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In the shadow of Big Red


In the shadow of Big Red

'THE BIG RED BASH' music gig is held each year at the beginning of July, 30km west of Birdsville in the shadow of Big Red, or Nappanerica as the first folk called it - the 30m high South West Queensland sand dune - on the edge of the Simpson Desert, the largest parallel sand dune desert in the world.

On the first day we arrive around midday with our newly-cracked windscreen and smashed driver's window, a legacy of flying blue metal catapulted up from oncoming caravans on a narrow sealed road. 

It's an enlightening hike to the stage in the afternoon, Missy Higgins on day one, some here for the iconic setting, others set to 'rock the Simpson'... a ragtag collection of intrepid travellers in assorted rigs and campers, caravans, trucks and buses, tents, swags, annexes and awnings.

Many seem content with listening at a distance, either staying at their camp or sitting within eye-shot in their comfy fold-up chairs, a large viewing screen set to the right of the stage... the entire scene dwarfed by an iconic western backdrop - the famed red dune rising abruptly behind.

Late in the day, there's a line of people on the dune ridge, the setting sun silhouettes standing kids and grown-ups, while exuberant shouting youngsters jump, tumble and slide in the sand, hurtling down towards the back of the stage and immediately scrambling back to the top, more interested in 'doing' the dune than any music or performer.

On day three we meet travelers from West and South Australia - Tom and Jen, Stewart and Ailsa - both couples with similar trucks and fitouts to ours... although a South African design we've only heard about.

That night we share stories round their campfire - tales of the road, South America, of teaching and assignments in small Territory schools, of indigenous kids... and of previous Simpson Desert crossings in rare 'good seasons' when this same desert was alive with rolling fields of wild flowers - their last trip "taking 9-days instead of the normal 5 due to the boundless photo opportunities"... and of finally reaching the top of Big Red, to gaze down on the flat sand pan where we now sit. But instead of the unrelenting sand, they see water as far as the eye can see.

The fire crackles, the slightest movement from us or passing foot traffic stirring up dust. We all gaze up at the stars, the clear black sky... just a myriad of stars that sparkle, the astral haze of the Milky Way the only cloud.

With The Bash over, we choose a late start, the early exit ques lengthy, the smell and clatter of diesel engines, the dust clouds thick, but us in no hurry to join the fleeing throng. The empty plain looks flat, unrelenting, dry and desolate, the sun already hot, Big Red brooding.

We look at each other and wonder at the almost mythical changes we've only heard about. There is red dust in our nostrils, dust on our clothes and our skin, on our feet and in the corners of our eyes. Heaven help anyone suffering from hay fever or asthma. Our tent and truck are full of red dust.

And we try to imagine just last year, 'The Bash' site flooded, and the annual event forced to the Birdsville showgrounds... and we ponder the possibility of clouds here, heavy grey skies, thunderstorms and spikes of lightning, this same place after days of torrential, unrelenting rain... our camp under a metre of water where our newest friends sailed kayaks... right here... in the shadow of Big Red.