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In July 2016, I had the unique opportunity to take part in an eight-day scientific expedition with Earthwatch project Bush Blitz TeachLive to research the plants and animals of the Simpson Desert.
Each day, Footscray City College students were able to keep up to date with the results of the scientific surveys we conducted and find out all about the ecology of the Simpson Desert via a daily blog http://bushblitz.teachlive.org.au/index.php/footscray-city-college. During the time the expedition took place, my Year 10 General Science students as well as other Science students and their teachers, were studying Environmental Science and were learning about the earth’s biomes, and the earth’s cycles (Biosphere, Hydrosphere, Atmosphere and Lithosphere). They were learning about ecological/species diversity and the threats to biodiversity brought on by climate change. The Simpson Desert became a case study for the students to explore these concepts in the classroom. Each day, I would post questions on the blog page for them to answer back in the classroom.
I was accompanied by three other teachers: from Queensland, the ACT and Victoria. We were working alongside cameleers, zoologists, botanists, and archaeologists while carrying out our biodiversity field work in the Munga Thirri National Park, which is a largely unexplored part of the Queensland section of the Simpson Desert. The fieldwork involved travelling by camel train along this transect line to remote parts of the outback that no vehicle can access, and assisting ADE’s scientists to conduct a range of fieldwork techniques that included collecting and documenting botanical specimens, assisting with marsupial trapping surveys, and observing birds and other wildlife.
BushBlitz is a national partnership to discover, document and describe the unique flora and fauna of Australia. Last month Bush Blitz joined the not-for-profit organisation Australian Desert Expeditions (ADE) in a project called Project 138, which encompasses a broad research corridor stretching from approximately 65 kilometres north of the Warburton River near Lake Eyre to the Toko Range in Queensland. It was named Project 138 because the biodiversity field work is centred along the 138 degrees meridian. Project 138 is one of the world’s first continent-scale biodiversity surveys, providing the knowledge needed to help us protect Australia’s biodiversity for generations to come.
The research will contribute to the Central Australia Transect (CAT), a multi-year project that aims to better understand the biodiversity of the world’s largest parallel sand-ridge desert and Australia’s driest area. In addition to this biological research, the expedition also included documenting archaeological sites. This is particularly significant as the camel train moved between mikiri, or traditional wells, constructed by the Wangkangurru Traditional Owners of the area. While on our expedition, sites were encountered that showed evidence of past human habitation. We were lucky to discover several stone chips of cutting/scraping tools used by the indigenous people who visited this region in the past, as well as a muller which was used as a grinding stone by the Wangkangurra people. These finds were carefully documented, with great care being taken to not disturb this priceless cultural heritage.
During the trek, we had to be completely self-sufficient carrying all our water, food, swags and other important camping equipment. The cameleers made use of solar technology to recharge our laptops and we were also able to keep perishables cool in a solar powered fridge. We needed to carry our own laptops so we could write a blog each day which gave an ongoing account of the expedition and described the scientific field work we carried out to our students back at school.
This once in a lifetime experience has given me real appreciation of how important it is to protect our biodiversity. We were fortunate to see the Simpson Desert at perhaps the best it has been in a lifetime in terms of species diversity because the recent heavy rainfall in the most arid parts of Australia had allowed the desert to flourish. The flora of the desert was so stunning that it was easy at times to forget that you were actually walking through one of the driest desert regions in the world. The desert nights were so clear and lit up with the full moon, that it was a mystical experience to walk across the white saltpans in the evenings and see the reflection of the moonlight illuminate the entire landscape. The desert landscape evokes these feelings and I could appreciate how it inspires artists like John Olsen and Sidney Nolan.
Thanks should go to Bruce Paton the Program Manager at Earthwatch who helped organize the expedition and selected me to take part in this camel trek and to Andre Haas who led the expedition so professionally. Thank you to Aaron Corsaro who covered my classes during my absence and who was able to engage the students with learning activities related to this project. Accompanying this article are a selection of photos taken on the expedition.