The Hay River Track map above outlines our journey, it runs for 350km from the Plenty Highway near Jervois Station to Poeppels Corner in the Simpson Desert. Jervois Station is approximately 300km from Alice Springs, and Poeppels Corner is about 170km from Birdsville. The track ventures through Atnetye Aboriginal Land and it takes a bit of organising to travel this track, but the effort is rewarded through the greatexperiences and scenery in this remote area of Central Australia.
In the past, this part of the Northern Simpson Desert was closed to the public. The Aboriginal custodians now welcome visitors to their land and will show even more great scenery during a Bush Tucker Tour. A permit is required and needs to be arranged well in advance, and if travelling through into South Australia a desert parks pass will also be needed. All travellers to this area owe their thanks to Jol Fleming from Alice Springs whose persistence led to this area being opened up for outback travel. In the mid-1990s, Jol contacted Lindsay Bookie with a request to travel down the Hay River. Lindsay was not keen at first to let anyone travel through his lands, but with further discussions Jol was given the OK. After several attempts Jol and Lindsay managed to forge a track in 1999 to Madigan’s Camp 15 and 16 and then out to Beachcomber Oil Well. After the trip, Lindsay approached Jol about using Batton Hill as a base to do Bush Tucker Tours of the surrounding area, which were advertised and the first Bush Tucker Trip was carried out in August 2000. Unfortunately Lindsay passed away in late 2014 but his family still maintain the Batton Hill Camp.
Coming from Alice Springs there are a couple of different ways to get to the start of the Hay River Track, including travelling up the bitumen on the Stuart Highway then across to the East on the Plenty Highway. A more interesting route is to travel on the section of Binns Track that leads directly east out from Alice Springs via the East MacDonald ranges taking in the various gorges and sights such as Trephina Gorge, Arltunga Gold fields, and Ruby Gap. Ruby Gap is a great place visit with some challenging 4W driving to get to the end of the track, a fantastic walk to take through the gorge, and some terrific camping options along the riverbed. From Ruby Gap continue along Binns Track turning right into Pinnacle Road and eventually joining the Plenty Highway. Just prior to the access to Batton Hill and the Hay River track is Jervois Station, so-called after the nearby Jervois Ranges named by H. V. Barclay in 1879. Jervois Station is a large working cattle station that has a fuel outlet and small kiosk open during daylight hours. It is a good idea to top up your fuel supplies here as this will be your last chance to replenish fuel stocks before Birdsville, approximately 700km away. Jervois Station can be contacted on (08) 8956 6307.
Batton Hill is about 80km from the well signposted turn-off on the Plenty Highway. The access track heads directly east along a boundary fence before coming to a gate at the entrance of the Batton Hill camp.
The Batton Hill camp consists of a number of campsites. There are two shower/toilet blocks with donkey boilers, a bush kitchen and a number of sheds. Good quality water for the site is provided from a solar powered bore that pumps water to a couple of overhead tanks. More details on Batton Hill are found on the website. At Batton Hill you will usually be welcomed by one of the locals who will show you to your campground and explain the features of the camp. Wood is supplied here which is great and saves having to collect your own for the essential campfire.
From the campground there is a marked nature trail that leads 2km to the top of Batton Hill. This walk crosses spinifex plains to the base of Batton Hill and then up to the 30m summit which affords 360 degree views of the camp and surrounding area. There are marked points of interest along the way, and early morning or late afternoon walk is rewarded with magnificent views. While at Batton Hill it is well worth joining one of Bookie Families famous bush tucker tours. This laid-back tour traverses much of the land around Batton Hill, with regular stops to show various bush-tucker and features of the area. You will be shown and try a variety of bush-tucker including bush bananas, black currents, bush tomatoes, and coconuts. Travelling around the country with commentary from the locals is just great, and one of the highlights of the tour is the evening visit out to Goyder’s Pillar to watch the sunset. At Goyder’s Pillar keep an eye out for artifacts from previous generations of the Bookie family around the rock shelter they used to frequent.
The first white person to successfully travel through this area was the South Australian Surveyor, Charles Winnecke in mid 1883. Winnecke named many land forms in the area including the Hay River and Goyder's Pillar, named after G.W. Goyder the Surveyor-General of South Australia. Leaving Batton Hill (after signing the visitor’s book which is recommended), it is time to head south down the Hay River Track. The well-defined track passed through wide sandy plains of various grasses and spinifex with a variety of bushes and trees. Travelling close and parallel to the Hay River, the wide sandy riverbed and impressive River Red Gums are never far from sight. Depending on recent rains, you may be lucky enough to see a range of wildflowers which just carpet the area under the right conditions and make a truly spectacular sight.
The next landmark is the Tropic of Capricorn, identified by a small sign on the edge of the track. After the obligatory photographs it’s time to continue along the track before reaching a nice campsite by the river which is perfect for a break or even an overnight stop. Now it is time to further reduce tyre pressure for a run down the river to the Lake Caroline turn-off. The run through the soft power-sucking sand in the Hay River is great fun and a good change from the slow winding track beside the river, but the payback is a dramatic increase in fuel usage – make sure you have plenty of fuel reserves before starting. The river is also reknown for claiming bogged vehicles, so tackle the river run at your peril! At the Lake Caroline turn-off it is time to get back onto the main track to ensure you will have enough fuel to make it to your eventual destination – Poeppel’s Corner and Birdsville.
Lake Caroline is approximately 10km from the main Hay River Track and is worth a detour particularly if recent rains have filled the lake and surrounding areas. It is open and firewood is scarce so not the greatest place to camp; there are plenty of better options further alongside the Hay River.
Continue down the Hay River Track and expect tight sections of dense undergrowth intermingled with the occasional burnt-out area. On this section of the track there are a few good campsites but make sure you pick a spot early enough to enjoy the surrounds in daylight with plenty of time to set up camp and take time to relax after a long day on the track.
Travelling onwards and the once mighty Hay River diminishes to a series of narrow creek beds which the track follows. Soon the track arrives at Madigan’s camps 15 and 16 – at 16 there is the Blaze tree where there is a visitors book to sign and check back for records of other trips and other travellers.
The creek beds eventually disappear completely and the scenery changes dramatically to that of treeless plains and striking red sand dunes. Continuing on there are more areas of rugged vegetation and you may wonder if there is anywhere to camp but fortunately there are some great spots further on between some massive sand dunes.
The Hay River Track continues southwards with the occasional dune crossing, with some of these dunes a little trickier than they look. The track eventually takes a hard right and follows an old shotline that heads straight westerly towards the Beachcomber No.1 well. Now it is time to tackle some of the adjacent sand dunes after travelling alongside them for several hundred kilometers. This is great fun and quite a change from the winding track followed up to now, but this doesn’t last long and you will arrive at the old oil well.
From Beachcomber well, the Hay River track follows the old K1 line which was once one of the major roads for transporting mining equipment. So conditions improve and the average speed will increase, but driver attention is needed as there are many washouts and ruts to avoid as the road has not been maintained for many years. After about 40km from the oil well, an interesting detour is to head to across to Kilpatha native well. This track consists of just a couple of faint wheel tracks but with the assistance of a GPS you should be able to locate it OK and take up the challenge! After crossing several dunes, some which may require a couple of tries to ascend, the track comes to the native well. Unfortunately, the original well has been bulldozed by the oil exploration teams in the 1960s but there is still a large depression where it used to be and there were plenty of aboriginal artifacts lying around the site.
Heading directly south from Kilpatha well on a track running parallel with the main Hay River (K1 Line) track, the track strikes its first salt pan which has also been used as an airstrip back in the oil exploration days. The smooth surface of the salt pan is a welcome change from the dunes and a chance to make up some time on your way to Poeppel Corner.
A short drive alongside Lake Poeppel and you will arrive at Poeppel Corner – the point where the Northern Territory, South Australia, and Queensland intersect. Augustus Poeppel was the SA government surveyor tasked with the job of plotting the tri-State corner. In 1879 he marked the corner boundary by running a chain (measuring tape) from Birdsville. Unfortunately his initial work was at fault due to his chain being one inch too long causing his survey peg to be planted 15 chains (274m) short of the actual corner. His assistant, Larry Wells corrected Poeppel’s error in 1884 – the actual peg is now in the Adelaide museum and a replica is in its place.
From Poeppel Corner it is time to head to the QAA line, across the Queensland Border and straight towards Birdsville. Unfortunately the relatively quiet Hay River Track has given way to the very popular and busy section of the Simpson Desert and care is needed crossing every dune, making
sure the coast is clear from oncoming traffic. Expect the track to be chopped up, but enjoy the challenge of tackling some big dunes. The biggest dune of all is the last challenge – Big Red. With several track options to get to the top, give it a go and you will be rewarded with fantastic views of the lake to the East and back across the Simpson Desert to the West.
After enjoying the scenery from the top of Big Red it is time to air back up and make the easy run into Birdsville. Time for a photo shot in front of Birdsville Pub and a cleansing ale after a great trip, reliving many of the great times you will have had on the Hay River Track and Simpson Desert. More details on the Birdsville area are available from the tourist information centre or the website.
Take sufficient food and drinking water for the planned duration of your trip, with extra allowance in case of problems. The last chance for groceries is the store at the Atitjera Community if coming in from the North-West, but a better idea is to stock up at Alice Springs before commencing this trip. Basic equipment spares, air compressor with tyre pressure gauge and recovery equipment should also be carried. There is no mobile phone coverage until Birdsville, so alternative communication such as a satellite phone is essential. As this area is quite remote, consider taking a PLB or EPIRB in case of emergency. When planning a trip to this area you need ensure you have enough fuel to get to Birdsville. a distance of about 700km from Jervois Station. As much of the trip is through sandy terrain your fuel consumption will be quite high so make allowance for this.
The winter months are definitely the best time to visit the Hay River region, with mild days and cool nights. Summer is a no-go with extreme temperatures and the authorities close this area to visitors.
The Hay River Track requires quite a bit of organisation and planning to tackle, but the rewards are more than worth the effort. It is a great privilege to travel through the previously closed Atnetye Aboriginal Land and learn first-hand about this area from Bookie Family members. Consider taking in this section of the Simpson Desert rather than other very popular routes - you will not be disappointed!