Travel

Steeped in mystery and romanticism, Australia’s deserts unveil their secrets to those patient enough to traverse them on foot. By Jo Stewart.

Across the Simpson Desert by camel

Camels carry supplies across the Simpson Desert.
Credit: JO STEWART

Mostly, it’s advice: “Don’t get bitten by a snake.” Or: “Be careful of deranged serial killers.” From one friend, it’s a broad and selfless aspiration for my next 18 days: “I hope you don’t die out there.”

Embedded with a team of scientists conducting field work, the 300-kilometre walk through the Simpson Desert isn’t some kind of life-affirming trek; it’s work that just happens to take place in the great red middle of Australia. Travelling from the outback outpost of Birdsville with the group from the Australian Museum Research Institute, the Australian National University and the Queensland Herbarium, and a team of cameleers from Australian Desert Expeditions, our aim is to explore a remote tract of the Munga-Thirri National Park, formerly known as the Simpson Desert National Park.

Capturing the curiosity of everyone from early explorers to Hollywood filmmakers, intrepid artists and beyond, Australia’s deserts have a magnetic appeal steeped in romanticism and mystery. Playing a starring role in everything from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to Tracks, there’s no landscape more quintessentially Australian. Yet despite so much of Australia’s mainland being arid, most of us spend little time in our nation’s deserts. Aside from admiring tracts of red earth while on a red-eye flight from Perth or a trip to Uluru, how many of us really know the desert?

Andrew Harper from Australian Desert Expeditions believes that to know the desert, one must walk it. He has been doing that for decades. Taking groups on foot, Harper uses camels to carry provisions, just as the early explorers did, allowing him to run a self-sufficient unit that reaches parts of the desert inaccessible to most. With camels to carry swags, water, food, maps and scientific equipment, groups can spend extended periods of time walking, conducting field work and surveys by day, setting up camp in a new location each night.

If walking through the desert sounds tough, it is. But the expected hardship of enduring extreme heat isn’t the problem. With expeditions such as this only taking place during the milder winter months, the sizzle is taken out of the sun and the toughest part is sleeping in a swag in temperatures hovering close to zero degrees at night.

On this journey, there are no sundowners, beers on ice, cheese platters or hot water bottles to keep warm after dark. But there are many things to look forward to and savour: our nightly port allowance, for instance, rationed out into our cups by a septuagenarian cameleer with a fondness for bush poetry. With no access to toilets, showers, mirrors, phones, electricity or wi-fi comes an opportunity to enjoy life on a different operating system. A life where appearances don’t matter and most of us wear a permanent beard of flies during the day. Blisters, bites, scratches from thorny plants and splinters from collecting firewood mark our bodies, and our dusty clothes carry a melange of odours ranging from campfire smoke to camel urine.

While there are many moments of discomfort, the rewards for trekking in the desert are plenty. Blazing orange sunsets set fire to the sky and the lack of light pollution creates a nightly, cosmic feast of shooting stars. Meals by the campfire provide sweet remembrance of how fulfilling conversations can be without the drone of a television or ping of a smartphone interrupting the flow. There’s also the opportunity to feel truly tired. Not that tired-yet-wired feeling that you get from a week of rushing from one appointment to another, but that strangely satisfying bone-tired feeling you get from spending your day using every muscle in your body.

Far from being a desolate wasteland, life and colour abound in many parts of the Simpson Desert. There are orange dunes and yellow wildflowers, blood red ephemeral ponds and happy-for-no-reason flocks of lurid green budgies. But with all this life comes a fair amount of death, and nowhere is death more present than here. Our daily treks reveal brumby bones bleached white by the sun, desiccated reptile corpses and all manner of deceased animals in various stages of decomposition. The specimens and evidence the team from the Australian Museum gather could potentially contribute to scientific discussions on everything from climate change to the impact of feral animals on native wildlife. Field work isn’t for the faint-hearted, yet soon enough I become accustomed to admiring skulls and skeletons, just as I’d admire a pastel sunset. It’s all a part of the experience.

People often talk of the stillness and silence of the desert, yet for a supposedly quiet place it can also be loud. A sandstorm bears down on us like a 747 on approach and congregations of corellas talk up a storm of their own every now and then. What’s missing is the never-ending, inescapable hum that comes with urban life. The white noise that we’ve reluctantly accepted as a by-product of living. The rattle of a tram, an errant car alarm, the rhythmic thud of bass coming from a house three doors down. Without them, it’s extraordinary to feel how large silence can be.

Walking through the desert for 18 days feels like a lifetime, yet when viewed on a map we covered a relatively small section. The deserts are the silent majority of Australia – taking up most of the space but receiving scarce airtime. While the public is generally quick to defend the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef or take up arms to fight the destruction of old-growth forests in Tasmania, the state of our deserts just isn’t something we often contemplate, let alone get riled about. And there is much to get riled about, particularly considering the devastating impact feral animals have had on this landscape. Feral cats and foxes decimate native wildlife populations, indiscriminately hunting marsupials, reptiles and birds. Plagues of rabbits compete with native mammals for real estate, while the rusted remnants of Queensland’s rabbit-proof fence stand by, looking on in valiant defeat.

Much has been lost, but there’s plenty worth preserving and nurturing. This is a land of inescapable truths. Brimming with life and also creeping with death. Hot by day and cold by night. Beautiful and grotesque. Resilient yet vulnerable. A vast piece of earth following the cadence of an ancient rhythm, laid bare for anyone patient enough to walk across it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2015 as "Roamer Simpson". Subscribe here.

Jo Stewart
is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.

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