The Simpson revisited

Simpson Desert, western Queensland.

The Simpson Desert. All photos in this post by Robert Ashdown.

The scene was awfully fearful, dear Charlotte. A kind of dread (and I am not subject to such feelings) came over me as I gazed upon it. It looked like the entrance into Hell.
[Explorer Charles Sturt on encountering the edge of the Simpson Desert, September 1845.]

In 1996 I spent some time on the edge of the Simpson Desert. Not much time, and not far into the desert, but it was a memorable adventure.

As an image I’d taken on that trip was recently chosen for the cover of a book on macroevolution (the evolutionary and ecological processes responsible for generating patterns of biodiversity), it seemed like a good opportunity to post some slide scans, accompanied by a few words written for an article published in the Summer 1996 edition of Wildlife Australia.

Looking west across the Simpson Desert as the light fades.

Looking west across the Simpson Desert as the light fades.

The Simpson Desert. To some the name may conjure images of lifeless sand dunes, of a stark and deadly landscape. To visiting naturalists, the Simpson is a place of subtlety, surprises, life, colour and great contrasts.

The Simpson Desert covers part of three states at the arid centre of Australia. More than 1,000 parallel sand ridges, often running unbroken for great distances, form a unique landscape. It is one of the world’s great sandy deserts.

Lobed Spinifex (Triodia basedowii) forms hummocks on dune crests. It provides refuge for many species of desert fauna.

Ctenotus pantherinus

Ctenotus pantherinus ,one of many species of beautiful reptiles that call this arid area home.

Parakeelya.

Parakeelya.

Central Military Dragon (Ctenophorus isolepis).

Canegrass dragon, Diporophora winneckei.

Canegrass dragon (Diporophora winneckei) playing dead.

Aboriginal people lived in this desert for countless generations, basing their lives around wells and an intimate contact with the desert plants and animals. Early Europeans saw it as a dead zone — devoid of flora and fauna of any real value.

Vegetation in the swale areas between sand ridges.

Vegetation in the swale areas between sand ridges.

Brown falcon.

Brown falcon.

"Desert

The Desert Grevillea (Grevillea juncifolia) is one of the many desert plants that can survive long periods without rain. I watched Black Honeyeaters coming over the sand ridges to land in them for a brief nectar refuel.

Ghost Gum and spinifex in afternoon light.

Ghost Gum and spinifex in afternoon light.

These notions faded as expeditions and surveys revealed an astonishing biodiversity. Far from being a monotonous and lifeless wasteland, the Simpson Desert encompasses a variety of constantly changing land-forms, each providing habitat for many superbly adapted plants and animals. New and exciting biological discoveries are continually being made.

To the visiting photographer, the Simpson is overwhelming. The vast, silent landscapes do not easily reveal their secrets. In a  dry creek bed between sand ridges, we share the midday shade with a host of birds.

Dry creek bed, Simpson Desert.

The dry bed of Gnallan-a-gea Creek, Simpson Desert.

Flowering bloodwood, Gnallan-a-gea Creek.

Flowering bloodwood, full of birds. Gnallan-a-gea Creek.

Tangled mulla mulla.

Tangled Mulla Mulla.

Grasshopper and desert sand.

Grasshopper and desert sand.

The change from afternoon into night is soft and magical. As the sun  sinks, the red sand on the ridges glows with a luminous intensity. The shadows of the wildflowers and other plants lengthen.

Silence returns and cloaks everything with a palpable intensity, The dome of the sky sweeps down to invade the ground as the twilight colours fade and the horizon vanishes, Another day in  this remarkable place has ended.

Ghost Gum and full moon.

QM photographer Jeff Wright looks after the campfire in dry creek bed.

Jeff Wright looks after the campfire in dry creek bed.

Varanus gilleni, a small species of goanna found wandering about the creek bed at night.

Gillens Moniter (Varanus gilleni), a species of small goanna. We found wandering about the creek bed at night.

And who ended up on the cover of that book? A character I’d been hoping to meet.

Thorny Devil tracks, with boot tracks of photographer seeking reptile.

Mysterious tiny tracks (on left), with the boot tracks of photographer in hot pursuit.

Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus)

Found! Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus) photographed  at last.

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2 thoughts on “The Simpson revisited

  1. Jane

    Beautiful images, Rob, I’ve never been to the Simpson Desert but many of these photos remind me of land I lived on in far western NSW – the spinifex red country. How true these words are: “To some the name may conjure images of lifeless sand dunes, of a stark and deadly landscape. To visiting naturalists, the Simpson is a place of subtlety, surprises, life, colour and great contrasts.” My visitors would often look about and say incredulously, “Does anything live here?” Although life could be challenging out there, I sometimes miss the colours, the wildlife, the peace and the skies. Congratulations on having your image chosen for the cover of the book! Best wishes, Jane

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