The idea of desert. There’s a certain image that comes to mind. Rolling dunes in a colour scale from orange to red; sand as far as the eye can see. A blank canvas. As our plane descends into Alice Springs I am surprised by the carpet of pastel green across the plains, by the sudden steep walls of rock and dirt that seem to jut up out of nowhere. The flight paths of bees lead us to an invasive hive in a tree hollow, beneath the wheeling of opportunistic black kites that divide up the sky above town. The green carpet of scrub rolls on for hours encompassing our destination, a remote station a few hours’ travel east of Alice. The red dirt road bisects it, corrugated dunes the car judders over, a desert in miniature.
River oak. They mark out deep earth like flagpoles, their roots stretching in and spreading out, their branches a mirror. Where the sand can’t anchor them they persist, skinny, improbable siblings balancing upright like Grenadier Guards. Crested pigeons shuttle up to their branches and sit whooping. Sunrise and sunset are filtered through their leaves, white light in the spinifex.
Big red. The dune is a thumbprint pressed out of the shore of the salt lake. Its undisturbed sand is miraculous. This is a landscape of primary colours; how very red, set against the blue block sky and the silver-grey lake. Here is the desert I imagined, but it is more like an oasis in the other desert that I am getting to know. It feels like nothing has moved here for decades, but there – a lizard. We have disturbed it, and it has jumped from its sun-spot to hang between thin twigs, clinging on precariously. And here is another, right by your shoulder on this branch, believing it’s invisible.
By night. Here there is no light pollution to blot out the sky, and the stars stretch from the horizon up, infinitely. I see why planetariums are designed the way they are, at last. The sky is a dome when nothing blocks the horizon, when the night has its full brightness. My head torch illuminates a squat round frog in my path, peppered with orange spots. In dry times it will dig itself down into the sand to wait for moisture. Only the rain can wake it.
Empty nest. Once there were boodies here; they left evidence behind. From above, they are grey patches on the desert’s green/yellow/red face. On foot the ground hardens; rocky calcrete bored with holes, networks of mummified warrens. Reptiles and birds flourish here, but the mammals are missing, scoured away. We find a set of cat tracks leading off into the spotless salt; ferals. Sometimes it is very quiet, but the Warlpiri can tell a snake’s breed and bearing from the way it slices the sand, source the burrows of a tribe of great desert skinks. There is a reason this country is called megadiverse.
Rain. The last night, rain taps gently on the roof of the tent, then hammers. I wake, now used to the silence; the humidity that built all evening has dropped and I can breathe. By day we stand in the spinifex beside a pond that isn’t always there, where greens and blues are vivid, mirage-like. Ducks are swimming in the desert. The thorny devil defies gravity for a drink, pulls water up the channels in its skin and into its mouth. The burrowing frogs can wake now.