Spinifex and Sand/Part V/Chapter X
Part V: The Outward Journey
Chapter X: The Desert of Parallel Sand-Ridges
My position for Family Well is lat. 22 degrees 40 minutes, long. 125 degrees 54 minutes. The well, as already stated, is situated at the foot of the southern slope of a high sand-ridge. This ridge is the first of a series of parallel banks of sand which extend, with occasional breaks, from lat. 22 degrees 41 minutes to 19 degrees 20 minutes — a distance of nearly 250 miles in a straight line. From September 16th to November 16th we were never out of sight of a sand ridge, and during that time travelled 420 miles, taking into account all deviations consequent upon steering for smokes and tracking up natives, giving an average of not quite seven miles a day, including stoppages. This ghastly desert is somewhat broken in its northern portion by the occurrence of sandstone tablelands, the Southesk Tablelands; the southern part, however, viz., from lat. 22 degrees 41 minutes to lat. 20 degrees 45 minutes presents nothing to the eye but ridge upon ridge of sand, running with the regularity of the drills in a ploughed field. A vast, howling wilderness of high, spinifex-clad ridges of red sand, so close together that in a day's march we crossed from sixty to eighty ridges, so steep that often the camels had to crest them on their knees, and so barren and destitute of vegetation (saving spinifex) that one marvels how even camels could pick up a living. I estimate their average vertical height from trough to crest at fifty to sixty feet. Some were mere rises, whilst others reached a height of considerably over one hundred feet. Sometimes the ridges would be a quarter of a mile apart, and sometimes ridge succeeded ridge like the waves of the sea. On October 3rd, for instance, I find that we were crossing them at a rate of ten in forty minutes. This gives a result of 105 ridges to be negotiated in a day's march of seven hours. Riding was almost impossible in such country as this, for all our energies were required to urge on the poor camels. All through, we adhered to the same plan as before, viz., doing our day's march without a halt (excepting of course the numerous stoppages entailed by broken nose-lines, the disarrangement of a pack, or the collapse of a camel), having no food or water from daylight until camping-time. This, without our previous training, would have been an almost impossible task, for each ridge had to be climbed — there was no going round them or picking out a low place, no tacking up the slope — straight ahead, up one side, near the top a wrench and a snap, down goes a camel, away go the nose-lines, a blow for the first and a knot for the second, over the crest and down, then a few paces of flat going, then up again and down again, and so on day after day. The heat was excessive — practically there was no shade.
The difficulties of our journey were increased by the necessity of crossing the ridges almost at right angles. With almost heart-breaking regularity they kept their general trend of E. by N. and W. by S., causing us from our Northerly course to travel day after day against the grain of the country. An Easterly or Westerly course would have been infinitely less laborious, as in that case we could have travelled along the bottom of the trough between two ridges for a great distance before having to cross over any. The troughs and waves seem to be corrugations in the surface of greater undulations; for during a day's march or so, on reaching the top of one ridge, our view forwards was limited to the next ridge, until a certain point was reached, from which we could see in either direction; and from this point onwards the ridges sank before us for a nearly equal distance, and then again they rose, each ridge higher than the last. Words can give no conception of the ghastly desolation and hopeless dreariness of the scene which meets one's eyes from the crest of a high ridge. The barren appearance of the sand is only intensified by the few sickly and shrunken gums that are dotted over it. In the troughs occasional clumps of shrubs, or scrubs, [e.g., Mulga (Acacia anaeura), grevillea, hakea, ti-tree (Melaleuca) and in the northern portion desert oaks (Casuarina descaineana)] or small trees are met with, and everywhere are scattered tussocks of spinifex. True it is, though, that even this poverty-stricken plant has its uses, for it serves to bind the sand and keep the ridges, for the most part, compact. Where spinifex does not grow, for instance on the tops of the ridges, one realises how impossible a task it would be to travel for long over banks of loose sand.
I find that my estimate for the average height of the sand-ridges is considerably lower than that of Colonel Warburton. It is interesting, therefore, to compare his account of these ridges, though it must be remembered that Colonel Warburton was travelling on a westerly course, and we from our northerly direction only traversed country previously seen by him, for the short distance that our sight would command, at the point of intersection of our two tracks. In an editorial note in his book we read:—
- They varied considerably both in their size and in their distance from each other, but eighty feet may be regarded as an average in the former respect and three hundred yards in the latter.
- They ran parallel to each other in an East and West direction, so that while pursuing either of these courses the travellers kept in the valleys, formed by two of them, and got along without much exertion. It was when it became necessary to cross them at a great angle that the strain on the camels proved severe, for on the slopes their feet sank deeply into the sand, and their labours were most distressing to witness.