Looking for a new desert track to quench your thirst for remote travel? How about the Goog’s Track in south-west South Australia? This beaut crosses over 300 dunes that run from east-to-west through the mallee scrub of the Yellabinna Wilderness Protection Area and Yumbarra Conservation Park.
Less than 200km and a night or two of camping can land the Goog’s Track in your trophy cabinet. The police won’t slap you in the Ceduna lock-up if you tow a camper through, but Parks SA do advise against towing due to the difficulty of the track and the resulting track wear, making Goog’s the perfect playing field for slide-on campers, rooftop tenters, and swaggers.
DIRECTION OF TRAVEL
The official line from Parks SA is that people should travel from south to north (Ceduna to Kingoonya) and this tune is picked up by content websites. But the track is in fact two-way. I expect a single direction of travel is encouraged simply to reduce landscape destruction (as fewer cars have to pass each other) and to minimise the chances of a head-on collision.
Maybe, in ye olde days, the southern faces of the dunes were preferable due to their more gradual incline, but nowadays, because of the predominant direction of travel, they’re more cut-up than steeper northern faces. We decided to travel from north to south and were happy with our choice because the bumps and hollows of the southern faces threw our car around. I imagine coming up such a surface, would be harder (though still achievable) to retain momentum and traction, and for the passengers to not spill lemonade.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
Driving the Goog’s Track is all about savouring the isolation, appreciating the landscape as a whole, and picking up on its subtle variations. Each ‘swale’ — low-lying part of the dune system — represents its own cut-off world, and so driving over each crest brings with it a sense of anticipation followed by revelation.
Between the guaranteed mallee trees and saltbush, plants like the desert grevillea proffer an explosion of yellow while in other places, Sturt’s desert pea, mulla mulla, native daisies and purple fan flowers shoot up from the sand ripples. The sand itself changes colour continuously, from faded orange, to mauve red, to blanched yellow. Its surface displays distinctive animal tracks, including the undulating lines left by king brown snakes, the claw scratches of the goanna, and the paw print of the dingo.
Lucky travellers may witness rarer creatures emerge from the scrub, such as Major Mitchell cockatoos, thorny devils and malleefowl. However, this trilogy of scoundrels evaded us while we were there. We had to content ourselves with numerous stumpy lizards.
WHERE TO CAMP?
The track has two campsites. The first is at Goog’s Lake, down a 4km sideroad that starts about 40km in from the south end. Heaps of unnumbered campsites extend around the perimeter of this vast, dry, pink-hued salt-lake. Cypress pines offer patches of shade that extend in streaks over the lake as the sun sets — a spectacle best viewed from the official lookout. There’s a drop toilet near the start at the part named the Callitris Campsite, otherwise campers are left to their own devices.
The other campsite is at Mt Finke, a rounded dome-like inselberg rising from the plain, roughly 40km in from track’s northernmost point. A 7km detour which includes an established track over the saltpan delivers you to the foot of the Mt Finke outcrop, and — temperature permitting — hikers can make their own track to the peak. There’s no shade nor facilities.
I figured the soft sand would prove our fiercest foe, and while driving through it was no cakewalk, it was the mallee trees that did us in. With their network of branches stemming from low on the trunk, and a wig of fluorescent green leaves at the tips, the broccoli-like eucalypts appear innocent enough — but like those veggies of our youth, one bite and the evil shows.
In places the mallee trees crowd around the track like a gang in a dark alley. There’s nothing to do but nervously edge past and feel you got off lightly with pinstripe scratches down the side of the 4WD. At one point, though, they did away with our sandflag.
We realised when we spotted the pole’s denuded shadow and, by that point, the high-vis orange flag could’ve been dozens of kilometres back, its flapping form taunting us on an overhanging branch. Determined to maintain the utmost degree of safety at all costs, I rummaged around the car looking for a suitable replacement — underpants?
Lacking a prouder banner, I resolved on a Chux cloth — and guess what? The whole circus repeated itself. This time we were watching out for it and I was able to stand on the bull-bar and retrieve the shredded tatters of this talisman of domesticity undone by the bush.
The local Denton family are to thank for this awesome desert track. ‘Goog’ Denton and his family started blazing it in 1973 and broke through to the other side in 1976. By linking their property at Lone Oak Station with Tarcoola, a junction town on the still-functioning Trans-Australian Railway, Goog hoped to widen the market for local produce. The Dentons extended the track anywhere from three to 10 kilometres every weekend, using firstly a tractor with a front-end loader blade, and later — as the going got tougher — a grader. The track never did become the ‘road’ envisioned but, in the process, the Dentons created a brilliant recreational route.
Memorials at the Goog’s Lake turn-off pay tribute to Goog and his son ‘Dinger’ (Martin) and a recently installed information board here provides further information on the track’s history. A tree casts shade over the site and for years travellers have been inserting coins into the cracks in its bark, to shout the late Dinger (who passed in a car accident) a Southwark Bitter. This tree finds its counterpoint in an unofficial tree elsewhere along the track, with branches supporting beer bottles, beer cans, thongs, and even a crude Gatorade-and-garden-hose bong.
History buffs can dig deeper into the track’s past by picking up a copy of My Memories of Pushing Goog’s Track — a recount a bit like the Beadell books, written by Goog’s widow, Jenny — at googstrack.com. They can also uncover the surrounding history by visiting the ghost town of Tarcoola. Born of gold and the railway, the town still has an operating mine, but not an operating pub. Tarcoola’s demise is still too fresh for it to have been made tourist-friendly with signage and a churros stand. The beers will have to be at the Kingoonya Hotel.
A lot of readers have been driving dunes for years, so veterans, feel free to skim this bit!
I recommend starting with low tyre pressures, around 15–20 psi, and remaining in 4WD throughout. High-range 4WD cut the mustard with the centre differential variably locked and unlocked depending on sand softness. Like a fine scotch on the top shelf, low-range only came out on special occasions.
Auto transmissions may favour higher gears yet hitting a dune in a five-speed’s fourth or fifth gear will gut the rev count and deliver torque levels more appropriate to a wind-up toy car. By the time the transmission clues onto its mistake, it may be too late, so if in auto, best to hop into sports/semi-manual mode and select second or third gear when tackling dunes. The same principle applies for manuals. Try to maintain about 2000–2400 revs until the crest is attained.
Once confident you’ll make the crest, back off the accelerator and brake to slow down if needed, to prevent the car flying off into outer space and to ensure a slower descent speed. Through the action of wind, virgin sand accumulates at the top of most dunes, making for a shifting, buttery surface. Gearing in first or second for the descent will soften the impact of the bumps and reduce dependence on the brakes.
The steepest, softest dunes were north of Mt Finke, but those south of Goog’s Lake were relentless too. We found those in the middle to be the easiest to traverse.
IF IT ALL GOES PEAR-SHAPED
The biggest anxiety during any remote trip is finding yourself stranded. To this end, bring more than a 600ml lime-flavoured Pump and a Snickers. Add in recovery tracks, a shovel, a tyre deflator, a compressor, plus a snatch strap, a recovery hitch and shackles, too. Even if you’re travelling solo, having these will enable unequipped strangers to recover you.
If backing out of a bog or stall, it’s preferable to reverse down a sandhill in low range, but if you didn’t approach in low range, it may not be possible to change into it on an extreme angle. In this case, consider controlling the descent by ‘driving through the brakes’ — that is, holding down the foot brake continuously and easing on and off the accelerator. Try to travel in straight lines and avoid turning side-on.
Of all 4WD attributes, underbody clearance is most important on the Goog’s. We got through it in a Challenger without a lift, but the differential hit the sand endless times. Some sandy sections are a messy field of bumps a bit like snow moguls, and deep wheel ruts can’t always be straddled due to track narrowness. Picking a suitable line is easier said than done!
The track’s official UHF channel is 18, so hop on that to communicate to fellow travellers — if, in fact, you come across any. We only saw one other 4WD during our off-peak trip in November (which makes PLB, sat phone, and other emergency comms a good idea). Having all that untouched space to oneself is what it’s all about — even though I would’ve appreciated some back-up when facing down the mallee trees.
TRACK LENGTH: Officially, the track is 120km long, but the exact starting points are not exactly clear. It seemed closer to 170km to us if driven directly without detours.
ACCESS: In the south, the track starts about 30km from Ceduna, at a gate in the dog fence. In the north, it starts at the Trans-Australian Railway line, about 140km west of Kingoonya (a town 44km from Glendambo on the Stuart Highway). Access from the south ought not to be an issue, but the gravel roads in the north do close, so check dpti.sa.gov.au/outbackroads before leaving. The ‘Googs Track’ Facebook group is a handy place to ask or read about track conditions.
PERMITS/CAMPING: No permits are required, but Goog’s Lake (in Yumbarra) and Mt Finke (in Yellabinna) campsites must be booked in advance at parks.sa.gov.au/booking. They cost $13 a night and are unnumbered — just pick what you like. There’s a great free camp at Kingoonya for a donation, plus a caravan park.
FUEL: In the north, the last fuel stop is at self-serve fuel station in Kingoonya; in the south, at Ceduna. We recorded 361km between the two points, which included detours to Mt Finke and Goog’s Lake. Fuel consumption will be higher than normal — we used 52L, making our consumption 14.4L per 100km.
PHONE RECEPTION: Ceduna has Optus and Telstra reception, as does Woomera on the Stuart Highway, but between these two points, there is no reception, apart from patchy Telstra on top of Mt Finke.
WHEN TO VISIT: The months of May to October are best. Temperatures are cooler, woodfires are permitted, and there’s more traffic to lend a hand if something goes wrong. Summer brings with it the risk of fire and extreme heat — because of this, the track was closed in January and February in 2020.