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Deserts of Australia: The Red Centre

Australia has the largest desert region in the Southern Hemisphere. The Western Desert, Tanami, Nullarbor, Simpson and Strzelecki together cover 1.6 million square kilometres, nearly 70 per cent of the continent. Like the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, these deserts are well-vegetated and only moderately arid. Here, the major challenge for people is a 'boom and bust' ecology, driven by extreme variability in rainfall. Alice Springs, with a median annual rainfall of 259 millimetres, got only 54 millimetres of rain in 1985, but a staggering 903 millimetres in 1974.

Dune crest at sunset, Andado Station, Simpson Desert, Central Australia. Photo: Mike Gillam. James Range, east of Boggy Hole, Finke River, Central Australia. Photo: Mike Gillam.

Desert people

Moving into the Australian desert was not difficult. But staying there was a problem. Drought and climate change periodically disrupted the lives of desert people. During 'boom' times water flowed in dry rivers, dead lakes brimmed with water, wells and claypans were full. By 30,000 years ago, there were pockets of people throughout the desert interior. During drought years, they fell back to reliable water. During good years, they moved out again into sandhill country. But what do you do when global climate change creates droughts that last hundreds of years, or millennia? The peak of the last Ice Age, 20,000 years ago, made life in the desert ever more precarious: hotter summers, less rain, and strong dusty winds. People had to abandon many areas.

Aerial view over dunes, Strzelecki Desert, South Australia, about 10 kilometres east of Moomba, July 1997. Photo: Richard Woldendorp. Dune crest overlooking Lake Amadeus, north of Uluru, Central Australia. Photo: Mike Gillam.

Opening the desert

It was the construction of a transcontinental telegraph line in 1872 that opened the Australian desert to the world. The Overland Telegraph Line was 'a long fuse' laid through central Australia. Within months of its completion, the pastoral frontier had surged forward 600-700 kilometres, and exploring parties were probing the desert to the west. By 1880, a line of pastoral outposts in the western Macdonnell Range formed the edge of the settled districts.

At the same time that European prospecting and exploring parties entered the desert, Aboriginal people were leaving it. European settlement triggered a chain migration of desert people out of the sandhill country and into cattle stations, mission and government ration depots. In some places an entire people left their country within a single generation. Nearest the colonial frontier, the Kukatja moved into the pastoral districts in the 1890s, raiding for cattle. Later, a long drought from 1924-1929 drove some Pintupi east to Hermannsburg Mission. Others followed, looking for their relatives. Deeper in the desert, the 'inside Pintupi' moved to government settlements after contact with Welfare Branch patrols in the 1950s and 1960s.

Isolation and contact

In 1984, Walala Tjapaltjarri walked out of the Gibson Desert and met Europeans for the first time. With a small group of relatives, he had been isolated from other people for more than 20 years - in fact, for most of his life. He was among the last desert people to live off the land in the traditional way. Two hundred years ago, 20,000-30,000 people lived this way. Today, we know them by a variety of tribal names: Pintupi, Pitjantjatjara, Martu, Warlpiri, Arrernte, and Luritja. Here, there were fewer people, more thinly spread, than in any other southern desert.

Many different Australians call the Red Centre home. Aboriginal people and some cattlemen have learnt to be flexible, opportunistic and mobile, moving to take advantage of desert rain. Other people avoid or evade the desert by building towns like artificial oases where shade, food, water and cool drinks are abundant.

Extremes contains further stories and archaeological artefacts relating to the diverse people who populate Australia's Red Centre.

Leslie Stafford, extracting honey from a tree, Central Australia.
Photo: George Serras, National Museum of Australia.
Lucinda Williams, Central Australia.
Photo: George Serras, National Museum of Australia.