Self-sufficiency is essential for desert travel, so plan ahead.
Here in Australia, we have more than our fair share of deserts. No matter where you start, you don’t have to go very far to find one.
Some of our most famous include the Tanami, NT, the Great Sandy in WA and the Simpson, which spills into NT, Qld and SA. But even in the relatively lush state of Vic, you’ll find the wonderfully-named Little Desert and Big Desert.
And even though Australia’s deserts seem as though they would be rather empty, desolate places, they are actually chock-full of stunning scenery, wildlife and wildflowers.
There are a few things you can do to make your desert adventures successful and avoid getting into trouble.
1. TOURING MATES
First up, find some friends with a sense of adventure like yours. It’s always very wise to go in a group of at least two vehicles in case one vehicle breaks down – it may be as simple as one 4WD pulling the other out of trouble if it gets stuck. This can happen very quickly in soft sand or wet conditions; an unexpected downpour will turn dirt tracks into boggy creeks.
In the case of a more serious breakdown, one party may have to go for help in the nearest town. So you can see that travelling alone is asking for trouble.
Water is an essential source of survival in the desert. It’s amazing how quickly you go through it when it’s used for cooking and washing, as well as drinking. Make sure you carry extra water and always keep it topped up whenever you get the chance.
If you break down and have to wait a few days for help, water will help to keep you alive.
Good maps of the area will prove invaluable, not only to find poorly marked tracks, but also to identify the nearest water sources and local communities.
These days, a GPS in conjunction with a map is the best combination.
One of the first things you’ll notice in the desert is that your mobile phone will lose service. So to communicate with other vehicles, and perhaps even local communities, a good quality two-way radio is a wonderful addition to your rig.
Some brands claim they can reach many kilometres, but in practice usually cover shorter distances.
5. SAFETY TIPS
The desert can get extremely hot during the day and freezing at night. Heat stroke is always a risk, so avoid staying out in direct sunlight for long periods and always drink plenty of water.
At night, be ready to rug up as soon as the sun goes down and make sure you have a very warm sleeping bag. Many people think the desert will always be hot and get a real shock when they encounter their first frigid night.
It also pays to let someone know where you are going and when you expect to arrive at the other end.
If your vehicle does break down or you get seriously stuck, always, always stay with your vehicle. It’s much easier to find people when they are with their 4WD rather than wandering around in the desert – especially during an air search.
6. SPARE A THOUGHT
It’s not a bad idea to pack a few spare parts for your 4WD, but what should you take?
Your needs will vary according to your itinerary and your rig, but here is a list of the basics you shouldn’t go without:
- Spare set of keys
- Engine oil
- Fan belt
- Two spare tyres
7. LIGHT THE FIRE
One of the joys of camping out in the desert is sitting around a campfire. It pays to collect firewood as you see it (and where you are allowed to) because when you set-up camp there is not always good decent wood nearby.
8. TYRE PRESSURE
It’s widely considered a good idea to lower tyre pressures when travelling on soft sand in order to give the tread a wider surface area on the ground.
If you’re towing, you’ll need to keep more pressure in your tow vehicle’s rear tyres than at the front. The optimum tyre pressure in your camper may be different again. A typical setup will look something like this: 15psi front; 23psi rear; and 10psi for your camper trailer.
You will need a good quality hand pump or compressor to re-inflate the tyres when you get back onto harder surfaces. Remember to go slowly around corners when tyre pressures are lower because they can roll right off their rims.
Despite being arid and desolate, there is a surprising amount of wildlife in some desert areas. You’ll spot plenty of reptiles, sometimes camels, brumbies, dingoes, kangaroos and emus, but also birds of prey such as the mighty wedged-tail eagle, black kites, falcons and owls.
Always keep your camera handy.
10. BUSH BATHROOM
A few days away from civilisation also means no bathrooms. So remember the good etiquette of the traveller in the wild: move well away from the campsite, and take a shovel with you so you can dig a deep hole.