Yet, I hesitated…
Over the years, Gary and I have watched the Madigan Line morph from something very few people talked about to one splattered all over the glossy pages of 4×4 magazines.
Check any online 4WD forum and you’ll see thread after thread devoted to the Madigan Line, discussing fuel economy, gear, tyre pressures and more.
It made me wonder…
Could we in 2018, with our modern vehicles and lightweight equipment recapture the sense of challenge and discovery Madigan and his eight companions experienced 80 years ago?
There was only one way to find out: take the journey.
Here’s what we learned.
Information on permits, vehicle, fuel consumption etc is at the end of this article.
Madigan Line Trip Report
We left home (Alice) around 9 am and headed south east past the airport. Our first stop was the Aboriginal community of Santa Teresa, where Gary topped up the fuel at the store.
One thing you shouldn’t miss in Santa Teresa is the Spanish-style Catholic Church.
Inside it’s lit by fabulous stained glass and framed with beautiful, floor-to-ceiling, naive-style murals that tell the Christian nativity story interpreted through an Eastern Arrernte lense.
*Public areas like community stores within Aboriginal communities DO NOT require a permit. Read the NT Government info here ‘WHERE YOU DON’T NEED A PERMIT’:
Turning south, we were soon crossing Allambi Station, driving along the Rodinga Range and traversing its ever-present bull dust ruts.
In 20 years, I’ve never once driven through here and not encountered bulldust ruts!
After the bulldust ruts, the road improves and it’s an easy run south through the dunes.
Around 3pm we reached the Mac Clark (Acacia peuce) Conservation Reserve.
To access the start of the Madigan Line, we turned right near the sign and followed the track around the Reserve’s fenceline east.
We set up our first night’s camp about a kilometre from East Bore in low acacia scrub, surrounded by the calls of Chiming Wedgebills, budgies and Woodswallows.
Despite the desert ambience, we were both finding it hard to relax.
Tempers were a little short when we set up the tent and things didn’t quite go to plan.
We’d had a tough few months leading up to this trip.
Would the Desert soothe us?
Only time would tell.
Distance travelled: 305km
We packed up camp just after 9am, and headed north to our first Madigan Camp, Camp 1A.
The track here is on Andado Station, the largest privately owned cattle station in Central Australia. The track was in excellent condition and we made good time.
Driving north, we passed through several ‘swamps’ where Coolibah trees dominate the landscape, then crossed gibber plains and clay pans dotted with stands of mulga and other acacia species.
North of Camp 1A, there is yellow sign which has Madigan Line written on it, and we took the left fork.
Camp 2 is near Poodniterra Hill. Traditional Owners ask that people don’t visit as this is a women’s sacred site, part of the Corkwood Women Dreaming story.
The nearby Twins are also part of this story, which traverses the Simpson and travels into Alice Springs where it connects with Anzac Hill.
There’s a cairn with a monument to Madigan’s expedition nestled on the eastern Twin.
After the Twins, the track turned north east and we found ourselves in the well-wooded Coolibah country marking the Hale River floodout.
We encountered a few easy dunes and continued to enjoy the fabulous track condition, passing Madigan’s Camp 5 and the Colson Track junction before lunch.
*Note that visiting Camps 3 and 4 is not permitted.
The dunes began to grow higher, and in some places, the track kinked hard left or right just before the crests.
Soon, the western side of nearly every dune was pockmarked with whoops (corrugated sand moguls), left either by people who’d not sufficiently lowered their tyre pressures OR were towing trailers.
By 4pm we’d passed Madigan’s Camp 7.
We needed to find a campsite – which took longer than anticipated as there was a stiff southerly blowing and not a lot of firewood.
After quite a few rounds of we’ll just see what’s over the next dune, we picked a site on the eastern side of a swale, about 8 km east of Camp 7 and had an early night.
Distance travelled: 141km.
We decided on an easy day and didn’t leave camp until after 10am.
The desert here looked to have had some recent rain. Grevilleas, Desert Myrtles and the occasional Desert Poplar were all glossy green, there were annual wildflowers in bloom, and the spinifex was thick with seed.
We spied a trio of Emus in the distance at one point, too far away to photograph.
The track was relatively easy going, and we headed east towards Camp 8 across wide swales and a couple of areas of sparse mulga woodland where others had camped.
At one point a pair of dingoes followed us and gave us a bit of a photo opportunity.
We heard some radio traffic on Channel 10 but we didn’t see anyone for some time.
As we travelled east, we encountered a large patch of Gidgee on a considerable gibber pan and stopped to take a look around.
With nearly all claypans and gibber pans in the Simpson, there were signs that Aboriginal people had camped here for many hundreds of years: stone tools, ground-edge implements, cores, grindstone fragments were in abundance.
What always intrigues me about these sites is the diversity of raw materials found there: two kinds of silcrete, chert, chalcedony, mudstone and quartzite.
Some of these stones come from outcrops within or on the edges of the Simpson, whilst others have been traded in from over hundreds of kilometres away.
Back on the track, the swales (the valleys between the dunes) became sweeping, broad arcs covered in a sea of spinifex with very little other vegetation.
We caught the group we’d been hearing on the radio at Camp 9 – a barren place to camp.
We continued on for another half hour, again wondering if we’d find enough wood for camp.
Eventually, we spotted a big, lone Mulga and camped behind that.
A falcon used the tree to roost in, and as evening crept in, the bird swooped past and nestled into the branches, apparently unworried by us. We read over our notes, and took star shots.
At last, I was starting to feel relaxed.
The Desert was working its subtle magic.
Distance travelled 44km.
We hit the track around 9:30 am, travelling over dunes still battered by people with high tyre pressures and camper trailers.
By morning tea time, we’d reached Camp 10, a big broad flat with not a lot of cover.
The dunes between Camps 10-12 are fairly similar, spinifex predominates with a few Hakeas, Grevillieas, and the occasional Mulga.
We saw a lot of Ptilotus species in flower and Gary pointed out a purple flowering Eremophila.
Between Camps 11 and 12 there were several Gidgee claypans marking the furthest end of the Plenty River floodout.
We had lunch at Camp 12, where we saw the first other people we’d seen since morning of Day 2. They were headed west.
After exchanging stories, we set off east again travelling slowly across an uneven, bumpy track.
All the Gidgee, trees vanished and we were again in a landscape dominated by spinifex.
The dunes were quite low in places, giving the country the appearance of open, rolling savannah.
Travel speed between Camps 12 and 13 was slower, not due to difficult dunes, but due to the bumpy track.
After Camp 13 we started looking for a campsite.
Around 4:30, we came to the upward kink of the track, just west of Camp 14 and found a campsite in a very open swale with lots of firewood and, unfortunately, very few birds.
Distance travelled: 73km.
After breaking camp, we soon reached Camp 14.
We continued on for another 10 minutes and reached Camp 15, then turned south onto the the winding course of the Hay River Track which we’d traversed last winter, until we reached Camp 16.
Camp 16 has the visitor’s book, which Gary duly signed, then we turned off the Hay River Track and continued east on the Madigan Line again.
The Coolibah trees found along the Hay River’s floodout quickly disappeared as we headed east, and we found the track again easy going.
Between the dunes the track followed wide, open swales for some distance before crossing the dune crests.
A few of the dunes were higher, and one had two sharp turns in it, necessitating a second try in low range.
We crossed an unmarked state border, leaving the Northern Territory for Queensland just after Camp 17.
Groves of Gidgee began to appear about 2:30pm, and we decided to have an early day.
We drove north of the track and pulled up in a flat area behind several Gidgee trees.
This was a wonderful campsite, with wood and birds in profusion here: Zebra Finches, budgies, Cockatiels, Masked Woodswallow, Red Capped Robin.
Overnight, we could hear camels groaning and puffing nearby and wondered if we’d see any…
Distance travelled: 76km
We awoke to the sound of camels.
Silhouetted in the dawn, a large group of camels were huffing and grunting along the dune crest just to our east. They meandered past for about a half an hour, apparently unconcerned by us.
After breaking camp, we crossed dunes with swales thick with Gidgee, where there were many good campsites.
We reached Camp 18 quickly.
The track traverses the swales, following a course south-south-east and is very easy going.
After Camp 19 we crossed out of Munga-Thirri National Park and onto Adria Downs.
As with the border crossing, there was no fence.
No cattle were immediately apparent in this part of the station, and the dunes continued to be vegetated with spinifex and other soft grasses, canegrass, low Hakea, acacia and Senna scrub.
We passed the Queensland Vermin Proof Fence, in a state of failed disrepair.
Soon the Coolibah trees appeared, telling us we were approaching Eyre Creek.
The dunes changed from blazing sunset red to bleached, pale yellow; the swales widened to to salt pans, studded in saltbush and samphire.
At Camp 20 on Kuddaree Waterhole, we’d reached Eyre Creek itself, and continued south, stopping for lunch in the riverbed.
With lunch over, we visited Annandale Ruins and then the marker post for Charles Sturt’s northernmost camp in 1845.
We passed several cattle yards and a camouflaged donga, before passing our final Madigan camp marker, Camp 22.
*Madigan’s Camps 23 and 24 are not accessible to the public.
Radio chatter from people crossing the French Line chirped on the radio – a sign our journey was almost at an end.
We pulled up behind a low dune just north of the French Line to enjoy our last night of solitude.
Distance travelled: 120km
We packed up camp with some trepidation.
We’d let the desert, the broad skies, the vast, bejewelled nights lull us into a companionable silence that neither of us wanted to break.
The Big Red Bash had finished only two days prior, and the amount of radio chatter gave us some indication of just how many people were around.
Moments after turning onto the French Line, we encountered our very first vehicle – a 4WD who didn’t bother to tell us they were cresting a dune…
We were back in the world of people and tick-a-box adventurers.
As we drew nearer to Napperannica – Big Red, we passed more vehicles in groups of two and three.
Whilst we’d glimpsed the amount of needless toilet paper last year when we’d crossed the French Line heading south from the Hay River to the K1 Line, what we hadn’t seen was the condition of the track itself.
This was the biggest shock since our 2016 trip: where once the French Line was a single track, now in many places it’s a dual lane sandy road.
And litter: roof racks, destroyed awnings, pieces of rubber… all discarded.
When we came to Big Red, we were back in civilisation.
Below, the remains of the Big Red Bash campsite were still being packed up.
In Birdsville, the Bakery had no food left. There were queues at both fuel stations.
The promise of our first shower in a week and a meal at the pub beckoned.
Distance travelled: 56km
Out of the Desert
Was our 2018 traverse of the Madigan Line able to rekindle the sense of exploration and discovery Madigan writes of in Crossing the Dead Heart?
The answer is yes… and no.
For us, the birds, animals, wildflowers, the slowly changing landscape (don’t let ANYONE tell you the Simpson Desert is all the same), encountering the campsites and quarry sites of Aboriginal people did offer that kind of discovery.
Our journey was as much as about us as the landscape. I see where Aboriginal people have lived, bush tucker, and birds; Gary the ranger sees soils, plants, animals, land management issues.
On the Madigan Line, we both found a diversity and richness of life both past and present.
It took several days, but the Desert soothed us – or perhaps it was us slowing down in an ancient terrain.
However, there are aspects of Madigan’s sojourn that we can’t recreate – at least not whilst travelling in a modern 4WD.
We didn’t walk alongside temperamental camels, we didn’t lug about a 20+ kilogram HF valve radio transmitter.
We didn’t have to shoot kangaroos or rabbits for food.
There was an endpoint and a well-defined track.
What we did find was that Madigan inspired us to seek something further afield, gave us the confidence to challenge ourselves.
After all, it’s the Simpson Desert.
We know we’ll be back.
Madigan Line Quick Facts
Please note that we’ll be preparing a full trip preparation and track guide shortly.
We travelled the Madigan Line solo.
However, we are experienced desert travellers.
Whilst the track was nowhere near as difficult as expected, keep in mind that the Madigan Line is extremely remote and far fewer people undertake it than the French Line.
Under NO circumstances do we recommend camper trailers on the Madigan Line due to rough conditions and steep dune crossings.
Three permits are required and all are easy to get:
- Permit to cross Aboriginal Land Trusts in the Northern Territory is issued on-demand, free of charge by the Central Land Council in Alice Springs. Apply here (direct link to form)
- For information about crossing and camping in Munga-Thirri National Park in Queensland, call the Wirrarri Information Centre in Birdsville (07) 4564 2000
- To visit Camps 20-12 on Adria Downs pastoral station, contact email@example.com
Maps of the Area
The Great Desert Tracks Map pack covers all of the greater Simpson Desert area.
Trip Facts and figures:
- Total distance: Alice Springs to Birdsville = 815km
- Days travelled: 7
- Fuel used: 170 litres (diesel)
- Vehicle: 2014 Toyota Prado
- Tyre pressures: we ran 18psi in the front and 20psi in the back with Cooper ST Maxx tyres (please note that YOUR tyre pressures will vary according to your vehicle, tyres, suspension and gear set up)
- Emergency communications: Isatphone Pro satellite phone, EPIRB and UHF radio
- Recovery kit, compressor, sand anchor, winch
- Two spare tyres PLUS several puncture repair kits
- Spare parts for vehicle (see our list here but prepare your own based on your vehicle)
- 65 litres of water
- Additional 40 litres of diesel
- 14 days of food
- First aid kit
- Swags from Centre Canvas, Alice Springs, and Coleman tent
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