A Desert Triangle

15 December 2020

Words and Images Jimmy Ashby

Once you immerse yourself in the Australian Outback and truly experience its beauty, you’ll find yourself constantly daydreaming about returning and scheming as to how to venture deeper and further into the vast emptiness that is the Australian Outback.

This is exactly what happened to me. With an empty month on the cards in the middle of winter it was a no brainer to go back into the desert. My recent trip in June to Innamincka and the Strezelecki Desert reignited such joy and love inside me that when I returned home it was hard to feel that same love and passion for my day-to-day life. It just wasn’t the same. So my mind constantly wandered to where I could go next. When it was announced that the Queensland and NT borders were opening, well then a plan I’ve had for months suddenly became possible.


A stop with a spare shoe or two

A three part loop (or more like a triangle) beginning in Roxby Downs (SA), heading up the 520km Birdsville track, continuing further North to Boulia (QLD). Then from Boulia I'd head West across the remote Plenty Highway into Alice Springs and eventually back South along to Oodnadatta track to Roxby Downs. My triangle covered over 3000km of remote desert road goodness.


The desert loop / triangle

Part 1. Roxby Downs – Boulia via The Birdsville Track.

I managed to connect with a friend and park my car at her place for the month I’d be away. It was quite a funny departure because I really had no idea of when I’d be back or if I’d come back… I left saying “I’ll see you in a month, maybe more or maybe less… I don’t really know, I’ll see you when I see you I guess.” And with that I was off.

The first 200km on the Borefield Track to Marree I had ridden before on another one of my desert trips so it was familiar and a nice way to ease into it. However that first 200km was all the warm up I got because after Marree the wild riding began. I spent that first night camped behind the Marree Pub and got up early to take on the Birdsville Track, complete with a headwind. I like to adopt the mindset of pack light and travel far on these remote stretches. With only one water resupply point on route to Birdsville - in Mungerannie - it was going to be rather desolate. I tackled this road in 2½ days, riding the 205km to Mungerannie on Day 1, 170km the next, and finally 145km to arrive in Birdsville for a late lunch.

The Birdsville Track is unique in its own way and was constantly changing. It has large gibber rock sections, hard packed clay and then a whole series of sand dunes as you navigate the edge of the Simpson Desert. Due to the Birdsville Track being the only open road between QLD & SA there was also a surprising range of cars travelling through, from the usual 4WD rev heads to road trains and then even a Suzuki Swift and Holden Commodore. Did they make it? I really don’t know, all I know is I’d rather be on a bike out there than in one of those city cars.


Sharing the road

It seems as every year goes on that more and more of these desert roads are getting sealed. That was exactly the case for the next 400km to Boulia, besides the first 100km out of Birdsville I was on a flat, slick highway the whole way north and with a change in wind direction I flew! I took my time on this stretch to prepare myself for what was coming next – The Plenty Highway.


Gobbling up the k's...


... and nutella sandwiches

Part 2. Boulia – Alice Springs via the Plenty Highway.

If you followed the Race to the Rock in 2019 then you would be familiar with the Plenty Highway and know that it is far from a smooth ride. It’s 820km of corrugations and sand. It’s also wildly remote with only two small stations to resupply water en route. Due to Covid closing the indigenous communities, the places to get water became fewer and further apart. Although I did strike lucky on two occasions when a station hand stopped to give me a couple cans of VB for the road.


Boarderline


Desert roads


A little bit of company

I crossed the Plenty Highway in 4 days, averaging just over 200km/day and over 12 hours a day in the saddle. It was big! The final 100km into Alice was by far the highlight, rolling through The Harts Ranges as the sun went down was a perfect way to cap off the crossing. Simply getting off the long flat stretches into climbs that required different muscles was a welcomed change.


Smiles for miles

I arrived in Alice with the plan to spend a few days there, then a few days quickly became over a week. I fell in love with Alice Springs and the surrounds. With temperatures in the high 20’s I just didn’t want to leave. The MTB trails are all they were hyped up to be. If you get the chance to ride bikes up there don’t say no! However also being able to get a beer that wasn’t Great Northern or VB was one of the standout moments in the week.


Impressive birdlife

Part 3. Alice Springs – Roxby Downs via the Oodnadatta Track.

This was the final edge of my desert triangle. Although I was heading back into my home state it would be far from smooth riding. I travelled south from Alice to Kulgera along the Stuart Highway and then cut East to Mount Dare via Finke (which was closed to outsiders due to Covid).


Closed roads


Looks like rain

I then battled the sand through Hamilton Station to arrive into Oodnadatta. Now I only ever planned to have lunch here and then keep moving but as it turns out I ended up staying for over four days. That afternoon the heavens opened and the rain began to fall. 45mm of it in that 24 hours causing the desert roads to become a wet, muddy sludge. They were officially closed. That meant Oodnadatta, or more precisely the Pink Road House, became my new home.


'Home' for a while

I set up under a shelter out back and managed to stay mostly dry underneath a leaky tin roof. It was kind of funny being stuck there because in 1990-91 my very own Mum was the remote area nurse here when she was only 25 years old! How cool is she? Coincidentally I befriended the local Nurses and Flying Doctors who set me up with a supply of coffee and lentil soup. All right next door to where Mum had lived and worked 30 years ago. The roadhouse even made me a special curry after I emptied their veggie burger supply. I had such a great time being stranded in the small town of Oodnadatta, the rain was a blessing in disguise. After 4 days of drizzle and some small pockets of sunshine the roads dried out enough for me to head off.


On the bike again

With all the rain and water around the final 500km from Oodnadatta to Roxby Downs was something special. Some rivers were so deep that the water was up to my belly button and I had to cross with my bike above my head. It was wild! My phone even decided to take a swim and not turn on again. The driest road going to Australia’s driest town in the driest state and my phone falls in a river... you wouldn’t believe it.


Bigger than normal puddles

It was a crazy and unexpected way to finish this desert loop and for me each time I saddle up and leave to live on my bike it’s like life is back to normal. All the other stuff I do is 'holiday'. Cycling and exploring by bike is my Ikigai.

Like I said at the start, once you truly experience the beauty of the Australian outback then you’ll constantly think of it when back home. That’s exactly what I’m doing now - starting to scheme plans for the next desert outing and believe me, it’s going to be even more remote and wild than this one.


A very happy place


5 Responses

Francis May
Francis May

17 December 2020

Hi Jimmy what a wonderful trip you undertook. As a 60 year old Irish man I can only dream of doing that journey on a bike it’s such an inspirational tale and honestly would love to be heading out on it tomorrow as 40 years ago done an outback trip with my wife to be in an old clapped out 120y Datsun estate and yes Alice is something else. I suppose the old adage is your never to old for anything once again well done and look forward to hearing about your next one

Selwyn Parker
Selwyn Parker

17 December 2020

Couldn’t stop reading your story, Jimmy. Way tougher and braver than my attempt to follow in the wheel tracks of the supermen of the original Tour de France of 1903. I wrote a book about it called Chasing the Chimney Sweep (Amazon) and I think you’ve got your own book to write about these adventures.
I kept on wondering how you coped with such an uncertain supply of water, the road trains, the wild life, the sudden floods, the hunger…..

And along the way, the kindness of strangers. Always one of the best things about adventures.

Good luck for the next one.

Selwyn

Karl Landorf
Karl Landorf

17 December 2020

Brilliant read, Jimmy, thank you for sharing.

Dougs
Dougs

17 December 2020

What an inspiring journey, Jimmy! It’s time I started planning a (shorter!) journey in my home country. Bike touring has always been an overseas experience to date, for me.

Karen Blanchfield
Karen Blanchfield

17 December 2020

So pleased you found Alice Springs a highlight. Would have happily shouted you some good beers if we had come across you here in our hometown. What a great ride you’ve had.

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