Diamantina/Sturt Stony Desert Survey
Diamantina/Sturt Stony Desert
10 Day Survey - May 28 > June 6, 1 day 4WD/8.5 days trekking/half day 4WD
Survey price: $5960
We begin our 2024 Songlines & Shared Stories program with this survey amongst the small dunes and stony swales of the Sturt Stony Desert adjoining the Diamantina River floodplain in South Australia.
The landscape consists of red/washed out white dunes and includes extensive areas of the classic gibber plains that give this desert its name. Explorer Charles Sturt encountered this fascinating landscape whilst he was enroute to the north in 1845, and this unique desert was named after him.
The ecological objectives of this survey are to conduct broad based non-invasive observations and documentation of the current health of the country.
In particular, our resident ornithologist Dr Julian Reid, will be conducting bird counts and identification, and due to the expected flooding in the outlying floodplains, this will be particularly interesting as migratory birds begin to follow the floods south towards Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.
Our second focus is to search for evidence of the native marsupial, the kowari (Dasyuroides byrnei). These opportunist tiny predators live in this area, inhabiting the sparsely vegetated gibber plains between the sand dunes as well as living in the surrounding grasslands and smaller river channels.
Belonging to the Dasyurid family of marsupials, which also includes the Tasmanian Devil and Quoll, Kowaris are quite ferocious carnivores that devour almost anything that crosses their path, from insects to small birds and mammals.
They tend to construct burrows in small sand islands and sand mounds located on the gibber plains, as this is away from predators such as dingo, cats and foxes that tend to roam and hunt on the nearby dunes.
And this is where our methodology of walking surveys is perfect for ground-truthing this arid country, as walking in front of, and to the sides of the camel team, we can spread out and cover a great deal of country with many eyes focused on the ground.
Kowari (Dasyuroides byrnei) Photo - SA Arid Lands
The third focus of the survey is based around extinction and possible extinction.
Why, you may ask, would we be looking for something that no longer exists?
The answer to that is: how can we be sure that an animal is extinct? Just because it hasn't been sighted, does not necessarily mean it doesn't exist.
In collaboration with the University of New England, we will be continuing our Scat Collection which involves collecting and documenting all dog/cat/raptor scats for analysis at a later date to determine the diet of dingos, cats, foxes and larger birds of prey. This proven methodology is the best way to see what was recently living in this area and this is of great interest to Professor Karl Vernes who has been researching mammal extinction in this part of the desert.
Karl's particular focus is the desert rat-kangaroo or ngudlukanta (Caloprymnus campestris), the lesser bilby or yallara (Macrotis leucura), greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis), and plains mouse (Pseudomys australis).
The last time any of those four species were seen in the area was 93 years ago in 1931 as recorded by mammalogist Hedley Herbert Finlayson, however that does not necessarily mean that there are not isolated small colonies living deep in the desert. As we discovered in 2023, the greater bilby was active in an area further north in Queensland that was presumed not to have a bilby presence.
Firstly, the Greater Bilby (Macrotis lagotis).
Bilbies once roamed huge areas of Australia, but now are restricted to areas of Western Australia and a small part of western Queensland, in addition to several enclosures on selected wildlife reserves.
The known colony of Greater Bilby to the north of the Sturt Stony Desert in Queensland is regularly studied and monitored by ecologists from the Save The Bilby Fund. In 2023 we discovered an area containing evidence of recent bilby activity well to the west of that established colony.
It was a great surprise for our ecologist Dr Rick Southgate to discover this new area. As it happens, Rick is one of the team who monitors the colony to the east, so it was very fortuitous that it was he who made this exciting discovery.
As far as we know, bilbies are no longer in the Sturt Stony Desert, however there have been unconfirmed sightings in the last decades. As our 2023 encounter proved, slowly walking country is perfect for locating evidence of small marsupial activity, so who knows what we may find in 2024! Ecologist Cassie Arkinstall, who monitors the Queensland colony, is very much looking forward to walking in the Sturt Stony Desert and looking for bilby activity.
Please note that the objective of this survey is to find evidence of kowari and bilby activity and not to actually trap either animal. However depending on what the local seasonal conditions are like, and what we discover, we may decide to set some camera and/or pitfall traps, though the effectiveness of this methodology will be determined by our ecologist at the time.
And this is not a survey where we will actually handle bilbies, so if you are particularly focused on looking at bilbies up close, then a visit to the Charleville BIlby Experience in western Queensland is highly recommended.
There is extensive information about the greater bilby online, particularly at the Save The Bilby Fund , however the following represents their current distribution in western Queensland. Our newly discovered area from 2023 is west of the southernmost black shaded area. www.savethebilbyfund.org.au
Greater Bilby (Macrotis lagotis). Photo - Save The Bilby Fund
The distribution of the greater bilby in Queensland.
The colours show the estimated extent of the distribution at different time periods: dark green is for pre-European settlement; mid green is for 1936; light green is for 1970; and black is for 2000.
Our 2024 survey is due south of the black area, in South Australia.
Image: Queensland Government.
Ecologist Dr Rick Southgate inspects bilby activity during our 2023 survey in the eastern Simpson Desert
And finally, the desert rat-kangaroo.
The current status of the desert rat-kangaroo is described below in this summary from the 2021 published paper. Karl, Todd, and Kelsey have worked on previous ADE surveys in the Simpson Desert.
As described below, the vastness and inaccessibility of much of the terrain is where our camel teams come to the fore, as we are a slow moving operation focused on looking at the small details in the landscape. We see everything.
So our walking survey provides the best possible way to discover the health of the landscape, and who knows what we will find...
A search for the desert rat-kangaroo or ngudlukanta (Caloprymnus campestris)
in north-eastern South Australia
Karl Vernes, A H , Stephen M. Jackson, Todd F. Elliott, Kelsey Elliott and Steven G. Carr
The desert rat-kangaroo or ‘ngudlukanta’ (Caloprymnus campestris) was once sparsely distributed in the Lake Eyre Basin of north-eastern South Australia and adjacent parts of Queensland, but has not been collected since the 1930s. However, numerous reported sightings, including some recent, provide some hope that it may still be extant. In 2018 and 2019, we searched for evidence of this species at sites where it had been collected in the 1930s, and at places where people have since reported seeing an animal that fits its description. Our survey, which analysed data from more than 6000 camera trap nights, 536 predator scats and 226 km of spotlight transects, was the most extensive field-based search ever undertaken for this animal; but we found no evidence for its continued existence. However, our work did detect other threatened species including a range extension for the kowari (Dasyuroides byrnei), thereby demonstrating the value of surveys like this one. Because of the vastness and inaccessibility of much of the terrain comprising the supposed distribution of C. campestris, we do not see our null result as definitive for this poorly surveyed animal; we instead hope that it provides a starting point for future surveys aimed at resolving its status.
Caloprymnus campestris as drawn by John Gould.
(Image in the public domain).
More information about this lost & found desert bettong can be seen here at the Australian Museum.
Desert Rat Kangaroo habitat circa 1931. Image: H.H. Finlayson
© Library & Archives NT, NTA2011/0061, Finlayson 2, Images 156-316, Diamantina and Central Australia, 1931_ Item 220.
Walking across the gibber. Don't worry, this looks much more 'nasty' than it actually is.
Gibber is characterised by the small smooth stones that are more or less squashed into the topsoil. Sometimes, like in the photo above, there are larger irregular stones. Walking across this landscape is quite straightforward: you just walk around the bigger stones. We have no concerns about taking the camels nor people across this landscape, but of course we don't actually camp on it!
Diamantina floodplain coolabahs. Photo is representative only, and may not necessarily depict where we will walk
During the trip you walk alongside our team of packcamels accompanied by 4 cameleers who are your crew for the duration of the survey. Our cameleers are not 'tour guides', they are experienced and seasoned stockmen/women who are specialists in handling and working with camels, and have a wealth of experience in walking the desert and general knowledge of its flora & fauna, and are respectful of our First Nations people who call Munga-Thirri home.
Walking in this landscape is on firm sand, occasional claypans and of course the gibber. Apart from the flood, large areas of the desert received rain from the tail end of cyclone Kirrily in mid February, so there may be a profusion of yellow flowers such as poached-egg daisy & 'Yellowtop' covering the landscape, and supplying our camels with fresh feed.... however it's not until we actually get out there in April 2024 that we will know the extent of any rainfall and corresponding seasonal conditions.
May and June is ideal walking weather in Central Australia and over the course of a 5 to 6 hour walking day you would walk approximately between 8 to 10 kilometres. Our pace of travel is determined by the camels and their ability to negotiate the dunes or other landforms in the landscape. They carry all your personal gear, and all you have to carry is your day pack. We will of course be stopping as required depending on what we see as we walk along.
This is a very real, very Australian desert experience, and camels are the perfect cross-country vehicle and so we don't follow roads or tracks, and there is no vehicle back-up: we don't need it! Camps are chosen for the availability of camel feed, and we never camp in the same place twice. And in addition, as we are Australia's only scientific organisation that also specialises in remote desert travel, you won't 'bump into' any other groups of trekkers, however please note that the entire trek will be on Clifton Hills Station, a working cattle property of 16,500 square kilometres, so we may see occasional evidence of cattle and some station infrastructure.
4WD transfers to/from Birdsville to the Strzelecki Desert
All camping equipment - swags, stools, tents. You bring your own sleeping bag and eating utensils
All meals, though we do not provide snacks
LOTS of space...
Survey RFDS Medical Chest, First Aid and emergency communications equipment
Crew of 4 to 5 cameleers
Trekking with an environmentally aware responsible business
(A detailed Trek Information Guide is sent to you when you book)
What's not included
Pre and post survey airfares and accommodation. You are responsible for arranging your travel to/from Birdsville and any accommodation. We can help organise this for you
Please look at this page How To Get To Birdsville
What else is required?
Travel Insurance. You have the option to arrange your own travel insurance, or you can contact us for a quote.
Where are we trekking?
In the shaded area of the map in the Sturt Stony/Strzelecki Deserts, South Australia