Discovery in the Simpson Desert

Lesser hairy-footed dunnart

I joined the Australian Desert Expeditions scientific and ecological survey into the Simpson Desert to raise money for better mental health support in rural and remote communities. The longer that I walked with the camels, learning the ecology and being lost in my own thoughts, the more I realised that my destination wasn’t going to be easily found.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following story may contain images of deceased persons.

I recruited friends Don and John to join my adventure, assuring them that walking with camels deep into the desert was perfectly safe. Afterall, it had been done by early Australian explorers for centuries. John Ainsworth Horrocks in 1846 was the first to employ camels to explore Australia. The Burke and Wills expedition in 1860 popularised the practice. Our leader on this expedition would be Andrew Harper who was the first person to walk across Australia with camels along the Tropic of Capricorn, and so earning an Order of Australia.

Strange things happen in the desert however. Horrocks died after his shotgun was discharged by his camel Harry, Harry was subsequently taken out and shot, Burke and Wills never returned, and Harps tore his ankle ligaments from the bone at Eyre Creek not long before we were to join him. The indicators of a great adventure were all good.

A small plane from Brisbane for six hours and five stops took us on the Outback mail route to Birdsville. While on the ground at Windorah, co-incidentally I met Harry who is a lifelong friend of my cousin’s family; he’s to be our expedition’s second-in-command which hopefully is not a foreshadowing to what happened to that poor camel of the same name all those years ago. A cold lemonade at the Birdsville Hotel by the source of the Diamantina River was all the preparation needed before the next day driving 110km and five hours deep into the Simpson Desert.

Australian icons rolled off the tongue as we crossed Little Red (Big Red’s little brother sand dune), through Eyre Creek, and breaking the drive with billy tea in the shade of gidgee trees by the not-so Rabbit-proof Fence. Driver Keith (who it was instantly clear was more than he appeared) warned us of the dangers of dingoes in the camp. A briefing by Dr Max Tischler, the chief scientist and our survey leader, was followed by fresh damper with golden syrup and billy tea, which was to be my beverage of choice at least five times per day throughout the expedition. I pitched my swag away from camp atop the nearest dune – Keith had told me that overnight it would be three to four degrees warmer up there amid the sob-zero temperatures in the swale below. He was right, but I had to contend with the tracks of the dingo looking down as it stalked the main camp. The spiritualism of a sunset in the Outback was matched only by the full moon rising; my dune-top camp gifting me the perfect 360-degree horizon to all the edges of our planet. I woke to a glorious moonset followed an unbelievable sunrise, and dingo tracks all around me. You don’t get that in the city.

Desert expedition

The walking with camels started, but not before Harry mysteriously took a tumble under the camels and was in danger of being trampled. He required medical attention. Perhaps the noble animals were exacting revenge on behalf of Horrocks’s Harry. The desert peace that followed was supplemented by the silence of camels cruising effortlessly with tonnes of equipment. This told of centuries of desert exploration. We were traversing in the tradition of the early explorers but walking where no white fella had ever been before. The indigenous Wangkangurru mob had left the desert for the last time 120 years ago during the dreadful Federation Drought. In the clay pans beneath our feet, their ancient indigenous artefacts began to appear. Calcite and chalcedony scrapers struck by a craftsman’s skilful hands perhaps tens of thousands of years ago. As I picked the items up to wonder about their history, I dreamed about who may have been the last to hold them.

Painted dragon

Max and I were heading to inspect scrapings by burrowing bettongs, which are marsupials largely extinct on the Australian mainland, when another of those strange desert things happened. Max kicked at a straight shape in the sand, remarkably it was a tin whistle over a foot in length and definitely something that shouldn’t be here. Thoughts of the lost Ludwig Leichardt party instantly crossed both our minds. Subsequent research suggests that it was from the expedition of David Lindsay in 1886. That night we set pitfall traps in the hope that the desert would reveal more of her surprises.

The traps caught a beautiful eight-gram painted dragon (pictured) which when stroked on the belly became perfectly sedate. Not so sedate was Don who that day played his role in another strange but potentially fatal event. Don had almost drowned on a mouthful of water when Keith was driving us to the camel camp two days earlier, and now he was in danger of developing pneumonia. After a half day’s walk, we rendezvoused with Keith and Don was evacuated. We continued exploring for a reported bore (we proved it never existed) and instead discovered more indigenous artefacts including grinding stones that originated from Anna Creek west of Lake Eyre, which is a remarkable 800km or over a month’s walk away.

Making friends with Sultan

The morning presented us in the traps a gorgeous seven-gram lesser hairy-footed dunnart (main picture above), which is a tiny marsupial that was only identified as a species in 1981. It’s a carnivore in the same family as the quoll, Tasmanian devil and the extinct Tasmanian tiger. The freezing nights and pleasant days early in the expedition had by now transformed into stinking desert heat. The thirty-three degrees in the shade was belittled by the heat radiating from the rich red sand. I was assigned to the seven camels of B string led by Roger the racing camel. Roger once won a race in Mildura but when he ate the roses in the parade ring, he wasn’t welcome back. A natural consequence of walking at the head of B string, I came to know Sultan (pictured) the anchor of the nine camels of A string. Sultan and I shared an immediate empathy because I think we were a lot alike. Sultan was grumpy when he thought it was appropriate. I can be the same. He displayed this trait when we shared an orange and he believed that I was making it hard for him. I received the old camel’s full bellow in my face and an unobstructed view of his tonsils.

The expedition was on the homeward stretch when we awoke to the Simpson Desert sharing her full beauty with a sand storm. Visibility was reduced and so exploring either side of the swales was curtailed. We stayed close to the camels on this day. No one wanted to be lost in the desert. That evening the night sky was glorious with the moon now at bay in favour of the Milky Way displaying her full splash across the sky from north to south. You don’t see the heavens like this anywhere else in the world. However, my sleep was interrupted by a persistent sense that although we’d found a lot, there was still a discovery missing. The still darkness of the night was interrupted by the gentle clanging of tin bells on the sand dunes where the wiser camels were free to act as look outs for the unsafe wild variety. Sultan was among our sentinels.

Back in Birdsville, I was determined that if the opportunity to join another expedition that I would grasp it with both hands. However, I still had one more discovery to make. While others enjoyed a full wash for the first time since leaving Brisbane, I retained the dust and walked back towards the desert to the small cemetery just outside of town.

Maudie Naylon at Birdsville 1971 - photographer GR Hercus - The Story of Wurru the Crane www finallyaddcomma org

It was there that I completed a full circle. We had walked into the great Simpson Desert, found a European relic lost by Lindsay, and discovered artefacts left by the Wangkangurru people. However, I had no idea who of the Wangkangurru that had left them. It was here in this little desert cemetery that the answer presented itself. I came upon the last resting place of Aunty Maudie (pictured). She was one of the last of her people to live the nomadic life in the desert where she was born. Maudie was just thirteen-years-old when she walked out of the Simpson for the last time. They were her relics that I’d found.

Maudie Naylon Akawiljika was born in the desert in about 1887. She was blessed with rich cultural knowledge and was fluent in four Aboriginal languages. When Maudie died in Birdsville in 1980, the language Ngamini became extinct and Yarluyandi lost its last fluent speaker. Her memory now lives in me.

Postscript: Before departing Birdsville, I met Don Rowlands the head (and only) ranger of the Simpson Desert Munga-Thirri National Park and Wangkangurru Yarluyandi elder.

Sultan passed away on 12th November 2019 just ten weeks after the expedition. Andrew Harper OAM said that Sultan was the best anchor camel that he’d ever seen.

Please watch this short film (20 mins) of the expedition in which you will see everything in the story.

Donations can still be made to the charity Drug ARM until 31st December 2019 for better mental health support in rural and remote communities.

Photo credits:
Lesser hairy-footed dunnart – my own
Camel expedition – my own
Painted dragon – my own
Sultan – my own
Maudie Naylon at Birdsville (1971) – photographer GR Hercus, The Story of Wurru the Crane, finallyaddcomma.org

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