Crossroads and Sand Dunes
Choosing the route you’d like to take at the crossroads of life can be an inspiring experience, especially popping in the odd detour to add spontaneity to the journey; other times you’re stopped in your tracks and reminded not to take life for granted. At one of those confronting moments, Donna Ogle, 45, wife, mum and successful businesswoman, took stock, reflecting on the fragile unpredictability of it all. Not ready to let life define her, what better way to tackle its preciousness than ride head-on through one of the world’s harshest environments.
Think… a long way between drinks, Birdsville Hotel, the bottom SW corner of Queensland to Mt Dare Hotel, the top NE corner of South Australia; 496 km of rough corrugated, single-lane tracks with 1,140 deep, soft, blind-crested, red dunes.
Think… lots and lots and lots and lots… and lots… of welcoming flies that instantly love you. No shops, no fuel, no water, no beds… all BYO, satellite phone and UHF radio coverage only.
Think… extreme heat, spot an upside-down tree or make your own shade… but ooohhhhh those glistening stars stretching for eternity, blanketing the cold night air.
Think… miles and miles of nothingness, yet look closer to find tracks from reptiles and rare little mammals… watch the desert colours change with the movement of the sun… spot wildflowers long forgotten by rain, set amongst the ochre backdrop. Welcome to the Great Australian Simpson Desert, the largest parallel dune desert in the world.
An article about the first All Women’s Desert Crossing, supporting the charity Dolly’s Dream, caught Donna’s eye. Feeling such an intense alliance with the ride and the sorrow behind Dolly’s Dream, she knew she was destined to do it. Travis, her dear 15 year old nephew and Dolly had suicided only days apart. Donna longed to participate in the first crossing but wasn’t able to ride at the time.
Once the applications opened for the 2020 crossing, despite a few complications, Donna was determined to ride. Terrified yet undaunted, this plucky lass was going in all or nothing!
Donna decided to sell her thriving motorcycle business; she’d slept, talked and breathed bikes for over 20 years but had been so busy she’d hardly ridden any herself. She bought a new Yamaha WR250F and hired a personal trainer. She’d never even ridden sand before so went to the local beach, managing about eight hours over a few days to learn. Some months later, it was time to head out with her husband, 15 year old son and some great friends to Birdsville, as far outback Queensland as you can get, where the crossing would begin.
An outback journey that burst with lasting memories, the trek to Birdsville was a time to stop, explore the scenery and meet people in remote townships. A special couple Donna felt privileged to meet were Dolly’s grandparents, Jenny and Brad. Donna had made contact from Charleville and they’d arranged to each drive 100 km to a central meeting point. Quickly connecting, they instantly became like family, sharing stories of Dolly and Trav part of their bonding; while together, they spent precious moments touring the beautiful surrounding countryside.
At their parting, Brad casually called out to Donna, ‘Send it!’
Unbeknown to Brad, send it was a term Trav always used before he was about to take on some big jumps on his bike… and here Donna was about to take on almost 1,200 big jumps, so a goosebump moment; it was as if Trav was there, too.
The day before the crossing, Donna wanted to practise in sand and on Big Red. 35 km west of Birdsville, defining the edge of the Simpson, at an imposing 30 metres, Big Red is the first and highest of all the dunes which Donna would conquer over the following 4 days. Before heading out, she received an inspiring text from Jenny to wish her well, ‘You’ve got Doll on one shoulder and Trav on the other.’
That night all eight women, initially strangers who’d planned to ride the Simpson, were together undertaking final preparations, each one with their motivation and determination to face their four days of extreme mental and physical journeying. Donna reflects, ‘There was a level of excitement and there was also this thought in my head, we could be in life-or-death situations together.’ The bonding had begun.
Riding the Simpson Desert is not for the faint-hearted. Donna’s decision to put herself in the rider’s seat of life had brought her to this moment. Sheer courage and perseverance to do something she’d promised herself a year prior, finally coming to fruition.
Saturday morning, Donna rose with a mindful intent… all she needed to do was tackle one sandy rise at a time. She had come so far to be here, on the sandy edge of the Simpson with the expanse of harsh unknowns… it was time to start chasing down those dunes!
Gripping those handlebars, Donna was scared shitless… the first day out into the desert, she’s fragile… precious. She recalls, ‘My ability level wasn’t too high, but you just gotta do it.’ Her thoughts during the journey to Birdsville had been, ‘I just wanna finish… I don’t care if people are waiting for me or even if someone else has to ride part of it… if I have to put my bike on the trailer; I just want to get to the end!’
As the day progressed, her focus, strength and belief in herself surfaced. Throttling away those earlier self-limitations, she was upping the ante! She’d gone from just wanting to get to the end to… ‘No, stuff that! No one’s going on my bike, I’m doing it all myself… I’m not letting anybody help me with any of it. If I fall, I want to pick my bike up myself… get up every dune by myself… get up every dune first go!’
This adventure would be on her terms.
As Donna rode further into the desert, instead of succumbing to the extreme toll on her body, she found herself getting stronger. Mentally and physically, she was pushed and pulled, her dogged determination kept her going, refusing to give in. ‘On the days when I thought, surely this is the last dune, I’ll get over this one and I’ll see the rest of the girls at camp… but you get to the top and they weren’t there and it’s like, this one’s the last one and then it wasn’t, then you’re thinking, OK the next one is the last one and then that wasn’t… so I just had to keep going!’
Donna acknowledges it was a team effort all the way, laughing, ‘Jayne, our ride leader would say something like it’s only another 17 km, so I’m riding trying to do the countdown in my head, telling myself I can do this. In the end it was about 22 km.’ Jayne thought this would help the girls through the tougher moments when she’d noticed some struggling, so the distance to the next stop wouldn’t seem so far.
On day three the temperature gauge soared into the 40s, the only shade often being from the bikes or a support vehicle. There were planned stops every few hours where the women and the support crew would meet up at designated points for refreshment, cool-downs and check-ups on each other and their bikes.
In between, there were lots of times where Donna was the only human within cooee, as far as she could see in all directions, just her… the bike… the desert. Complete solitude. ‘That felt amazing so a lot of helmet time, inside my mind which was great; I had really great thoughts and conversations with people. There was one time where I just crashed, so I ran up to the top of the dune to let people know behind me not to land on me, yet I couldn’t see a soul for miles and miles and miles. I just thought, how awesome is this… so alone in the middle of the desert.’
In one of her solitary moments, Donna was riding up a dune… she’s feeling great, fully committed, she’s doing it, controlling the handlebars of life… full of possibilities! Then split second, she’s lost control and about to crash. ‘I just remember thinking this is it, this is where it all goes major bad right now; this is where the helicopter comes. But somehow I recovered and kept going… how did that even happen?’ She had reached the top of a crest which drastically changed direction to what was expected and found herself heading straight toward trees. Somehow the bike went between them, bunny-hopped back onto the track, landing in the wheel ruts and just kept going like nothing had happened… she gave extra thanks to her little Guardian Angel for that lifesaving manoeuvre, admitting that was the only thing out there that scared her.
Wow, there sure are different levels of scared…
Those alone times are often when those confronting decisions are faced, like when life itself becomes even more important than before and to live it, is top priority. I’d wondered what makes someone wake up one morning and decide to just live it by jumping on a motorbike to ride across the Simpson Desert. After asking Donna, it was clear life had made that decision for her. ‘My life had changed dramatically… I’d been working six days a week; life was super busy which hadn’t allowed much riding time and I just wanted to ride every day… try to have some me time and get more riding in… so that’s the change I wanted to make.’ She was in a position to make that choice, redefine her life… she had the courage and willingness to put her bum on the seat for a change and just go riding.
The day I interviewed Donna was the fifth anniversary of her first breast cancer diagnosis, 13 November 2015. Travis taking his life a couple of years later was another huge impact on the whole family. Then, another cruel blow… Donna explains, ‘Just before the first desert crossing, I was diagnosed with stage four, so I’d have radiation and in no way physically ready to ride… I didn’t even have a bike. I was so disappointed not to be part of the first one, but it made me more determined for the second!’
Some aspects of life are instrumental, others no matter how life-threatening, seem normal, just part of it, but I was speechless at Donna’s acceptance as she casually mentioned the daily routine while riding that unforgiving desert. ‘I think the hardest bit was mornings when all the girls were getting ready and I’m taking my tablet and stuff… I’m out there doing this amazing thing, but the realities are still cancer.’ The extra morning prep for Donna included taking a chemo tablet, then she’d fight off the fatigue from that. Additionally, she required chemo injections during the day, applied via the stomach, given by her husband. They strengthen bones, helping to protect them in the event of a fall. She explained how significant it was having her husband and son along the journey, also as team-support crew, making sensational memories. How beautiful these moments of life-education for her teenage son; the desert, his mum, his dad… not the usual type of classroom.
Donna was in awe of her teammates. ‘These amazing women came from all different parts of the country, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people.’ Fantastic friendships formed as they supported each other and bonded in their daily breaks and sharing meals around the campfire under the carpet of stars. Donna didn’t want people to know or fuss over her on the crossing; never wanting to be defined as the girl with cancer, only a few knew on a need-to-know basis, until some warm-hearted moments during the crossing with the other girls.
Initially, the commonality was… they rode. Then similar personality types emerged and about 50 other things in common, all related to living on the edge, pushing boundaries and jumping into the deep end. All from different walks of life, one with a pre-schooler, another with a teenager, on the other end of the spectrum, a grandma… some rural, some city, some married, some not… so varied but so much in common. ‘That’s what it’s about,’ Donna says. ‘It’s amazing how two wheels and a motor brought us together, it’s a beautiful thing. Not only did we have riding in common but also a sense for adventure, for freedom, for living dangerously and for fun!’
What an admirable and proud feeling to complete her dream ride. After four days of gruelling riding on the last corrugated road to Mt Dare, there was lightning, thunder… and hail! As soon as the women got to Mt Dare, it all stopped; nothing like finishing with a bit of pizazz!
Donna had started so vulnerably, yet finished with such purpose. From just wanting to get to the end no matter how, to setting tougher and more demanding challenges each day, to send it over each dune with stronger focus and dynamism each time… a significant goal achieved!
From the defined point of being shocked into action, Donna had no choice but to take a new route to find the rhythm to live her life… and wow has she been living it… her love of riding, the need to ride was Donna’s choice. Doing it while crossing the Simpson Desert on a wee 250 cc motorbike, this humble and extraordinary woman totally conquered her fears and took control. She lives scan to scan but gives herself renewed intention each day.
When asked what she would say to other women thinking of taking up riding, Donna responded, ‘If I can do it then you can do it!’ Her hope is her story can help someone, somehow, by putting their woes into perspective… to inspire other women to fulfil their dreams or to just take up their next challenge.
Wow! She’s already talking about doing this all over again in September this year, you just gotta do it… go in all or nothing!
I’d like to acknowledge Stuart Ball from Great Australian Ride for his support of this story.
Photo credit goes to Luckydools Creative, Brig and Michael Dooley.
Also to acknowledge the charity of Dolly’s Dream.