Two men and a boat

Sunday 20 June, 2010

A couple of Bush Heritage ecologists prepare to get their feet wet in the Simpson Desert

Mulligan River in floodThe Mulligan River in flood. Photo: Max Tischler

A boat might be the last thing you’d think of taking into the Simpson Desert, but it was the first thing that Bush Heritage ecologists Max Tischler and Adam Kerezsy packed on their most recent trip.

It's less than one hour before daybreak on the edge of the Simpson Desert, the place once described by explorer Charles Sturt as "a country which never changed  – but for the worse".

As dawn breaks, two men load their gear into their small boat and launch themselves into the river. As far as the eye can see there is water.

This is no mirage. This is the Mulligan River in the Simpson Desert during a rare flood.

Max Tischler and Adam Kerezsy are accustomed to doing unusual things. As Bush Heritage ecologists, they've been to places and seen sights that most lovers of the bush can only dream about.

But entertaining the thought of being possibly the first two men to navigate a boat down the usually dry Mulligan River, which might not flow for years on end, is exhilarating even for them.

Max Tischler and the Desert sampling set upMax and Adam's ute laden with a boat and sampling gear. Photo: Adam Kereszy

On the job at Cravens Peak and Ethabuka reserves

Cravens Peak and Ethabuka are Bush Heritage's two conservation reserves on the eastern edge of the Simpson Desert. Driving west from Brisbane, it takes two full days to get there.

The reserves cover just under 500,000 ha or around the area of greater Sydney and Melbourne combined. With a relatively short history of cattle grazing prior to their acquisition and de-stocking by Bush Heritage, they represent an exceptionally broad sweep of regional ecosystems, with many different types of vegetation and landform.

The sand dunes dominate. From Ethabuka they run west in a continuous north-west to south-east orientation way past the Northern Territory border, about 70 km away. As far as you can see, it is just dune after dune.

Claypans filled with waterSimpson Desert claypans filled with floodwater. Photo: Adam Kerezsy

An extraordinary natural event

Max and Adam have made the long trek out to Cravens Peak and Ethabuka to witness the aftermath of one of the most extraordinary natural events in decades: the flooding of large areas of western Queensland in late February and March.

In a matter of days, some areas of central Australia received over 250 mm (ten inches) of rain, releasing it from a state of watchful waiting into an exuberant burst of life.

"We're here to monitor the response of plants and animals to this rain event and the subsequent flooding," says Max. "We're looking at the floodplain, the waterholes and the river and what we learn will be integral to how we manage these reserves in the future."

For Max, this is an ecological dream come true, witnessing this normally parched and unforgiving land in a state of rare abundance.

The native plants and animals that inhabit this region are opportunists and masters of adaptation. The water-holding frog, Cyclorana platycephala, responds to dry periods by pumping itself full of water and then retreating underground, while the nomadic budgerigars arrive shortly after rain in brilliant swooping clouds of green and yellow.

Life in the field

During their fieldwork, Max and Adam cover hundreds of square kilometres of rugged land, leaving the comforts of the Cravens Peak homestead and the hospitality of reserve managers Mark and Nella Lithgow far behind.

Finding wood in the desert for a campfire is never a problem. "Some people think it's just all sand like the Sahara, but it's not," says Max. "It's quite densely vegetated. There's a common tree out there, the gidgee, which occurs in dense clumps and always makes a good campsite. It also provides the most fantastic wood for a campfire – it burns really hot. Slim Dusty wrote many songs about gidgee coals ... and they're all true."

For news of the outside world, Max and Adam rely on the ‘local' ABC radio for weather updates and news. "When you're out there, it's so incredibly remote. The world could have fallen in and you wouldn't have a clue," says Max.

A typical "working day: in the field might start with checking animal monitoring traps or fish nets set the night before. The afternoon is often spent doing vegetation work: collecting plant specimens and doing surveys. At night they're often setting traps or spotlighting.

The Australian desert: spectacular and fragile

In the heat of summer when the mercury soars into the high 40s, working in the middle of the day becomes almost impossible.

"In summer it's very difficult," says Max. "A lot of flies. Heat. You find yourself daydreaming about the inland ocean the early explorers here were hoping to find."

And when he's in the desert, often for weeks at a time, what does Max miss most about home? "I miss the ocean, particularly when you work in summer. You're just longing to be able to drop your core temperature."

Yet it's quite apparent that the desert has got under his skin. Talking about it, he runs short of superlatives: splendid, spectacular, breathtaking. Yet it's still difficult to translate this beautiful landscape into words for those who picture the desert as barren and empty.

"People think the Australian desert is a tough place, capable of withstanding anything. It's not," says Max. "It's actually incredibly fragile, with hundreds of vulnerable plants and animals that spend most of their existence teetering on the brink."

"It's just as important to protect this ecosystem as it is to protect our rainforests like the Daintree, and our marine environments like the Great Barrier Reef.

"I can't wait to get back out there. There's nothing else on the planet quite like it."

By Lucy Ashley

Ecological work like Max and Adam's is only possible thanks to the generosity of Bush Heritage supporters like you. Thanks for helping to protect Australia's unique animals, plants and ecosystems.

Cravens Peak and Ethabuka reserves are managed for nature conservation as part of the National Reserve System. We would like to acknowledge the Commonwealth's National Reserve System and The Nature Conservancy for their generous support of this work.

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