About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Great Sandy Desert: #1

I recently was made an offer that, as they say, I couldn't refuse, though no coercion was involved! I was invited to join an expedition, as a volunteer, to the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia, to participate in bird surveys as part of a wider biological survey organised by a philanthropic organisation called Desert Discovery. There were 11 of us, in six vehicles, doing the birds; other semi-autonomous groups were covering plants and mammals/reptiles - we bumped into them from time to time. My survey partner and I drove west from Alice Springs and we all met up in the community of Kiwirrkurra - most of the area is on Aboriginal land, requiring a permit to enter.

Australian deserts don't always look like our expectations, and the Great Sandy isn't a Sahara or Atacama look-alike - in fact it is quite vegetated in large tracts, especially when we saw it, which was after a heavy rain event. However large areas of it are dominated by parallel low red sand dunes, and most of the ground surface is sand, unlike some other Australian deserts which are stony. 
Looking out from a dune to others fading into the distance.
It is not always easy to say where one Australian desert starts and the next stops, as most of them are contiguous, but the boundaries are pretty much agreed upon (though some would extend the south-eastern boundary of the Great Sandy well into the Northern Territory, compared with what I've indicated below). 
Approximate boundaries of the Great Sandy Desert, enclosing an area of some 280,000 square kilometres,
3.5% of the Australian land mass, an area somewhat larger than Great Britain.
To the north-east is the Tanami, to the south the Little Sandy and
the Gibson Deserts; below them again is the Great Victoria Desert.
The generally accepted definition of desert is an area receiving less than 250mm a year (though in arid Australia 'average' doesn't mean much when it might be determined by a string of years of almost no rain, followed by one very wet one). By this criterion 18% of Australia is desert, but 70% of the continent falls into the category of 'semi-arid', land receiving less than 500mm a year.

The drive across the Gary Junction Road (accessed either by the Tanami Road or Larapinta Drive) and Kintore Road to the West Australian border from Alice Springs is on a good unsealed road through beautiful desert country featuring regular ancient ranges.
Amunurunga Range, from the Gary Junction Road.
Permits are needed for this drive from communities on both sides of the border, but they are readily available to travellers passing through. 
Indigenous Protected Areas are a category of national reserve (itself unusual, as most Australian reserves are
under state legislation), wherein traditional owners agree to manage their land to restore
and retain conservation and cultural values.
Our goal however, having reached Kiwirrkurra, was to head north deep into the desert on the track to Balgo, not even marked on the standard topographic maps; for this we needed special permission, obtained because of the long consultation process with the Kiwirrkurra and Ngurrupa traditional owners, who believed that the information we would obtain could be of benefit to them too. 

A fairly typical section of the Kiwirrkurra - Balgo track. Four-wheel drive mandatory!
The traditional owners still manage the land in traditional ways - evidence of small 'hunting fires', to drive small prey out of cover, and to promote green pick after rain, was widespread.

Small 'hunting burns' along the track;
freshly burnt above, and an older burn below with mature spinifex
in the background and regenerating growth in the foreground.

In places we found evidence of the old ways being practised until quite recently.
A magnificent big grindstone (above) and
a tool factory scatter (below).
And yes, they are still where we found them!

Spinifex, Triodia spp., is a stiff spiny grass which can form hummocks metres across; eventually the centre dies, leaving characteristic rings. 20-25% of the entire continent is dominated by spinifex (perhaps better known as Porcupine Grass, to distinguish it from a not closely related coastal grass, Spinifex spl!). This dominance is not readily appreciated by most Australians who don't often venture far from the coast.

Here are some typical spinifex-dominated scenes from the Great Sandy.
Mature - ie long-unburnt - spinifex rings.

Flowering spinifex and Desert Paperbark Melaleuca glomerata.

Spinifex stretching across the plain.

Flowering spinifex catching the light on a red dune.

Spinifex at sunset.

Spinifex-dominated desert panorama.
To the northern end of where we went the rains had not fallen, and the spinifex was notably pale, unlike the blooming green of the watered plants we've been looking at.
Droughted pale spinifex, without the distinct green tinge of the plants a little further south.
Another nearly 25% of Australia is dominated by Mulga (Acacia aneura) woodland, a remarkably hardy desert-evolved tree. Mulga is certainly present in the Great Sandy but is not as dominant as elsewhere; it forms woodlands in the south of the area and grows in areas like dunes along the edge of salt lakes where there might be a little more water deep down.

The first three shots are of mulga camp sites in the south, not far from Kiwirrkurra.
My camp in the mulga, Elizabeth Hills.
Sunrise on the mulga (above)
and sunset through it (below).

Mulga on salt pan lunette (a crescent-shaped wind-blown dune).
Mulgas aren't the only trees present however; in addition to the paperbarks pictured above, there are Desert Oaks and various eucalypts in different places.

Stunted Ghost Gums (Eucalyptus aparrerinja) above,
and a dense woodland of them from the top of a dune below.
More on this superb desert gum here.

Desert Bloodwood (one of several related species known by that name) Eucalyptus chippendalei
growing, typically, on a sand dune. I will introduce other species when I talk about plants next time.

Immature Desert Oak Alloasuarina decaisneana, above Lake Makay.
Salt lakes are a characteristic of Australian deserts, and Lake Mackay, on the Western Australian-Northern Territory border is a large one. Indeed it is the largest in either WA or the NT, and the fourth-largest in Australia, which I'm sure very few Australians could tell you (including me until very recently!). Irregularly shaped, it covers 3500 square kilometres and stretches, at its widest points, for 100km both north-south and east-west. 
A small section of Lake Mackay.

Clouds over Lake Mackay.
Samphires on the fringe of Lake Mackay.
A smaller clay pan scattered with ironstone.
And perhaps that's enough for today, but I intend to follow this posting up with a couple more on the plants and the animals of the Great Sandy. I hope this can inspire you to see more of the beautiful and powerful deserts which lie at the heart of this county.

But I'll leave you with a couple of images which have especially stayed with me.

Morning clouds.

Sunset clouds.

Morning rainbow.

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Les Mitchell said...

Beautifully described and photographed , Ian

The Old Bloke said...

Spent a month in that area about 10 yrs ago - brought back some wonderful memories. Thanks

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks for your comments Les and David - I'm glad it brought you some pleasure. What were you doing there David?