Desert Reflections

I have reached an age where most times I visit my parents, they send me home with a bag of belongings dating to my teenage years and early twenties as, in their retirement, they belatedly reclaim the cupboard space of my adolescence.

Last week I came away with a bag that included seven paper envelopes of photographs. I didn’t think too much about them and just dumped them on my dining table, but this week, curiosity overtook me and I opened the bag to find out what the photos were of.

It turned out they were pictures I took in 2005, in my early 20s, during my first serious trip into the Australian wilderness: two weeks traversing the impossibly red sand dunes of the Simpson Desert.

I haven’t looked at most of these pictures for years, and I was taken by surprise at the strength of the nostalgia they invoked in me. I got to reflecting about what the trip meant to me.

Despite having finished a degree in biology and environment a few years earlier, by 2005 I was not yet a seasoned outdoorswoman. Before heading into the desert, the sum total of my camping experience was one night spent in a tent on my suburban primary school’s football oval in 1993, with my entire Year 7 class. Intrepid? Not really.

So the chance to head out into remote central Australia was a bit of a leap. And a truly formative experience.

Right place, right time

I only got the opportunity by chance. One day, during my regular weekly volunteering in the fossil collection at the South Australian Museum, I overheard museum staff discussing the trip. Someone had pulled out at short notice, and they were looking for another body – so I put up my hand.

The purpose of the expedition was to seek out signs of one of Australia’s most elusive animals: the Marsupial Mole. (Spoiler: we never actually saw a single Marsupial Mole on the entire two-week trip – but that did not make it an any less magical experience. If anything it added to the mystique.)

These small, golden creatures look like an unfinished handicraft project with not quite enough stuffing, and as yet no eyes or ears. Australia has been home to many bizarre evolutionary experiments, but the Marsupial Mole is one of the oddest of the lot.

It ‘swims’ through the sand with its powerful, spade-like forelimbs, searching for its invertebrate prey, rarely surfacing. It has no external eyes or ears, and has a tough, leathery nose that forges through the sand belowground, like the prow of a ship through the sea.

We know vanishingly little about their biology and habits, and back in 2005 the Marsupial Mole was classed as endangered. Then, only one living species was thought to exist, but scientists have since agreed that there are two: the Southern Marsupial Mole (or Itjaritjari), and the Northern Marsupial Mole (or Kakarratul).

Because so little was known about them, the aim of the trip was to study how widely they were spread through the Simpson Desert, and to monitor whether predators like dingos, foxes and cats were dining on the moles and pushing them towards extinction.

Digging the desert

The technique for finding signs of mole activity involved a spade. Our small team – a handful of scientists in a couple of vehicles – slowly made our way by four-wheel drive from south-west to north-east across the desert dunes, digging a series of short trenches as we went.

Dune crest with tracks
The impossibly red sand of the Simpson Desert (Photo: Elen Shute, 2005)


On the return journey, once the sand had a chance to dry a little, we would stop and look for circular marks on the walls of the trenches. These circles were the signature of mole digging, the only trace left behind as the animals ‘swam’ through the sand, backfilling the tunnel as they went.

Many times, the spades were also needed to dig the four-wheel drives out of the sand, as we bottomed out on the dune crests and the vehicle became bogged. Adventurous times.

The way of monitoring whether carnivores were eating the moles was less physically taxing work but less glamorous: chopsticking pieces of predator poo into paper bags whenever we found any, to be studied back at the museum.

Other tasks were collecting the occasional spider or tissue sample for the museum’s genetic collection, including samples of muscle tissue from roadkill kangaroos. I can still recall the sound of the bloated roo carcases literally sizzling in the blazing sun of the desert. The flies were as friendly as you might expect.

I drank it all in.

Watching the phases of the moon night by night from my tent.

The huge leg of a mygalomorph spider down its burrow.

The scorpion under my tent.

Ants warring with termites.

Feral camels cruising the dunes.

Entire cow carcases reduced to beef jerky in the desiccating heat and aridity.

Dead cow
A desiccated cow at the foot of a sand dune in the Simpson Desert (Photo: Elen Shute, 2005)

Sand goannas.

Sand goanna closeup
A metre-long Sand Goanna (Photo: Elen Shute, 2005)

Tiny dragons darting in front of the car.

A hopping mouse.

The way a lunchtime sandwich went dry and stale by the time you had even finished making it.

Conversations around the campfire with experienced scientists who tolerated my ignorance and inexperience with generosity and good grace.

The way you hardly saw a living creature by day, but awaking every morning and crawling out of your (borrowed) tent, the dunes were covered – covered – in animal tracks from a nocturnal party you hadn’t been invited to.

Ampurta tracks
Tracks of an Ampurta – a small carnivorous marsupial (Photo: Elen Shute, 2005)

Yet more mystique, more life sensed but not seen. Absolutely. Hooked.

Pics or it didn’t

The trip through the Simpson was very early in my experience as a photographer. This was before the era of digital photography got properly underway, and all your hopes and dreams were contained in small black film canisters.

Photographic gratification was delayed by days or weeks while you waited to get the rolls developed (and so was photographic disappointment).

The seven rolls of film I shot were taken with my trusty Canon Eos 300, my first SLR camera. My lenses were lousy, and so was my technique, but I managed to capture some images that still evoke the magic of that trip for me, and that drove me to write about it now.

I find myself at a bit of a turning point in my life, having just submitted my PhD thesis in vertebrate palaeontology, and transitioning into new work in the environment sector and as a writer.

Finding those photos was a timely and powerful reminder that even though the last dozen years have taken me overseas and back, through several jobs, a couple of tangential careers, and two PhD projects, a common thread through all that time has been a love of the natural world, landscape, and conservation of the life that surrounds us.

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