The third missive from journalist Jo Stewart, who is documenting the work of our science team in the Simpson Desert
At the half-way point of the expedition, the Museum team is growing more accustomed to the challenges that come with working in the desert. Sand gets in all the equipment, unrelenting winds make pinning insect specimens near impossible, and swarms of flies crawl all over your hands and face as you take notes (and these are no ordinary flies – desert flies laugh in the face of industrial-strength insect repellent, and as a result we’ve all swallowed a fair few over the last week).
The recent addition of a rogue feral camel stalking our camp added a new level of intensity to the trip. At first it visited us at night, but even after being chased away it continued to follow us closely as we trekked across the dunes the next day. While not necessarily a direct threat to the Museum team, feral camels and brumbies upset the domesticated camels that are carrying all our gear and equipment. With their heavy loads and tied together in a long line, it only takes one camel to get spooked to end up in a very dangerous position.
So why are we suddenly encountering feral camels and brumbies? Because we found water! And with water comes life. A recent inch of rain has resulted in native flowers in full bloom, previously bone-dry claypans filling with water, and the return of birdlife keen to drink up and feast on the small insects and crustaceans that populate the claypans. This fertile environment has provided Janet Waterhouse with a plethora of specimens to collect. Setting out with bucket in hand, Janet spends most afternoons feverishly collecting insects and crustaceans that most of us can barely see, let alone accurately identify.
The presence of water in the desert has also created optimal conditions for Dr Julian Reid, an arid-zone ecologist and keen birdwatcher from the Australian National University, to spot many different birds, with his current tally sitting at 60 species.
While our new surroundings provide the perfect conditions for the scientists to do their work, for the rest of us it’s been a pleasant surprise to camp amid meadows of fragrant flowers and for the camels to be served up a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet. While not the picture we had in mind when signing up for a desert expedition, we aren’t complaining about this decidedly undesert-like camp site. We will be sorry to leave it when we pack up tomorrow and head over the giant dunes looming in the distance where more hard work and no doubt more flies await us.
The Australian Museum Simpson Desert Expedition is funded by a grant from the Australian Museum Foundation.