The Simpson Desert is Australia’s fourth-largest desert covering sections of Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory. The southern section contains most of the tracks and is therefore very popular, however, if you want to enjoy an extremely remote and unspoilt area of the desert and really test your self-reliance, the Madigan Line is waiting for you, just go prepared.
Beginning from just north of Old Andado Station in the Northern Territory, the Madigan Line runs east into Queensland, joining the QAA Line at Eyre Creek. It IS remote, you MUST be self-reliant and experience in desert travel IS a requirement. Expect to spend at least five days crossing a plethora of sand dunes and enjoy the most stunning desert country you’ll ever have a chance to see.
Who was Madigan?
Cecil Madigan was an amazing man. Explorer, geologist, surveyor and soldier. He was the meteorologist on Sir Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition in 1911 before serving in France during the First World War. During the 1930s he began aerial surveys of the deserts of Central Australia, naming the Simpson Desert after one of his benefactors, Alfred Allen Simpson (of Simpson Washing Machine fame). In 1939 he led the first scientific expedition across the Simpson Desert and the route he took is now known as the Madigan Line.
We began our adventure at Old Andado Station where pioneers Molly and Malcolm ‘Mac’ Clark once lived. Following the Old Andado Track, we checked out the Mac Clark Conservation Reserve, one of only three places that the rare acacia peuce (Waddywood) survives.
After finding our way to East Bore, we found the track proper and soon came upon Madigan Camp 1A. Each of Madigan’s camps is marked by a yellow star picket and a plaque highlighting the camp number. A little further north was a ‘Madigan Line’ sign pointing us to follow the left fork. We soon reached The Twins, where you’ll find a cairn with a monument on top of the eastern Twin.
From here the track wound its way east through sand dunes and coolabah trees, indicating the Hale River flood plain before turning north again, leading us to the junction with the Colson Track. Camp 5 is located a couple of kilometres to the north via the Colson and it was here we enjoyed some lunch under the shade of a Mulga.
Back on the Madigan Line, the dunes grew and the going became slow. The western side of the dunes had been cut up by a group in front of us who were towing trailers without dropping their tyre pressures. There’s no place for trailers on this track. Some sections of track had deep scallops and in the hot sand, it sometimes made it difficult to crest the dunes. Low range first gear was the easiest and smoothest way to crawl up the dunes. We only made it as far as Camp 6 before deciding enough was enough, a warming fire enjoyed before retiring to our swags.
Next day we only covered 48km as we enjoyed the stunning landscapes. A copse of Gidgees was a perfect camp and we settled in early to enjoy a camp oven roast. Day three we rose early intent on a big push to reach Camp 15. It was still slow over the dunes, but the swales were easier going. Spinifex dominated the vegetation, with clumps of wildflowers and the occasional desert myrtles and poplars.
The areas where Cecil Madigan, nine men and 19 camels camped was generally a large opening amongst the spinifex, mostly devoid of trees. It would have been a harsh journey, dressed in their suits complete with waistcoats, collecting scientific data as they went. Camp 15 was on the junction with the Hay River Track, a hawk watched over us as we set up camp, the sunset painting the desert sky.
Crossing the border
We encountered our first dingo the following morning. It was in poor health with little energy and hardly moved from beside the track as we passed. At Camp 16, Madigan had blazed the gum with ‘M39’, very difficult to see now, but a plaque and visitors book marks the spot. From here the Madigan Line turns east again, towards the unmarked Queensland border. The going was slowed by a couple of camels who refused to get off the track, so for several kilometres, we had to put up with their froth and bubble as they jogged noisily in front of us.
Once in the Munga – Thirri National Park, the landscape changed a little. The condition of the track improved, and it was obvious that less traffic ventured along this section of the Madigan Line. Groves of Gidgee were more prevalent, and we soon found a suitable camp near Camp 19. This was going to be our final night in the desert, so we enjoyed a nice fire and a couple of cold ones before turning in.
The final camp
Up with the sun, we soon entered Adria Downs Station. Passing the Vermin Proof Fence, it was in poor condition, and crossing salt pans and flood plains we arrived at Camp 20 on Eyre Creek. A mob of kangaroos and a hoard of flies hung around, a little water remaining in Kuddaree Waterhole made it a drawcard.
From Camp 20 the Madigan Line turns south down to the QAA Line, passing Camps 21 and 22 as well as Annandale. Once owned by the Cattle King Sidney Kidman, it’s worth having a look around the old homestead ruins, and there’s a lonely gravesite to keep an eye out for. Camps 23 and 24 are inaccessible as they are on private land.
Once on the QAA Line, it’s only a few dune crossings before you reach the final, and the highest one, Big Red. When you’ve had some fun getting to the top and taking some photos, it’s a half-hour run into Birdsville and Madigan’s final camp, Camp 25 opposite the iconic Birdsville Hotel.
The Madigan Line is a serious challenge through some magical desert country. Once you’ve completed it, you’ll probably feel like us and want to turn around and tackle it from east to west. That adventure will have to wait until another time.
Permits Required (allow plenty of time as it can take a while to receive your free permits):
- To travel the NT section of the Madigan Line apply online from the Central Land Council. Part of the conditions is that you’re not permitted to access Camps 1, 3 or 4 and request you don’t visit Camp 2 for cultural reasons. This link will help you when filling in the confusing permit form.
- Permission to access Adria Downs is required from the owners. As a certified organic property, it is important that you leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photos. Email Don & Judy Rayment and provide approximate dates, vehicle registration number and names of travellers to firstname.lastname@example.org
- To access and camp in Munga -Thirri National Park, call the Wirrarri Information Centre in Birdsville (07) 4564 2000.