To be honest, a large part of my becoming a conservationist was the promise of excitement and experience. Never mind the small pay-checks, I was in it for the big memories! There would be adventures of epic proportions – enough to rival those of Bilbo Baggins (with the exception of them being fictional)!
Every year (for the last twenty three years) a group of passionate ecologists have driven 2,000 km from the University of Sydney to the Simpson Desert, in Central Australia. They are hellbent on a mission to unearth her secrets. The grandoise erg that is the Simpson Desert, extends from the Northern Territory to Southern Australia, and east into Queensland; road travel is by far the easiest way in (assuming teleportation has not been invented at the time you are reading this). And so it was, one fair weathered morning in November 2010, that we left Sydney, a caravan of 3 four-wheelers, stacked beyond expectations with supplies and questionably dressed academics and could-be conservation leaders.
A relatively uneventful but distressingly pie-filled three days later, our world turned shades of orange. Extending as far as the eye could see were undulating dunes of sand that reached up to meet the never-ending sky, the horizon unbroken in the absence of towering anythings. Warm wisps of wind gently touched the gidgee trees as the sun blazed high. Colors were stronger, outlines crisper, and shadows longer. We had reached Big sky country. Or, in the less refined words of some locals, The middle of bumf**k nowhere.
We set up camp, collected deadwood for a fire and gathered around to receive our instructions. A large spade, a box of match sticks and a roll of tissue paper would get us through our daily dumps. Water was a rare commodity, but if your pee is yellow and you haven’t drunk at least 8 liters of water a day, expect to meet whichever higher power you place your faith in. Our marching orders, to be implemented at ungodly hours, were to collect faunal samples from all manner of traps (including elliots, pitfalls, and cage traps) strategically set up around the desert, record all trapped critters, and free them to conduct business as usual.
If the measure of greatness of a desert is the natural diversity she houses, then the Simpson Desert is a bloody fantastic desert, by far (um, not that I am an authority on deserts having visited a grand total of 0 thus far). Unbelievably, more than 150 bird species, 17 small mammal species, 4 types of frogs and 54 reptile species (the highest reptile biodiversity of any arid zone in the world) make home in this sandy playground.
In a bow down to the weather gods, uncharacteristically large amounts of rain preceded our trip, which had a steroidal impact on the desert! The resulting abundance of green vegetation (Food. Score!) pivoted the ecological balance towards a crazy boom in faunal abundance! On day 5, we caught 191 frogs in ten pitfall traps at a single site. Not to be outdone, the mammals also came out in full force! Mulgaras, (those iconic, ferocious, pocket-sized predators), Spinifex hopping mice (complete with miniature feather dusters for tails) and various species of dunnarts (with eyes as large as saucers) graced us with their company. The capture of a Forest’s Short-tailed mouse and Desert mouse caused fierce excitement; the species had not been found since 1991 and 2005 respectively, and were assumed locally extinct. To this effect, many calls were made across Australia on the satellite phones, much to the despair of the suits back at the University (in our defence the definition of “emergency” was largely left open to interpretation).
The winged creatures put on quite a show as wetlands and watering holes magically appeared from nowhere. The prolific birdlife made for an ornithologists haven! Budgies expertly dived and ducked around in a mélange of golden and green, vividly reminiscent of fighter jets in Star Wars. Button quails and diamond doves traversed roads without checking left or right, keeping drivers on their toes. There were privileged sightings of rare Grey flacons, Bronze-wings and the golden backed race of the Black-chinned honeyeater. At one of our camp sites, a pair of Brown falcons kept us entertained as they periodically brought back small reptiles to feed their hungry chicks. All along the water bodies, Cormorants, Caspian and Gull-billed terns, Pelicans, and a variety of waterfowl including Pink-eared ducks, Shelducks and Whistling ducks shook their tail feathers. And at Pulchera waterhole more than a hundred Brolgas danced on the floodplains, as we watched to the tune of an old Aboriginal tale, courtesy of a local resident.
Brolga was the best dancer in her tribe, but to say this is to do her less than justice. She seemed not to be made of flesh and blood, but of the very spirit of the dance. Her back was straight but it could bend like a tree in the wind, and her feet were as dainty and full of life as butterflies. Her hands were like little leaves that flutter in the breeze; and when she danced around the camp fires men thought that the Spirit of Earth had returned to them. There was a song in her every movement and with her steps she charmed the hearts of men and women.
Amidst these unexpected wonders, the heat, spiky Spinifex grass and the flies became background noise. Our days were busy. Over six weeks we perfected our method of opportunistically hand catching Goannas, involving a comical (but arguably effective) sequence of actions that included spoons, nooses, pillow cases and 5 assumedly intelligent humans. I like to think we provided the denizens of the desert with equal portions of entertainment, fright and curiosity. We took on the role of vigilantes, and in an attempt to rid the desert of introduced and destructive invasive species like cats and foxes, we poison baited more than 90km worth of desert road. We journeyed far to visit Plum pudding, an impressive rocky pile-up which afforded us grand views of the desert. We learned Norwegian songs and got bogged down in large claypans.
With great enthusiasm we threw ourselves into spotting animals on bone-rattling drives between sites. The numerous Central netted dragons lounging on dead trees and gate posts, unblinkingly staring us down, were an accustomed sight, but we also spied Military dragons, skinks, Australian bustards (who looked supremely appetising after a predominantly vegetarian diet), Dingoes, Kangaroos and great plodding Camels. We nightly awaited the bright red moon to catch glimpses of nocturnal creatures and their covert affairs. We even managed to catch a cryptic Mulga monitor, opportunistically discovered a Lesser long-eared micro-bat in a crack of a dead tree trunk. On our last day we made a make-shift oven to satisfy our pizza cravings.
It’s not easy to pen down the supreme awesomeness of desert living. For six short weeks, it was reviving to fall asleep under a thousand blinking stars and skip out on showers and electricity. The journey back was bittersweet (and so smelly we had to stop at a random public swimming pool en route and avail of their showers). Now, in the so called civilised world, more than a hundred drinkable coffees later, when the red sand has long washed away and the persistent Spinifex been rid off, the irresistible pull of the desert still lingers.