By MIKE GILLAM
“Is this really desert?” The 1970 entry in the visitors book at old Andado homestead, framed by towering red dunes to the east and west, caught my eye.
The confusion expressed by a random tourist, looking for the desert of their expectations and dreams, was understandable. Conditions were dry at the time and the rangelands enroute were yet to encounter the buffel grass tsunami of 2000-1, both high rainfall years.
Annual average rainfall in the Simpson is half that of the range country of Alice Springs to the north and yet the vegetative cover seems to treble as we leave the more fertile pastoral lands behind. We begin to understand the confusion of visitors.
Typically a road trip from Alice Springs to this remote corrugated iron homestead, travelling from latitude 23 to 25 degrees South, takes four to five hours depending on driving conditions, scenic distractions or both.
In the second hour, my ancient four wheel drive vehicle frequently lunged and wallowed through deep wheel ruts filled with powdery fines known as bulldust.
Between rains the roadside mulga invariably acquires a layer of dust turning its grey green foliage to a lifeless rusty brown. This was pastoral country and it was a dry year. Sometimes the deepest accumulations of bull dust would rise up; an impressive bow wave hurled over a speeding vehicle before crashing onto the roof with a thud.
A year later the road ruts of bulldust would fill with water and unsuspecting four wheel drives would struggle through the wheel sucking bog.
Extending several hundred metres into the sky, plumes of rotating dust dance across the pale bare scalds that scarred woodlands of grey green mulga, ironwood and witchetty bush. Our wide eyed tourist would doubtless notice the small knots of lean cattle huddled in dark pools of shade; even wondering aloud how the denuded semi-arid grasslands could possibly provide them with adequate sustenance.
Two hours south east of Alice Springs (545m above sea level), the high country of the nearby MacDonnell Ranges (1000 m) and its dolomite outliers give way to low sandstone outcrops and ranges of striking beauty.
Fiery orange, purplish brown and the deep red of dried blood, depending upon the angle of light. Muscular red gums line the banks of dry watercourses, spindly coolibahs crowd the desert flood-outs and high above, gestural white gums cling precariously to rocky ledges and fissures.
In pastoral production terms this country is still rich, occasional droughts notwithstanding while the country immediately south is unequivocal desert and certainly less viable for grazing.
So why, immersed in the Simpson Desert 300 km South of Alice Springs, are tourists so confused by the health, vigour and delicate beauty of the native plant communities at Australia’s heart?
The explanations are complex, a mixture of confused marketing, of desert generalisations and cliched imagery. Expectations of a sand dune desert not only misrepresent Saharan realities but blur examples of agricultural degradation with notions of wilderness.
Ever more complex, unique and in places almost pristine, the Simpson Desert seems to defy vernacular explanation and so myth making enters our national psyche.
Passing through a sandstone portal in the Rodinga Range we abruptly enter the Simpson Desert proper, its parallel dunes of fine red sand, crashing into and in places summiting the southern flanks of this upland barrier.
Munga-Thirri (big sandhill country) exhibits the defining fundamentals of a desert: low rainfall (average of 125 mm per annum), high evaporation rate (about 3600 mm per annum) and rare availability of surface water. By these very definitions, some consider Antarctica the most arid continent on earth, its abundant freshwater unavailable and locked up in ice.
Perhaps climate change and glacial melt will lead them to abandon these polar desert theories as familiar deserts vanish and new ones take shape or expand. Words like variability and unpredictability also resonate although the prevalence and severity of droughts in Australia are not confined to the semi-arid and arid regions.
Droughts more often follow El Nino events triggered by rises in ocean temperatures in the Pacific and may be broadly continental in their impact. In the early days travelling through Munga-Thirri I encountered a widely held belief that Aboriginal people avoided this waterless realm, a myth dispelled when I first viewed a stone arrangement on a parched claypan in the heart of the desert.
In wet years, low lying depressions can be under water and I could well imagine desert nomads enjoying the divine transformation in this, the far reaches of their country, before returning westward to the permanent waterholes of Lhere Pirnte, the Finke River.
This was the same stone circle described by Rhodes Scholar, polar explorer and Geologist Cecil Madigan, during his ground survey to define the desert he named after Allen Simpson, President of the Royal Society of South Australia and expedition financier.
Madigan is best remembered as meteorologist for Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic expedition 1911-14. His interests in the geology of Central Australia focussing on the MacDonnell Ranges and Simpson Desert culminated in the 1936 book, Central Australia, Crossing the Dead Heart published in 1946 is a narrative account of Madigan’s 1939 crossing of inland Australia’s great sand dune desert.
Somewhere in the lengthening shadows of Mount Rodinga, on the northern edge of Munga Thirri, a clan of white dingoes have made their birthing den. Once I managed an underwhelming image of a white adult male crossing the dirt track. I followed his tracks deep into the sandhills, hopeful of locating the all-important den.
After walking several kilometres I paused and looked back to study and remember my outward path. Bare crests of countless linear dunes do stir memories of the ocean, the pull of the moon and rhythmic tides. I try to remember the words of European explorer Charles Sturt who in 1845 was the first European to enter and describe this immense landscape that straddles the borders of Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland.
“Ascending one of the sand ridges I saw a numberless succession … rising above each other to the east and west … A kind of dread came over me … It looked like the entrance to Hell.” (Sturt 1884:73-74).
Context is clearly everything. For me in a well provisioned four wheel drive, this country is heaven, not hell and an escape from civilisation for a couple of weeks not years! For Sturt, with horses and carts, his health and that of his men failing, wracked with scurvy, the experience was gruelling.
He finally admitted defeat at a point north of Birdsville noting in his diary: “I had no hope to whatever quarter I turned my eye – a country utterly impracticable, a creek from which it was vain to expect a supply of water … I determined … that no exertion of mine would enable me to cross this heartless desert …”
From August 1844 to Nov 1845, a dogged Sturt had endured; his party of oxen and horses often choking for water and at one desperate stage, saved by a fortuitous rain. Sturt’s oceanic optimism is best exemplified in his decision to haul a whale boat overland during the early stages of his quest.
An astonishing inland sea, surpassing Sturt’s wildest imagination, had once existed across much of inland Australia. One hundred million years earlier, the Eromanga sea had already receded, surviving as an archipelago of wetlands, shallow lagoons and watercourses. “…This process was probably repeated at least four times during the … Cretaceous, a geological period that lasted from about 145 to 65 million years ago …” (Wikipedia).
Captain Charles Sturt was observant and I feel sure he must have noticed various fossils as he traversed the ancestral sea beds and lakes of the interior. Sturt crossed dune fields and stony plains searching for his fabled sea and his name persists in Sturt’s Stony Desert, Sturt’s desert rose and the striking red blooms of (Ngooringa) Sturt’s desert pea.
Google offers an unedifying series of artworks that depict Sturt in military garb peeing on desert peas. In an age of celebrated colonial explorers, Sturt broke with tradition and called the country that broke him, the Aranda Desert, in recognition of the southern Arrernte who travelled into the great sand dunes of Munga-Thirri.
The endless sand ridges that defeated Captain Sturt with his entourage of horses and ox drawn carts, were better navigated in winter using camels. Pastoralist Ted Colson and his Antakurinya companion, Peter Ains, departed Bloods Creek with five camels on May 24, 1936, and arrived at Poeppel’s corner on June 11, crossing 1,000 dunes on their journey.
Commencing in 1929, the desert was formally defined through aerial surveys directed by Geologist Cecil Madigan and supported by the RAAF. Madigan later crossed the Simpson Desert in June / July of 1939 with a party of nine, including a biologist, botanist, photographer, radio operator and importantly 19 camels.
Setting out from Andado, Madigan’s party reached Birdsville 558 km to the east, crossing 743 sandridges in 25 days. He named the Desert, the traditional lands of the Wangkangurru Yarluyandi, after A. A. Simpson, President of the Royal Society of South Australia and expedition financier.
While long parallel dunes are visually dominant, Munga-Thirri is layered and variegated. For instance, rich ecotonal environments that share and merge the values of neighbouring habitats are prevalent and the country defies rigid definition.
Underlying stony plains are often exposed between the perched dunes and these act as catchments harvesting rainfall across subtle and incremental gradients and focussing the proceeds into claypans or minor drainages. Such environments are representative of the stony deserts that predominate further south and so I’ve left a detailed examination for a future essay.
Ahead, the dingo trotted effortlessly between parallel dunes, leaving only shallow marks in the swale; then without slowing, its tracks pressing deeply, the male crossed over the loose bare crests of several more. Alerted by the rustle of a lizard, I saw where he circled around a patch of tussock grasses, pouncing onto vegetation with forepaws splayed hoping to flush or pin down its prey before moving on.
It was a hot summer’s morning and I tilted my modest water bottle to determine its volume and then scanned the ocean of sand ridges. I looked ahead to the western horizon and then north where orange dunes met the purplish red range and still there was no sign of my quarry. My enthusiasm slowed, as did my pace. Sensibly, I resisted the mesmerising rhythm of the carnivore’s tracks and turned back to where I’d hurriedly parked the vehicle on a shade-less stretch of the roadside.
At this point, a rational reader might query my decision to visit the Simpson Desert in January and eschew the comforts of winter travel. Yes, the daytime maximums can be taxing and the quest for a campsite with some faint breeze to aid sleep is often unfulfilled but in good seasons this desert truly comes alive in summer.
The promise of rain had clinched my decision. Ahead, the remnant clouds of a north west trough still linger, adding a vertical drama of stacked and at times, boiling thunderheads to the undulating landscape. Here and there the sand is dark where localised showers have drifted through and a faint petrichor fills the air.
Continuing south, weaving between “parkland” desert oaks and flanked on long straight stretches by parallel dunes, I’ll drive through plant communities of indescribable complexity and beauty.
It’s no wonder that visitors from the northern hemisphere raised on a diet of desert clichés would find inland Australia confusing. Dramatic changes can occur every hundred metres, a place of interzones and pulses, of subtle variations within plant communities that shift in often sharp response, to moisture, soils, nutrients, fire or chance.
Between the perched sand dunes, underlying clay soils are expressed in delicate patches of mulga with an understorey of short grasses, Senna’s and Eremophilas.
On one occasion I stopped to examine a large clump of yellow flowering Crotalaria eremaea and became engrossed in the myriad bees, ants, beetles, butterflies and wasps in frenetic attendance. In the sand beneath the plants overlapping tracks of lizards, pop-holes of hopping mice, the sign of beetles and centipedes told a similar story of nocturnal abundance.
On a nearby dune crest, thousands of native bees were emerging from their burrows, energetic aggregations of fighting, mating and burrowing individuals in the space of perhaps 10 square metres. Below, in the dune swale a blush of parakeelya in bright magenta, a remarkable succulent that will flower for months, demands my attention. Even during dry times when the parakeelya has ceased flowering, it’s difficult to reconcile such conspicuous biodiversity with notions of desert landscapes as places of emptiness and desolation.
Swathes of dense Mitchell grass meet the road shoulder, dominating the heavier clay soils in natural depressions that gather sheet-flow from the stony rises of the nearby Mac Clark (Acacia peuce ) Conservation Reserve. At a maximum height of some 17 metres, the reserve’s emblematic stands of trees provide yet another unexpected anomaly for tourists.
The rare waddy wood trees also occur at Boulia and Birdsville. With a lifespan of 500 years these are long lived Acacias and the presence of “petrified” wood highlights their link to ancestral stands where water birds once nested on the margins of inland lagoons.
With hot sun streaming into the vehicle, I crack the driver’s side window and pinch my hat brim at the top, using the hat to provide shade and deny further nourishment to the new cancer scabs expanding on the west side of my face. These long drives are the closest I’m ever likely to venture into the realms of meditation and I allow my brain to roam, to remember and yes, to dream.
I recall a time one hot summer, rehydrating on the foot-slope of a stony plateau when I noticed a couple of large flightless gibber hoppers, sharing my shade, immovable as the stones they were born to resemble. Moving slowly I took an orange from my backpack, peeled it and bit one of the segments in half which I offered to my new friends.
Curiosity and my deep love of the farcical was rewarded when both large females came suddenly to life, sucking and chewing enthusiastically at the flesh of the orange and soon I was sharing another portion with a diminutive male nearby. The gibber-hoppers, there is really no visible grass to hop through, are enchanting.
ALL IMAGES copyright Mike Gillam.