Desert Challenge 2014
By – Euan Pennington
“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, heading for the start of 2014s Simpson Desert Bike Challenge. As an event, it pretty much does what is says on the tin – a race 600km, (370 miles in old money), across the Simpson Desert in central Australia, and yes, it’s a challenge for all concerned. It begins at Purni Bore and to get there one simply heads 850km, (530 miles in Roman Catholic), north of Adelaide to Coober Pedy, then turn off the bitumen and drive another 450km, (280 miles in American), over increasingly rough roads to the start line. “Rough roads” does stretch the Aussie penchant for the understatement to the limit, given that one vehicle arrived with a fractured 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, speedo, battery electrics, a fuel filter and my alternator was held on with rope and a tent peg. Running a day late, 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, so were sure we could fix things as we went along.
21 riders were fronting 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 fat, with a strong representation from Muru, the fledgling Antipodean bike brand churning out titanium chunky goodness. The five day race was divided into two daily stages, one of 80km (50 miles in clown talk), and one of 50km, (30 miles in archaic language). 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 Celcius, (whatever that is in Seppo units – I can’t be bothered to work it out, but over 100), each day, dehydration and cramps were a very real danger.
The terrain was a mix of sand dunes, gibber 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 potions and unguents to see them through the next stage. Meanwhile, support crews fettled bikes and nailed their cars 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 hammers trying to make a bike work, to keep a rider in the saddle. Not their rider, but it didn’t matter. On the last day, one strong rider walked up to probably the weakest rider and said, “You are crossing the line with the group today,” and then proceeded to push her probably 40km, until another rider who had already finished rode back to take over. It was about the event as much as the racing.
After 5 days of fun filled 0430 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 give it a red hot go. The whole shenanigan is held to raise money for the Royal Flying Doctor service, (who for foreign readers are the Ambulance in the Outback), 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 3 day drive home to Melbourne there was another song in my head…
“The desert in the moonlight, hot days cold nights,
I’ve never seen so much sky, and it’s a sight for sore eyes…”
Absolutely. If you are at all interested go to desertchallenge.org to find out more, but be careful because this race seems to get under people’s skin, as they come from all over the country and overseas to pit themselves against the Simpson and all it has to offer. A new addiction in the making…