Mysteries of the Australian desert

Return of Burke and Wills to Coopers Creek - Nicholas Chevalier - National Library of Australia 2265463The Simpson Desert is Australia’s fourth-largest desert with an area of 76,500 square kilometres, stretches across three states and territories, and is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. It’s the world’s largest parallel sand ridge desert, boasts the biggest wild river system on the planet, and is home for millennia of lost secrets. I’m hoping to rediscover those mysteries next week when I join an expedition led by scientists and traditional owners. I’m also raising money for charity.

The Wangkangurru people maintained a fragile presence amongst the salt lakes, clay pans and sand dunes but with the great drought of 1900, they walked out of the desert for the last time. I’m joining the not-for-profit Australian Desert Expeditions on an ecological survey, walking in the footsteps of the Wangkangurru people and 19th century explorers, leading pack camels, in search of artefacts and Songlines (Indigenous navigational tracks) lost for centuries. Just last month, the expedition found an ancient unrecorded desert oasis and human remains.

The explorer Captain Charles Sturt became the first European to see the Simpson Desert in 1844-46. He searched fruitlessly in an effort to prove his belief that there was an inland sea.

Portrait of Ludwig Leichhardt unrecorded 1846 - National Library of Australia 2141886Ludwig Leichhardt (pictured right) was a German explorer who disappeared in the Australian desert in 1848. According to the Wallumbilla people, a large group of Aboriginals encircled the party, murdered everyone and then traded their belongings. If true, it explains why Leichhardt relics have been found some 4,000 kilometres apart. Perhaps I’ll discover more evidence of his fate.

Leichhardt’s failed attempt to make the first east–west crossing of the continent is reminiscent of the equally tragic Burke and Wills expedition (main picture above) of 1860-61. It succeeded in crossing from south to north, but Burke and Wills failed to return alive.

Ernest Giles was an explorer who led five major expeditions into the Outback. In 1874, Giles and Alfred Gibson were scouting ahead when one of their horses died. Giles made his way back to their depot on foot, completely exhausted, but Gibson was never seen again.

In 1880, surveyor Augustus Poeppel travelled through the Simpson Desert to survey the border between Queensland and South Australia and mark the corner point where the two states met the Northern Territory. After he got back, it was discovered that the links in his surveyor’s chain had stretched and so he’d got it wrong. Another poor soul had to return and correct his error.

In 1886 surveyor David Lindsay, with the help of a Wangkangurru man, ventured into the desert from the western edge, and in the process documented for the first time nine Aboriginal wells. I may be adding to that research.

In 1891 David Lindsay led the Elder Scientific Exploring Expedition, its noble aim being “the exploration shall be as complete and exhaustive as possible, so that… the blank spaces on the map of Australia be filled up in all important geographical aspects”. They also looked without success for traces of Gibson lost on the Giles expedition twenty years earlier.

Camels used by the fatal Calvert Expedition 1896-97 - State Library of South Australia B-10486-1The Calvert Scientific Exploring Expedition (pictured right) in 1896-1897 used camels and was led by explorer Larry Wells. He aimed to build on the achievements of the Elder Expedition, and find evidence of the lost Leichhardt expedition. Two expedition members left to make a side journey – their mummified bodies were found eight months later.

Come the twentieth century, in 1936 Ted Colson rode camels to became the first non-indigenous person to cross the Simpson Desert in its entirety.

Cecil Madigan was the last of the “classic” explorers, and in 1939 led the first major expedition across the Simpson Desert. He named it after the president of a state branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia who was the also owner of the Simpson washing machine company. Madigan had previously joined Sir Douglas Mawson on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition in 1911 but only after deferring a Rhodes scholarship.

In 1984, adventurer Dennis Bartel was the first white man to successfully walk solo and unsupported west-to-east across the Simpson, relying on old Aboriginal wells for water.

In 1999, Andrew Harper OAM became the first person to complete a west–to-east journey across Australia following the Tropic of Capricorn. He travelled through the desert by foot and led pack camels. Now Andrew takes scientists into the heart of Australia where they find fossils of marine dinosaurs, thus proving the one-time existence of an inland sea that had been the aim of generations of explorers before him.

Dr Max Tischler and Andrew Harper OAMI’ll be joining Andrew on his latest expedition on Monday, along with head scientist Dr Max Tischler (both pictured with me at a planning session) and traditional owners the Wangkangurru people. I’ll be walking in the tradition of those great 19th century explorers, contributing to an ecological survey, and searching for long-lost indigenous Songlines.

I’m also using the expedition to raise money for better Mental Health support in rural and remote Australia. One in five Australians suffer from poor mental health, and in remote Australia the effects are even worse with cyclones, floods, fires, and prolonged drought. Aboriginal Australian children and young people also need the best possible start in life with good mental health support and well-being.

Please donate here to my selected charity Drug ARM Australasia that works so well in these rural and remote communities. You will help keep alive the indigenous Songlines and traditions of our great early explorers in the process, and the people who live out there.

Photo credits:
Return of Burke and Wills to Coopers Creek by Nicholas Chevalier (1868) – National Library of Australia 2265463
Portrait of Ludwig Leichhardt unrecorded (1846) – National Library of Australia 2141886
Camels used by the fatal Calvert Expedition 1896-97 – State Library of South Australia B-10486-1
Dr Max Tischler, Harold Peacock and Andrew Harper OAM (2019) – my own

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