18 days, 300km, one swag, zero showers and a billion blowflies makes for one hell of a journey. Especially if that journey takes place in the Simpson Desert, recalls Australian travel writer Jo Stewart.
When I tell people I once walked 300 kilometers through Australia’s Simpson Desert with a camel caravan supporting a scientific expedition, I’m immediately bombarded with questions.
Living and working in one of the world’s most inhospitable environments without access to showers, toilets, running water, Wi-Fi and the electrical grid may seem incomprehensible to some, but with careful planning, meticulous preparation and a bit of true grit, is totally possible.
Apart from blistered feet and questionable body odor, here are a few things I took away from the journey:
Apart from Antarctica, Australia is the driest continent on the planet, so heading off into the desert alone and unprepared is setting yourself up for a Darwin Award win. That’s why the expedition was headed up by a true-blue explorer experienced in desert survival. Make no mistake—there is absolutely no way most people could do this alone and live to tell the tale.
While rainforests and reefs get plenty of attention, Australia’s deserts are chronically overlooked. On this expedition, a team of scientists collected specimens (everything from feral cat skeletons to kangaroo poo), dug pitfall traps to snare native rodents, assessed local bird populations at dawn, and set up recording devices to monitor late-night chatter between bats. Take that mental picture of a scientist being a dude in a lab coat and replace it with a woman in overalls, wielding an axe to remove the head of a dead kangaroo, and you’re closer to the truth. Science is savage as.
The legendary parallel dunes of the Simpson Desert are a favorite with the 4WD set, but dune-bashing isn’t the best way to go about things when you’re working on a scientific expedition. Walking is simply the best way to survey the landscape and see what’s underfoot. Walking allowed the resident botanist to collect plants and flowers (yes, flowers grow in the desert and their resilience only adds to their beauty). Walking gave the zoologists and ecologists a chance to collect specimens: the corpse of a desiccated lizard freeze-framed in its final moment on earth, bleached bones of feral camels and brumbies (free-roaming feral horses), kangaroo spines and dingo skulls – all bagged and carried back to Sydney for study.
Walking also gave me the chance to stop and take photos and notes whenever I liked, unlike a road journey where the best bits whiz by at 100km an hour. On foot, you have all the time in the world to stop and take shots of bearded dragons lazing in the sun or the deep cracks in clay pans that look like fault lines coursing through the earth.
Arguably, there’s nothing more Australian than a night under the stars in a swag, our choice of shelter for this expedition. For those unfamiliar, swags are essentially an all-weather sleeping bag with a built-in mattress. Simple to set up and take down, they protect you from the elements and insulate you pretty well against the cold desert nights.
Moving to a new location each day, we’d simply roll up our swags, tie them to the tops and sides of our camels, and move onto the next camp for the night.
While the swag part is easy, finding a prime location is a bit of an art. Soft sand makes for a good mattress replacement, but not when that soft sand is a spider habitat.
Returning to my swag one night after dinner, my head torch revealed hundreds of pairs of beady spider eyes, lurking around my makeshift bed like a scene from ‘90s horror flick Arachnophobia. Another night I made the mistake of setting up my swag on an ant superhighway and woke up to find my snacks being raided by an ant army of Napoleonic proportions.
Ahhh, food. The greatest concern of most people, whether traveling in Brooklyn or Birdsville, food takes on an altogether new meaning when you’re on an expedition. When you’re midway through a 300km+ walk, food becomes an obsession. Way out of the range of the Uber Eats network and with no cheese drops from planes (no matter how hard we wished), our expedition had to be 100% self-sufficient.
Carrying tinned food like vegetables, tuna and beans plus rice, pasta and other items that don’t spoil, enabled the inventive camp cooks to whip up hearty meals. Items like preserved beef mince and chicken may seem weird, but when there’s no other option, a newfound love of dehydrated meat and reconstituted peas takes over. Out in the desert, flour, salt and milk cooked in the coals of the fire and covered in jam (and a few flies) tastes as good as anything you’d get from a fancy patisserie in the city.
Our trusty camels carried all the water we needed for the trip, and we rationed it as if it was the apocalypse. With water primarily reserved for drinking and cooking, there were no showers, excessive hand washing or washing of dishes. We used one enamel camping plate for breakfast, lunch and dinner and after each meal, we were given a piece of paper towel to clean our plate and cutlery. Maybe a tiny splash of water if you’d eaten something particularly hard to shift (note: don’t let your leftover Weetbix dry onto your plate, else you’ll be using a Swiss Army knife to chisel it off). Carried in jerry cans by our camels (who drink 50 litres all at once before the trip, then never again until the end), I’ve never looked at water the same way since returning.
The ships of the desert that made up our motley crew were majestic yet temperamental beasts, prone to flicking urine around with their tails and spitting green, masticated leaf slime in our faces. They made the journey possible with their feats of strength and endurance, but sure did take liberties whenever they could. Regardless, I’d rather travel with a pack of camels than a busload full of tourists any day of the week.
Find out more about the Simpson Desert which covers the corners of three states, South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory.