While bracing myself for a journey through the desert of Central Australia, I find comfort in the words of Australian landscape painter Peter Coad. “You’ll love it,” he says.
The horizon stretches 360 degrees around my vehicle, with the serrated battlements of the Flinders Ranges to the right. The two-lane bitumen road that disappears into the shimmering horizon is a thin line in the immense, rusty landmass.
Some 310 million years ago, the highest mountains that ever existed towered over this area, now pulverized by earthquakes and the grinding wear and tear of torrential tropical rains and seawater that covered big parts of Australia for millions of years. This is the land after the Flood.
The only relief from endless sand dunes here are rock formations such as the Devil’s Marbles: weathered boulders up to six meters in diameter which represent, according to the Aborigines, the petrified eggs of the mythical Rainbow Serpent from the Dreamtime. Although the annual rainfall can be as low as four inches, the area is dotted with pockets of lush palm trees and ferns, and permanent water holes are home to 11 species of fish.
After about 60 miles we pass Lake MacFarlane, one of the impressive salt lakes in this area: a silvery white mirror under the deep blue sky, framed by purple shores. The salt is a relic of the seawater that covered this region for millions of years. The heat is scorching, the air shimmers and vibrates, the cracked earth is thirsty and there isn’t a living plant in sight. Further inland, the vegetation returns: plenty of Spinifex, the popular name for more than 20 species of spiny tussock grasses, and a surprising number of trees, their roots often longer than their trunks.
When confronted with extended drought, these trees fall into a kind of summer slumber, just vegetating until the next rainfall allows them to burst forth, blossoming and bearing fruit. Only those plants adapted to extreme heat, cold and drought can survive in this merciless environment. Free-roaming cattle scrape a meager meal together or hide from the stinging sun, ruminating in the thin shadows of small bushes. A lone goanna – a big lizard – runs across the highway in front of the car, alarmed by the sudden sounds in its silent world. I wonder how humans can survive in this unforgiving habitat.
Hundreds of miles down the road and hours later, we see signs of civilization again: a line of billboards for beer and gasoline.