Desert Rescue with the MAN

The radio crackled in the cab of the truck as we bumped over the sandy track. The morning was bright and fresh and sunlight sparkled on the rippling water ahead. Sandwiches were neatly packed in a bag at my feet – it was going to be a long drive into the great Simpson Desert.

The previous night, Barnes’y had received a callout to a four-wheel-drive that had broke down past Eyre Creek, about 90 kilometres into the desert from Birdsville. He’d packed and fuelled the truck, I’d tagged along, and we were heading to the rescue in the Birdsville Roadhouse’s ex German army MAN truck.

The huge, ominous-looking truck gets lots of attention from visitors when it’s parked outside the workshop. ‘Mad Max-like’, more than a few people have said. At three metres tall, two and a half metres wide and with tyres that are over one metre high, it’s intimidating in comparison to the four-wheel-drives it towers over.

Built in 1979 as a supply truck for the German army, it’s had an interesting life. Barnes’y acquired the truck in 1995 as a left-hand-drive and converted it before building a mobile home on the back with the intention of travelling around Australia. It was painted by Birdsville artist Wolfgang John and was a sight to be seen on the outback roads when they set off in 1996.

When the Barnes’ moved overseas for a stint, the truck was displayed in the National Road Transport Hall of Fame in Alice Springs until they reclaimed it on their return, setting off the museum’s fire alarms with their exhaust fumes when they fired the truck up. When they moved back to Birdsville in 2009 the truck came with them and Barnes’y had it converted into the tilt-tray top that’s now used for desert rescues.

With a V8, 265 horsepower air-cooled Deutz engine, 45 centimetres of ground clearance, constant four-wheel-drive, and the use of a lock-up torque converter ahead of the clutch, it’s perfect for the rough terrain and sand dunes of the Simpson. On flat ground, it can hit a maximum of 85 kilometres per hour. Last year, the MAN came in handy when the Barnes’ were at the Finke Desert Race and volunteered themselves as the recovery team.

When we reached the first of the desert’s sand dunes, Barnes’y explained that it would take twenty minutes to let down the tyres, and an hour to pump them up again. So, he climbed the first dune without worrying about the tyres. It was lucky he did – our stranded motorists who were supposed to be 90 kilometres away were on the track between the dune we’d just climbed and the next one. They’d miscalculated their position.

Nevertheless, their four-wheel drive was loaded, we all climbed in and Barnes’y took us back to Birdsville. Since our return wasn’t anticipated until late in the afternoon, everyone was surprised to see the truck roll into the yard before midday. It was an easy rescue and, since Bronwynne had made the packed lunch, a picnic on the bank of the Diamantina River ensued.

If you’d like to read more about Barnes’y’s truck, check out Outback Magazine’s 2011 article or get hold of a copy of the February 2011 issue of Truckin’ Life.

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The Inland Explorers: John McDouall Stuart

Simpson Desert. Photo: Kelly Theobald

Imagine setting out on an expedition to explore Australia in the 1800s. You leave your home and family for months to trek through the arid landscape, carrying all of your food and water on camels or horses and sleeping in swags beneath the stars. You don’t know what you’ll find, or even what you’re looking for. All you know is that there is barely a settlement between Adelaide and Darwin or Perth and Sydney. In the great, vast deserts of central Australia, there seems to be nothing. It’s your job to find out what’s there.

Without the brave explorers of the past, the outback wouldn’t be what it is today. They mapped the land, built roads, established towns and became heroes of the day. 

This year marks the 150th anniversary of one of the great inland expeditions – the first south-north crossing of Australia. It was John McDouall Stuart‘s sixth and final expedition that successfully reached the Gulf of Carpentaria from Adelaide, with the intention of establishing a telegraph line from Adelaide to Darwin. 

John McDouall Stuart

As early explorer Charles Sturt’s protégé, John McDouall Stuart completed Sturt’s Simpson Desert expedition in 1844 as second-in-command. Soon after, he led his own expedition to what is now the border between South Australia and the Northern Territory. It was on this trip that he was the first to discover a spring from the great Artesian Basin and was assured that it was a permanent water supply in the arid land.

On following expeditions, Stuart discovered and named the Finke River, the MacDonnell Ranges, Tennant’s Creek (now the site of the Tennant Creek township) and in 1862 was the first explorer to successfully cross the Australian mainland from South to North. His route can be retraced today via the Stuart Highway, named in his honour.

Present-day Stuart Highway

If you’re off road adventure inclined, the Simpson Desert lies between the Stuart Highway and Birdsville. It contains the world’s longest parallel sand dunes and is Australia’s fourth-largest desert. A number of tracks leading to Birdsville snake over the dunes and after three good years, the usually arid landscape is teaming with wildlife and colourful foliage. 

A number of convoys have already crossed the desert since it opened earlier this month and have reported safe tracks and great journeys. If you’re thinking of invoking some of the early explorers, read our Simpson Desert information page for pre-departure information. 

We’ll be sporadically posting information on other inland explorers on the Galah Session, including the ill-fated Burke and Wills.