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Simpson Desert, Australia vs. Toyota Land Cruiser – Part 3: The way back

Pasha posing on top of Big Red, the Simpson Desert’s tallest dune.

This is Part 3 and the final iteration of our test drive of the Toyota Land Cruiser into the mighty Simpson Desert in Australia, the largest sand dune desert in the world. You can see Part 1: Getting there here and Part 2: The Crossing here. Now that the crossing is cleared, there are still a few hurdles to pass, starting with the climbing of Australia’s tallest sand dune: Big Red. Then it’s time to head over 2.360 km back to Sydney, but not before a further 1.000km of unsealed tracks to Innamincka, Cameron Corner, Tibooburra and Packsaddle. Hold on tight!

We are now headed back towards Sydney through a large patch of unsealed desert tracks.

Our new drone has been hard at work! Pasha clearing Big Red (top) and cruising through the desert.

But first let me introduce you to BSCB’s newest “employee”: our new DJI Phantom 4 Advanced drone that I had the pleasure of inaugurating on this Simpson Desert trip. This new addition to the team will allow another layer of coverage from a completely different angle and hopefully you will enjoy the new videos and photos in this as well as all our future test drives. There are a few automated modes that enable the drone to shoot from above following the car even though I am driving the Land Cruiser and don’t control anything on the drone, as illustrated in the two videos above.

Orange hues during sunset on Big Red.

With the drone tagging along, we are headed towards the highest sand dune in the Simpson Desert, Big Red, towering at 40m / 130ft high. This is not our first time enjoying the sunset on Big Red, we did so after a perilous crossing of the Birdsville Track back in July 2016 wth a Haval H8 but we passed on Big Red last time we were in Birdsville in March with a Toyota Prado, instead meeting all the locals. There are two ways to climb Big Red, located 40km / 25mi west of Birdsville: one hard, one easy. Contrary to all other dunes in the Simpson Desert, it’s the western slope that’s a lot steeper and a lot harder to climb. Last time I found myself atop Big Red, with a Haval H8, I reached the top the easy way from the West. But this year I’m up for the challenge and want to climb from the East. My desert whisperer, Birdsville Hotel General Manager Ben Fullagar (see the end of Part 2), has all the tips once again.

Ben Fullagar, General Manager at the Birdsville Hotel and desert whisperer…

A big thanks to Ben Fullagar and the Birdsville Hotel for making this crossing possible.

The video above shows Ben climbing Big Red with the Birdsville Hotel-branded Toyota Hilux, and I think it does the climb more justice than the drone video of myself and Pasha at the start of this article. Under this angle from the top of the dune, you can really appreciate that to lift any car to the top you have to be at maximum velocity. Here are the tricks. You need to put your car in 2nd gear in the sports shift mode and cancel VSC, TRC, diff lock and anti-collision systems as per all dune driving. Then, it’s full throttle all the way to the top of the dune. It may sound straight forward but your car will bounce up, down, left and right and you have to remind yourself NOT to let go of the accelerator otherwise the car won’t make it. You might need to gear down to 1st in the last few meters. Finally, a make or break decision is which track you follow and – most importantly – commit to until the top. . Then there are the sand conditions on the day…

Made it to the top of Big Red!

At the time of climbing there was a flat non-corrugated patch on the left-hand side at the bottom of the dune that allowed you to increase your speed high enough for a perfect climb (you can see the Hilux veering to its left at the very start of the video above), then the best track was to the right of the climb (watch how the Hilux turns right to catch it at the start of the climb). The most important thing is to fully concentrate on remaining within that track: it’s harder than it sounds at full speed as this is not a straight path. If you lose the track the car will be slowed down by the sand and you won’t make it. You can also see how I followed these instructions on the first video in this article, see how I first veer left to speed up, then veer right to catch the correct track, committing to it all the way to the top. Now it’s your turn, I’m watching!

It’s Land Cruiser territory in Birdsville!

An iconic Australian settlement, Birdsville is one of the most remote towns in the world. It is my third time here and I enjoyed it as much as the previous ones. At the legendary Birdsville Hotel, established in 1884, finding the luxury of high-speed wifi connection, a comfortable bed, cold beers and generous meals after the treacherous Simpson Desert Crossing is hard to believe in such an isolated place. Birdsville is Land Cruiser territory as the pictures above demonstrate. From right to left you have Ben’s personal Land Cruiser with a dozen Simpson Crossings under its belt, my Pasha proudly posing in the middle and the last one with its huge roo-bar is owned by Nadine and has a fantastic story to tell. In the 18 months since she purchased, Nadine already drove 75.000 km / 46.600 miles. That’s roughly 1.000 km / 620 mi per week. Impossible? Not when you’re a Tourism officer in Birdsville but also own a large cattle station in Durrie, 100 km / 62 mi away. Also, the way the license plate is smashed against the car? That’s what multiple encounters with kangaroos do to you. Now you can see first-hand the absolute necessity of fitting these huge protections without which the 4WD would have been totalled many times over…

The cars of Birdsville

It’s always fascinating to observe which cars make it to Birdsville. From top to bottom on the above illustrations: a valiant Great Wall X-Series pickup, now replaced by the new generation Steed in Australia. As we noticed during our two trips to Outback Australia in a Haval H8 and H9, the Great Wall brand is relatively well known in this part of the world. Contrary to city-slickers perceptions, this Chinese brand ends up being very reliable, especially for the price. The word has spread and one large nearby cattle station opted for not one, but two Great Wall pickups a few years back, one of which I managed to snap during one of its visits in town. Below is the mighty Man Kat, a 1979 ex German army supply truck and the main recovery vehicle in town for when you get inextricably stuck in the Desert. As we described in our last visit to Birdsville, the Toyota Land Cruiser 70 is the vehicle of choice in remote Outback Australia, while the Toyota Hilux is good enough as government vehicle.

Arrabury Road to Innamincka

It’s now time to leave Birdsville on our way to Innamincka. To get there is 400 km of nothingness, redness, sand, dust and rocks: in essence the perfect travel companions. The Arrabury Road is the reddest stretch of land I got to drive on, not only on this trip but most likely in the whole of Australia: it is certainly up there with the reddest patch of track near Uluru in Australia’s Red Centre or the Plenty highway west of Boulia I drove on with a Toyota Prado. The Arrabury Road is one of the most underrated tracks in Australia, with the Birdsville, Strzelecki and Oodnadatta Track paling in comparison. The inspiring immensity, silence and big skies prompted me to let out the drone to add some footage to make the 2nd video on this article (further up). The recent rain has packed the dirt, making the track silky smooth and enabling speeds of up to 140 kph / 90 mph.

Arrived in Innamincka

Pasha and I arrive at Innamincka, population 12, just in time for sunset-kissed photos. This tiny settlement is not much more than the Innamincka Hotel, Trading Post and a handful of private house. There is no mobile phone or internet network here so we remain cut from the world. Strangely, Innamincka was a ghost town for over 20 years and was only recently revived for tourism purposes. Innamincka was born Hopetown in 1882 when a police camp was set up that allowed a small settlement to develop. Severe drought and poor access resulted in the closure of the hotel, the hospital and the police post in 1951 and the town was abandoned until discovery of gas and oil reserves nearby in the late 1960s revived interest in the region and led to the opening of the Cooper Creek Hotel, now Innamincka Hotel, in 1972.

Moomba turnoff and pit stop in Cameron Corner and its dingo fence.

Continuing on our journey south, after 130 km / 80 miles we hit Moomba, established in 1963 after the first commercial gas discovery was made nearby. The weird and unique feature about Moomba is that it’s closed to the public! It is in fact a company town operated by Santos (for South Australia Northern Territory Oil Search) for the sole purpose of exploration and processing of natural gas. Although roughly 1.200 people work here on a fly in-fly out basis, there are no permanent resident population, no facilities, supplies or accomodation. Scheduled Services fly passengers daily to and from Adelaide. Rather out-of-this-worldy isn’t it? Next (170 km / 106 mi further) is Cameron Corner, the intersection of three states (South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales), named after the surveyor John Brewer Cameron. One of the other interests of Cameron Corner is the crossing of the Dingo Fence passing through the location along the New South Wales border. The Dingo Fence, also called Dog Fence, is the world’s largest fence, stretching 5.614 kilometres (3.488 miles). It is a pest-exclusion fence that was built in the 1880s to keep dingoes out of the south-eastern part of the country and protect the sheep of southern Queensland. Check out my last visit of Cameron Corner in a Haval H9 here and here.

Pasha in Tibooburra

Another 140 km / 90 mi south-east and we arrive in Tibooburra in the state of New South Wales, pronounced “Teeb’barrah“. It is the north-westernmost town in the whole of New South Wales, located 1.187km/738 miles north-west of the state capital Sydney. Last time I was in town it was New Year’s Eve 2016 and the Tibooburra Gymkhana and Rodeo was in full swing with cow-boy hats, checkered shirts and jeans the norm. It is a lot quieter today and I make the town a pitstop to unload the 2 jerrycans of fuel I had kept as back-up, as the road will now be mostly sealed all the way back to Sydney.

The iconic Silverton Hotel

Despite a very smooth and enlarged and sealed-up track compared to 18 months ago – yes the most remote parts of Australia are slowly but surely getting “civilised” which isn’t all a good thing – I fail to hit Silverton, a further 355 km / 220 mi south of Tibooburra, before sunset. Silverton, population 50, is located 26 km / 16 mi west of Broken Hill, a much larger town of 17.800 inhabitants. Silverton is named this way because it was created after the discovery of… silver in 1875, reaching a peak population of 3.000 by 1890 before plummeting to just 300 by 1900 as the high-grade ore around town rapidly depleted and the population moved to nearby Broken Hill where a richer silver-lead-zinc ore body was found. Silverton has been the scene for more than 140 films and commercials including Max Max thanks to the light, the character-filled colonial buildings and its scenic desert surrounds.

Kangaroos galore between Broken Hill and Wilcannia

Meeting a Ford Fiesta and a Hyundai Veloster on the streets of Broken Hill is always a shock after a week spent in the desert where heavily modified 4WD is all you see… The Kia Sportage and Hyundai Tucson are particularly popular in Broken Hill. As a goodbye from the Australian Outback, literally a thousand kangaroos watch me drive the 200 km / 125 mi from Broken Hill  to Wilcannia. Thankfully, not many venture onto the actual road, mostly remaining on the side curiously watching by. One additional full day of driving and 950 km / 590 mil later, Pasha and I arrive back in Sydney. Upon returning the Land Cruiser 200, the odo indicates 16.126 km, meaning we just cleared 5.717 km / 3.552 mi in ten days at an average of 13.3L/100 km or 17.68 mpg. Here’s what I thought of Pasha:

  • World-best 4WD ability demonstrated by the passing of numerous flooded creeks towards the end of the Simpson Desert Crossing. These same creeks at the same time were impassable by a lifted Toyota Hilux driven by a much more experienced driver, proving it all depends on the vehicle and putting the Land Cruiser 200 at the very top of the ladder of 4WD capability. An extremely impressive feat that alone justifies the vehicle’s ongoing popularity in countries with treacherous terrain such as the Middle-East, Africa, Australia and Papua New Guinea.
  • Headlights are the strongest and widest of any vehicle I have ever test driven. No high beams needed in pitch black Outback Australia and the lit area is so wide – up to five times the width of the road on each side of the road! – that any kangaroos lurking in the bushes is spotted. This is invaluable help that enables for night driving in remote areas, usually a no-go due to the high kangaroo-collision risk, a potentially deadly hazard not only for animals but for humans as well.
  • The on-board fridge I enjoyed so much on the Prado is back – very convenient.
  • Sound system is truly amazing.
  • Multiple parking cameras including rear view but also front and sides.
  • No sliding on bull dust unlike the Prado that had to be kept in line constantly.

  • GPS grossly overestimates times to reach destinations by applying a blanket 60km/h average speed to all roads including highways, 40 km/h on unsealed roads. Also often doesn’t recognise the fastest routes!
  • Lower back seat hold isn’t great: I was in pain after 3 days of driving (2500km), something that didn’t happen after 10 days in a Dacia Logan costing 10 times less…
  • Parking brake is manual – at this price point we would have expected electronic, even a US$8.000/7.000€ Baojun 510 has one.
  • Heavy braking sends the car’s tail way up and wobbling.
  • Storage areas within driver and passenger doors are too small and cant hold a 1.5L water bottle. Very impractical and would have thought given the size of the vehicle this would have been no issues, after all the C-HR manages it.
  • U-turns aren’t achieved in one go one two-way roads.
  • Backseats only fold and don’t offer a fully flat surface hence make it hard to lie down and sleep in the car, not that anyone affording a top-spec Land Cruiser Sahara would actually want to do that, but still.
  • At 2.750 kg this is one of the heaviest vehicles currently on sale which means a lot of inertia when driving on mud.
  • Although a great 4WD, it is grossly overpriced at AUD$129.877 (US$93.900, 80.500€) for the Sahara V8 4.5 T Diesel 4×4 automatic variant with metallic paint.

Simpson Desert, Australia vs. Toyota Land Cruiser – Part 2: The Crossing

Crossing all the way…

This is Part 2 of our test drive of the Toyota Land Cruiser into the mighty Simpson Desert in Australia. You can see Part 1: Getting there here. We are now getting into the deep end and ready to start the famed crossing. As we described in Part 1, the Simpson Desert is the largest sand dune desert in the world at 176,500 sq km (68,100 sq mi), and contains the world’s longest parallel sand dunes (all 1100 of them), oriented along a north-south line across over 800 km. A round 500 km / 310 mi separate Mount Dare to the west from Birdsville to the east for what is the most direct crossing of the Simpson Desert following the French Line for the most part, named this way because the French Petroleum bulldozed the track during seismic surveys in the search for gas and oil in 1963. There is absolutely no human settlement or services at any point across the Desert so you need to be totally self-sufficient for the duration you have planned for the trip – in my case two days, but at least three days are recommended. Please see Part 1 for preparation tips and what is mandatory to bring with you in the car.

This is it: we are now crossing the Simpson Desert from west to east.

But first, why is it called Simpson? Almost a century after the explorer Charles Sturt was the first European to sight the desert in 1844, another explorer, Cecil Madigan coined the name while participating in numerous aerial surveys of the “trackless areas” of Central Australia throughout the 1930s. The Desert is named after Alfred Simpson, the president of the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, but also the owner of the Simpson washing machine company. In 1939, Madigan led the first major expedition across the Simpson Desert, although he was not the first non-indigenous person to cross the desert in its entirety, a feat managed by Ted Colson in 1936. In 1962, geologist Reg Sprigg drove the first vehicle to cross the Simpson Desert, a short-wheeled Nissan Patrol G60, accompanied with his wife Griselda and children Marg (10) and Doug (7). It took them 12 days from Andado Station in the Northern Territory to Birdsville in Queensland. This was even before the French Line, further south, was created.

The same Nissan Patrol G60 that first crossed the Simpson Desert in 1962 (recreation in 2012).We’re in! “No habitation or services for the next 450 km”… Indeed.

Fast-forward 56 years, and the Simpson Desert has risen to the top of the must-do list for Australian 4WD enthusiasts, with thousands attempting the crossing each year and its length and toughness making it a kind of rite of passage that I can’t wait to pass. The Simpson is closed from December 1 to March 15 because of extreme heat in the height of summer making breakdowns potentially fatal. The best time to travel is May to October so we are right on the mark, entering on June 25. The tracks in the Simpson Desert are not gazetted roads and therefore auto club membership does not cover breakdowns in the desert – recovery is charged $400 per hour coming from either Mount Dare or Birdsville, however the Desert Parks Pass required for entry covers you.

Pasha has officially entered the Simpson Desert.

A common pre-conceived idea about the Simpson Desert is that it’s sand dune driving from start to finish. That’s actually not true. After having retraced our steps to overcome the rocky 70 km (45 miles) section from Mount Dare to Dalhousie Springs (we covered this in Part 1), the next 70-odd km up to Purni Bore are actually relatively flat and fast, allowing a 100 km/h (60 mph) maximum speed. That wouldn’t last. After around 50km, I passed one Toyota Hilux with a trailer that had lost a back wheel and was waiting for the rescue truck coming from Mount Dare: one Simpson crossing that didn’t go to plan and a reminder that this is not going to be a smooth ride by any mean.

This is how your Land Cruiser dashboard must look like as you enter sand dune territory…For this you need to press these two buttons long enough for all the lights above to pop up.

142 km (90 miles) in, Purni Bore is the spot where 4WD maps (and my Desert whisperer, more on this later) advise to reduce tyre pressure, because that’s what it all begins… I reduced the pressure to 20 psi, 5 psi higher than the 15 psi recommended for sand-driving so I still have room to move if the car is struggling as I cannot re-inflate my tires once in the desert. There are other settings to change on the car when you enter the Simpson Desert – all things that experienced 4WDrivers will take for granted, but still must be listed here – namely the VSC (Vehicle Stability Control) must be turned off otherwise the car will stop right in the middle of a particularly bumpy dune climb thinking you’re spinning out of control and you do not want that (perfect recipe for getting bogged down), the TRC (Traction Control), diff lock and anti-collision systems must also be off. On a Land Cruiser, there is theoretically no need to get the vehicle into low range as the powerful 4.5L V8 engine can handle all climbs and descents on its own. But on almost all other vehicles including the Hilux (which has no V8 variant) you will need to be in low range pretty much the entire trip.

A 40 km/h speed limit, a lost GPS and proud sand flag: welcome to the Simpson Desert!

We are immediately met with a 40 km/h (25 mph) speed limit sign, but no need to fear the (elusive?) Simpson Desert Police, there is no way we can even achieve that speed as the sandy track is now almost never flat but a constant succession of bumps that make the car bounce up and down like a true American lowrider hopping car. The only way to prevent the car’s bash plate to hit the next bump with full force, something most cars ahead of me have done joyously looking at the imprints on the ground, is to slow down drastically. Plus once you start climbing each of the 1100 dunes on the track, the bumps also start to work left and right as shown in the video at the start of this article, so the crossing is actually quite physical as I was reminded with a sore back, sides, stomach and arm muscles for a few days after the crossing was completed. You do have to muscle your way across the Simpson Desert!

Down… staying put… and up again!

So what’s the trick to manage 1100 dune crossings without getting bogged? (ok I did get bogged once, literally on the very last dune – true story, more on this later). A lot of it is in the momentum. First, you need to choose a path (= one set of ruts in the sand) and commit to it. Changing ruts will slow down your vehicle and increase the chances of spinning your wheels and getting bogged. Sometimes the deepest ruts are the best, and it usually pays to follow the most trodden path. Then, it’s full speed ahead up until the top of the dune. The first few dunes are a little frazzling as the car is bouncing up and down, left and right and roaring in pain. But a 4WD won’t have too many issues climbing most dunes in the Simpson Desert where the tallest one (Big Red, near Birdsville) towers at a reasonable 40m / 130ft high. If you have a V8 like the Toyota Land Cruiser 70, 200 and previous gen Nissan Patrol, it will be even easier. Reaching each crest is an adrenalin rush and a very satisfying feeling as you discover the landscape over the next few km. Then you need to continue paying attention as you slither down the dune – a steeper slope than the climb when driving East bound. This is where you must make sure your wheels are straight. Sounds obvious? Not so. The weight of the car will make it naturally slide down on a straight line regardless of where your wheels are facing BUT the car will abruptly turn left or right when it regains traction. So straight wheels please. The most challenging part of crossing the Simpson may in the end be the dune climb repetition 1100 times: remaining focused and alert each and every time can be an issue.

Pasha looking straight into the horizon… and loving it!

And that’s why Google Maps estimates the Simpson crossing will take an out-of-this-world 21h17 mins on our itinerary map further up in the article. Hour after hour I noted the km I managed to clear with the Land Cruiser and throughout the entire 2-day crossing the highest I could get to was 22 km/h. That’s the fastest average speed of the crossing, and trust me, I went as fast as I could in between the dunes and on flat sections as I wanted to avoid spending two nights in a row sleeping in the car. A fast Simpson crossing normally takes three days of driving and two nights under the stars, so I was up against it from the get go. Once Purni Bore is cleared, we enter the French Line for the next 195 km. And although it looks perfectly straight on the map (ah the laziness of the cartographers!) it does have a few quirks at and around each dune  where the cars have found the easiest passage – a moving target.

6pm in the middle of winter: too dark to continue driving safely. Night in Colson Junction it is.Dingos acting as guardian angels and tiny paw prints on each dune slope. 

The Simpson Desert is home to very scarce wildlife. The most noticeable is the dingo, a breed of free-ranging dogs native to Australia we first met when test driving the Toyota Hilux on Fraser Island on the Australian east coast. They are the largest terrestrial predator in Australia and have a prominent role in Aboriginal culture. A few of them led the way at a safe distance ahead of us, stopping regularly to make sure we were on the right track. But the most endearing sign the dingos left for us to see was delicate paw prints on every single dune slope in the morning. Relatively flat compared to the rest of the terrain, the track is indeed their favourite path to roam the desert at night. My (only) night spent in the desert was at Colson Junction in complete remoteness and darkness… and relatively chilly temperatures. I was expecting to have all the room in the world in the flattened back of a 4.95m long vehicle, once the backseats are lowered, but no. The back seats don’t lower, they fold, meaning you only save half the space and I can’t lie down completely. Fail. Except honestly, if you can afford a Land Cruiser you probably won’t ever consider sleeping in it. So there, not really a fail.

At times the Simpson Desert looks like it never ends. 500 km at a 22km/h average does that to you.What they say is true: sunsets are spectacular in the Simpson Desert.

Now onto an important question. What are the cars that have secured membership in the exclusive Simpson Desert crossing club? This is a 4WD-only track of course, and frankly I would not dare attempt the crossing in anything less than a fully capable four paws. A V8 is the best, and that’s why Pasha our Land Cruiser 200 is at home in the Simpson alongside the Land Cruiser 70, the two most frequent nameplates I’ve encountered here. Close behind are the Toyota Prado and Hilux. The only non-Toyota full-size SUV is the Nissan Patrol, the most powerful of them, while I also spotted a sprinkle of Toyota FJ Cruiser. Also trustworthy in this neck of the (deserted) woods are 4×4 pickups such as the Isuzu D-Max, Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50. And that’s it. No one else is allowed in this select club. But one very important note to this list is that absolutely all vehicles I saw in the Simpson had quite significant modifications, starting with bull bars, lifts, 4WD tyres, etc. And that’s what’s making this Land Cruiser test drive truly interesting: it shows the capabilities of a stock-standard vehicle straight from the factory and without any “free passes”. I even had slick tires. I have put it through its paces over a thousand dunes without a smidge of protest by the vehicle, and soon it will – unexpectedly – be thrown deep into the mud. Yessir.

Poeppel Corner is where the Land Cruiser’s GPS sprung back to life.

340 km (211 mi) in, we hit the end of the French Line and a location called Poeppel Corner. We’ve been to Cameron Corner in a Haval H9 before, it’s another one of a few “Corners” in Australia (see map above) that mark the intersection of three States. Poeppel is where the Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland all meet. As we experienced in Cameron Corner in 2017, New Year’s Eve occurs here three times each year at thirty minute intervals because it is at the intersection of three time zones. Fun! I have mentioned earlier a Desert whisperer, and it’s now time to introduce Ben Fullagar, the General Manager of the Birdsville Hotel, who has been so kind as to provide a constant flow of advice to best prepare and complete this Simpson Desert crossing. The wooden plank to jack up the car on sand? That’s Ben. The turned off instruments and 5 psi tire pressure differential trick in the absence of tire inflator: Ben again. We had agreed to meet at Poeppel Corner and given there’s only one track there’s no way we can miss each other but Ben isn’t here. Ominous clouds at the horizon remind me that the Park Ranger at the start of the crossing in Dalhousie Springs said some tracks were closed near Birdsville due to flooding. I didn’t pay much attention then but am now starting to think there is trouble ahead which prevented Ben from driving across. I was right.

Rain!!! Only the first time in 10 months. And the hairy section begins…

Although I never had to face any rain during the trip, it did rain, lots, just ahead of me on the track, even though rain traditionally falls in summer here and we are in the middle of winter. Later in Birdsville I would learn that before today, not a single drop had been recorded since September last year – so for the entire duration of summer – that’s 10 months prior. I’m always lucky like that: it also rained heavily and for the first time in months before I hit the Birdsville Track in a Haval H8 in May 2016 and while reaching Cameron Corner in a Haval H9 in December 2016. Some ravines in between the dunes qualify as creeks, which one hardly notices in dry times but they become a treacherous maze after heavy rains. If rain actually makes sand dune crossing easier by compacting the sand into a solid mass, the opposite is true for creeks, subject to flash flooding. And quite unexpectedly after clearing over 1000 dunes without any trouble, here came the most challenging two hours of driving of this Simpson crossing. It’s not mud I faced, but viscous and incredibly slippery clay. In the space of a few minutes and a couple of creeks, I came to dread the colour of the earth changing from red (easy sand) to grey (clay hell).

Baptism of clay for Pasha the Land Cruiser…

Driving on mud is an experience I already have under my belt, the main learning being that it’s not you that drives the car but the main ruts you are following that do the driving for you. To veer the car left you need to move the wheel to the right and vice-versa (simple!) and forget about any type of tight control you may have over the car because it’s gone. Very counter-intuitive and stressful but efficient. But this was another story altogether. The Land Cruiser’s weight (2750 kg, 6000 lb) gave it a lot of inertia on slippery surfaces, accentuating the slides. Twice the car slipped to a perpendicular position to the track. As the sun was setting and the creeks became trickier to clear, I fleetingly envisaged the pain it would be to get bogged here and have to spend the night without being able to step out of the car, surrounded by 2-feet deep liquid clay. Unfortunately I have no pics of the ordeal, only “after” muddy shots (above) as I was too busy keeping the car in line to snap anything. The toughest was Eyre Creek, a full km of clay up to the car’s grille that seemed to last for a hundred times longer, but then it got better. That’s when I finally met Ben from the Birdsville Hotel. He told me his Hilux had started to hit the ground in that very Eyre Creek and he turned back as he couldn’t go any further. That’s why these mid-term test drives are invaluable: they enable me to uncover behaviours that match the lifetime use of a car, and today it was demonstrated to me by A+B that the Land Cruiser has:

  1. Higher ground clearance and stronger passing abilities in flooded areas than a lifted Hilux, achieved with a stock standard vehicle
  2. 4WD capabilities that are available to every level of experience: no need to be a 4WD nut to benefit from them

Of course, following a professional to complete the crossing for the last 50 km, I did lose a bit of concentration and took the wrong climbing path on the very last dune of the crossing (after roughly 1099!), getting myself well and truly bogged down to a point that not even the two Maxtrax recovery tracks and energetic shovelling could save. I had to be towed out of it in reverse by Ben and his Hilux. Yep, I’m not proud of this moment but given there are no pictures to prove it we will just pretend it never happened and focus instead on the fact that I have just crossed the Simpson Desert!

But this doesn’t end our coverage of the Simpson Desert crossing as there is also Big Red, the highest dune in the desert, to conquer. Stay tuned for the third and final iteration of this series coming soon.

A drone has joined us to step up the photo game…

Simpson Desert, Australia vs. Toyota Land Cruiser – Part 1: Getting there

Our Toyota Land Cruiser between Coober Pedy and Oodnadatta in South Australia.

We are back in the hypnotic Australian deserts, this time with a Toyota Land Cruiser. In 2017, the Land Cruiser was the only nameplate in the world to manage at least 10 country wins (11) alongside the Hilux with 34. This list includes 8 confirmed wins spanning the Middle East (4), Asia (2), Africa (1) and Oceana (1): in BahrainGeorgiaMongolia, OmanQatarTanzania, Yemen and Papua New Guinea although for the latter it is due to its 70 variant, not the 200 model we are testing today. We also estimate the Land Cruiser to be the #1 new vehicle in ChadKyrgyzstan and Somalia. Even though it has lost the top spot in Oman to the Nissan Patrol so far in 2018, it also added Lebanon to its winning list. Indeed in the Middle East, the Land Cruiser has earned legendary status and the nickname of “King of the Desert”. In Australia where we are test driving it, the Land Cruiser landed as early as 1958 when 13 units were imported by Sir Leslie Thiess to assist with the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme. It immediately found favour in mining and farming communities, and with over 700,000 sold over the past 60 years, Australia has become the country in the world that has bought the most Land Cruisers, naturally becoming the “most Aussie of Toyotas”…

Our Land Cruiser is the top-spec Sahara variant.

It’s only fitting then that we test drive it in Australia, as such commercial success is the main reason we here at BSCB want to give these nameplates a go to find out what’s behind their worldwide popularity. After lending me a C-HR AWD and a Prado Kakadu, Toyota Australia was kind enough to loan me the top-spec Land Cruiser Sahara V8 4.5 T Diesel 4×4 automatic with metallic paint, priced at AUD$129.877 (US$93.900, 80.500€). The Land Cruiser Sahara TD is the third heaviest vehicle currently on sale in Australia at 2.750kg below the Nissan Patrol Ti-L (2.832kg) and its twin the Infiniti QX80 (2.783kg). After Lars the Volvo V90, Mikey the Tesla Model XNatasha the Toyota C-HR and Omar the Toyota Prado, we need a male name starting in P as this is a 4WD truck, which has a masculine gender in my native tongue, French. I can never stray too far from these ingrained perceptions even though I have been living in Australia for over 15 years now… As per the Prado, given the Land Cruiser’s exceptional popularity in the Middle-East, we will go with Pasha.

Our itinerary for Part 1 of this adventure covers 2.500 km from Sydney to the isolated Mount Dare Hotel.

What better idea than taking the aptly named Land Cruiser Sahara into some of the most challenging desert terrain in Australia: crossing the treacherous Simpson Desert, the largest sand dune desert in the world, no less, at 176,500 sq km (68,100 sq mi). When taking the wheel of the Land Cruiser, the odo indicates 11.371 km, this will climb drastically over the next few days. Our first step is to reach the outskirts of the desert in as little time as possible so we have a time buffer and margin of error in case we get stuck in the desert for a few days, as I only have the Land Cruiser for 10 days. The Simpson Desert contains the world’s longest parallel sand dunes, oriented along a north-south line across over 1000km. They are static and held in position by vegetation. The wind direction means the eastern slope of each dune is steeper and it is therefore advised to cross the desert from west to east.

First GPS interactions and a shorter range than expected.

In turn that means we need to reach the western end of the Simpson desert in roughly 72 hours from Sydney, and this will be achieved with two stops: one in Mildura 1016km west of Sydney (see map above), and one in Coober Pedy, a further 1080km north east of Mildura, these two days being solely on sealed highways. The third day shifts into unsealed tracks just north of Coober Pedy through Oodnadatta, arriving in the remote outpost of Mount Dare, 423km north, where there is accomodation but no phone or internet network. All reservations and online preparation for the trip must therefore be completed by Coober Pedy. By the time we will have arrived at Mount Dare we will already have over 2500km behind the wheel – 2519 to be exact, a good test of the Land Cruiser’s abilities on “kind” terrain.

Meeting the locals in Coober Pedy (Part 1) and surprisingly strong headlights

What are my first impressions of the Land Cruiser driving it for over 2000km of highways? Firstly, it is even bigger, heavier and taller than the Prado but is also very manoeuvrable except when it comes to U-turns, which won’t be achieved in one go if you find yourself on a two-way road. The car’s balancing is a little awkward and heavy braking at high speed will send its tail up and nose down quite dramatically, with the result being the headlights focusing on the ground just in front of the car and returning all eye-level vision to darkness. A tad dangerous. Quite appallingly at this price level, the GPS doesn’t recognise the fastest routes, an example being trying to calculate the best way to reach Coober Pedy from Mildura (see illustration above) taking me either through Broken Hill to the north or Adelaide to the south whereas Google Maps had instantly found a fastest alternative following a straight line west. To add insult to injury, the GPS also grossly overestimates arrival times with a 60km/h blanket average regardless of the road (highway or not), telling me I will arrive at Coober Pedy at 9:45 am the next day compared with Google giving me a much more realistic 10:30pm arrival time on the same day.

Meeting the locals in Coober Pedy (Part 2) and local Great Wall V-Series.

Having said all that, there are also a lot of positives to the Land Cruiser, one being surprisingly strong headlights which, most importantly, cover an incredibly wide area on each side of the road corresponding to up to 5 times the width of the road in certain bare areas. An added bonus for city driving, this feature becomes a game-changer in remote Australia as night driving is a no-go due to the high risk of collision with kangaroos. You can check out my – rather stressed – recollection of my first encounters with the wildly unpredictable animals at the wheel of a Haval H8 here. But with the Land Cruiser’s mighty headlights (no high beams required), any kangaroo lurking in the bushes can be spotted, allowing for many more hours of driving and a larger distance covered each day. Just what I needed. Other positive highlights (there will be a complete review at the end of this report as always) are the on-board fridge just like the Prado and the mind-blowing sound system.

Pasha (and myself) are now getting a much-needed desert fix. Bring on the adventure!

In terms of the car landscape met on the way to Coober Pedy, before Mildura Nissan is very strong with the X-Trail and Qashqai (#9 and #19 nationally in July), while in small Outback towns like Renmark the Holden Commodore still rules the streets (it dominated the Australian charts for 15 consecutive years between 1996 and 2010) but not a single new generation (a rebadged Opel Insignia) is in sight, illustrating Holden’s current woes as it fell to its lowest ever monthly volume last month. As it is the middle of winter when I drive the Land Cruiser (late June), the outside temperature drops to a chilly 3°C (37 °F). Rough-as guts Coober Pedy is located in the largest opal mining area in the world, you can check out my coverage of the town’s quirky underground hotels and churches during our C-HR test drive here. Pasha the Land Cruiser is at home here with lots of other LC filling the streets but also one Great Wall Steed (called V-Series here). As soon as we leave Coober Pedy it’s a desolate landscape that awaits us and unsleaed tracks for the next 1000+ km…

A quick pitstop at the Oodnadatta Pink Roadhouse and arrival in Mount Dare well after dark.

Finally I get to have my “desert fix”, something I have come to require every few months to safeguard my sanity. I need these full days of driving in silence or with just music to *think* clearly. In fact, a lot of improvements and ideas that come to fruition on the site – and you will see quite a lot over the next few months – were born in my head during trips like this that allow to pause and see everything in a different light, outside the rush of daily updates. So in a way, not only are these desert adventures fascinating to experience – I recommend them to anyone – but they also allow me to get inspired to improve the site further and create better experiences to share with you. True to full remoteness form, I only cross one private car between Coober Pedy and Oodnadatta (198km): a Land Cruiser 70. The ubiquitousness of that nameplate will become a habit in this part of Australia as we already noted during the Prado test drive. After almost 200km of solitude I reach Oodnadatta for a quick refuelling and picture-taking stop, then it’s onto Mount Dare Hotel, 225km north and absolutely nothing in between.

At the Mount Dare Hotel with, understandably, the dearer fuel price of the trip.

After night fall, the danger on the way to Mount Dare isn’t kangaroos but black cattle, sometimes lazily standing right in the middle of the track but very predictable so no cold sweats here. Normally two-ways, the track was much thiner when I used it as the right hand side was completely impassable with 2.5 feet-deep ruts (see photo further down the article). As it was the case arriving in similarly remote Cameron Corner in the middle of the night, reaching Mount Dare at night at very low speed on a very rocky and corrugated track is akin to a trip that never ends. Finding human settlement right in the middle of this nothingness is so improbable that a few times I thought this was all a hoax and Mount Dare never really existed. Coming into the hotel is an even bigger surprise as the place was full with passing tourists watching an all-important AFL game (Australian Rules Football, akin to rugby). Robin the hotel manager showed the friendliness and helpfulness that characterises all outback Australians, and given the closest sealed road-connected town is Coober Pedy 423 km south, I forgive them for hitting me with, by far, the most expensive diesel of the trip at AUD$ 2.48 per litre, that’s USD$ 6.76 per gallon or 1.56€/L which, incidentally, remains below most European average prices at the time of writing…

Rutted tracks approaching the Simpson desert.

It’s now time to reach the Simpson desert proper! The first step is to retrace our steps all the way to Dalhousie Springs where the Simpson desert starts to the East. The next iteration of this Land Cruiser test drive will go into the detail of the mighty crossing – that ended up being more complicated than I expected but not for the reasons I thought – but before getting our hands dirty it is essential for me to share a few preparation tips. Please note I am a fan of the bare minimum, and most other car outlets will advise to take more, much more on a trip like this so you should adapt your preparation to your specific needs and abilities as well as the length of time you are planning to spend isolated in the desert. My advice is do not attempt a Simspon desert crossing without at least all elements in the following list (corresponding numbers on the picture below):

Getting ready for the Simpson desert crossing.

  1. Sleeping bag and warm clothes: there is no accomodation in the desert. I slept inside the car as its size allowed it. You should bring complete camping gear if you want to sleep outside.
  2. Recovery tracks x2 (mine are Maxtrax) in case you get bogged in the sand. Even experienced drivers do (I did on this trip) as the sand on the track can be very thin and soft, clay between the dunes becomes slippery sludge after rain, and deep ruts at the top of some dunes can impair progress and send the car spinning.
  3. Satellite phone. There is no phone nor internet coverage not only in the desert but for hundreds of km prior (since Coober Pedy in fact). In case of emergency this will be your lifeline. You can rent a satellite phone at Mount Dare hotel and drop it at the Birdsville Tourist Centre or vice-versa. Another option if you own the car you are taking into the desert is to equip it with UHF radio so you can communicate with the cars that are also attempting the crossing.
  4. Shovel. In case you get bogged down (I was glad I had one).
  5. Plank of wood. In case you blow a tyre and need to jack the car up: you won’t be able to do so on sand so you need wood to secure the jack onto.
  6. Plenty of food and water to last many more days than the ones you have scheduled for the crossing – in my case two days, so supplies for at least a week were needed.
  7. Tire deflator to lower tire pressure before you get onto the desert proper. You won’t be able to pass any dunes with a high tire pressure and there are no service stations at the entrance of the desert. Ideally this should also be a tire inflator to give you total independence, mine wasn’t pumped up prior (a mistake). Also don’t forget spare tyres. Two is advised.
  8. Fluorescent 3.5m-high Sand Flag. This is mandatory in the Simpson desert. Why? Because there is only a single lane of track and climbing dunes requires some speed. If another car comes up at speed on the other side of the dune you will hit each other full frontal. A flag, mounted on the bull/roo bar, front or roof rack of the vehicle enables you to see that car in advance many dunes away or at the very least in time to slow down and hopefully avoid a collision on any given dune.
  9. Additional fuel in case you get stranded and use more fuel than you thought necessary. A rule of thumb in the Australian Outback is to never leave any settlement offering fuel – regardless of the price – without a full tank and two full jerrycans. In my case that is 50L (13 gallons) of additional fuel on top of the 100+L (25+gal) in the tank.

Let’s do this! Stay tuned for our crossing of the mighty Simpson Desert in the next update.