To be entirely honest, a large part of my becoming an ecologist was the promise of adventure. Never the mind the small pay-checks, this was all about the big memories! What I am about to narrate is essentially an adventure of epic proportions. Enough to rival those of Captain Jack Sparrow. Almost.
Every year (for the last twenty three years) a group of passionate ecologists have driven 2,000 km from the University of Sydney, in Sydney (*cue disbelieving utterances*) 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, that one fair weathered morning in November 2010 we left Sydney, a caravan of 3 four-wheelers, stacked beyond expectations with supplies and ecologists.
A relatively uneventful but pie-filled three days later, and our world was literally in shades of red. Extending as far as the eye could see were undulating dunes of red 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 here, outlines crisper, and shadows longer. We had reached Big Sky Country. Or, in the less refined words of the locals, The Middle of Bumf**k Nowhere.
We set up camp, collected wood for a fire and gathered around to listen to 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 the Maker. Our marching orders, to be conducted in the unearthly hours of the morning, were to collect faunal samples from all manner of traps (including Elliots, pitfalls, and cage traps) strategically set up around the desert, record the critters, and free them to conduct business as usual.
If the measure of a desert is the natural diversity she houses, then the Simpson Desert is a fantastic desert, by 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 red playground.
In a bow down to the weather gods, uncharacteristically large amounts of rain preceded our trip, causing a steroidal effect on the desert! The resulting abundance of green vegetation (Food. Score!) piloted the ecological balance towards a crazy boom in faunal abundance! Overnight, we caught 191 frogs in ten pitfall traps, at a single site. Not to be outdone, the mammals too 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 a fierce excitement amongst the researchers; the species had not been observed 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 several suits back at the University (in our defense however, the definition of “emergency” was largely left open to interpretation).
The winged creatures too put on quite a show as wetlands and water holes magically appeared from nowhere. The prolific birdlife made for an enthusiasts 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 spottings 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 old Aboriginal tale.
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 four 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 supposedly intelligent human beings. We also took on the role of vigilantes, and in an attempt to rid the desert of intentionally 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 appetizing after a predominantly vegetarian diet), dingoes, kangaroos and great plodding camels. We waited for the red moon to rise each night to glimpse creatures of the night and their covert affairs in the desert’s amazing nocturnal world. We even managed to catch a cryptic mulga monitor, opportunistically discovered a lesser long-eared microbat in a crack of a dead tree trunk and made a make-shift, albeit unsustainable, oven to satisfy our pizza cravings. I like to think we provided the denizens of the desert with equal portions of entertainment, fright and curiosity.
It’s not easy to pen down the supreme awesomeness of desert living. For four 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 a tad smelly). Back in the so called civilized 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.