Copyright© 2011 by Peter H. Salus
The Simpson Desert is a hot and dry desert occupying almost 200 000 square kilometres of central Australia, mostly in the Northern Territory's south-east but also in parts of South Australia and Queensland. Rainfall is less than 400 millimeters per year.
Although the Simpson Desert is a harsh environment, native, spiny grasses known as spinefex bind the loose sand and provide a habitat for over 180 bird species and for lizards and marsupials.
Wildlife adapted to this hot, dry environment and seasonal flooding includes the Water-holding frog (Litoria platycephala) and a number of other reptiles that inhabit the desert grasses.
Logan and I met with Dr. Challis the week before our scheduled trip. We had spoken about it and we were both excited: for each of us it was our first real field trip.
"Either of you have a swag?"
"Well, I've got a two-man. So you'll be dossing with me, Logan. You'll be on your own, Gordy."
The swag is as Australian as "Waltzing Matilda." It has been the reliable shelter and home for many a drover and stockman. Add a sleeping bag or bedding: it's a tent with a built in bed that can be rolled up and thrown into the car.
After running through what we should have with us in the way of clothing, we got a sort of biology lecture.
"Knowledge of richness and diversity of the invertebrate fauna is poor across Australia, but this is especially the case in Australian deserts," he began. "However, insects are clearly the largest group of desert animals in Australia in terms of number of species and biomass. Some groups, such as termites and ants, are abundant and play an important role in ecosystem functioning.
"Groups of invertebrates that rely on freshwater do occur in the arid zone but generally there are significantly less species than in coastal regions. The aquatic insect fauna includes species that rely on water for the entire life cycle (such as water scorpions and water striders) and others that have aquatic larvae (e.g. dragonflies).
"Gordy, you and I are going to look for ants. Logan, you'll hunt for frogs."
"I read that there are 42 species of desert frogs and 210 species of desert reptiles," Logan said.
"Not unreasonable. Now, in addition to your collection kits, you should each have a trowel or shovel and a sieve. Do you have bags? We won't need tents, there won't be any rain. I'll make sure we have tucker – either of you squeamish? We might encounter a band. We'll take some jerry cans of water and petrol.
"Any questions?" We both shook our heads. "Okay, then. 800 on Thursday at the Bankstown Airport. Canberra's arranged a crate for us."
"Fine," I said. "I'm picking up Logan and we'll park my ute there."
We flew into Birdsville on what I learned was a Piper Aztec F. The bushpilot had bought it from the US Navy. It was weird: I was closer to Mitchell than I had been in Sydney. But it was far more remote. Birdsville, I had read, between the sands of the Simpson Desert and the gibber plains of Sturt's Stony Desert, is the starting point of the famous Birdsville Track, which stretches to the south with the Simpson Desert to the west. Birdsville began life as 'Diamantina Crossing' in 1881 and was given its present name in 1885. When the inter-state tariffs went, so did Birdsville's importance – except for the races.
It was a hot, dusty place.
In the morning we loaded the Land Rover. I checked the fuel and the coolant and Logan looked at the tyres – even the spare. We drove southwest on Adelaide Street, I was on the left and Logan in the rear.
"Which of you wants to drive next?"
"I'll do it, but Logan has to navigate."
"Not much navigating to do."
"You can drive third shift, if there is one. At that point, you and Gordy can trade off and I'll doze in back."
The "street" part vanished immediately. We continued a few minutes on the rough track and then "hold on!" and we lurched to the left and were on a graded road. We continued for a bit, then pulled up. "Okay. Gordy you drive. I'll play passenger. We need to veer right in a bit, though. Logan, can you tell where we are?"
"Unlabelled road paralleling the track that was Adelaide."
A few minutes later, "Look for a track at right angles, left to right."
I spotted it on the left and then we could see it to the right. I turned right. After four or five klicks there was another track and we turned left. Then, quite suddenly, after only a few klicks, there was a rise and below us the hard claypan of a dry lake.
"Bowmans Lake, gentlemen." I wasn't noon yet, but the sun was high. Our sunglasses helped, but there was a lot of glare. "When it's flooded, the northern-most point is about a klick ahead. We'll drive there and then turn a bit southwest. Then we'll look for a campsite."
We stopped near a cluster of scrub. Maybe a dozen bushes. When I got out I could see where water had scored the sides of the lakebed.
We set up camp. The two swag tents, one jerry of water and some personal stuff.
"Okay. You two walk about a bit. If you see any wood, pick it up. But be careful. You don't know whether there's anything venomous lurking."
"Right. Scorpions or even a bulldog," I said.
"Or a mulga. Most likely neither of you would react much to an ant bite."
Twenty minutes later I'd returned with a load of twigs, roots and a piece of lumber. Logan came back with a slightly smaller amount, but with the news that several of the shrubs to the northeast were acacias.
"Good news. First a small fire, Gordy. Then we can have damper and jam and billy tea."
The deserts of central Australia are home to witchety grubs (large white moth larvae) found in the roots of acacia bushes. The larvae, which are high in calories, protein, and fat, were once staples in the Aboriginal diet. Seeds and flowers of the acacia were ground to make a kind of flour that could be mixed with water to make a simple cake.
Probably the most widely recognized bush tucker recipe is damper, a simple type of bread made of water and flour. Billy tea, named for the "billy" (pot) with a handle that is used for cooking over an open fire, is also popular. When a sweet drink is desired, the water is sweetened with either honey or nectar collected from flowers.
I made a small fire of sticks, pushing them in towards the center as they were consumed. While I was doing that, the professor filled two billies and set them at the edge and mixed flour and water and put the mass into a cast iron pan.
"The natives just put the damper on the ashes," I remarked.
"Yes. But then they throw away the crust."
We threw tea into an empty billie and poured some water from the first two into it, then threw more tea into those two.
"Who takes it sweet?"
"I do," said Logan.
"Just strong," I said.
When we were done, I took the pan, walked a dozen paces away, and cleaned it out with sand. I then dusted out the last grains.
"Been in the desert before, eh?"
"Yes, sir. Up near Bakers Bend. And we have a band that lives on my Dad's station."
"The way you built that small fire and cleaned the pan gave you away. Everyone done with the tea?"
He dumped the remnants on the coals. The smoke went straight up in the thin, dry air.
"Start thinking about a search plan."
"I already have. As I'm looking for frogs, I'm going to search the lake bottom. They should have burrowed into the mud as the water evaporated."
"Good for a first pass. But remember that Spencers can dig in sand, too."
"So get your trowel and collection kit."
"Gordy, see that dune over there?"
"Yes. It looks as though the north side is fairly shady. Let's look for mulgara burrows."
Mulgara are small marsupial carnivores. Their primary diet is ants and termites. They are nocturnal but occasionally "sunbathe" in the entrance of the burrow they dwell in. They tend to stay in places that have been in shadow.
As we walked over, Dr. Challis explained: "If we find mulgara, there'll be ants." I nodded.