A journey through the Simpson Desert includes crossing the historic Madigan Line with the man who was the first to drive it 38 years ago.

Story and photos Ron and Viv Moon

The view has changed little over the past 40 years or so; the Simpson Desert dunes roll away to the western horizon out of Birdsville in ordered lines like they have done for 10,000 years.

The solitary track cutting across the dunes – the QAA Line – was first graded in the 1960s by oil and gas exploration teams searching for liquid gold. They never found enough to make ongoing drilling worthwhile, so the desert returned to its slumber only to be awoken by the more recent four-wheel-drive recreational boom.

Denis Bartell is sitting on top of Big Red lost in thought – two decades previously he first named this great cochineal-coloured dune. Behind him, but a little distant, a group of travellers is admiring the same view, putting out tables and Eskys to enjoy the sunset while imbibing cold beer, wine and nibbles.

“You know,” he says half-jokingly, “I should have patented that name or registered it! I could have charged every visitor two bucks or so and I’d be a rich man!” He is probably right; the next day in Birdsville the term ‘Big Red’ is applied to everything from pies and drinks to tourist photo points and more. Our journey across the desert, following what is now known as The Madigan Line and which he pioneered by vehicle 38 years before, is coming to an end. 

This story excerpt is from Issue #115

Outback Magazine: October/November 2017