The Story of Big Red, or 'Suzette's Revenge'

We’d been coming across the Simpson Desert for five days, acting as support crew for a Swiss chef. living in Bali, who was cycling across the Simpson Desert with about 20 others. The object was to raise money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Simpson Desert Cycle Challenge


Having slept in swags for five nights and washed in a cup-full of water (in 45 degree heat and searing winds), we were looking forward to a night of feasting, a hot shower and a soft bed at the Birdsville Hotel.

 Rolling in to Birdsville after 5 days in the desert

Heinz and Mike dropped off all their clothing and the camping gear in the motel room, but it was getting late in the afternoon and they both now had one objective – to photograph Big Red.  In the words of Queensland Tourism

‘Standing at 40 metres in height, and situated just 35 kilometre from Birdsville; the famous Big Red Sand Dune provides a challenge for any four wheel drive enthusiast. The first of 1,140 parallel dunes in the Simpson Desert, the spectacular sunsets from the top of Big Red are an experience not to be missed. 

We were not going to miss that!

Now Mike and Heinz, both being avid photographers wanted the iconic shot of our ‘truck’ on top of the sandhill in the sunset, so they made sure we had all the photography gear on board and set off towards Big Red.

It truly is spectacular, radiating redness in the late afternoon sun.  Up we went and stopped on the top to get the pictures.  There were few other people there and we took our time.  The sun went down and we reluctantly drove over the top and down the western side.  The plan was to turn around at the bottom, come back up and over and head off to Birdsville for dinner, a shower and a decent bed.

 This is the photo we were after

There was one thing we had all forgotten.  The longer a sandhill bakes in the sun, the more slippery it becomes.  The air in the sand puffs up in the heat and the grains of sand glide over each other like talcum powder, making it particularly difficult to drive up it without getting bogged.  And this was the western face, which had been soaking up the sun all afternoon.  Of course, getting bogged in really soft sand was precisely what happened. We extricated ourselves from that and retreated back down to the flat for another go. We still didn’t make it and by now it was getting dark, which made it difficult to see and gauge the immense ruts in the slope.

 We took the decision to stay out overnight and try again the next morning when the sand would have stabilised and we could see just where the dangers were.

Now night time in the desert in those parts can get cold.  Quite cold.  In fact, darned cold! We had plenty of water on board and a couple of Snickers bars. My bag had apparently not been offloaded with the others, so I had a lot of warm clothing.  Mike and Heinz were not so lucky.

We were also aware that the group of people we had been travelling with would be concerned about our absence.  Time to get the radio out and call Birdsville.  ‘Hello Birdsville?  Come in Birdsville?  Anyone there?’  Nope, no-one in Birdsville could hear us.  But a voice came over the air ‘Hello? This is St Helens.  Can I help?  I might be able to get Birdsville for you.’

 We started very early in the morning

Yes, St Helens.  In Tasmania!  They could hear us just fine, but Birdsville, 35 km away, could not. We explained our predicament and that fact that we really needed our friends to know what had happened and that we were OK. We would return in the morning. He volunteered to try to raise Birdsville and get our messages through.

‘Hello Birdsville?  Birdsville, can you hear me?’  Nothing.  A few more tries and another voice came on the airwaves. ‘Hello.  This is Derby.  Let me try’.  Yes, Derby.  In the far North-West of WA.  After clarifying a few things, he eventually got through to Birdsville.  We could hear his side of the conversation, but not Birdsville’s. 

Nightly camps

OK, our friends all knew we were alright and that we had plenty of water, and that we’d see them in the morning.  It was time to turn in.  Mike and Heinz were wearing long-sleeved T-shirt and shorts.  The temperature was plummeting.  I piled into all the clothes I had. Two pairs of Explorer socks and boots, thermal underwear, shorts and a pair of trackies, a thermal top, a couple of T-shirts, a jumper, vest and jacket.  A beanie topped the ensemble.  By now I looked like the Michelin Man, which was a good thing as I was to sleep on top of the truck.

The guys pulled the sheepskin seat covers off the seats and tried to settle down for the night inside the truck, with all the windows up.  I climbed up onto the wire basket on top of the truck, laid my head on a jerrycan of diesel and tried to get to sleep.  It was cold.  Bitterly cold.  But I bet the guys were colder!

Our vehicle cresting a dune

Come morning we were up as soon as it got light.  Once we could see the ruts in the sand and what we had to avoid, getting up the western slope and back down the other side was a piece of cake.

We rolled in to Birdsville to much hooting and jeering from the other competitors and their crews, had a hot breakfast and a warm shower and headed out for home.

 Not us, but a not uncommon sight. Everyone pitched in.

I was determined that I was going to make a piece of jewellery commemorating this epic trip.  Big Red is roughly the colour of the coral I’ve used.  There is a large ‘wheel’ on one side of the necklace and two ‘tyre tracks’ of coral from there to the clasp.  A pleasant piece of jewellery which many people have bought.

Big Red, (or 'Suzette's Revenge')

Most people know that it’s about an iconic sand hill in SW Queensland.  Some know that it was a response to what Mike refers to as ‘a family legendary camping expedition that saw us stranded on Big Red’.  Not everyone knows the full story, or that I refer to the necklace  as ‘Suzette’s Revenge!’  I know that when people ask Mike the story behind the piece, he has to give them the whole sorry tale! ‘Suzette’s Revenge’ indeed.