorted.

A week later and I’m stuck in a deep sand-hole, sweating into my goggles. “We can’t train in the sand if you can’t get into

the dunes,” Christophe jokes, but I know there’s a hint of seriousness in what he’s say- ing. “You mustn’t accelerate up a dune, you need to carry your momentum from the bottom,” he coaches. I align the bike again, but this time hit the bottom of the dune
at twice the speed. The front end slams into the sand and digs deep as the fork compresses, then the rear wheel throws but catches and the dust begins to fly. Elbows up, throttle on, light on the front, feather the clutch a little, shift weight for extra trac- tion and just keep moving… then, finally I’m on the dunes.

Later that night I’m rooted. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come off and I have sand everywhere – and I mean everywhere. I’ve twice gone bodily over the bars; on one of those occasions the front wheel just disappeared into the axle. “Why is the rear wheel facing the sky?” I pondered, as I flew 10ft through the air upside-down. Fortunately, sand offers a soft landing. Later Christophe nodded his approval with a final warning: “Stay on your pegs and be ready for anything.”

Departure day arrives and we’re finally in Alice. The first words I hear from Grant are, “Bloody thing won’t start!” Our first attempt at a roll-start is perfect. Then I hear an ugly cranking sound. A good shake in first un-sticks the starter motor, but I’m hoping this isn’t an omen.

On hearing two four-stroke thumpers, a random dude wanders up. “Rode that Simpson trip a few years back,” he says, “but I came across in the Cruiser this time. Just a warning: the water’s up in Eyre Creek. I saw a 4×4 winched out with water up to the dash so ya best take the detour. Everyone’s driving the 60km detour, but they’re all mad. If you take the right fork to Chambers Pillar you’ll only have 5km extra to go. Have fun!” So with the right fork in mind we head off, following a thin red line on the GPS.

Our planned itinerary following the southbound Finke desert race route should be firm and rocky, but the detour to Chambers Pillar is an unknown and beyond is 176,500sq/km of Simpson Desert where the world’s longest parallel sand dunes
lie between us and the next cold beer in Birdsville.

To get to that cold schooner we have to cross a country of extremes. Summertime temperatures reach 50°c, while nighttimes drop below freezing. One year it floods, the next five not a drop of rain falls. Everything and everybody must adapt to survive here. The cane grass has no leaves (photosynthesising from its stem), water-holding frogs dig burrows, hibernating until the wet weather comes and even the Wangkangurru Aboriginal people survive only by living at wells called Mikiri. For these reasons, the Simpson is closed to adventurers during the summer, ‘to save foolhardy travellers from perishing in the extremes,’ the National Parks info reads. Are they referring to us?

Day 1: 164km, moving avg 49.8km/hr, max 84km/hr

A 164km mixed road to Chambers Pillar was our intended warm-up and it threw 140km/h hard-pack and stones at us, interspersed with 20km/h fishtailing deep sand sections. My rear luggage rack bolt is somewhere ‘back there’ and Grant’s JNS skid plate has taken a pounding on a full compression bottom-out, but all-in-all a pretty good first day.

And three glasses of red make everything even more worthwhile. The sweat has dried on me but a clean T-shirt is a luxury. My real worry now is, will dingoes will eat my face off in the night? It’s been a while since I’ve slept in a swag and too many screenings of Predator has me waking at every sound. Chambers Pillar towers over me, silhouetting a thousand stars. At midnight my face is licked, not by dingoes, but by rain. Fortunately it’s only a shower; a deluge might extend the trip indefinitely.

Day 2: 191km, moving avg 48.1km/hr, max 82km/hr

Day 3: 83.6km –  don’t ask! moving avg 54.6km/hr, max 92.3km/hr

“Ha, ha! I bloody told ya!” I laugh at Grant as he lies under his bike, coolant dripping around him. I’m secretly worried he’s busted his bike properly after coming off in a deep bulldust pit, but I’m not going to show my concern. Only weeks ago Grant had chuckled at my SW-Motech crash bars, “I like ya training wheels,” he’d jibed. My response was, “you’ll be laughing on the other side of ya face when ya radiator hits the dust!” How right I was. Happily, some metal putty deals with his problem while Loctite addresses the issue of my KLR shedding bolts like Zsa Zsa Gabor sheds husbands.

The next day I have my first taste of an involuntary stop. The support vehicle receives a grandstand view as the rear wheel locks up and my front end washes out. Seeing a dodgy line through the trees I straighten and hit a bank, performing some uncoordinated FMX, legs and arms everywhere. I somehow stick my line, brush some shrubs and finally come to rest 20m off the road.

I decide to take the next few corners a little slower until I come across Grant, who’s stopped again. “Stupid machine,” he curses as the bike surges, backfires and stalls. The choke’s been dodgy so we disengage it, tweak the idler and finally rev the bejeezus outta the 650, but to no avail. We guess it’s some kind of fuel/air issue but exactly what, we don’t know. The sat phone comes out. Grant calls his hometown bike shop and the conversation goes something like this: “G’Day mate! Here’s the deal…” and ends10 minutes later with, “…bugger, so we have to strip the bike then?”

Stripping the fairings, draining the tank, disassembling the carby and cleaning the jets is a difficult learning process on the side of a dusty track but somehow we pull it off and in the process re-solder some randomly severed wires. Suddenly she’s purring beautifully and the neutral light works again – we are mechanical gurus.

Day 4: 160km, moving avg 45.8km/hr, max 96km/hr

Day 5: 108km, moving avg 30.3km/hr, max 55km/hr

My intended night-time naked back-flip competition with a van-load of gorgeous female German backpackers is thwarted because we reach Dalhousie Springs at midday instead of the previous midnight. We’ve also failed to happen across any hot blonde backpackers, dammit! Instead, an hour is spent soaking weary muscles in the 38° waters before getting back in the saddle and encountering severe corrugations, gnarly cricket ball-sized gibbers (stones), and then finally our first dunes just before dark.

At sun-up we wake to sand as far as the eye can see… and I love it. There’s not a track in sight on the dunes and it’s like snowboarding fresh powder, but Grant’s having one of those mornings. “I suck today,” he announces as he walks back to his bike after another face-plant. But I just chuckle and twist my throttle – there’s no such thing as mates on a powder day.

By the afternoon the tables have turned however, and my carving comes to an abrupt halt. The dune to which I fall victim looks like all the others, except I opt for the left, windblown track instead of my usual right line and throttle-on. ‘I’ve got this momentum stuff sorted,’ I think to myself, but suddenly I’m looking at the sky as my front wheel disappears into a hole.

Happily, I escape with just scrapes and bruises but my indicator switch and watch strap remain somewhere in the desert sands. Christophe’s warning: “Stay alert and read the dune,” rings clear in my ears.

That night I recover under a thousand stars with only the crackle of our small fire interrupting the still silence. I sleep soundly with my trusty green steed on one side of me and the empty ripples of desert sands stretching to the horizon on the other… my concern at being eaten by wild animals has finally faded. Life is good.

Day 6: 112km, moving avg 29.8km/hr, max 101km/hr (found a salt flat)

It’s already hot as we roll out of camp the following morning. I’m temporarily dis- tracted by prints on the first dune – dingo tracks! Except, strangely, this doesn’t worry me too much today. By lunchtime we have bigger issues, like roast toes. Travelling east with the intense sun on my left boot means it’s become too hot to touch. Who would have guessed a second pair of snowboarding socks would be my saviour in the desert? They stop my pinkies blistering, but Grant’s hands are another story. Moleskin, Gaffa tape and Nurofen are the only things keeping his digits intact, but the combo works and we struggle on.

I’m into my fourth litre of water of the day when I come across ‘The Sandpit’. It’s one of those nasty powdery midday dunes that happen when the sand is at its softest. Choosing the wrong line, I slew sideways and go down in the soft stuff. It’s time to use some Dakar de-bogging skills. I lie all 200-plus kilos of the KLR on the ground and allow the sand to fill around her before struggling back upright. Rocking back and forward, I throttle-on and run. Fifteen minutes later my throat is burning and I’m dripping with sweat, but I’m still skid-plate deep. I’m forced to radio Grant for assistance and I hear the glee in his reply; he’s getting his own back for yesterday.

Day 7: Not long, not far, not fast

We’re killing it. We’re on our final day in the Simpson and the dunes have become mountains but the salt-flats in between offer ridiculously fast fun. We even remember to take the right fork at Eyre Creek and 20 minutes later we stop on the far bank for a bite to eat. That’s when we notice the puddle under the support car. One of the last dunes appears to have relocated the Navara’s radiator three inches higher. The bush-mechanics offer, “nothin’… she’s a goner!”. With less than 60km to Birdsville our support is towed over the dunes on the back of an old Russian army truck.

The Kawis on the other hand have been getting stronger by the day. OK, my KLR now carries a selection of zip-ties, new bolts and some rope’s holding the rear rack on, but the four-stroke hasn’t missed a beat since day one. So as the sun hovers on the horizon we put in one last push to top the 40m high ‘Big Red’, the last dune of the Eastern Simpson Desert.

Redlining in second, the big KLR punches through the glowing crest and comes to a halt. A week of sleeping under the stars, a grand of dunes, busted bike bits and too many perfect sunsets finally sees a bloody large desert traversed by a couple of everyday gumbies. Now all that’s left behind us is a vanishing trail of dust.

As the cold ale runs freely from the tap in the Birdsville Pub, the stories grow taller, the sand softer, the dunes steeper and the face-eating dingoes – well, they were massive psychotic mongrels. Now all I have to do is find a way home. The barmaid nods her head toward the corner. “Mike over there has a dodgy little plane,” she suggests. But that’s another story altogether.

Bike Set-up

Barkbusters Usually used to protect hands on trails, more importantly these will protect levers from impact on gumby mistakes

JNS Engineering skid plate The standard KLR skid plate is plastic; an aluminium plate is a must. JNS (USA) plates offer good ventilation, they’re sturdy, have a quality finish and allow for crash-bar installation

SW-Motech crash bar Protects fairing, bodywork and engine from impact. Crucially enhances impact resistance to coolant reservoir, fan and radiator

Pivot Pegz These foot pegs offer pivotal traction when wet or dry, on and off-road, so no need for further modifications as with many alternative pegs

Dunlop-606 tyres A tried-and-tested DOT-approved off-road tyre. Performs well in sand at low pressure (12-15psi) while remaining durable for long stints on gravel and tarmac at high pressure (25psi)

Rim-locks Prevent the tyre and tube spinning on the rim and tearing the valve off. The debate as whether to run rim-locks and/ or super heavy-duty tubes is on-going. I fitted both and had no flats, even running pressure as low as 12psi

25mm bar risers These raised the bars to a more suitable level, offering better comfort for long hours standing on the pegs

Rear brake mount A stronger brake mount offers increased master cylinder protection (stock brake mount can be prone to breaking under stressful conditions)

Rear master cylinder guard Protects master brake cylinder from stone, rock and crash impact

GPS Garmin eTrex Venture mounted to bars, so we could find the pub in all that sand

The Simpson Desert

The first European to see the Simpson Desert was explorer Charles Sturt, who visited the area in 1845. It wasn’t until 1929 that explorer and geologist Cecil Madigan named the desert after Alfred Allan Simpson, the then president of the Royal Geographic Society of Australia. Madigan went on to cross the desert by camel in 1939; however Ted Colson was the first European to traverse the sandy wilderness, completing his mission three years earlier.

‘The Simpson’, as it’s commonly known, is Australia’s fourth largest desert at close to 180,000sq/km. The desert stretches east from Alice Springs in the Northern Territory towards the borders of Queensland and Southern Australia, spanning all three states.

The desert is home to the longest parallel sand dunes in the world. Running north-south the dunes can be 160km long and vary from 3m to 40m in height. The dunes carry sparse vegetation due to the region receiving less that 200mm of water a year. The only reliable source of water within the vast desert comes from bores or natural springs tapping into the Great Artesian Basin, an underground water supply.

Summertime temperatures can reach in excess of 50°c while winter is relatively moderate with daytime temperatures in the mid-20s; at night, however, they can fall to below freezing. The wildlife of the Simpson – mostly reptiles and birds – is adept at surviving such extremes. Dingoes also roam the dunes, as do camels descended from those left by Afghan camel traders in the 1800s.

There are no maintained tracks in the desert; but tracks exist from oil and gas surveys carried out in the mid-1900s. Many of these tracks are labelled ‘lines’ due to initially being bulldozed following a compass bearing; they disappear in places where sands shift and can be impassable after rain.

The desert is closed to adventurers from December to March, to prevent tourists becoming fatally stranded in its unforgiving climes.

Riding by numbers

Seven days in the desert and…

1,100 sand dunes 1billion grains of sand (in my boots, boxers, helmet…) 1 busted radiator 1 busted rack 1 busted body armour 1 busted camera 1,000 lost bolts 1 million litres of water (kinda) 1 case of red bull 1 case of red bull energy shots Too much wine and beer 3 times over the bars (for me) 10 offs 1 total strip of Carby 1 dead support vehicle 1 rider left in Birdsville with busted support vehicle (as far as I know, he’s still there) 1 rider (me), 1 pilot and 1 dodgy 4-seater Cessna via William Creek – Cooper Pedy – Adelaide – and finally, Sydney, to get home