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Desert song

Life on land

"If you do not know deserts, Australian deserts, which can be dangerous places in their extremis, are among the most beautiful places of all”. Peter Hylands

Peter and Andrea Hylands

August 19, 2023

These dry places, which somehow capture us, are the remote places where the diversity of nature once thrived. The animals and plants here have told their story of resilience, adaptability and evolution across the millions of years of the Earth’s diversity of life, now stored so perfectly before us. 

Desert life

At my feet the endless discoveries of plants, many delicate in their beauty, adapted to the harsh and dry conditions over millions of years past. Above in the nightly sky, a confounding brilliance that tells you just how precious our planet Earth is. This is also a place that has allowed humans to live here for tens of thousands of years. Our time insignificant in its scale. 

During the afternoon, a cradle of piercing light and dark shadow is patterning the land, turning now to darker time and the night sky that so describes the culture of the people who have lived below it and within it since deep time. 

A Perentie, Varanus giganteus, walks slowly across the sand and dry leaves, in its dappled skin the giant lizard projects its dark shadow.

Shadows play an important part in the landscape here, the stark contrast between shadow and light as strong as it can be, whether lizard, rock or tree, shadows are everywhere in the late afternoon light. 

To demonstrate the scale of this place, I can recall a time, now many years ago and more than a thousand kilometers to the south east of where we stand today, but still in remote desert country, as we walk this remote country, we hear a young boy crying in the bushes that surround us. Here was a white child entirely alone, still early morning, the temperature rising rapidly, it was already very hot, the desert heated by the anvil of the January sun. 

We rescued the child and located the parents. The child had wandered off from his parent’s camp during the night. That very lucky child returned to camp, and to grateful parents.

2023 fires

Once more there were terrible fires in this region of Central Australia, fuelled yet again by introduced Buffel Grass.

At the time of reporting, over 100,000 hectares and over 20 per cent of Tjoritja National Park have been burnt over the last few weeks in the latest wildfires, which locals describe as a tragedy for such a special and ecologically abundant place. Tjoritja is the home of the critically endangered Central Rock-rat with an estimated 80 per cent of its population in areas close to the fire zone.

“We know that Buffel Grass fires are hotter, more intense and occur more frequently. Through fire, Buffel Grass is transforming the identity of Central Australia into a mono-crop of Buffel Grass. It is replacing woodlands, native grasslands and turning marvellous river red gums into blackened posts. In the Northern Territory, Buffel Grass is not even a declared weed” Local environment group

Here we go again. What the Northern Territory Government have to say about Buffel Grass can only be described as both foolish and irresponsible. We won’t bother to mention just how dangerous getting caught in a raging Buffel Grass fire can be.

One of our Aboriginal friends in Central Australia, a distinguished elder, now deceased, told us he can remember Buffel Grass being sown from light aircraft in the regions around Alice Springs.

The grass, in turn, would come to choke out the food plants of Indigenous people and create hot fires that kill the native plants and create danger in these remote places. It is through this process of changed fire regimes, fires far hotter now, that the ancient and beautiful trees of central Australia are killed.

“Buffel grass is well regarded by many Central Australian cattle producers because of its palatability, ability to produce significant amounts of forage and its tolerance to drought and grazing. However, palatability varies between cultivars and the soil quality they are growing in. Since Buffel Grass is perennial, it responds rapidly to rain, except in cold and frosty periods. Green Buffel Grass is relatively nutritious with about 14 per cent crude protein, declining as it matures and cures to about 3 per cent. Good stands of Buffel Grass can make reasonable quality hay. The extensive root system of Buffel Grass enables it to bind soil particles, reducing erosion and suppressing dust. In addition, the tussock base and leaves help to impede overland flow of water and the erosive impact of raindrops. These benefits are evident in both Alice Springs and in surrounding Indigenous communities where there has been widespread Buffel Grass plantings over many years to reduce erosion and rehabilitate damaged land”. Northern Territory Government

In South Australia and just across the Northern Territory border the story is very different.

“Buffel Grass can affect biodiversity, natural and cultural heritage, communities and infrastructure. Through changes in vegetation structure and the loss of native flora and fauna, it can transform rangeland landscapes. By degrading the environment it can threaten natural, Aboriginal and European cultural heritage; remote communities and infrastructure can be impacted through the increased risk of bushfire. South Australia took the lead in 2015 as the first jurisdiction in Australia to declare Buffel Grass under its weed management legislation. Our response to Buffel Grass in South Australia requires a delicate balance between its use as a pasture grass across state and territory boundaries, and the need to protect our environment, cultural landscapes and infrastructure”. Government of South Australia

In many places here, wildlife is now so much harder to find than it once was. There have been numerous extinctions, both local and national. The old story, one of changing fire patterns, introduced animals and plants, the horses, cattle, donkeys and camels that now fill the landscape and trample this fragile land, hard-hoofed animals now replacing the delicate feet of Kangaroos and other native species here.  

The weeds that choke the delicate desert vegetation are all around us, fewer places now as they should be, and as they once were. No chance for those native animals that live in little burrows in the sand. No chance for the marsupials and birds that once relied on the now trampled waterholes. From the air it is easy to see the patterns of introduced destruction.

Out of sight and out of mind

What we see in Central Australia makes me want to write about just a few of the catastrophic problems that face the natural world. The problems of governance in environmental matters appear more extreme than they ever were. 


The outback is particularly vulnerable to misuse and this is because it is mostly out of sight and out of mind. The reality is that most people do not care about it that much. The latest problem for the environment, and I suspect for the population of the Northern Territory, is that in mid-April 2018 its Labor Government lifted the moratorium on fracking. In doing so completely ignoring the impact of fugitive emissions, among these we are talking methane, and consumption of fossil fuels on global warming. This is particularly astounding given the Northern Territory’s immense potential to generate solar energy and the new technologies that could be developed to enhance its reach. 

Good luck with that

“When announcing the decision to allow commercial gas production to go ahead in the Beetaloo Basin this week, NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles said Indigenous people had the power to stop a gas development”. ABC, 6 May 2023

Fracking also turns natural landscapes into industrial ones and this is yet another threat, entirely unconsidered, to Australia’s arid land species. Industrialisation of Australia’s outback landscapes is already occurring in some places including Queensland and New South Wales. Fracking, given the number of NO FRACKING signs we see, has not been a popular idea with Indigenous people who hold the knowledge of these places and the Labor Government had stated that Indigenous lands will not be fracked (2018). Now the story appears to have changed. Neither chemicals or water recognise fence lines so we will see what happens here.

For many years I have described how Australia’s Great Artesian Basin is on a parallel journey to that of the Great Barrier Reef, that is it is being destroyed by similar processes which I won’t detail here, but to say that the vast quantities of water that fracking will require and the chemicals used will have to have an impact on the people who use this water supply (which is a large chunk of the outback population) and the plants and animals that rely on it for their survival.

All these issues will of course be denied until the disaster that is to unfold is so great that denial can no longer be an option. By then it will be too late. Given the level of research and the scale and complexity of the geography and geology of the Northern Territory and its aquifers, claims by politicians that the science says this is safe are highly dubious. Same old, same old, I am afraid.

"The destruction of the Great Artesian Basin and Great Barrier Reef will have enormous consequences on employment and economic opportunity for the people who live in these regions. Their destruction is among the most short-sighted of all things in the world today." Peter Hylands

I want to briefly describe the situation in Texas and the US generally where fracking has occurred for a long period, the US has immense problems with ground water and for a range of reasons. Since 2005 around 140,000 fracking wells have been opened in the US. Industry figures indicate that in the period 2005-2018, 905 billion litres of water have been used by the US industry. Water used in fracking is unsuitable for other uses outside of further fracking activities. Research at Yale has identified toxicity in more than 150 chemical compounds used in the industry. Environment Texas state that wells in the US commissioned in 2014 were responsible for fugitive emissions equivalent to the emissions of 22 coal-fired power stations.