The Simpson Desert lies in the very centre of Australia, crossing the edges of South Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. Not easily accessible, with narrow tracks the only way to cross it, except for travellers on foot or with camels.
We have just returned from a trip along the Madigan Line, a track established in 1939 for a scientific expedition by Cecil Madigan, who travelled from West to East with camels across the Northern Simpson Desert, with a view to assessing the agricultural viability of the area. The title of the book he wrote about the the trip, ‘Crossing the Dead Heart’ gives away his feelings.
The Madigan Line is not a very clearly defined track, and because of its remoteness we decided to join a tagalong tour, to have the support of other vehicles. The danger out there of travelling alone is in the case of a breakdown or accident it could be many days before anyone else came along to offer assistance. We travelled with a convoy of nine other four-wheel drive vehicles, crossing about 900 sand dunes of varying heights, the smaller ones being about 5 metres and the highest over 70 metres, and with varying degrees of difficulty – some easily up and over, others requiring a lot more effort. Every vehicle must carry a sand flag on the front, a red flag on the top of a 3 metre stalk, so oncoming vehicles are visible as they cross the dunes. On several occasions vehicles became bogged and had to be towed out. Travel was slow due to the condition of the tracks, some days we covered about 80km in 8 hours of driving, but it gave us a chance to observe the landscape.
We met the group in Port Augusta, South Australia, and from there travelled to Woomera, up the Oodnadatta Track, to William Creek, Mount Dare (some of these places are so small there is nothing there but a roadhouse selling food and fuel) and from there to the beginning of the Madigan Line. Madigan’s camp sites were marked by small marker posts, and we camped at or close to some of them. Once we were on the Madigan Line we were bush camping, so had to carry all our food, water and fuel with us. The phone and internet connection were long gone, not to be found again till we got to Birdsville a week or so later.
The scenery changed constantly, from barren stony expanses, to the deep red sand dunes with spinifex plants, to areas with underground water where small, hardy gidgee trees and shrubs were growing. The area between each dune could vary dramatically. The most startling and beautiful surprise was the view from the top of one dune, looking down into an oasis of green – flood water had swept through the valley and the masses of seeds that lie dormant, potentially for years, had sprung to life, covering the valley with low green plants and small white, yellow and purple flowers.
Because of rain that had fallen some months before in Queensland, water had come down many of the creeks that as a rule are dry, eventually emptying into Lake Eyre, filling it in a way that only happens occasionally. This meant that some of the tracks we expected to follow were impassible, so detours had to be made, but the great advantage was seeing that part of the country green, with creeks full of water, spilling over the banks, and a wonderful array of desert flowers.
As we travelled I collected small objects and plant specimens to draw, and the other members of the group found objects for me too – some wonderful things, the pupa case of what must be an enormous moth, a camel skull (something I had been hoping to find!), a live gecko, which obligingly remained perched on the edge of my sketchbook while I drew it, as well as plants and feathers. I’m very grateful for all these! Time was always short as we had a long way to go and little time at the end of the day so I didn’t do as many drawings as I would have liked and some were a bit rushed, but at least I did manage to do some!
Once I have sorted through my photos I will do post of them too, but for now, here are the sketches – the first three were done on the way to Port Augusta, so are not from the desert, but the rest are. They were done in a Stillman and Birn A4 hardback sketchbook, and I draw straight in with fine water resistant pen, then add the watercolour.