One of Australia’s most striking landscapes, the Simpson Desert is a largely uninhabited arid region covering 143,000 square kilometres in central Australia, near the middle of the continent.
Like most deserts, it has a hot and dry climate, usually receiving 150 mm or less of rainfall a year. However, the Simpson desert periodically floods after the periods of heavy rain.
These periods of above-average rainfall are followed by the explosion of life in the desert. Flowers burst from the sparse vegetation and many Australian desert animals rush to reproduce, taking advantage of the favourable conditions.
In this post
Old Andado – Australian Outback museum
As part of our Australia road trip, we visited the Old Andado station that lies on the edge of the Simpson Desert, about 330 km south-east of Alice Springs and stayed much longer than we expected.
The station is an iconic remote Australian homestead that has been restored to its 1920s original condition. In its glory days – in the years before electricity, running water and phones, the station ran cattle, sheep, and horses. It was a true ‘wild wild west’ lifestyle in the harshest conditions imaginable, with daytime temperatures rising to 50 degrees Celsius.
Now the station is a sort of a museum that lies between two red sand dunes that seem to stretch on forever. There are some basic cabins constructed within the homestead complex and a shower block with a donkey hot water boiler outside.
The dilapidated remnants of old work sheds and rusted out trucks that dot the area around the homestead contribute to the feeling of being in a place that time forgot.
Rain in the Simpson Desert
When we arrived, there was a group of geologists staying at the homestead, so we opted to camp at the foot of the dune instead. And during our first night there, the weather turned and we woke up to an overcast sky and drizzling rain.
The rain didn’t stop for most of the day and by late afternoon we knew that the roads would be too washed out to travel on for a few days. We were rained in in the desert! I couldn’t think of a better reason to extend our trip!
Australian Desert Animals
More or less stuck at the homestead we took stock of what was around. A flock of noisy Little corellas seemed to be resident at the site, as were Welcome swallows and Fairy martins.
Black kites congregated around homestead in their dozens. After dark, I came across a Desert frog to my huge surprise and a Bynoe’s gecko.
Long-haired rats and Hopping mice
Once the rain cleared we went to investigate our surroundings. We drove out about 6 km and went for an exploratory walk around the plains surrounding the homestead. Almost immediately we noticed that the sand was crisscrossed with a multitude of tracks. This place was rodent heaven.
A lot of the tracks ran in an organized fashion: there would be a central mound and a number of ‘runways’ leading away from it in different directions, some of which ended at a smaller mound which was connected to an entire network of different mounds by more well-trodden ‘runways’.
At night the plain literally came to life. The ‘runways’ turned out to belong to Long-haired rats and the species were clearly ‘booming’. Long-haired rats are known to undergo ‘boom’ and ‘bust’ or ‘crush’ cycles in response to resource availability.
This year brought above-average rainfall to the region and the rodents were quickly responding to the abundance of food. There were still many young around.
In amongst the Long-haired rats, there were a few Spinifex hopping mice and a couple of Short-tailed desert mice.
On the drive back, a Desert mouse ran across the road and froze in the headlights, which gave us a chance to take a few close-up photos of it.
Birds in the desert
The following day we took a drive around the property and came across a waterhole that attracted an abundance of birdlife. Flocks of Diamond doves, budgies, and zebra finches dotted every branch of the dead tree standing nearby. A few Red-tailed black cockatoos were camped up at the top of a different tree.
A little further up the road, we came across a large Bearded dragon that was trying to look as flat as he possibly could to appear to be part of the road.
Wildlife of the gibber plain
At night we drove to a gibber plain that we passed on the way in. It was a cold and miserable night and through there were a few desert frogs around, not much else was happening. And then I caught some unusual eye shine with my head torch. I thought it was another desert frog, but on closer inspection, it turned out to be a Lesser hairy-footed dunnart!
On the drive back we saw an old dingo, probably the one that has been leaving tracks in the sand around the homestead. A few meters up the road from where we saw the dingo we spotted a fox. So much for the theories that dingo presence suppresses fox populations.
There was more bird life than usual around the homestead on our 4th morning at Old Andado. A few Galahs, a Red-capped robin, a Brown falcon and a Black-shouldered kite made a welcome addition to the usual menagerie.
We didn’t do much during the day and simply enjoyed being in this incredible place. We explored the homestead and went for a walk on the dunes surrounding it.
Red dunes of the Simpson Desert
At night we decided to spend a bit more time exploring the ‘homestead dunes’ rather than going further afield. There were a lot of rodents around, but for some reason, they were much more nervous than their compatriots out on the plains.
Some of the larger rodents looked quite different to the long-haired rats and I think these were Plains mice, but I could never get close enough to them to make sure.
While chasing the rodents up the side of the dune we saw a cat down on the plain. And it was curious enough to come right up to us to see what we were and what we were up to.
Australian feral cats fascinate me. Obviously they are decimating Australia’s biodiversity and that’s a great shame. But we don’t seem to be able to do anything about it. Eventually we will have to accept them as part of the Australian landscape, and they will become Australia’s own wild cat.
Natural selection will keep shaping Australia’s cats and it would be fascinating to see the range of adaptations they develop for living in the desert conditions.
The cat’s appearance put an end to the rodents activity on that dune. So we went to re-visit some of our favorite spots and saw more of the same species. The only exceptions were a Brown songlark that was snoozing on the ground at the ‘Long-haired rat’ plains and a Barn owl flying above the homestead.
It was a fantastic experience to spend five days in a true Australian desert, probably the most remote place I have ever visited. As we were leaving, heading back towards Kulgerah, Old Andado turned up a final sight to remember: a huge Wedge-tail eagle was trying to drag something off the road. That something turned out to be a dead cat that was hit by a car not too long ago. There is no waste in nature.
Here is the full list of species found in the Simpson Desert.
For the adventurous souls, there are caretaking opportunities at Old Andado
Getting to Old Andado:
- Via the Old Andado Track (section of the Binns Track) from Alice Springs to Santa Teresa and out through to Allambi Station. This leads directly to the Old Andado homestead. The drive is 330kms and takes approximately 4-5 hour. 4WD recommended.
Alice to Santa Teresa – 93km
Santa Teresa to Old Andado – 237km
- Via Stuart Highway to Kulgera and then in through Finke Community (Apatula), through New Crown and Andado Stations to the Old Andado Homestead. This drive is 531kms and takes approx 6-7 hours. 4WD recommended.
Alice to Kulgera – 274km
Kulgera to Finke – 139km
Finke to Old Andado – 118km