Having stocked up on groceries and fuel we were ready to head off once again on our next big adventure!
We had farewelled Renate and Martin the previous day as they made their way to Mt Dare before heading to the West MacDonnell Ranges and we were unsure if we would catch up with them again before the East Coast… but on our last night in Alice an unexpected call came via the sat phone confirming they had arrived at Mt Dare… and their plans had changed!
They told us if we could make it through the last 40-kilometres of bulldust to Mt Dare they would do the ‘Simpson Desert’ with us!
Crossing the Simpson had been a constant worry for us. It is a remote 4WD challenging region and it is recommended that you travel in convoy with at least one other vehicle.
There were a few people we knew, or had met up with earlier in the trip who were happy to do it with us… but when one pulled out, another was tied up with school holidays, and our timing wasn’t right for the others, we were left to make it to Dalhousie Springs and hope there was someone we could tag along with!
Crossing the Simpson was high on our ‘really-want-to-do-list’ but what lay ahead was unknown and we knew that as well as being a unique opportunity to traverse this desert region and explore an unforgiving landscape that few are privileged enough to see, it was going to be a challenge.
Straddling three states, the Simpson Desert (Munga-Thirri National Park) is the largest parallel sand dune desert in the world. More than 1,100 dunes, shaped into long red waves by westerly winds, roll from Birdsville in outback Queensland west towards Alice Springs across the top of South Australia.
Next morning, excited to have our travel companions join us once again and with the sun up and the day heating up, we left Alice and set off on another remote drive… we had no qualms about making it through the bulldust!
The road from Alice to Old Andado and through to Mt Dare was open… and so, another fun adventure was about to begin.
Linking the Northern Territory’s Alice Springs with Mount Dare Hotel in South Australia’s Witjira National Park, the Old Andado Track, now known as the Binns Track is a minor dirt road through the western fringe of one of the world’s great sand ridge deserts, namely ‘The Simpson’.
The Binns Track is another epic journey waiting to be crossed off our list but for now we would have to contend with only a short section!
In total this track is a 2,230- kilometre 4WD track that starts at Mt Dare on the South Australian border and winds its way through remote national parks and outback towns to Timber Creek. It was named after Bill Binns who was a Ranger with NT Parks and Wildlife for 32 years – his dream was to help visitors explore this remote Central Australia region!
Leaving Alice early morning, it was an easy 80-kilometre drive along a well graded road to the Aboriginal community of Santa Teresa.
Just after the airport the black tar finished, and the gravel began as we headed into more remote country following low mist, dry desert plains and low ranges.
Santa Teresa (also known as Ltyentye Apurte), is a traditional Aboriginal community with restricted access where permission to visit is required via a permit application through the Central Land Council… and it was an unexpected surprise after we unintentionally veered off on the wrong track at the fork in the road!
It was early morning when we made this unscheduled trip, and luckily (as we didn’t have a permit), we only saw one person… but it was an eye opening experience and lovely detour just to see how much pride these Eastern Arrernte People take in their remote community.
It was such a tidy community compared to others we had driven through, and it was understandable that in 2019 it won the ‘Australian Tidy Town Awards’ competition and was named the Australian most sustainable Community.
It also appeared the Catholic faith was very important in their lives when we came across a Catholic primary and senior school and a beautiful Spanish-style Catholic Church, which we were told was decorated with stained glass and floor-to-ceiling murals that tell the Christian nativity story as interpreted by the Eastern Arrernte people. As well as taking a lot of pride in their little community these people are also renowned for their vibrant artworks.
Feeling distinctly as if we were intruding, we turned south and continued back along the Binns Track… and we were soon crossing through Allambi Station, driving along the Rodinga Range, and traversing its ever-present bull dust ruts.
To many this scenery may appear a little mundane, but there was always something interesting to see as we travelled through several low mountain ranges…
… and before long the ridges gave way to a large expanse of land of very little scrub, desert plains that stretched forever in every direction, and the occasional cattle.
Next, we came to a sign directing us to ‘Mac Clark Conservation Reserve’ and another indicating access to, and the start of the Madigan Line with the track winding east around the reserve fence line.
The Madigan Line follows the route taken by Cecil Madigan’s 1939 scientific expedition (hence its name) and continues east from here into Queensland, joining the QAA Line on the Simpson Desert at Eyre Creek.
This is another track high on ‘our list to do’. Australia is such a big continent, and although we have completed a few outback tracks, we feel we haven’t even scratched the surface yet.
The nearby ‘Mac Clark Conservation Reserve’ is home to one of three known locations of Acacia peuce (also known as waddywood or waddi waddi trees) and was named after the pastoralist Mac Clark who once lived further along the track at Old Andado Homestead.
In the first half of this century many of these trees were cut down to build stockyards and shelters (despite the fact the wood was so hard they could hardly hammer a nail in)… but today they are one of the rarest and most striking trees of the Australian arid zone – and they grow here on a stony wind-swept plain in one of the driest, most remote places in Australia. They are only found in two other places in Australia – near Boulia and Birdsville in Queensland.
The reserve is only a short detour off the main track, but be prepared as this drive was our first experience with the deep bulldust that was to come… and if your planning on seeing these waddy waddy trees, be prepared to add an hour to your trip!
We decided to stop for a cuppa here but of course no outback trip would be complete without the Aussie fly and the great Aussie salute… in fact this is a tradition that has been linked to one specific fly, the Australian bush fly – but being inundated by these little pests can certainly make stopping in a remote place like this for a quick sandwich or a cuppa a bit of a nightmare… so we headed on!
Before long the sand ridges of the Simpson Desert started to appear. The track didn’t cross them but weaved its way around as we headed in a parallel direction then just 40-kilometres down the track and just before Old Andado Homestead we pulled over to say hi to the two guys Martin and Renate had told us about who had camped near them at Mt Dare.
The homestead, at first appeared a mirage on a distant desert plain but as we drew closer Old Andado, nestled on the Finke River floodplains among the red dunes of the Simpson Desert, began to take shape.
This was the home, and is the final resting place of one of Australia’s most extraordinary woman – Molly Clark.
The original Old Andado Homestead, located 17-kilometres from the one that now stands, was built in the mid 1920’s by the McDill Brothers, Robert and George.
It was home to Molly and her husband Mac from 1949 and in 1958, due to constant flooding, a new homestead was built further on and the old place was abandoned eventually succumbing to the elements.
Despite the extreme dry and harsh environment, this land was considered good cattle country with the McDill brothers having sunk several bores when they first aquired Andado land… and judging by the cattle roaming around, it still operates under a pastoral lease today.
Molly loved it here despite the remoteness and hardship and had many happy years with Mac and their three boys – Graham, Kevin and Phillip… but sadness befell them in 1975 when their middle son Kevin, had a severe car accident. Thankfully he survived, but then sadly in 1978 Mac died from a heart attack. Nine months later, their eldest son Graham was killed in a freight train accident.
Molly continued to live here and manage the property by herself right up until 2006 when ill-health and poor eyesight forced her to move into Alice Springs! Molly died in 2012 at the grand old age of 89.
We arrived at the homestead around lunch time, just in time for a bite to eat and a cuppa but after pulling into the dry, dusty campground and setting up our picnic we were again inundated with pesky flies… and despite their numbers, it only ever takes one to be annoying and that’s the blighter that keeps buzzing around your face! All I can say is ‘thank heavens for our trusty fly nets… and our fly swats!’
Stepping into this homestead felt like stepping back into the past.
It was an eerie feeling! Dusty family photos still sat on the mantle piece and side tables, clothes hung in the wardrobe, Mollie’s diary was open near the telephone where she had left it and magazines were still open on the table alongside a teapot covered with a cosy.
Plates and bowls lined the cupboards, pots sat on the wood stove, books lined the shelves, rugs covered the floor… there was even an opened jar of vegemite and a tin of milo along with other condiments on the kitchen shelf.
A child’s tricycle lay abandoned in the garden as did a wrought iron cot… and there were 4WDs parked under a lean too… it was like Mollie had just stepped out and would return at any moment.
But the reality of it was… sadly, no-one lived here anymore!
All that remained was the run-down corrugated iron homestead full of memories and steeped in history, out-buildings and an abandoned garden patch …
… and in this beautiful sand dune country of the Simpson Desert, where the sand is always red and the sky is always blue, Molly will always be here at her beloved home!
Her body lies in a lonely grave at the base of a sand dune, only 200-metres from the homestead… under the wide open skies she loved so much!
Molly Clark was a nurse, entrepreneur, pastoralist and remarkably in her later years she found a new business venture in tourism, setting up camping facilities at the homestead, cooking meals for travellers and running tours of the property.
The old campground is still open to campers at a $10 fee (complete with shower and toilet) that goes into the upkeep of the place… but it’s a lonely, eerie, silent place where the desert winds blow – and was a bit too close to the ghost of the past for me!
In 2013 the Old Andado Charitable Trust was formed to help maintain this special place in Australian history.
Care takers were once employed to look after the property but now Molly’s granddaughters continue the legacy of preserving the homestead.
In this remote, isolated desert it was easy to see that nature was already starting to make its presence felt.
It would be so sad to see a lifetime of love and hardship disappear into the ‘sands of time’ and one can only hope the granddaughters and future generations will keep Molly’s dream alive.
Molly Clark (1920 – 2012) began her working life as a governess on Mungeranie Station on the Birdsville Track. She met her husband Malcolm Clark (Mac) and they married 1946 and had three sons.
She received a ‘Brolga Award’ for her contribution to tourism in 1995, the ‘1998 NT Chief Minister’s Women’s Achievements Award’, and in 1999 a ‘Commonwealth Recognition Award for Senior Australians’.
Disappointed with the under-representation of women in the Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach, Queensland, Molly established the ‘National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame’ in Alice Springs in 1993.
Molly was one incredible woman and when asked about this hardship in later life she said, ‘I was dealt a certain hand in life and I just got on with it.’
Encrypted on Molly’s headstone the words read:
… and I think that pretty much sums up what an incredibly strong woman she really was!
Leaving Old Andado Homestead our next stop was Mt Dare.
We had been told when we phoned Mt Dare the condition of the last section of track from Old Andado Station was pretty rugged with some serious patches of bulldust and we now understood why Renate and Martin had said ‘if we managed the last 40-kilometres of bulldust they would do the Simpson Desert with us’!
It was the worst track we had been on so far this trip with long, wide stretches of deep bulldust and ruts, side-tracks that were as bad as the main track where we had to contend with weaving our way in and out of trees while avoiding low tree branches… and to top it off there were so many tracks we risked loosing the main track altogether!
It was hard work just trying to keep Harry Hilux moving and we were praying we wouldn’t get bogged! I just couldn’t image having to dig the car out of the depths of the powdery bulldust in 30+ temperature… with millions of flies!
Eventually, we crossed the border from the Northern Territory into South Australia but I was so intent on keeping the car moving we didn’t even get our mandatory photo standing next to the border sign… only a quick snap out the window!
Finally, 14-kilometres on, and after what seemed a road that would never end and we would never reach the little dot on the horizon, we arrived at Mt Dare in the ‘Simpson Desert National Park’.
The 438-kilometre track from Alice Springs via Santa Teresa and Old Andado Homestead took us a bit over 7-hours and was certainly a good introduction of what to expect on the Simpson Desert.
Mt Dare operated for many years as a cattle station, but is now known for the hospitality offered to travellers and calls itself ‘Australia’s most remote pub’!
The tow truck was out recovering vehicles off the Simpson when we arrrived at the hotel… but the broken 4WD that sat abandoned was a stark reminder of what was to come. A casualty of the Simpson Desert that was not going anywhere anytime soon!
Elated we had crossed the last 40-kilometres of deep bulldust we congratulated ourselves on completing it… and along with Renate and Martin we purchased our permits ($196 per vehicle- including camping) – to cross the mighty ‘Simpson Desert’!