Magazine article Geographical

40 Days in the Desert

Magazine article Geographical

40 Days in the Desert

Article excerpt

Central Australia is one of the harshest environments in the world, but for thousands of years Aboriginal people made it their home. Mary-Ann Ochota set out to find and record lost settlement sites in the remote Munga-Thirri National Park in the Simpson Desert

I'm standing on a fiery red sand dune in Australia's Simpson Desert with a cloth bag in my hand. Inside, a furry brownish lump is curled tightly into a ball: a spinifex hopping mouse from one of our pitfall traps. The rising sun is painting the sky pink-orange, and desert ecologist Dr Max Tischler tucks the bag into his jacket to keep the creature warm before it's measured and weighed in the chill morning. The tiny desert mouse is a good result--we can tag another GPS point showing the species' range and habitat.

We're three weeks into a foot-powered expedition surveying the flora, fauna and archaeology in a section of the world's largest sand ridge desert, which covers 200,000 square kilometres (77,000 square miles), spanning the borders of the Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia.

Our mission here is twofold: firstly to assess the health of the desert ecosystems, gathering baseline information about what lives where, and secondly to hunt for and document all evidence of aboriginal archaeology, to build a better picture of how people survived and thrived here before the last families walked out and permanent human occupation of the desert came to an end.

The dunefields aren't accessible by 4WDs, so we're using camels--the ultimate all-terrain desert vehicles. We'll track alongside the 138th meridian east, starting 1,500km northwest of Brisbane, heading south through the dunefields for around 40 days until we reach an extraction point near the outback town of Birdsville. The direct distance is about 200km, but we'll wind across dunes and between target sites identified from satellite images, so the actual route we'll walk will be more than double that. The dunefields are a remarkable sight on aerial photographs, with more than a thousand linear sand ridges running parallel to one another. The longest dunes stretch unbroken for more than 300km, the highest reach 40m.

Recent geological analysis has revealed initial dune formations began one million years ago, and the oldest dunes, made of dazzling red oxidised sand, now have concreted cores, but retain soft, mobile crests. Between the dunes are corridors known as 'swales', harder, flatter areas from which much of the sand has been scoured. I'm surprised to find the desert covered in vegetation--low scrubby shrubs, but also trees, grasses and flowering plants, even though this is a dry year.


The Australian Outback is one of the world's last remaining natural wildernesses where most of the land surface hasn't been modified by human activity. But despite its fame, it's poorly understood. Attempts to put in place meaningful conservation and land management programmes are hampered because we still don't really know how this complex landscape functions.

'There's no real average in the desert,' Charlie Nicholson, a botanist working with the Queensland Herbarium, tells me. 'This is "boom and bust" country, it runs on a cycle of drought, flood and bushfire. You might not get rain for five, ten years --then you get massive floods. It's part of the system and the plants and animals respond to it.'

Mean rainfall in this part of the desert is officially 150mm a year--but in 2010 there was a generational flood event that impacted the whole of Queensland, killed nine people, and filled the ephemeral desert watercourses and lakes for weeks. It prompted a breeding frenzy--plants germinated, flowered and seeded; plagues of budgerigars, marsupials and other small mammals gorged on the abundance. Then the rats, the cats and the foxes had their turn. The season after such profusion saw vicious wildfires rip through the Bush, as there was so much more fuel on the ground. …

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