Desert wanderings

Sunday 20 March, 2011

Ecologist Max Tischler has been to the Simpson Desert many times. But in July 2010, he experienced it in a completely new way.

Imagine driving into a city the size of Sydney or Melbourne that you’ve never been to before. You’re keen to visit all its major tourist attractions and its well-kept secrets, but after reaching the CBD you find that not a single suburban road is open – you can only drive on a couple of arterial roads from one side of the city to the other.

How could you possibly get to know this new city?

Camel trek at EthabukaCamels allowed Max and his fellow ecologists get to know your Ethabuka reserve in a way Max had never experienced before. Photo: Andrew Harper, Australian Desert Expeditions.

The challenge

As Ecologist for Cravens Peak and Ethabuka reserves, I face a similar scenario every time I arrive at these vast properties in western Queensland’s Simpson Desert.

Although there are a handful of tracks on the reserves, the majority of these properties are inaccessible. So how do you find your way through 430 000 remote hectares of isolated ironstone ranges, over endless sand dunes, across expansive gibber plains and down ephemeral river systems for weeks on end in often challenging conditions?

The solution

Camels at Cravens Peak'The desert deserves to be approached gently, so its mood is revealed. The way people have always approached these waterholes was on foot, as we do on our camel treks. That reveals the country – the continuum of country' – Andrew Harper, founder of Australian Desert Expeditions.

In June and July last year, a solution to this challenge was presented to me: with camels.

I followed in the traditions of many Simpson Desert surveyors, like Charles Winnecke (1884) and Cecil Madigan (1939), by travelling through the desert with a string of 20 camels in tow, as part of Australian Desert Expeditions’ (ADE) annual trekking schedule.

ADE is a registered environmental company whose mission is to undertake and facilitate exploration and research in the central Australian deserts, and last year was the first time they trekked through Ethabuka and Cravens Peak.

Camels: the perfect vehicle

The treks gave us an opportunity to access some of the remotest parts of our reserves.

Our teams comprised of 20 pack camels led by five cameleers, a dozen or so paying guests and three ecologists, including some from The Desert Ecology Research Group at the University of Sydney, a collaborating partner.

Our trek ran for 12 days, and the route was dictated by both conditions and curiosity, under the watchful eye of ADE’s founder and expedition leader Andrew Harper, who has been working with camels in the desert for 16 years.

Pack camels can carry well over 300 kilograms. They provide the perfect vehicle for taking adequate provisions, as well as an armoury of sampling equipment into remote areas.

Thorny devilA thorny devil spotted on the trip.

Each afternoon, after a day’s trekking, we would spend the hours before sunset establishing trapping lines, pressing plant specimens and recording the myriad encounters of the walk. This made for a very busy and often exhausting few weeks, but what was discovered on both treks far exceeded every one of our expectations.

Domesticated travel partners

Some people may be surprised to hear the camel, a feral animal in Australia, has become a mode of transport at Cravens Peak and Ethabuka; uncontrolled camels can cause substantial damage to fencing infrastructure, and I have witnessed large herds spoiling and trampling waterholes and plant communities.

But the camels on our trek are domesticated pack animals, led by skilled cameleers and so these threats are mitigated. The positive outcomes far exceed any possible negative impacts.

Endurance and stamina

Camels are fascinating animals to travel with: their endurance and stamina are second to none. Like all working beasts, they perform best under familiar routines, and the daily tasks of shepherding, loading and unloading are all done with this consideration.

Camels each have their own unique personality, and it was enjoyable watching them express themselves. You inevitably find your favourites, going out of the way to feed them your discarded orange peel at smoko and giving them a scratch behind the ear at the end of the day.

These impressive creatures gave us unfettered access to parts of Ethabuka and Cravens Peak during a time when we had so much to learn. Extensive rains made last year an exceptionally good season, and recording the response of plants and animals to the flooding rains of February 2010 was an important priority toward our conservation efforts.

We were able to document the presence and condition of many plants and animals during a period of increasing abundance after many years of dry conditions: a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Identifying the huge array of plants and animals on our reserves, and how their populations respond and shift through time is one of the key tasks to empower Bush Heritage in making appropriate management decisions for conservation now and in the future.

Many trip highlights

There were many great moments I recall from the treks, but the most notable highlights include capturing the first desert short-tailed mouse (Leggadina forresti) after an absence of 18 years; discovering a small cave in the Toomba range used by echidnas, bats and a species of skink not seen before on the reserve; recording a total of 97 bird species; increasing the reserve plant species list from 375 to over 550 (we are still going through the specimens!); and finding extensive and fabled stands of the culturally important narcotic pituri bush (Duboisia hopwoodii).

These camel treks have allowed us to learn much more about the vast isolated areas of our desert reserves, and are doing so by approaching them as people had been for millennia - on foot.

Max Tischler measures a mulgaraMax Tischler takes measurements from a mulgara, a species that has been steadily increasing in numbers since the rains of 2010. Photo: Andrew Harper, Australian Desert Expeditions.

The outcomes from our research were exceptional, and are the result of being able to access remote pockets of our reserves, while absorbing the intricacies and subtleties of their landscapes at a slow pace.

These treks have, and will continue to provide valuable and essential information about how natural ecosystems and their species respond to both favourable and lean conditions. These results will feed back into our management plans, supported by the generosity of our donors, and ensuring the continued conservation of our remote desert reserves in perpetuity.

Your very own Desert Discovery

Would you like to join Max, or other ecologists, on a camel expedition in the vast Simpson Desert?

Australian Desert Expeditions will be exploring Bush Heritage's Cravens Peak and Ethabuka reserves, where your support has helped to make such a difference.

Trips range from 5 to 16 days, find out more from Australian Desert Expeditions on 1300 669 780.

Cravens Peak and Ethabuka reserves were acquired in 2004 and 2005 with the assistance of the Australian Government under the Natural Heritage Trust’s National Reserve System Programme and The Nature Conservancy. Thanks also to Andyinc Foundation, the Hutchinson Foundation, The Nature Conservancy’s David Thomas Challenge, Peter Edwards and all our generous supporters for supporting vital conservation work on Cravens Peak and Ethabuka this year.

By Max Tischler

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