Beginners up Big Red

By Josh Leonard 16 Min Read

Want to tackle Big Red, one of the biggest sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere, but you only just started wheeling? This is the article for you!

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I’m an addict. There I said it. That fine powder rules my life. Sometimes I lay awake at night planning hair-brained schemes of how I’ll get my next fix. There’s no rehab out there for fiends like me, and even if there were – I’d have to want help. Which I don’t. Now, because I know my mum is almost certainly reading this, I should clarify. I am not talking about the devils-dandruff here; I’m talking about red dirt. 

Red dirt, to me, epitomises adventure. It means I’m nowhere near home but somewhere remarkably close to the Outback. And there are few places on this fine earth that I’d rather be. Y’know how MSG makes food taste better? That’s how I think of red dirt. Sprinkle a bit of it around, and everything is immediately more enjoyable. 

It really makes you wonder what Heisenberg was thinking cooking up all that blue stuff when he was in the desert. The answer was right there all along. If he’d just stepped out of that Winnebago and poured a fist full of red dirt into a snap-lock bag, I think he would have tripled his profits and been shot at a whole lot less. Sometimes being a scientist doesn’t mean you’re smart, though. He drove a Pontiac Aztec, after all. 

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“I’m an addict. There, I said it. That fine powder rules my life” 

So, a few weeks back, when I was camping out west and met a young couple who said they wanted to see the Outback. I wasted no time in inviting them on a trip. Having known them for all of five minutes and never having had stranger danger thoroughly explained to me, this seemed like a brilliant idea.

The plan was simple. My new friends, who may or may not be axe murderers, and I would drive to Birdsville. Crisscrossing through three states and covering some 4,500KMs – a distance almost as long as the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, we’d tackle some of Australia’s most fearsome tracks. Stop in at every pub we saw. And amass no less than 42,500 new stubby coolers. 

So I wasn’t outnumbered 2:1 by potential axe-murderers; I had experienced rooftop tent setter-upperer Maddy Knight jump in the passenger seat of the Ranger. At just 23, Maddy has already seen more of Australia than most. I knew she’d be an asset to the crew. Mainly because she is a member of the crew and an asset. I also knew that she couldn’t run as fast as I could. Smart. 

Twenty-four hours out from leaving, I couldn’t help thinking about the magnitude of our impending undertaking. But more than that; I couldn’t stop thinking about how proud I already was of Dean and Megan. The young couple I’d only met ten days ago and who now stood to take their essentially bog-stock Triton across tracks known for breaking even the most kitted-out 4X4s… to lands so brutal they’d claimed the lives of the most stoic explorers Australia has possibly ever seen… with a bloke they’d met once. 

I was confident that by the end of this trip, we’d all be mates for life. Or we’d never speak again. Or, neither of those things would happen, and we’d die. The point is: I was confident. 

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“The plan was simple. My new friends, who may or may not be axe murderers, and I would drive to Birdsville. Criss-crossing through three states, and covering some 4,500kms – A distance almost as long as the Atlantic Ocean.”

While we were tracking towards the border, a colossal wet front was giving Outback Queensland an almighty drenching a few hundred kilometres ahead of us, leaving our intended route almost entirely underwater. After pitching camp for the night at the Hebel General Store, we plotted a new course; there was simply no avoiding the floods, so it was a case of choosing the open (but flooded) roads and avoiding the closed ones.

We made some calls and let others know of our updated plans. A solid tip for young players in the Outback travel game is to check in with local police or call ahead to pubs on your route and let them know your intended arrival time, vehicle details and when they should raise the alarm should you not arrive. 

With the new course decided, there was nothing else to do but saddle up. Before long, we were tackling water crossing after water crossing. Some were literally kilometres long. We were walking the crossings so frequently in fact, that I stopped bothering to put my pants back on. Looking back on it, I reckon I’ve walked half of Outback Queensland in my undies. 

After a few days, we’d forged our way to Innaminka and reflected on the obstacles we had overcome. They felt insignificant to those that Burke and Wills would have faced on their 1860 expedition. Nevertheless, our sense of achievement was strong, and after paying our respects at Burke’s gravesite, our appreciation of their efforts and the challenges those 19 men faced was profound. 

“I reckon I’ve walked half of outback Queensland in my undies”

We set up camp for the night and went over the utes with a fine tooth comb, tightening everything that’d rattled loose over the last few thousand kilometres of corrugated roads and paying particular attention to anything the hundreds of water crossings could have damaged. 

Vehicle maintenance shouldn’t only occur before and after your trip. The Outback will expose every single weakness in your 4X4 without discrimination. Running a spanner over your vehicle periodically during your trip could help you avoid an accident and save you thousands. 

“The outback will expose every single weakness in your 4X4 without discrimination”

From Innaminka we followed the Cordillo Downs Road to Birdsville. Excitement was building as we stared out the windscreen into the great expanses of Australia’s arid landscape. Finally, after stopping for one or two roadside repairs, the kilometres began to pass with relative ease, and we rolled into Birdsville by afternoon. 

With both utes now running low on fuel and no idea where we were going to camp for the night, we did the logical thing and went to the pub. Sure, shelter and fuel in the Outback are essential, but so is hydration. 

Having managed to refuel the utes and nab a camp for the night, it was time we achieved what we’d set out to do. The UHF crackled into life. “If we’re gonna go up Big Red this arvo, don’t you reckon we should get a camel pie first?” it was Deano, making more sense than he ever had. So we steered a course for Birdsville Bakery and ate hearty, for we had a dune to conquer and to do it on an empty stomach would be as irresponsible as going camping without beer. 

Conquering Big Red as a beginner

Sitting at the base of the dune on the western side, you start to appreciate the size of Big Red, and you’d be forgiven for feeling a little intimidated. It stands as tall as the Statue of Liberty and is made entirely from the type of sand you traditionally do your best to avoid driving on due to its softness. Fear not, however! If you follow these simple tips, you’ll soon find yourself ticking Big Red off your adventure achievements list. 

Tyre pressures

You knew I was going to say it, so we may as well get it out of the way early. Tyre pressures play a pivotal role in every off-road situation; dropping them should be the first thing you do when you hit the dirt. As a general rule of thumb, running anywhere from 12PSI to 18PSI should see you easily get up Big Red.

Vehicles that are lighter or more powerful can start at the higher end of the above range and drop down as required, and vehicles that are heavily laden or don’t have as much gusto as you wish they did should start at around the middle of the range and drop as required. 

Remember, this is only a rule of thumb. You should listen to what your vehicle tells you but be cautious when lowering below 12 or so PSI, as the more air you let out, the easier you’ll roll the tyre off its bead!  

Pick a line

And if that doesn’t work, pick another one. Seriously though, picking the right line is something that comes with time spent in the hot seat off-road, you won’t always get it right and arguably the best way to learn is by getting it wrong. But hey, if you want – I’ll write a whole other article on it for you just to speed up the process!

At the crux of it; you want to understand the terrain you’re attempting to tackle and then pick the route that’ll give you the most amount of wheels on the ground while allowing your vehicle to maintain its forward momentum and thus: its traction. This is best achieved by walking the line yourself and working out where to steer how much of the loud pedal you may or may not need. 

Pro Tip: Try being the first one up Big Red for the day. Not just for the bragging rights, but because the tracks will have filled in overnight and you’ll get to take your pick out of all the lines before they’re rutted out by those maniacal 4X4ers with 35s the Greens always tell us about. 

Lock, stomp, and steer 

Once you’ve dropped your pressures and picked your line the next step is to utilise my easy-to-remember off-road recipe for success. Lock, stomp and steer. Let me break it down for you:

Lock: Your hubs and your diffs. And your doors if you’re still concerned about Outback murderers. 

Stomp: The accelerator pedal. It should go without saying since we’re all adults here… however, I’ll say it anyway. That doesn’t mean driving as fast as humanly possible, it means taking a measured approach and applying the correct amount of power.

Steer: How much steering you’re actually able to do will vary depending on the terrain, but you want to try and keep your vehicle on your chosen line and be ready to steer away from things you don’t want to hit. Common sense, right?

Once you’ve made it to the top and loudly proclaimed your excellence over the UHF, move your vehicle to a safe location and enjoy the view. You’ve earnt it! 

Josh’s five top tips


1: Hot air: Remember, your tyre pressures will increase as the air in your tyres heats up. If you’re beginning to struggle where you weren’t previously, recheck your pressures. If they’ve increased, drop them back down to where they should be. 

2: Comms: Now, I don’t mean to sound like your missus or your mister, but clear communication is essential. In the Simmo and on Big Red tune in to channel 10 on your UHF and let others in the area know of your intentions.

3: Don’t get stuck: It’s good advice, right? When you’re tackling a sandy track and feel the vehicle lose momentum, the very next thing it will do is turn into Dale from The Castle and dig a hole. To avoid this, as soon as you feel the vehicle come to a halt, lift off the accelerator and reverse out from your position before reattempting the drive. 

4. Vehicle handling: You’ve dropped your tyre pressures, added a bunch of weight and you’re driving on sand. It’s a great time until your pride and joy is the wrong way up, and you’re licking your wounds. Remember: avoid sharp turns at speed, and be aware of ruts, blind corners and crests. 

5. Want to stop? Don’t use your brakes: I know that seems counterintuitive but save the brakes for emergencies in soft sand. Where possible, you want to let your vehicle roll to a stop without using the brakes. That way, there won’t be a mound of sand in front of your wheels waiting to get you bogged when you take off. If possible, you want to stop with your vehicle pointing downhill; that’ll increase your chances of getting going again.


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