Scientific & Ecological Surveys
SONGLINES & SHARED JOURNEYS Knowledge Mapping the Simpson Desert


The StoryLine behind our 2019-21 Survey Program


Aboriginal songlines criss-crossed the entire Australian continent, forming major trading and ceremonial routes along which goods and information flowed. Some of these songlines ran for thousands of kilometres stretching through the territory of many different mobs.


As Aboriginal society was a non-literate culture, important information was retained in song, dance, geographical landmarks, and in objects, and people were able to retain extraordinary amounts of collective knowledge about the natural world, information that was critical for their existence.


This knowledge was wealth, and it was therefore the source of power as people depended on that knowledge for survival.


For the Wangkangurru Yarluyandi, the Dreamtime is called the History Time. As with Dreamtime stories elsewhere in Aboriginal Australia, they were associated with various features of the landscape.


In the Simpson Desert, the major songlines 'navigated the desert' and acted as a highly effective knowledge map. Secondary, more localised songlines contained more precise information about specific areas.


The Wangkangurru Yarluyandi people of the eastern Simpson Desert have lived with this country for tens of thousands of years and their intimate knowledge of this natural environment enables them to perform many rituals for continued existence. This includes long-established customs such

as 'rain making' ceremonies.


The Simpson Desert landscape is an integral part of their creation stories, with each prominent feature being associated with a story or being celebrated in song cycles. This desert is where the old people lived. The landscape unites people and there is a sense of connection to Country.


Essentially the desert was like a huge library of information, and the songlines decoded that information so that it could be used by the Wangkangurru Yarluyandi allowing them to live successfully right out to the centre of the desert.


The Two Boys


The story of the Two Boys is one of the most important Wangkangurru Yarluyandi creation stories.


The Two Boys lived with their mother on the western side of the desert at Dalhousie and were rainmakers who spent their days catching small birds. While chasing birds they gradually ended up in the Simpson Desert. Here they met the Karanguru people, to whom they gave feathers from the birds they caught, linking the Karanguru of the east with the Wangkangurru.


The lively Two Boys story is comprised of a string of story lines that takes the traveller from Dalhousie in the west to Birdsville in the east. The story contains important information on where water can be found, creating a pathway across the desert. This story is a small part of a much larger story that travels through South Australia, Queensland, and the Northern Territory.




























Simpson Desert Mikiri


Two Boys Dreaming described where the system of mikiri or native wells were located across the desert, but many of the mikiri were also associated with more than 1 myth.


We have been using the known mikiri (18) as a basis for our research since 2014, but for the Songlines & Shared Stories transects, we will be looking at how the mikiri fitted into the bigger picture of Simpson Desert mythology.


Australian Desert Expeditions has been researching the mikiri, or native wells, in the Simpson since 2007, and we have made many discoveries in the corridors that link the wells.


We have found wooden artefacts, major habitation sites, documented hundreds of stone artefacts and cross-cultural artefacts: metal items such as knives, buttons, and metal discards shaped as tools.


The mikiri are incredibly important sites, as it gives us an indication of the thoroughfares where people walked, traded goods, lived and died.


Read more information about the mikiri and Simpson Desert mythology here.



How does Australian Desert Expeditions knowledge map the Simpson Desert?


To most travellers, the Simpson Desert has become an iconic destination, a list of things to be ticked off the 'to do' list. And modern 'exploration' has now been coupled to well-equipped 4WDs traversing the various 4WD tracks like a procession of mechanised caterpillars.


The only common denominator between ADE and exploration in a 4WD is the landscape itself.

After that there is no comparison.


For the vehicle traveller, cocooned in a machine, the Simpson Desert looks featureless, as cresting each dune, or driving across each salt lake, it all looks much the same. The detail is lost. But the desert is definitely not featureless.


The various landscapes of the Simpson, the vast great dune field, extensive salt lakes, claypans and gibber plains all relate to each other. They are connected geographically and, through the songlines, by spirit and myth.


Australian Desert Expeditions is in a unique position, as we are able to walk country for weeks on end and not only document and create important benchmark scientific & ecological data, but by default, reconnect to these ancient stories, which in numerous cases of course, was the original ecological data.


Essentially what we are doing During the 2019-21 Songlines & Shared Stories surveys, is overlaying the songlines with a modern ecological interpretation.


ADE approaches the desert on foot, just as the Wangkangurru Yarluyandi have done for thousands of years. Walking country, accompanied by packcamels, reveals the ancient stories, and during our surveys, it's almost as if we are stepping back to a time when knowledge of country was all that mattered.


And of course, we expect to see changes. We know that many animals have become extinct, and the introduction of invasive species, particularly the cat and rabbit, have had disastrous consequences for the desert ecology.



A Disrupted Map


When the Wangkangurru Yarluyandi people left the desert in the summer of 1900-1901, the connection to country was severely disrupted and consequently the knowledge maps were either not passed on, or only partially. It was literally like a library burning down. All that information, so intricately connected to the landscape, was either severely fragmented, or lost completely. It was as though the Wangkangurru Yarluyandi were separated from everything they could read.


Singing a song at a particular place in the desert unlocks the information about that particular place: for example, the animals that are found there, which plants are edible and when.


And when that knowledge disappears, it's very detailed information about the weather, geographical landforms, birds, reptiles, insects, stars, that vanishes.


Colonial borders were established In the 19th Century, and surveying teams (with packcamels) were sent to place marker posts every quarter of a mile across dunes and swales. In the case of the rabbit proof fence, physical barriers were erected (unsuccessfully) across the landscape in a futile attempt to keep rabbits from invading the pastoral zone to the east.

Poignantly, the surveying and exploring parties, including Madigan's 1939 Simpson Desert Expedition relied on local aboriginal knowledge of the landscape to find water.


In an Australian first, we will now be 'following' these ancient stories and overlaying them with a modern ecological interpretation. Bringing the ancient stories to life.


What has changed?

Are those animals cited in the songlines and myths still abundant?

Are they here at all?


There is much to learn from the ancient stories. By walking the desert, immersing ourselves into the landscape, we are endeavouring to reconnect our continent to the ancient knowledge that sustained people for thousands of years.

The Wangkangurru Yarluyandi obviously have a strong connection to desert country, and we feel that all Australian's can have their own bond to our continent, and specifically, to the great Munga-Thirri, the Heart of Australia. Their own connection to the continent in which they were born or choose to live.


We will be collaborating with Wangkangurru Yarluyandi elder Don Rowlands to specifically research and identify particular songlines in the eastern and central Simpson Desert, beginning with "walking" his grandfather's songline. You can read more about Don's grandfather, Watti Watti here


There are numerous stories and many lines across the Munga-Thirri:

  • Border Lines
  • Protected Area Lines
  • Surveying Lines
  • Oil Exploration Lines
  • Explorer Lines
  • 4WD Lines and Fence Lines


But the original lines were the SongLines.


We hope you can join us in 2021.




















Part of Two Boys Dreaming

Source: Lake Eyre Basin Aboriginal Way, Lake Eyre Basin Ministerial Forum, 2018

Sources and references.

Shephard, Mark, The Simpson Desert, Corkwood Press 1999

Kelly, Lynne, The Memory Code, Allen & Unwin 2017

Monroe, AH, 2011, Mythology of the Simpson Desert, Australia: The Land Where Time Began, online

Harper, A, 23 Years of walking the Simpson Desert, collective memories, 2018

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