The Hay River track. Crossing the dunes.
Crossing the Dunes on the Shot Line

Northward on the Hay River Track in the Simpson Desert With Hema Maps

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands upon which I travel and camp.

A continuation of my earlier article “Three Days Across the Simpson Desert With Hema Maps” –

Day 4 – Entering the Hay River Track (146 km Travel)

After our night’s camp at Poeppel Corner, what was a party of five crossing the Simpson Desert (Munga-Thirri, meaning big sandhill country) was now a party of three – myself and Pedro (the Mighty BT50; Bryce and Steve in the Hema Landcruiser  (O1MAP); and Ben and Hayley in the Adrenaline Landcruiser.

Hay River Track
The Remaining Three Head North

Today we head north to explore the Hay River Track to join up with the Plenty Highway at Baton Hill, Northern Territory, in three days time.

Looking at the Hema Maps’ Great Desert Tracks – Atlas and Guide I see that the Hay River Track has only been open to the general public for a relatively short time. ‘Permits to Enter and Remain on Aboriginal Land and/or Community Living Areas’ are issued by the Central Land Authority.

Knowing this, I felt an air of deep respect and trust to be able to travel these lands.

Evidence of Oil Exploration

Not too far from camp (about 20 minutes north) we came across a reminder that oil exploration in the 1980s pushed tracks and shot lines across this great stretch of desert. Here were the remains of Poepple Corner No:1 Oil Well (abandoned) marked by a rusted sign (stating that drilling commenced in August 1984 and reached 8,500 feet) and a length of rusting steel cable.

The Hay River Track Simpson Desert
Abandoned Beachcomber #1 Oil Well

Another 50 kilometres north-west, along a relatively smooth sandy track, we came across another abandoned Beach Petroleum oil well – Beachcomber #1 – where drilling commenced some four years later in October 1988. This oil well marked the location where we now needed to head north-east to follow one of the shot lines where charges were placed during previous oil explorations and seismic charges placed.

Driving on the Hay River Track
Travelling the Shot Line from Beachcomber #1

True to the characteristics of any shot line (including the QAA Line and the French Line) the Beachcomber shot line followed a line over the dunes and through the swales in total disregard of any easier route. The dunes were considerably lower and shorter than what we had experienced on the QAA Line only a day or two ago but soft and sharp pinches still lurked to catch you off guard – especially with a camper trailer on board.

Crossing the Simpson the Hay River Track

The 16 kilometre track along the shot line took about an hour – yes, an average of 16 kph – but cresting each dune was a unique pleasure to be savoured.

Crossing Dunes and Traversing Swales

Now, turning north-west once again (and still on the Hay River Track), the track takes a more adventurous route between the low dunes taking us through an open, sparsely grassed landscape with low bushes; with the occasional swing to the east as you cross from one swale to the next.

It was along this stretch that we encountered definitive proof of what I had said earlier and that this land was once a vast inland sea. Ben and Hayley had stopped the car and announced over the CB that I’d be interested in what they had found – coral! There on the side of the road and layered into the sand embankments were fragments of coral. I think we were all so glad to see something that put this land into an even better perspective.


The Hay River Track Australia
Evidence of an Inland Sea

A Night Out on the Madigan Line

Just after 4:30 pm (now working on Northern Territory time) we made camp at the intersection with the Madigan Line at Camp 16.

In search of the Hay River TrackFor Bryce, Steve and Ben it was a task of pulling the back of the Hema truck apart to find a solution to their charging and fridge problems.

For my beloved, and now well worn, kangaroo skin hat, I thought I’d set it free and where better to do this than here – miles from most places. I thought I’d found the ideal resting place behind some spinifex grass. But, after a night of tossing and turning I went back to find my deserted mate and bring it home properly (a bit like the remains of Burke and Wills).

To my delight, my hat was still there and it’s now repatriated and hanging high in my shed at home.

4wd along the Hay River TrackDay 5 – Onward to Lake Caroline (144 km Travel)

As morning broke, I went into the spinifex to retrieve my well worn kangaroo skin hat after I set it ‘free’ the night before. Excitedly, I found that the old adage was true – it had returned after a night on the Madigan Line. Not many hats can boast that claim to fame.

And it was a great start to the day today as Hayley whipped up some bacon and egg rolls for us all. What a treat – it’s funny how some meals in the bush just stay in your memory.

Passing outcrops of what looked like silicon we continued north recording track and campsite data for future mapping. The trees now were growing bigger and the course of the river was more defined with traces of debris in the lower branches as a result of past flooding.

The changing landscape of the Hay River Track

The tracks also started take on the appearance of an obstacle course as it weaved in and out of the trees. When Ben and Hayley’s sand-flag got hung up in a tree, it became apparent that these poles had outlived their purpose and needed to come down.

Later in the day, it was a toss of the coin that pulled us west to check out Lake Caroline, an enormous clay pan whose hardened clay surface (when dry) simply draws you in with its appearance of the inside of an Easter egg. This was a small detour that really made the trip and we were convinced that pushing on to Baton Hill was not a great option.

Lake Caroline the Simpson Desert
An Afternoon Drive on Lake Caroline

After a play on the clay pan, it was back to Hay River for the night’s camp and a campfire with friends.

I think we named that campsite BSBHD Camp – but I don’t think you’ll find it on any Hema Maps.

Day 5 – To Baton Hill and the End of the Hay River Track (98 km Travel) and on to Gemtree

To make up for the lost travel time from Day 4 we were out of camp (somewhat) early at 7:40am.

This early start gave us the benefit of spotting a caravan of camels in the distance. It wasn’t too hard to spot the leader – he was the one that kept his eye on us all the time and led the sprint to disappear into the scrub.

Today the vegetation changed once again with savannah grasses and much taller gum tress.

Crossing the Simpson Des
Jervois Station – An Oasis After a Long Drive.

I think too that we agreed to a mutual exchange of a bottle of rum within the group as we tried to identify the exact spot where we’d cross the Tropic of Capricorn. As an ex-cartographer and ex-field craft lecturer with the Australian Air Force Cadets I radioed my thoughts on the line of latitude we needed to cross and Hayley was radioing her reckoning. The only problem was that in the heated agreement that ensued I was stating the line in degrees, minutes and seconds while Hayley was declaring hers in decimals. It’s amazing how otherwise small things can escalate on long road trips. It’s no wonder we all celebrated the crossing once we found a ‘formal’ looking marker erected by B1 and B2 and their two mates at 23deg 26min 22sec.

Mount Winnecke

Just over an hour later, Mount Winnecke (just to the east of us) made a bold statement that we had left the sand dunes and swales behind. In addition, Hay River’s bed had become a more clearly defined gully – dry for now.

Just on lunchtime, the campsite at Baton Hill made for a pleasant break but we knew we needed to keep pushing on… perhaps the mantra of all Hema Maps Map Patrol teams.

It’s a bit rough

We spoke with Cyril (as I recall), who was overseeing the campsite) and we asked for a road report out to the Plenty Highway. His sage words still ring in my ears…”Well… its a bit rough…”.

The dirt road from Baton Hill to the highway is about 70 kilometres of very straight (it follows a fence line) and very rough corrugations – nothing much more to be said.

Once on the Plenty Highway, turning right takes you to Jervois Station (10 kilometres) for fuel, air, camping, hot showers and ice creams.

While turning left will take you to Gemtree (188 kilometres) and the caravan park for camping, a cooked camp oven dinner (if you’re arriving on the right night, if you’re early enough to book and there’s a vacancy), hot showers, fuel, cold beer and spirits, breakfast and telephone reception.

Fuel Consumption

I found ‘Pedro’, the mighty BT 50, ran at about 17.5 litres per 100 kilometres.

South to North or North to South to keep the excitement?

I suppose heading from north to south on the Hay River Track should be easier – after all it’s downhill…

But, I think we collectively thought that the experience of travelling from south to north was a little more pleasurable than to do the trip vice versa.

Why…? Now, some time after the trip, I’m not absolutely sure. But, I think it was the day-to-day excitement and variety of crossing the dunes and following the swales in the southern section. I think we all feared that approaching the track from the northern end would have been more sapping with less features. I’m afraid that it’s all a bit hard to explain and I may even change my mind if I was to do it again.

Still, I find myself only reflecting on all the good points of the trip as a whole and the great experience that was travelling the Hay River Track with Hema Maps.

I’m keen to hear thoughts on heading north or south.

Hema blog on the Hay River Track


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