Reading the Simpson Desert

By Kathy Riley 28 May 2009
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The AG Society’s ninth scientific expedition fused learned expertise and volunteer zeal to reveal knowledge long-buried in the arid environs of the northern Simpson Desert.

We’re in the Simpson Desert, 20 km from base camp, and camel researcher Ben Zeng’s ute is up to its axles in red dust. The driver’s window lies shattered all over the ground and seat. There’s a dent as big as a man’s arm in the bonnet; leaves and bark are caught in its torn steel. A 7 m coolibah has been felled by the impact. Another, wedged behind the wheel on the driver’s side, is the only thing stopping the car from rolling down the bank of the dry Hay River. And it’s barely afternoon on day one of Australian Geographic’s ninth scientific expedition.

Our convoy of four cars – carrying five volunteers, three scientists, traditional owner Lindsay Bookie, his niece Felicia and nephew Wayne – has stopped at the accident and everyone moves swiftly into action. Thankfully Ben is unhurt – just embarrassed at his misjudgement of the four-wheel-drive track. He joins in the recovery team effort to pull the ute out of trouble, while I seek out Elaine Davison. The retired scientist and fungus expert was in the passenger seat and I’m concerned she might be suffering from shock.

I find the genteel Englishwoman kneeling by the branches of the toppled tree, head down, face partially obscured by her hat. At first I’m concerned her cheeks are flushed from shock, but when she grins up at me, I realise she’s elated. “It’s rare that you’re able to get fungus samples from the top of a tree,” she says cheerfully, waving several small plastic bags in my direction. “I’ve taken samples from the base of the tree – I’ll take those back to the lab – and I’ve found some spots on these leaves, which indicates the tree has some kind of fungus growing on it. It’s highly likely that it’ll be a species new to science.” She stands up, brushes the red dust off her trousers and swats at a fly. “What a great start to the day,” she says.

Scientific exhibition into the Simpson Desert

Very few scientific expeditions have ventured into the north-western region of the Simpson Desert – certainly none of this size and calibre. The first expedition of note was mounted in 1939 by scientist and central-desert aficionado Cecil Thomas Madigan, who 10 years earlier had named the Simpson Desert after Alfred Allen Simpson, president of the SA branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia.

Madigan travelled with 19 camels and eight men, only two of whom were scientists. In contrast, we have 16 scientists, a dozen paying volunteers, a small but formidably efficient expedition crew led by AG Society administrator Sandy Richardson and 23 sturdy and well-equipped 4WDs. We’ve established base camp at Batton Hill, 320 km east of Alice Springs on the northern edge of the  17,643 sq. km Atnetye Aboriginal Land Trust. From here, we’ll travel to and from two satellite camps – one on the edge of Ngarra Ngarra Swamp, 100 km south along the Hay River, and the other at Mt Tietkens, 15 km to the south-east. If there’s a plant, animal, invertebrate or fungus within cooee of our three camps, we’re bound to find it – or at least traces of it. There’s something very satisfying about the knowledge that in this little-known corner of the Simpson, almost every scientist’s project is the first of its kind. As bat zoologist David Gee says: “In a sense, anything we find here is a bonus.”

Apart from plugging a gap in the scientific map of the Simpson Desert, our work here is also of great importance to Lindsay Bookie. Five years ago, with the future employment and health of his family in mind, he established a bush-tucker business at Batton Hill, along with shower and toilet facilities and a rustic bush kitchen. Under the guidance of long-time Central Australian resident and remote-4WD instructor Jol Fleming (see Portrait, AG 78), Lindsay has started to open up his land to 4WD enthusiasts and ecotourism. But he wants to make sure he’s protecting the conservation values of the region. “I want the young ones to learn all about the area,” he says. “I want them to learn the plants, the animals, all the things the scientists know.”

With 12 projects between them, the scientists are grateful for the willing hands of the volunteers, who range in age from four to 80. Their next 12 days will be spent digging pit traps for reptiles, crawling into guano-pasted caves, peering through binoculars and down microscopes, poring over animal tracks, and collecting insects, scats, fungi, mosses, liverworts and lichens. “A lot of scientific study is about hard, routine work,” says invertebrate specialist Penelope Greenslade. “I really appreciate the vollies who are willing to do the hard yards.”

For most of these people, however, “work” is sitting in an office in front of a computer, not exploring the far reaches of Central Australia, bounded only by the horizon and the broad blue sky. They’re happy to help and keen to learn. Some, such as Megan Dawes, are artists, eager to use the palette of the Simpson. Others are enthusiastic birders or retired biologists. Paddy and Geoff Goldsmith of Bowral, NSW, have maintained a love affair with the Simpson over many years, and jumped at the opportunity to learn more about it. “I want to be able to stand on a dune, first thing in the morning, and see all those tracks around me and know what they are,” Paddy says.

For all of us, this region of the Simpson is like an unread book, and we’ve all turned up to learn a few phrases. None of us really know what to expect, but that’s just part of the adventure.

The purebred dingo, camels and mammals

Ian Gunn strides into the Ngarra Ngarra Swamp camp one afternoon and triumphantly thrusts a bag of poo in my face. The lanky scientist’s eyes are bright with the thrill of discovery and the exertion of a long trudge through the midday heat and the soft Simpson Desert sand. “It’s fresh, really fresh!” he exclaims. “The traps were completely attacked – all the stuff was everywhere. They took the bait. I only got a few hairs, but there’s plenty of DNA in this.” And he looks fondly at the fresh, green-tinged dingo turd in its zip-lock bag, beads of humidity already forming inside the plastic.

Ian’s been patiently putting out peanut butter and herrings with tomato sauce at waterholes near the campsite, in the hope of capturing hair or saliva samples for DNA analysis. The shrewd dingoes have evaded his traps for days, but it appears he’s finally hit the jackpot. If, as he suspects, the dingo DNA displays a high degree of genetic purity, he’ll be able to put forward a strong case for the protection of the Simpson Desert dingo under National Heritage listing. “We don’t have Aboriginal communities living out here with dogs that can interbreed with dingoes,” he says. “And we haven’t had white men coming in here and hunting, bringing their dogs, so the chances of the Simpson Desert dingoes being ‘pure’ are good.”

Ian admits the lack of agreement on what constitutes a pure dingo makes protecting them difficult. “Geneticists say the dingo has to have pure genes, but others argue that evolution would have changed the genetic makeup of the purebred dingo anyway,” he says. Ian belongs to the second school of thought, and he’s passionate about protecting the areas of Australia where the purest strains of dingoes still exist. “The dingo is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild,” he says. “It could go the way of the Tasmanian tiger.” Ian hopes to eventually offer the dingo the ultimate protection: inclusion in the animal gene bank at Monash University, Melbourne, of which he’s been director since 1995 (see “Australia’s frozen zoo”, page 116).

Dingoes aren’t the only animals that are proving elusive. We soon learn that in the desert, the best way to “see” an animal is to read the clues it has left behind. Steve Wilson, a Queensland Museum herpetologist with piercing blue eyes and the energy of 10 men, teaches us to identify lizard scats by their pellet shape and the white dollop of uric acid at one end. The shape of their burrows is flat, like their bodies, while mammals’ burrows are round. AG photographer Jiri Lochman informs us that we can determine which direction an emu is heading by the location of the white urea sitting atop its calling card. We learn that the 25 mm craters in the soft sand are traps set by antlion larvae, which are hidden at the base of the crater, ready to grab the hapless ants that fall in. With every discovery our eyes become a little sharper, a little more discerning, and the landscape begins to open up before us.

Ben Zeng, our camel researcher, turns out to be as unlucky with camels as he is with utes. The notoriously aloof animals develop a habit of appearing in one place while he’s industriously seeking them somewhere else. He’s frustrated, but he’s still able to estimate a camel density of 0.3–0.5 per sq. km by measuring the extent of vegetation and soil damage (the highest density recorded in Australia is up to 2–3 camels per sq. km near Surveyor Generals Corner, where WA, NT and SA meet). Mike Augee, our echidna expert, is so sure the echidnas have gone into winter hibernation that he magnanimously offers a copy of his book (he’s brought a few) to the one who finds an echidna scat. Before the end of the expedition, he’s run out of books.

“Tracks, scats and burrows – that’s what it’s all about,” says arid-zone ecologist and “mammal girl” Katherine Moseby. She and fellow ecologist Katie Oxenham are here to trial volunteers’ use of a rapid-assessment methodology. After a crash course in basic track identification, volunteers are let loose on a specific quadrant for 30 minutes, during which time they record tracks and other signs of mammals and birds, as well as surface type; fire, wind and rain activity; habitat type and the age and abundance of the signs. It’s a method that was developed by ecologist Rick Southgate to monitor bilbies in the Tanami Desert, but was quickly identified by the SA and NT Natural Resource Management boards as a useful method of arid-zone species assessment in general. “It can cover much larger areas – you can potentially do 20 sites in a day,” says Katherine. “It’s much less costly than traditional methods such as trapping in terms of time and labour, and you can get a much better idea of species types and numbers.”

To assist with identification and verification of tracks – and probably to satisfy the curiosity of the hardworking volunteers – Katie and Katherine set up Elliott traps over most nights and succeed in snaffling a stripe-faced dunnart, a fat-tailed dunnart and 10 sandy inland mice, as well as a large number of introduced house mice. The biggest windfall is the capture of two nationally threatened mulgara. There are only 24 known native mammal species in the Simpson – a number that’s 30 per cent less than it was 200 years ago. Remoteness and inaccessibility of arid regions hampers monitoring and recovery efforts, but it’s hoped that rapid assessment may go a long way toward addressing these difficulties.

Over the course of the expedition,11 mammal and two bird species are recorded using this process, compared with five species using trapping. Camels, foxes, rabbits, and feral cats all appear on the radar. The volunteers provide good feedback about the methodology program, and Katie and Katherine finish the expedition confident that with further development the program can be a success. “The ultimate aim is to put together a central database for rapid assessment,” says Katherine. “We can get community groups, indigenous people and farmers into it. We’re finding more and more that people really want to contribute.”

All in a days work: ecological discoveries

Each night we sit in a circle, with the warmth of the campfire on our faces and the cold night at our backs, and share the day’s discoveries. Joe Benshemesh, from La Trobe University, Melbourne, keeps everyone enthralled with stories of the mysterious marsupial mole  – which he’s only seen three times in seven years of study. Bruce Pascoe, from Alice Springs Desert Park, reels off a list of the birds he’s seen that day. By the end of the expedition, with the help of a dedicated platoon of volunteers, he’s listed 90 species – half the total recorded in the northern Simpson. “I’ve never seen so many cockatiels and budgerigars,” he says. “The budgies are an eruptive species, so it’s a sign the country has had a good season. There are a number of fairly common birds I would expect to see out here but didn’t, so I would think there’s probably 100-odd bird species out here. There are a few classic species on the list that twitchers would come a long way to see, such as the chiming wedgebill and the banded whiteface.”

One of the biggest bonanzas is collected by the dry-humoured, fiercely intelligent invertebrate specialist Penelope Greenslade, who’s perhaps the most industrious of us all. She sweeps linen nets across grasses, traps animals in yellow pans and tiny pitfall traps and extracts them from leaf litter and soil samples. Hundreds of little beasties are pickled in her endless phials of alcohol. Despite the dedicated assistance of volunteers such as Lois Sheppard of Lake Wendouree, Victoria, she’s a little miffed at all the attention the bats, birds, dingoes, camels and marsupials are getting. “You’re all specist,” she mutters. “It’s much more interesting working with invertebrates than flipping animals you can’t see…I think, anyway.”

Discoveries are small but significant. Steve Wilson makes the first confirmed find of the many-lined Ctenotus (a type of skink) in the NT, and extends the range of the blue-tailed Ctenotus by 200 km. Dedicated NT Herbarium botanists David Albrecht and Angus Duguid increase the region’s plant record by a staggering 267. Every fungus, bryophyte, lichen, bat and invertebrate record is the first collected in this region.

Equally remarkable is the effect of collaboration between scientists, and between scientists and volunteers. Volunteers reveal themselves as closet botanists or archaeologists, pointing out unusual plants or Aboriginal chipping stones. Everyone collects scats for everyone else’s projects. Volunteer Terry Kearney from Berri, SA, and Ian Gunn dig pit traps in the dunes near Ngarra Ngarra Swamp in order to report back to Steve, who’s unable to make it out there. The irrepressibly enthusiastic trio of bryologists, Josephine Milne, Karen Beckmann and Helen Jolley – who are studying mosses, liverworts and lichens for the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne – explain to Ben Zeng what effect camels have on the soil crusts. With the sharing of knowledge comes a deep appreciation for the complexity of our surroundings. And everyone falls under the spell of the Simpson.

Simpon Desert sunset

It’s nearing sunset, and Joe Benshemesh is barrelling along a 4WD track toward camp, having spent the day digging trenches for signs of marsupial moles. The ute bounces over corrugations and skids slightly around bulldusted corners, the engine grunting and roaring with every gear shift and burst of acceleration. There’s a 10 m high sand dune ahead – Joe shifts the ute into second gear and we hurtle up its side. On the ridge, he suddenly brakes and cuts the engine. “Just one minute,” he says.

Silence settles over us like a light blanket and we drink in the serenity of the Simpson Desert at sunset. Shadows lengthen at the feet of ghost gums and coolibahs, cane grass and spinifex. Leafless branches of witchetty bush make bristly silhouettes against the sky, which below a fading blue has taken on the rosy glow of a galah’s underbelly. All is soft, still. In the distance, a flock of budgerigars dips and swoons in synch. The setting sun slices through the mulla mulla, lighting them up and causing the landscape to glow like a wheat paddock. I take a deep breath, and when I exhale, everything seems sharper, more alive. I look across at Joe, and we grin at one another. Then he guns the engine and we roll on through the desert.

Source: Australian Geographic Jul – Sep 2008