How and why we dashed across the Simpson Desert in a week from Melbourne with a Haval H9 and Great Wall Steed.

LAST TIME we talked about the biggest vehicle failure risk, punctures. Now we need to cover some of the other major risks. 

The big risk that people worry about is mechanical failure. In this case the received wisdom often takes a while to catch up to the current reality. If I quote from Jack Absalom’s 1976 book “Safe Outback Travel” he advises to take brake fluid and 9 litres of engine oil. Later advice involves taking shock absorbers, springs, all sorts of fluids, belts, air filters, fuel filters and much more, even alternators.

But in 2017, the world has changed in a couple of important ways. First, cars are way more reliable than ever. We no longer have to fiddle with condensors, carbies or points. Second, cars are way harder to fix. What used to be a simple job such as replacing a starter motor might now involve pulling out several other components just to get to it, specialised tools are needed more and more, and some cars require their computers fiddled with even for trivial jobs like a brakepad replacement. So having all these spares is of limited use as the chances of failure are low, and the difficulty of repair is high. But that said, I’m in no way advocating not taking any spares or tools, but am saying loading your car with 100-200kg of bulky spares that are unlikely to fail and you may not be able to fit isn’t a good idea. 

Batteries are more important to newer vehicles than older ones. The days of being able to disconnect a battery after the engine is started are long gone, and automatics can’t be push-started like manuals.  Every vehicle’s battery was relatively new, two vehicles had second batteries, and we had two sets of heavy-duty jumpleads. We owned about six between the group, but there’s no point bringing more than two. You plan as a group for these things.

Each vehicle was given a pre-trip inspection service which differs from a normal service – anything looking slightly worn is replaced, and things like fluids changed early. We also had what I’ve found to be the most useful set of spares in recent times and that is a large selection of random bolts, nuts, electrical wires, rope, fuses, bits of metal, hoseclamps and similar bits and bobs.

In the last couple of years that box of what appears to be junk has fixed a leaf spring on a ute, a steering rack on a Wrangler, a battery on a Prado, a roofrack, and on this trip it fixed some driving lights. And of course we had lots of cableties, duct tape and WD40. One vehicle had a winch, handy for bending things back into shape. Our party also had the luxury of a professional 4WD mechanic, and while the rest of us weren’t that good we did know one end of a spanner from the other. So yes, I’m going against the advice of loading your car with half another car. Instead, think about what is most likely to fail and focus on that.

There was also the risk of injury to people. So every vehicle had a first aid kit (and fire extinguisher), and everyone had first-aid training, some more than basic. We also managed fatigue with driver changes, stops and not pushing too far, all things which lead to mistakes and problems. We also had the little things that pre-empt problems like gastro tablets and painkillers.

Getting lost when crossing the Simpson desert isn’t really a problem, and in fact navigating the likes of the Victorian High Country with its myriad unmarked tracks is harder. In the Simpson area there’s not that many tracks, and there’s lots of signposts.  Nevertheless, we had several moving-map devices and quite a few paper maps of different scales covering the immediate and surrounding area. I will say this later, but it cannot be repeated often enough – NEVER rely solely on satnav even if it does have the tracks. Always maintain situational awareness.

We took plenty of food, much more than was needed for our expected stay in the desert. The food selected were items that travelled well, needed minimal preparation effort and water, and were heat resistant. For example, tinned meats, and beef rather than chicken. The food was split between vehicles, so the loss of a single vehicle wouldn’t destroy all food supplies.

Important though it is, food is a distant second for survival behind water. Humans can survive a long time without food, but nowhere near as long as water. The advice for water per person per day varies from 5 to 10 litres, depending on whether that includes cooking and washing water, and the expected temperature.  We had 45 litres of water per person, plus other drinks like beer, and each vehicle split its water over at least three containers in case of damage or contamination. We used the larger containers first so as to preserve the split across multiple containers, and minimised use of water where possible; for hand cleaning we used hand sanitiser and wet wipes rather than running water, and wet wipes are again handy for doing the bulk of washing up. You have to be very frugal with water when camping in the outback.

Getting bogged was a risk too. The Simpson is sandy, so we took traction ramps – eight Maxtrax and two Treds; again, the group owned more but if ten didn’t work nothing would. We also had four long-handled shovels, and four snatch straps in case a vehicle was bogged in a clay pan. Winches aren’t that useful as the Simpson is pretty srcubby so winch anchor points are hard to come by. However, I have had success with a 20m winch extension strap wrapped around a large number of small bushes, so winching isn’t out of the question. But so far, I’ve yet to find a sand situation that can’t be fixed with traction ramps, lower tyre pressures and a shovel and certainly didn’t expect that to change in the Simpson, which isn’t difficult sand driving (more on that later!). We also had flat plates for the wheel jacks in case we needed to change wheels.

Despite all the prep, there’s always a risk of something going catastrophically wrong, perhaps a fire, a crash or unfixable vehicle problem. The ultimate contingency plan was to abandon a vehicle and drive out, and we had a satphone if needed to call for help. If the satphone failed we had a distress beacon, a PLB which would summon the emergency services. Our group had four vehicles, which is my preferred convoy size. Four vehicles means you can spread shared tools and equipment, one vehicle can fail and one can stay with it while two go for help and there’s a few people around for tough jobs. Yet four is small enough to be nimble and fit into small campsites, unlike a group of ten cars which is hard work to herd from place to place when the faffing around factor becomes difficult to manage. We also had two people back in Melbourne who had full copies of the group’s details, with instructions to raise the alarm if they didn’t hear from us after 48 hours – every night we sent an SMS via the satphone to check in.

We also have a survival box, a small plastic box which contains things like a Swiss Army knife, firelighters, compass, survival blanket, flints, water purifiers, compass and so on. The idea is that if the vehicle goes up in flames we have a chance of survival with the contents of this box alone.

Another risk often overlooked is the loss of vehicle keys. Good luck trying to start a modern car without keys, so we ensured every vehicle had two keys, one with the main driver and the other stored in another vehicle.

An interesting bit of prep is the driver and the vehicle combination. When I run intermediate and advanced 4WD training I tell the students that now is the time to push limits and discover what they and their vehicles can do, as I’m a big fan of driving well within your limits on big trips. For example, I wouldn’t recommend the first time you drive in sand be the Simpson Desert – if you’re in NSW try Stockton Beach, Victorians can try Robe/Beachport and everyone else has sand aplenty. On this trip all our drivers were experienced so we had no specific need for skills development, and while I hadn’t driven either the H9 or Steed in sand I had experience with the H9 offroad and enough general knowledge from vehicle testing and working as a 4WD instructor not to be concerned about figuring out the vehicles.

Getting to know the H9 before we set off.

We also took plenty of cash, as while in the city you can get by with just plastic at some points in the outback you may need a fair bit of ready coin.

I could go on for a long time about trip risk and preparation, but just remember the fundamentals – think about what’s really likely to go stop you moving, try and prevent it from happening, and then take actions so if the problem does occur you can recover. 


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  1. With all the criss-crossing of the desert, there’d be no “stakes” left as they are all in the previous 4WD owners vehicle’s tyres. What is a stake? Where do they come from if the plants are the bushy type?

    1. There is still scrubby wood. We even had to saw a small bush off the track as it had fallen into the track, we did that rather than drive around. There is plenty of wood strong enough to stake a tyre – the term means a puncture caused by the impact of a largish sharp object, like a branch about 30mm diameter. Saying “I’ve staked a tyre” over the CB means trouble 🙂

      Also, people leave things on the tracks. I found a cutlery knife on the tracks. The wrong angle and that will easily puncture a tyre.

  2. There is no way I would trust my life to something i could not repair myself, there are plenty of stories about people dying in the Australian desert. The risks are just as high now as they were 100 years ago, probably more so considering some people’s fitness levels and blind faith in modern technology. If you don’t have the necessary skill levels and the right equipment, don’t go. I certainly would not put much faith in articles purporting success of such ventures on social media. You only have one life, there are no refunds if you get it wrong.

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