If we look back into the off-road chronicles, there are few chapters that draw our attention more than reading of those that set “firsts.” Whether it was the first crossing of the Sahara by a Willys MB (think Long Range Distance Group) or a group of Georgetown Rotarians ascending the Sierra Nevada for the first time on the now-famous Rubicon Trail, we can’t help but to be in awe of each hearty soul that ventured into the unknown with only their trusty steed, a load of provisions, and a gut full of determination. It was such an individual, Ian McDonald, that with his team rounded up three Jeeps and struck off across Australia’s vast reaches in 1969.
With no services of any kind available along the 900-kilometer section of their record-setting cross-continent trip that lay between Birdsville and Alice Springs, McDonald and his team needed to be self-sufficient. Carrying all the fuel, food, and water needed for the two-week passage, they succeeded in piloting their Jeeps through the remote sands of the northern Simpson Desert and completed a full crossing of the continent. The track they created is known as the Seven Slot Line, and this year marked the 50th anniversary of their endeavor—a fitting moment to recreate their adventure and pen a new chapter in the Jeeping annals.
This July, Jp Magazine Editor Rick P w and I joined small a group of explorers in an attempt to retrace McDonald’s route from the easternmost to the westernmost points on the continent. The 2019 BFGoodrich East-West Australia Jeep Expedition was organized by Ben Davidson, publisher of Jeep Action Magazine, and led by yours truly. McDonald, along with original expedition member and filmmaker John Eggleston, both of whom are in their eighties, joined us in Brisbane and would go as far as Alice Springs.
Piloting five Jeeps ranging from a new Overland JL to a 1996 Wrangler TJ, we made our way to Birdsville, then Ayer Creek, and on to Beachcomber, site of an abandoned oil well. As McDonald did 50 years ago, we then pointed the compass needle due west toward Old Andado Station. While most follow the QAA and French Line, well-established tracks to Mt. Dare Roadhouse in the south, the winds of time had all but erased the Seven Slot Line and what lay ahead were more than 700 sand ridges and endless spinifex.
The sand dune-covered journey from Beachcomber to Old Andado Station represented only a small section of the multi-week expedition (300 kilometers), but it required six days of dawn-to-dusk driving, working our way west at an average speed of 5 km/h to complete. McDonald and Eggleston, who took 12 days to traverse the same section in 1969, shared tales of the challenges during their crossing—most notably the differences between the equipment used then and now.
McDonald’s team used heavy steel sand ladders, while we took advantage of Maxtrax’s lightweight sand mats. The Simpson’s soft sand and tire-shredding mulga roots mandate tough tires and good floatation, and BFGoodrich’s KM3 mud-terrains were a significant upgrade from the bias-ply tires of the ’60s. “We didn’t have cold food after the first few days. We had basic food, a good tool kit, and as much fuel as we could carry,” Eggleston said, as he pulled a liter of milk from one of our Dometic 12V fridge/freezers. They loaded their CJ Overlanders with 55-gallon drums of fuel, while our Jeeps were fitted with a few jerrycans and space-saving auxiliary fuel cells from Long Range Automotive. The common thread with regard to equipment, however, was our choice of high-quality Warn recovery winches.
With the exception of crossing a few seismic lines, cuts created during the 1950’s oil surveys, there were few signs of human existence. Each morning we would head west over endless waves of sand ridges, and each night we set up camp under the unmolested skies of the Southern Hemisphere. Arriving at the historic site of Old Andado Station near dusk on July 14, 2019, we enjoyed our final night in the Simpson before moving on to Alice Springs to restock sundries.
Western Australia is one of the least populated regions of the world; viewing it on a map reveals few paved roads and expansive white space. There is literally nothing there but bush, camels, and dingoes. We explored Finke Gorge National Park and Palm Valley before following Boggy Hole Track to Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). Turning west on the Great Central Highway, we spent evenings camped along creek beds, set the billy on a bed of mulga coals each morning, and sourced fuel from roadhouses such as Tjukayirla, the most remote in the country.
When our fairleads reached the jagged escarpment of Steep Point, the most westerly promontory on the continent, we had rolled nearly 6,000 kilometers on the odometer, most of which was on dirt tracks. We had succeeded in our quest to follow McDonald’s route across the Simpson Desert, but the adventure was nearly at an end and the moment was bittersweet. We cracked a bottle of Scotch whiskey in honor of McDonald, Eggleston, and the hearty mates that planted the seeds of inspiration. Nearly, however, is a relative term. We still had 3,000 kilometers and seven days ahead of us to return to Melbourne. But that is a Jeeping yarn for another day.