Satan’s Velodrome is what it is called on the website. The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge is its official name. It is a 5-day stage race that crosses the Simpson Desert, which after looking at a map, I figured out was in the middle of Australia – what I didn’t know was how far into the deep centre of Australia it actually was. After getting the approval for the trip, I was ready to go. Well, not really… I still needed to get to the desert, and then get across it in one piece. Every website that I looked at warned about the dangers of the desert – from the hazards of bush camping to drinking enough water (but not too much), what to do when bitten by a snake. You even had to bring your own firewood because taking and burning what appears to be a useless piece of dead wood may be some poor desert creature’s only hope for survival in the form of shade or shelter. It was at this point that I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about the dangers lurking in the desert and how I might survive for almost a week in the midst of it. It was lucky for me that the director of the race put me in touch with Andrew Weller, who is the official photographer for the race, plus runs his own photography adventure tours around Australia. And if it wasn’t for Andrew, I would probably still be out in the desert somewhere – that is, if I even made it to the desert. I flew down to Adelaide to meet up with Andrew three days before the race started. Along with two other women that he had helping him photograph the race, off we set for the Simpson Desert. On the first day, we left Adelaide at 7:30 in the morning, and didn’t reach our camp site at the Arckaringa Station until 9:30 that night. That was the first night a spent in my swag, which is basically a small (very small) one person tent. The outside was canvas and it was lined a mozzie (mosquito) net to keep the critters out at night. Inside, there was enough room for a sleeping bag and a pillow and that was about it.
This is me in my luxurious swag – Photo by Andrew Weller
After another day of driving over bumpy gravel roads, we set up camp at Mount Dare. On the way we stopped at the Dalhousie hot Springs. The water in the springs was 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit) – which would have been great if we were at a ski lodge, but unfortunately, it was even hotter outside. Mount Dare was where civilization ended, if you could call it that. It was the last stop on the trip for water and petrol for the next six days, not to mention that it was also the last toilet and shower that I would have for the week. So off we set with 135 litres of water and 250 litres of fuel to make it through the desert. It took us over two days to get to the start of the race in Purnie Bore and it would take us an additional five days to get to the finish in Birdsville.
Day 1 of the Race. Wake up call, 4:30 am. There was no need for an alarm clock – the race director would beep his horn to get everyone out of bed. We packed up our swags and camp and off we went. The race started at 6 am for the 17 riders trying to make it across the desert. The first stage, which has over 250 sand dunes, is one of the toughest, and it determines who the contenders are. Not only do the riders have to tackle 250+ sand dunes of varying sizes, but they have to maintain a minimum speed of 12 kilometres an hour throughout each stage. If they don’t, the Grim Sweeper will get them from behind and pluck them out of the race. At least if the Grim Sweeper gets you, you get a free ride to the end of that stage. If you are picked up by the Sweeper, you are still able to start with the rest of the riders in the next stage after getting approval by the race doctor.
Day 2 of the Race – The sand dunes are unbelievably amazing. They just keep going and going. It is incredible how you can come up to what you think is the top of the dune, and then there is another dune on the top of that, and then you find yet another one when you finally reach the top of that. It was bad enough in a car going over all the dunes, I can only imagine what is going through the biker’s minds as they go up each dune.
This picture was taking at 6:37am on day 2 of the race. I had been shooting the riders coming at me with the sun on their faces, but noticed just in time that they were also riding over a dune in the distance. I turned around just in time to catch these two riders going over a dune. Photo by Ezra Shaw
After seeing a wild camel on day one, we see a dingo in the track on our drive on day two. Not to mention the numerous lizards along the way – but luckily so far, no snakes. No snakes and no spiders so far, but in my opinion, a critter that is even worse is the Australian fly. Ahhh, the flies. They are a permanent fixture; in my ears, up my nose, in my mouth, in my eyes… or so they try anyways. Try as they might, I am armed with the all important fly screen which surrounds my head in a swatch of blissful fly-free netting.
Photo by Ezra Shaw
Today was my first shower in three days. I know I said that I wouldn’t be able to shower for six days. This wasn’t the usual shower that I had. It consisted of five baby wipes all over my body (strict allocation, 5 wipes per person). Unfortunately, it didn’t really work – I still smelled horrible. I guess that is what running around in temperature averaging just less than 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) will do. Day 3 of the Race – The dunes were supposed to be over by now, but in fact they have only gotten bigger. At one point in the course, the vehicles had to detour around a dune that the bikers did whatever they could to get there bikes up and over it.
This was one of the last sand dunes of the race. It was actually so big the vehicles had to go around it. Photo by Ezra Shaw
Our truck got bogged down (stuck in the sand) and to get moving again we had to let air out of our tires and shovel the sand away (I shouldn’t say we – I didn’t do anything – Andrew did it all). Point 362 (and counting) where I, sweaty American guy, would still be stuck in the desert had it not had been for the expertise of my guide. Photographing the race was very challenging. We were only allowed to pass through the riders once per stage, and similar to the Tour de France, you can never turn around and go back. So if you see something you think will make a good picture, you better hope that there isn’t an even better one around the corner or in this case over the next dune. Plus the fact that by 8 in the morning, the sun was already in the middle of the sky, so you only had about an hour of good light for the entire day.
The temperature hit 53 degrees Celsius today (127.5 degrees Fahrenheit – Don’t worry, its dry heat… right.) This is when the cyclists were riding over fields of gibber rock, which are quite beautiful in their many tones of red and brown but cannot possibly be easy to bike over. Gibber rocks are said to be pieces of the hills millions of years old that once scattered the plains on the bottom of the sea. I am sure this is what the riders were marvelling about when they were huffing and puffing their way through trying to stay ahead of the Grim Sweeper.
This picture to me shows how hot it was outside. The heat waves coming of the gibber rocks create a mirage in the desert – Photo by Ezra Shaw
Day 4 of the Race – The Groundhog Day effect started to kick-in around this time.
Wake-up at 4:30
Drive for 7 hours while looking for pictures
Stop for lunchDrive for another 5 hours
Set up swags
Day 5 of the Race – Everyone around camp was excited that today was the last day of the race. I don’t know if they were excited because they were getting close to the finish line, or if they were excited because they were getting close to a shower. We arrived in Birdsville around 10am, and the first thing that I did was get a nice cold Coke. Mmmmm, Coke never tasted so good. After I downed that in a matter of seconds, we headed to the legendary Birdsville Hotel to get an ice cold beer and wait for the remaining riders to come through. The beer went down smoothly, but the most important thing was still to come – a shower. I never knew that a public shower in a caravan park could feel so good.
The legendary Birdsville Hotel – Photo by Helen Osler
There was hugs and kisses for all the riders as they crossed the finish line. All of them were relieved that they had finally made it to Birdsville. Of the 17 riders that began the race, only two made it through every stage without being caught by the Grim Sweeper. As they all relaxed over a cold beer, many started to make plans for next’s years race, while others vowed that there would be no chance that they would ever be caught on a bicycle in the desert again.The race may have been over, but we still had to drive almost 1200 kilometres back to