Day 31, Across the Sturt Stony Desert to Birdsville


Waddi Trees

26 August 2013

I am on the edge of the Simpson Desert, Munga-Thirri National Park. Munga-Thirri means Big Sand Hill.

For this stage of the journey I was kindly offered a lift; there are not many other ways to get the 700km from Longreach to Birdsville.

We drive in a straight red line, past silver grass plains and on through the carpets of rusty round gibber, a great, red-desert pavement of pebbles locked in the clay. The sun beats relentlessly down from an empty bucket of blue.

We have crossed the Sturt Stony Desert when Birdsville, on the traditional land of the Wangkangurru-Yarluyandi people, appears through a dusty flat haze. With its population of only 150 people in such an expanse of space, the roads spread themselves comfortably wide. And with no need to hold in their breath, the roads flop on the landscape in the heat. The houses spread themselves with arms out-flung, saying, ”Look – we have all this room. We hardly know what to do with ourselves!” Such is the grid of four spread-eagled streets; a baker, a hotel, a visitor centre and a caravan park that make up Birdsville.

I am here to meet with Don Rowlands and Lynn, his wife, and Koopah, the beautiful, faithful, little brown dog who is to come everywhere with us; Koopah after the Kallakoopah River.

Don is Wangkangurru Elder and National Park Ranger for Munga-Thirri (the Simpson Desert), and I found him in my research, through ABC radio interviews he had done, talking of the importance of culture and land, and the sharing of this knowledge.

I am staying in a traditional style caravan in his yard, and as he shows me to the corner of the yard, an enormous welcome awaits me; a big sign saying “Parrott Hilton”. How welcome it makes me feel! And how much like Don it is, I am to discover, with his wry humour and his warmth. The town water comes from the Artesian Basin and my caravan sits under one of the water-cooling towers. What a very desert Australia scene my new home is.

Everything out here is continuously covered in a soft mat of fine red dust, picked up by the hot desert winds and scattered unceremoniously on every surface. Tinfoil taped over the caravan window struggles to keep it out. I am here in the hottest September on record with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees and there isn’t much shade. I feel my brain adjusting and clicking down gears for what is going to be for me a very hot week.

I have to shift my whole being into the new time zone. There isn’t much hurry for anything out here. One thing drifts into another under the dripping blue sun. In contradiction, there is always the quiet voice at the back of my head urging me on to complete the work that needs to be done. I must balance the two opposing forces and blend them somewhere into a delicious sweet soup.

Don takes me, on my first afternoon, for a tour of the area. It is a well thought out introduction to Wangkangurru traditional culture. We go to see the Waddi trees, part of the Wangkangurru Thutirla Pula (Two Boys Dreaming) Creation Story. What beautiful old trees they are, thin and bent, brushed over with soft-hanging needles that drip a warm gold-green in the setting sun.

Thutirla Pula Creation story, consists of a series of connected stories about two boys who travelled across the desert from west to east.

The two boys stayed a night at the Waddi trees. When they woke up in the morning they saw tall men all around. The boys were being challenged for passing through someone else’s country. As I sit under the tree, looking up and listening to Don’s story, I can see clearly the man in the tree, arms outstretched.

Creation stories such as Thutirla Pula serve to map routes for navigation across the country. The stories also helped the Aboriginal people find the water wells and survive in the desert. They provided wisdom and a sense of place. Many of the stories cross language groups and also follow trade routes.

Waddis are a rare and ancient desert tree, found in only three locations in Australia. All the stands are on the fringes of the Simpson Desert, separated by hundreds of kilometers.

The timber is so hard it damages axes and saws. Waddi wood has Aboriginal totemic significance, and was used by local groups to transport fire.

(Links to further information on Waddi trees, Munga-Thirri National Park, Thutirla Pula Dreaming and the Sturt Stony Desert have been uploaded to the Australia Digital Resources page of this blog)

2 thoughts on “Day 31, Across the Sturt Stony Desert to Birdsville

  1. Hi Judy, It’s Stephanie (Suzannah’s daughter) here. I just want to let you know that I’m enjoying your journey and your blog oh so very much! I feel a strong connection both to the Gaelic peoples of Scotland through my ancestral heritage and to the Indigenous culture of Australia. You write beautifully and I love how you have managed to capture the essence of place, people and the reclaiming of culture.

    Thank you! I look forward to seeing the exhibition one day.

    Love Stephanie


    • Stephanie! How very lovely to hear from you. Thank you for your comments and for getting in touch. It is really lovely to know who is out there reading. I do hope we can meet up again one day – and Suzannah too. The exhibition is being prepared for tour in Australia in 2015. Hope to see you then perhaps, if not before? x Judy


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