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Dry Times: Blueprint for a Red Land

Dry Times: Blueprint for a Red Land

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Dry Times: Blueprint for a Red Land

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Dec 3, 2009


With knowledge from our deserts, Australians can reshape the human story. Dry Times: Blueprint for a Red Land provides new insights into how our desert environments and institutions work – and how this affects the people living in them, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike.

It shows that the desert offers solutions to the challenges of living in an uncertain and threatening age, teaching us new ways to live, manage scarce resources, and cope with climatic extremes, isolation and lack of water and energy. These lessons apply not only to remote regions, but also to cities and entire nations as humanity faces growing scarcity of vital resources.

With vivid examples drawn from Australia's desert life, outback people, animals and plants, Dry Times holds many positive lessons for our nation and humanity in a changing and resource-depleted world.

Dec 3, 2009

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Dry Times - Mark Stafford Smith




© CSIRO 2009

All rights reserved. Except under the conditions described in the Australian Copyright Act 1968 and subsequent amendments, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, duplicating or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. Contact CSIRO PUBLISHING for all permission requests.

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Stafford Smith, Mark.

Dry times: blueprint for a red land / Mark Stafford Smith,

Julian Cribb.

9780643095274 (pbk.)

Includes index.


Arid regions ecology – Australia.

Arid regions agriculture – Australia.

Biodiversity – Australia.

Sustainable development – Australia.

Natural resources – Australia – Management.

Cribb, Julian


Published by


150 Oxford Street (PO Box 1139)

Collingwood VIC 3066


Front cover photos by Greg Rinder/CSIRO (top), iStockphoto (bottom)

Back cover photo by Mark Stafford Smith

Set in 10.5/14 Adobe Palatino and Optima

Edited by Peter Storer Editorial Services

Cover and text design by James Kelly

Typeset by Desktop Concepts Pty Ltd, Melbourne

Index by Russell Brooks

Printed in China by 1010 Printing International Ltd

CSIRO PUBLISHING publishes and distributes scientific, technical and health science books, magazines and journals from Australia to a worldwide audience and conducts these activities autonomously from the research activities of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of, and should not be attributed to, the publisher or CSIRO.




1  Dramatic deserts

2  Spreading deserts: past and future

3  What drives deserts?

4  Desert survivors

Colour plates

5  Living off a lean landscape

6  Dry but smart: tomorrow’s desert business

7  Surprising settlements

8  Tantalising technologies

9  Desert democrats

10  Deserts and our future






The thinking in this book arises from nearly three decades of life and experiences in desert Australia, and a side interest (that has now become central) in climate change. Many years of working with the international body of scientists who study the global climate has convinced me that we face a future of rapid change. This change is almost certainly going to come upon us faster than the carefully couched public estimates, creating huge uncertainties about what the future will bring for our children and our children’s children.

Deserts are all about dealing with uncertainties. They hold vital lessons of immediate relevance to a world beset by climatic, economic and resource variability – a world where the stable certainties on which our civilisation was built seem increasingly fragile.

In my time in the desert, I have valued countless generous exchanges with many desert dwellers, from pastoralists back of Bourke to traditional elders among remote desert sands, with research colleagues in dry river beds and public servants in tall city towers. These encounters have often been challenging, but invariably welcoming, and it is to all these people who care about the desert that this book is dedicated.

Reflecting on these interactions, it has often struck me that desert dwellers – myself included – are endlessly bemused by the slings and arrows that the ‘world out there’ seems to throw at them. Discussions start with tirades about the unfairness of drought, continue with amazement at how people in distant capitals such as Canberra have no idea what life is like in the bush, and round off with disgust that the national news only ever mentions the outback when something disastrous (outback murders) or humorously quirky (antics around the first traffic lights in Alice Springs) rears its head. ‘Why can’t they take us seriously?’, comes the cry.

Well, I have come to see that, like drought, most of these frustrations are a more or less inevitable outcome of how the whole place works, not some evil conspiracy. Understanding this is the first step to correcting the situation as far as possible, or living with it more happily in so far as it is not. Hopefully, desert readers will emerge from the end of this book with greater equanimity and resolve than when they started. And non-desert readers will have a better appreciation of how one of our nation’s principal wealth-generating regions really works.

At the same time as I was experiencing these desert encounters, I met a set of people outside the desert who are grappling with climate changes and how to adapt to live with them. Here I found another group that is bewildered by what the apparently uncontrollable forces of nature are imposing on them. ‘How can we make decisions in the face of such uncertainty?’, they ask, desperate for more certainty. Unfortunately, science is telling us that certainty is often not possible. Of course, desert dwellers have lived with uncertainty for eons, and so their tale is especially important.

Desert differences challenge our comfortable preconceptions, and push the limits of our assumptions. Because of this, the understanding of why the desert operates in special ways to cope with uncertainty and resource limitations is a key to our understanding of the nature of Australia as a whole, and indeed of the planet, as we engage with the dry tsunami of climate change.

The book builds on a body of work from the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre (DKCRC), but the writing was specifically enabled by substantial funding from Land & Water Australia and from CSIRO. My partnership with Julian Cribb has been supported by funding from the Commonwealth Government (then Departments of Environment and Heritage, and Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry, through the National Heritage Trust). We thank all these sponsors for their support.

In particular, the opportunity for me to sit back and contemplate a more popular synthesis of the issues of desert living arose from the generous granting of a Land & Water Australia Senior Research Fellowship to me by the Land & Water Australia Board, in conjunction with CSIRO’s support. Land & Water Australia, now sadly defunct, set up these fellowships to allow selected researchers ‘time out’ from administration and grant chasing to produce a major work outlining their reflections on, and recommendations from, the best research in their field; I have valued this ‘time out’ hugely.

Behind this synthesis lie many ideas which have emerged through the DKCRC’s Science of Desert Living project, and I have depended on the willingness of many DKCRC researchers to share recent ideas – too many to name individually, but they are referenced in the footnotes. I am very grateful to them all. Funding for this background work came from the Australian Government Cooperative Research Centres Programme through the DKCRC (; however, the views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of DKCRC or its Participants.

The content has been greatly improved thanks to the major efforts of many reviewers: Steve Morton, Stuart Pearson, Mark Moran, Michael Cooke, Ted Lefroy, John Manger and, in particular, Jan Ferguson, Ian Watson, Mary Stafford Smith and Charlie Veron. The first complete review came fearlessly, and with great insight, from my son David Caffery. Christine Bruderlin redrew the figures in consistent form. My wife Jo Caffery and mother Jean Stafford Smith patiently proofread it all.

In fact, throughout the long journey, my family, Jo, David and James, not only tolerated my distraction but actively inspired the book’s completion. I love you all.

Last, the genesis of this book, and the initial ideas expressed in it, came from me, and so these acknowledgements are written under my hand. However, the contents and insights of the book are truly a partnership with my co-author Julian Cribb, whose expressive guidance, encyclopaedic mind, curious English schooling and sympathy for the cause of deserts I most gratefully acknowledge.

Mark Stafford Smith, March 2009.


The ancient rocks of the Finke River gorge glow red-gold in the sunrise; the winding valley echoes with the chatter of parrots and the chirps of honeyeaters. Frogs croak from reeds by the still waters in which desert rainbowfish swim; three pelicans coast in, landing with a splash. Bees hum around the whitish gum flowers; brilliant yellow mulga and red holly-leafed grevillea bloom up above the flood plain. The dawn orchestra of desert Australia rises in glorious crescendo.

This scene has been repeated many mornings for thousands of years on the banks of the aptly named Boggy Hole in central Australia. Camping there today, you may overhear a visitor with a cup of tea in their hands, laughing over the noise, ‘And I thought this was a desert!’

And therein lies the story of this book.

Waterholes like this one make up a tiny proportion of the desert outback of Australia. Nonetheless, across the whole five and a half million square kilometres, many plants, animals and humans are living with the desert environment. Not merely living, but flourishing in a land that seems hard and harsh to the outsider’s eye, yet can be beneficent to those who know how to handle it.

The Australian deserts are reliable only in their unpredictability. Often they are lean in resources, but in some places and at certain times astonishingly rich. They teach their animal and human inhabitants about relationships and networks. They encourage new ideas and the evolution of new strategies and skills. Since European settlement and nationhood, however, Australians have mostly treated the deserts as the backyard of each state, which were protected more by benign neglect than care as the forces of development have blown across the land.

In the past decade, a new alliance has arisen among Aboriginal¹ and non-Aboriginal pioneers in central Australia, exploring what is known about living better in this desert land, and how this knowledge can be harnessed for a safer, more inspiring future. They form the ‘desert knowledge’ movement.

Desert knowledge is not solely for the desert itself, important as that is. Increasingly, as the forces of climate change, population growth and resource scarcity bear down upon humanity, other regions that we do not think of as deserts are becoming drier and less certain. Even our great cities and fertile plains are increasingly short of water, or beset by economic uncertainty. The wisdom of desert knowledge has a far wider significance than Australians first appreciated. Indeed, it may offer a roadmap to survival in the twenty-first century, not only in Australia, but for much of humanity.

We aim to tell the story of deserts and desert knowledge, and what it all may mean to the world.

This book is built around two simple but profound and interwoven themes. Firstly, Australian deserts are extraordinary in all senses of the word, and understanding and working with how they function is vital to preserving their environments, their peoples, their wealth and their settlements for the future. Scarce and unpredictable resources result in sparse and remote populations, with consequences for how plants, animals, and humans live.

Secondly, the massive planetary trends being driven by the forces of globalisation, population shifts and climate change mean that other areas of Australia and the world are experiencing conditions that increasingly parallel those of desert Australia. As a consequence, learning how to live well in the desert not only draws up a blueprint for Australia’s red lands, but also offers crucial ideas for future living in other regions of our planet that face drying times.

Our first four chapters seek to inspire you with the fascinating features of Australian deserts and their inhabitants; of the fact that, as so many newcomers to the desert realise after a few years, these places really do operate in different ways from less remote regions. The remaining chapters explore various aspects of the livelihoods, settlements, services and governance of desert Australia that must be understood to govern these lands better, and that have significance for the rest of the world.


Dramatic deserts

‘I collected a great number of most beautiful flowers, which grow in profusion in this otherwise desolate glen. I was literally surrounded by fair flowers of every changing hue. Why Nature should scatter such floral gems upon such a stony sterile region it is difficult to understand, but such a variety of lovely flowers of every kind and colour I had never met with previously. Nature at times, indeed, delights in contrasts…’

GILES 1889²

On Monday 2 September 1872, explorer Ernest Giles and two companions were camped on the Finke River in central Australia, near where Hermannsburg would later be established. There had been winter rains that year, and on this rest day he was exploring the vicinity of their camp – an area through which every modern tourist visiting Palm Valley must pass. He made the remarks above in his narrative Australia Twice Traversed – the Romance of Exploration, and his question frames the magic and distinctiveness of desert Australia. Why, he asks, was there so much diversity in regions that appeared desolate through the prism of European preconceptions? Asked a different way, what does this tell us both about the desert and about how it differs from the places in which those preconceptions were born? To answer these questions, we must seek to understand that vast outback area of Australia outlined in Box 1.

1.1 Extremes and surprises

The Australian desert is a land of drought and sudden flood, of blowing dust punctuated by carpets of wildflowers, of unexpected waterholes in the midst of dry creek beds, and of the isolated comforts of towns such as Alice Springs embedded in a thousand kilometres of apparently empty landscape.

It is not just the rainfall that varies. Living in Alice Springs, you swelter in summer, unable to recall what ‘cold’ was ever like. Less than 6 months later, winter chills you to the bone, leaving you incredulous that anything ever felt ‘hot’. Driving through swathes of arid woodland, you marvel at the irony that it has been stripped of its leaves by a ferocious hailstorm. A few kilometres down the road, you are forced to flick on the air conditioner in a puny effort to counter the burning power of the sun.

This is the quintessential desert: a land of extremes and paradoxes – variability is at the heart of it all. Every surviving desert organism has come to terms with variability, whether it is an ephemeral plant using the wet pulses and hiding as seeds in dry times, or a desert oak investing in deep roots to find a reliable watertable, a beetle hiding under a stone during the heat of the day, or a nomadic duck flying hundreds of kilometres to find the next waterhole. Aboriginal people did the same for thousands of years, and today’s small businesses, settlements and governments have to find equivalent ways to respond, as we shall see through this book.


We use the term ‘desert Australia’ to mean the arid and semi-arid areas of Australia that are remote from the main population centres. These are characterised by low and erratic rainfall (see Chapter 2) and remoteness, although we shall see that these features lead directly to other important drivers (see Chapter 3).

The desert region spreads across six states and territories of Australia, defining the inland of the continent and even touching the coast in the south and west (left map). At about 5.5 million square kilometres, it covers nearly three-quarters of the country’s land area. It is home to about 600 000 people (only 3 per cent of the total Australian population), of whom about 93 000 are of Aboriginal descent.³

It is also home to diverse vegetation types (right map⁴), from desert grasslands to low saltbush shrublands and widespread acacia shrublands and woodlands, many of which support species found nowhere else on earth. These reflect the underlying soils (mostly nutrient poor, though the tussock grasslands and chenopod shrubs lands occur on richer clays), and the climate, which varies from winter rainfall dominant in the south to summer dominant in the north.

Along the sandy banks of Junction Waterhole, where the Ellery Creek meets the Finke River, the poached-egg daisies sprout in their millions in sandy soil after a winter rain (Plate 1a). These ephemeral plants blossom in profusion when water is around: flowering, setting seed and dying, all within a few weeks. Their seeds wait patiently in the parched soil for the next rains – sometimes for weeks, sometimes many years. When the rains arrive, not all the seeds germinate – after all, it may be a false alarm, and over eons the plant has ‘learned’ not to take the risk of putting all its eggs in one basket. So, the seeds have a variable degree of dormancy – some will germinate the first time, some the second, but botanists have found that a handful will not germinate for decades.

Out on the harsh red plains there are mulga trees, which will live for four or five decades – even centuries if they have their strategy right, and are a little lucky. Acacia shrubs such as mulga dominate nearly a third of the Australian deserts, proof that they are not careless strategists. A long-lived perennial, mulga puts its greatest investment into its root system, which spreads wide and deep to harvest as much sparse soil moisture as it can. It has also developed a canopy shape that funnels the rain, when it does arrive, down its stem and into the root zone. Mulga will survive most dry periods, but every now and again a season comes along that is too severe – as one did in the 1960s when even these tough trees died. Mulga flowers and seeds after most rains, producing seeds that germinate more freely than those of ephemerals, with a good chance that some will survive that terror drought.

Other plants are much more selective in how they use the desert. The river red gum grows beside the waterhole because its strategy is to exploit the permanent water lying below the river floodplain. It uses water freely in this land that seems so dry, though it has worked hard to build a large root system to be able to do so. With this strategy, it can live for more than a century if all goes well. But, like the mulga, it must take out insurance against the day when the rains fail for so long that even the water table below the riverbed dries up. So, the river red gum flowers every year, as regular as clockwork, scattering thousands of potential offspring around the floodplain. If the rains are heavy and floods come, these are dispersed widely.

All desert life is adapted in one way or another to cope with erratic pulses of rainfall and long, tough, dry times between. Some, like the ephemeral daisies, exploit the pulse then hide away. Others, like the perennial mulga, invest the pulse in deep roots and plentiful seedlings, many of which die. Each pulse of life-giving rain is different from the previous one – shorter or longer, heavier or lighter, stormy or soaking – and offers an opportunity for a different survival strategy to shine. The climate of desert Australia really is exceptionally variable on a world scale, so a great diversity of adaptations can co-exist.⁵ The extreme challenge this poses to living creatures is the source of the continent’s vitality and biological inventiveness.

Rainfall variability affects not only plants but also animals and humans.

Animals can use equivalent strategies to thrive in the deserts. Mouse-sized desert marsupials, such as the tongue-twisting fat-tailed false antechinus, achieve a similar effect to the extensive root system of mulga. These tiny carnivores succeed by having a home range that is large for their size, so they can gather sufficient of their sparse insect food to store as fat in their tails against the bad times (Plate 2c). They can only do this when the food resources are not spread too thinly, otherwise they have to spend more time searching than eating. As a result, in central Australia, they are most common in the mountain ranges, where the insects persist through dry times thanks to small pockets of concentrated plant production in rocky cracks and crevices.⁶

Like the river red gum, other creatures seek out a more moderate and predictable microclimate. For example, by being small, they can find shade and protection in a clump of spinifex grass. Small creatures can also divide up the food resources in many ways; there are often several species of skinks inhabiting the same spinifex clump, but avoiding competition by foraging in different parts of it, or at different times of day or in different seasons of the year. In 1990, herpetologist Craig James found the world’s highest local diversity of skink species in a patch of spinifex grasslands 30 kilometres south of Alice Springs. He found up to 11 different species of skinks in an area of 50 square metres (and up to 20 species of lizards of all types); as many as seven species of skink might shelter or forage in the same spinifex hummock over the course of a day.

Animals can be ephemeral, just like plants. Shield shrimps are famous for living for a few days in puddles on the top of Uluru (Ayers Rock), then surviving as a hard-shelled egg that is blown around on the wind until it ends up somewhere where rain comes again. Many insects, such as the desert locust and various mites, lay resistant eggs and wait. Other animals avoid the bad times as adults – for example, burrowing frogs hide half a metre or so under every sandy watercourse and most sand dunes in inland Australia.⁸ They pop up as soon as the ground wets enough to alert them to serious rain, which is likely to have created puddles that will last long enough for them to breed. In the middle of the Tanami Desert in 1990, after years of dry weather, desert ecologist Steve Morton was soaked by a downpour, but astounded to find thousands of frogs appearing from the sand plain within hours – they must have been waiting in huge numbers for at least a decade, husbanding their meagre water supply. Both in the Tanami and in South Australia, these frogs have been recorded at densities of 50 to over 200 individuals per hectare, often ten to a hundred times more biomass than that of mammals in the same environments – showing how successful the strategy can be in these environments, which seem so unlikely to support frogs.

Compared with plants, animals have an extra trick up their sleeves: they can move within their lifetimes to seek out new food supplies, sometimes over huge distances. The budgerigar is a classic desert nomad, moving in large flocks from waterhole to waterhole and seed source to seed source (Plate 3c). A few species, such as rainbow bee eaters and woodswallows, may migrate regularly in and out of the arid zone. Still others, such as the pelican, essentially live outside the desert, but come in to exploit good conditions. Many aquatic birds spend much of their time in the south and east but have their most spectacular breeding seasons on the rare occasions when water fills the salt pans and waterholes of the Lake Eyre Basin, as it did in 2009 (Plate 3d).

The main strategies bred by the variability of Australia’s deserts – and which we will explore in desert dwelling humans too – are thus to persist as active adults (putting down deep roots or adapting in other ways, such as perennial plants, reptiles, resident birds and many mammals) or to move in time (avoiding dry times in inactive forms, such as ephemeral plant seeds, insect eggs, bulbs and aestivating frogs) or to move in space (such as nomadic or migratory birds and insects).

In the course of adapting to variability, Australian plants and animals have explored every alternative and combination in time and space – from short-lived to long-lived, and from sedentary to highly mobile. Not only that, they can be flexible – for example, kangaroos know to expand their ranges when it is dry, and may even move substantial distances en masse in bad times, although they are not normally nomadic. Humans, of course, are the pinnacle of flexibility, although we do not always take full advantage of this.

Deserts are not only variable, they are also unpredictable. Being unpredictable is different from being variable – regular waves are variable but perfectly predictable. At sea, it is violent, unexpected waves that sink ships and drown fishermen, not just big seas. The uncertainty of when the extreme is going to happen is as important as the uncertainty of how severe it will be.

The problem is more profound than this, though, because combinations of events are even more unpredictable. For example, the 1970s were the wettest years on record in central Australia – but they were also years when rain came more in summer than winter. This combination – with big rains in summer – benefited grasses, which mostly prefer to grow in warm conditions. By the late 1970s, central Australia had huge grass fuel-loads and started to experience many wildfires. The 1980s were less wet, but were dominated by big cool-season rains. These rains benefit forbs and small shrubs such as salt-bushes. The grasses of the 1970s declined and instead there was a decade when the vegetation was full of prickles from winter-growing bindii and copperburr. These do not produce the right fuel for fires, so the 1980s were almost fire-free around Alice Springs and people forgot the risks of careless campfire behaviour. But, in the early 2000s, the summer rains returned again for several years, and around 20 million hectares went up in smoke in the arid zone part of the Northern Territory in the 2002–2003 fire season.¹⁰

Variability and unpredictability in the deserts are not about water alone but also about its interactions with other factors such as temperature, fire and fertility and, increasingly, human activity.

For example, although Australia is hot, we do not usually regard it as being as extreme as the middle of the Sahara or the Rub’al Khali of Arabia. Yet, in 2003, a satellite awarded a 25 square kilometre dot of Mitchell grasslands north-east of Winton in Queensland the dubious honour of being that year’s hottest pixel of land surface on Earth, at 69.3°C.¹¹ Australia is the land of extremes and surprises in all sorts of ways.

The wild variability of rainfall or temperature is not the only surprise. The timing and combination of extreme conditions – all of them unique and unlikely to recur in our lifetimes – are what make this land fundamentally unpredictable. We have to think about living in and managing such lands very differently from a neat and regular European landscape. But variability is not the only special feature of desert Australia.

1.2 Sparseness and space

The Australian desert lies on the old, worn-down bedrock of an ancient continental plate. Parts of Australia date back at least 3.5 billion years and contain fragments 4.4 billion years old – close to the origin of the planet itself. Then there are areas of hills south of Tennant Creek (in the Davenport Ranges) that have been continuously exposed to the stars for over 500 million years and are among the oldest known landscapes on Earth.¹² In half a billion years, every gram of nutrients has been washed off, blown away, and re-sorted countless times. Not all of desert Australia is quite this ancient – for example, today’s sandy landforms are only a few tens or hundreds of thousands of years old – but most of the soils are made of recycled, ancient and impoverished materials. The sands and loams that cover two-thirds of the desert are low in phosphorus and nitrogen and other elements needed to sustain life, which have been leached from the mother soils by eons of erosion and borne away on wind or flood. Not only are these areas limited by water most of the time, but, even when water is plentiful, plants and animals are often limited by nutrients.

As a result, most Australian desert landscapes are unproductive and so cannot sustain large forests or animal populations. They are extremely challenging for agriculture, so only a sparse human population

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