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Australian desert facts

Seventy per cent of the Australian mainland is classified as semi-arid, arid or desert; making it the driest inhabited continent on earth. Only Antarctica is drier.

There are ten deserts in Australia: the Great Victoria Desert, Great Sandy Desert, Tanami Desert, Simpson Desert, Gibson Desert, Little Sandy Desert, Strzelecki Desert, Sturt Stony Desert, Tirari Desert and Pedirka Desert.

Only 3% of the Australian population live in the desert.

The main reason for the formation of the Australian deserts is their location. Like most major deserts across the world they are found around a certain latitude (roughly 30° north / south of the equator) where the weather phenomena create a dry climate.

Rainfall is unpredictable. For example, Alice Springs supposedly has 270mm a year but 70% of years are below average. It’s a land of droughts and flooding rains.

Central Australia consists of a diversity of habitats: ranges and gorges, woodlands, desert rivers, mulga woodland, and country and salt lakes.

Soils are ancient and infertile. Nitrogen and phosphorus levels are, on average, less than half that found in other arid regions of the world.

Invertebrate herbivores dominate: grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, grubs and most importantly, termites.

Fire is important. Traditional Aboriginal patch burning created space for desirable ephemeral plants, favoured the survival of medium-sized mammals, recycled nutrients and prevented wildfires.

Exotic animals have wreaked havoc. Introduced rabbits, cattle, horses and camels have out-competed native herbivores for food and pushed their numbers to critically low levels where they’ve become vulnerable to predation by feral cats and foxes.

Australia has a terrible record for mammal extinction. Fifty per cent of all mammal species that have become extinct throughout the world in the last 200 years have been Australian. The following animals no longer exist:

  • Desert bandicoot (Perameles eremiana)
  • Pig-footed bandicoot (Chaeropus ecaudatus)
  • Lesser bilby (Macrotis leucura)
  • Desert rat-kangaroo (Caloprymnus campestris)
  • Central hare-wallaby (Lagorchestes asomatus)
  • Cresent nailtail-wallaby (Onychogalea lunata)
  • Lesser stick-nest rat (Leporillus apicalis)
  • Long-tailed hopping-mouse (Notomys longicaudatus)
  • Short-tailed hopping-mouse (Notomys amplus).

The following animals are threatened with extinction:

  • Western quoll (Dasyurus geoffroyii)
  • Kowari (Dasyuroides byrnei)
  • Mulgara (Dasycercus cristicauda)
  • Red-tailed phascogale (Phascogale calura)
  • Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus)
  • Golden bandicoot (Isoodon auratus)
  • Bilby (Macrotis lagotis)
  • Brush-tailed bettong (Bettongia penicillata)
  • Burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur)
  • Mala (Lagorchestes hirsutus)
  • Greater stick-nest rat (Leporillus conditor)
  • Plains rat (Pseudomys australis)
  • Alice Springs mouse (Pseudomys fieldi)
  • Central rock-rat (Zyzomys pedunculatus).

Compare with the Sonoran Desert.

Culture facts

Communication is an essential survival tool for humans and involves more than just speech.


There is no Australia-wide Aboriginal language and culture. This is a land with a diversity of cultures and languages, belonging to many different Aboriginal nations.

There are around 1,700 words for 'Aboriginal' across Australia. For example, along parts of the east coast Aboriginal people call themselves Koori or Murri and in Central Australia people call themselves Arelhe (Arrernte), Anangu (Western Desert) or Yapa (Warlpiri).

Prior to colonisation there is believed to have been approximately 500 languages in Australia, sadly over the past 200 plus years we have lost more than half of those languages.

Language, culture and land are inextricably linked - where people have lost ownership over their land (coastal and alluvial areas where best living and farming lands are) languages and cultures have deteriorated.

In desert Australia language and culture are very strong. Walking around Alice Springs you can hear Aboriginal people speaking a number of desert languages including: Arrernte, Warlpiri, Yankunytjatjara, Pitjantjatjara, Luritja, Pintupi-Luritja, Ngaatjatjarra, Ngaanyatjarra, Alyawarra and Anmatyerre and English.

The traditional language of Mpwarntwe (Alice Springs) is Central Arrernte. There are four dialects of Arrernte: Central, Eastern, Western and Southern. The way these dialects differ is like the difference between Australian English, American English, New Zealand English and the Queen's English. Accents are different and some words are different but we understand each other.

Arrernte has been spoken in Central Australia for tens of thousands of years - forever! This language has been passed on orally through survival stories and songs.

Arrernte has only been an evolving written language for the past 120 years. There are many sounds in Arrernte that do not occur in English. Instead of creating symbols to represent these sounds linguists have used combinations of Roman letters together to represent these sounds. For example the name of the language has been spelt a number of ways: Aranda (English influence), Urunta (German influence) and today is spelt Arrernte (with a rolling rr).

Languages are an insight into different world views. Sadly over the last century 60 to 70% of languages have disappeared worldwide.


Fire was a form of communication, an ancient form of email.

When water supplies were running low one of the men would travel to where they knew the next reliable source of water would be. On his way he would take a firestick and burn small patches of grass as he went.

If the waterhole had sufficient water, he would build up a stockpile grass, wood, a few green leaves and branches. When he lit it the thick smoke would signal the family that it was time to shift camp to this new location. They could easily follow the freshly burnt out pathway to the waterhole.

Sign language

Along with verbal communication there is also a complex systems of sign language used in Central Australia.

When men were hunting they would need to be working as a team and being quiet so as not to startle their potential dinner. Arrernte men would use hand signals to communicate and enable them to be strategic.

Avoidance relationships exist between some individuals. For example, son-in-laws are not allowed to speak to their mother-in-laws. They can communicate through a third party or use sign language.


The oldest evidence of Aboriginal art in Central Australia has been found as paintings on caves and engravings on rocks, called Petroglyphs. The majority of desert art prior to European colonisation was produced for ceremonies. It was displayed on the body and in sand and ground paintings but only for a short time.

Desert Aboriginal people crushed natural occurring clay, rock and charcoal to form white, red, yellow and black ochre (urlpe). In body painting, the artist mixes the ochre with water to form paint. Once the ceremony is over, the body art is wiped and smudged (usually leaving the base ochre for a while as it has some medical uses).

In a sand painting the storyteller sits down crossed legged and draws a story in the sand with their hands and a stick. Sometimes the stick is also used to beat a rhythm that stops and starts as the story goes along.

Ground paintings are men’s business. The ground is cleared and made hard with crushed termite mound. Certain plants are pulped and mixed with ochre, animal fat, water (and sometimes animal blood) to create paint. Feathers and flowers are also sometimes used to enhance the painting. The artist starts at the center and works his way out to create the painting. Once the ceremony is over the ground painting is cleared.

In the early 1970s male elders began moving from the traditional ground paintings by developing the modern commercial based paintings. Modern paintings are done by both men and women on the ground just like the traditional ground paintings, but canvas and acrylic paints are used instead of ochre. When the men first moved to modern materials they invented fine dots to help imitate the country and the environment that is linked to the painting. As the modern desert art developed the men tended to still create the main story and design but they allowed their wives and family to do the dots and other aspects. Today women are just as established in desert art as the men. In galleries, most modern paintings are usually placed on to a vertical wall, to view this art it is best to take it off the wall and place it on the ground.


Compare with Sonoran Desert culture.

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