Euan Pennington takes us behind the scenes of a quintessentially Australian off-road challenge.
“There’s a corrugated highway leading north from Port Augusta lined with battered cars that didn’t rate a tow,
Salt plains out of Pimba, and your eyes begin to stream…”
The song was circling my head, because we really were north of Port Augusta and it always excites me to actually be in a song, even though there are those who would question the classic credentials of early eighties Redgum. We were heading for the start of the 2014 Simpson Desert Bike Challenge. As an event, it pretty much does what it says on the tin—a race 600km across the Simpson Desert and yes, it’s a challenge for all concerned. It begins at Purni Bore and to get there one simply heads 850km north of Adelaide to Coober Pedy, then turns off the bitumen to drive another 450km over increasingly rough roads to the start line. “Rough roads” does stretch the Antipodean penchant for understatement to the limit, given that one vehicle arrived with a cracked fuel tank, last year one arrived not at all, and between our two team vehicles we had lost driving lights (fractured off the mounts), a differential, a fuel gauge, air conditioning, a speedo, battery electrics, a fuel filter and my alternator was held on with rope and a tent peg. Running a day later than planned, we were primed and in fine condition to cross one of the Great Southern Land’s more remote deserts. We didn’t tell the race organiser about the condition of our cars; we had a hammer and wire so were sure we could fix things as we went along.
The event is held to raise money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, so each rider pays an entry fee as well as committing to some light fundraising. They then need to arrive at the start with a vehicle and driver capable of crossing the desert, all their own water, food and fuel, spare tyres, tools, camping gear and equipment for the crossing, plus of course a bike of some description; road bikes need not apply.
Twenty-one riders fronted for this year’s soiree, and although not technically a fat bike race, there was only one 26er, one 29er, and the rest of the field had seen the light and were running four inch wide tyres. Indeed, I suspect it was the largest gathering of fat bike eye candy in the country. The five day race was divided into two daily stages, one of 80km and one of 50km. Riders were weighed before and after each stage and anyone who lost too much weight on a stage was not allowed to start the next; with temperatures around 35 degrees and sometimes peaking above 40 degrees each day, dehydration and cramps were a very real danger. To help combat this, the morning stage began at 6am, and the afternoon’s at 2pm. Riders had to travel at an average speed of at least 12km/h, or they were “swept” by the official vehicle following. Race results tracked either your time, if you had dodged the sweep, or the number of kilometres completed if mechanical issues, physical pain or quiet despair saw you relegated to the support vehicle.
The terrain was a mix of sand dunes, gibber plains (rocky surfaced plains), dirt roads and bush tracks, with enough corrugations to cause the vehicle suspension to leap out of the car and bounce down the track on its own. Combined with the joyous sweaty heat, there were riders with ulcerated…delicate parts, I kid you not, shaking hands with Mr Pain as the extraordinarily brave medics applied tinctures and unguents to various regions in the hope of seeing the athletes through the next stage. Truly that which doesn’t kill you can still really really hurt. Meanwhile, support crews fettled bikes and nailed equipment back together to keep the show on the road. A challenge for all, not just the riders.
The joy of the challenge for me was that it brought everyone together, especially in the support crew where I was lurking. People were always ready to lend a hand, fix something or create coffee so that whilst it was a race, it also became a shared event. Race radio might put out a call for parts, and soon there would be three teams armed with tools and hope trying to make a bike work and keep a rider in the saddle. Not their rider, but it didn’t matter. On the last day, one strong rider walked up to one of the slower riders and said, “You are crossing the line with the group today,” and then when her legs gave out he proceeded to push her probably 40km until another rider who had already finished rode back to take over so she could cross the final line with the peloton. It was about the event as much as the racing, the sport as much as the winning. Some riders were there to compete, some to try and complete, and some just to have a red hot go and challenge themselves, but I think all were brought together by the heat, the emptiness and the stark beauty of the Simpson Desert.
After five days of fun-filled 4.30am starts, desert sunrises, sportsmanship, sweat, prickles, hot winds and joy, the convoy reached Birdsville and the much anticipated finish line. The finish was actually situated at the pub, once again proving the strong link between sport and alcohol—and yes, the beer was a fine thing. Nine riders completed the entire event, with legs and bum cheeks of iron, although congratulations go to all who were brave and inspired enough to throw a leg over their velocipede and embrace the undertaking. The whole shenanigan is held to raise money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and this year over thirty-five grand found its way to those stalwarts who look after the remote areas.
As I turned the cruiser’s nose south for the three day drive home to Melbourne there was another song in my head (by Loren)…
“The desert in the moonlight, hot days cold nights,
I’ve never seen so much sky, and it’s a sight for sore eyes…”
If you might like to be one of those that come from all over the country and overseas to pit themselves against the Simpson and all it has to offer, go to desertchallenge.org to find out more.
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