In the Heart of the Australian Outback, Safeguarding a Sacred Land

By John Mercury August 24, 2023

Close to the geographical heart of Australia, Alice Springs feels like a true desert town. Red earth laps its edges. The ocher walls of the West MacDonnell Ranges crowd its southern fringe. Pink-chested galahs wheel and screech overhead, and, lining the streets, gum trees give off the faintest smell of eucalyptus.

Even by Aussie standards, Alice Springs is casual: People dress down, and many drive well-equipped four-wheel-drive trucks that are as much a part of the uniform as T-shirts, shorts and Akubra hats. It is a frontier town, one that likes a drink, a tall tale from the outback and a weekend spent camping, which is what I planned to do after a few days in town.

On a visit last May, I stayed at the DoubleTree by Hilton, and ate in the hotel’s elegant Hanuman Restaurant, with some of the best Indian dishes outside Australia’s major cities. By day, I visited Alice Springs Desert Park, with its extraordinary desert wildlife, and the city’s Aboriginal art galleries. Exploring the Araluen Art Centre and Papunya Tula gallery was like a crash course in the exquisite traditional dot paintings of Australia’s Western and Central Deserts. It was a reminder that Alice Springs — or Mparntwe to its traditional owners, the Arrernte people — is largely an Aboriginal town. Nearly one-fifth of the population is Indigenous.

Alice Nampitjinpa Henwood, a Warlpiri elder who is steeped in the traditional ways of her people, once told me that she seldom went to Alice Springs. “I go only when I have to. Out in the desert is better.”

I knew that Ms. Nampitjinpa Henwood, whom I had gotten to know over the years, was now working as an Indigenous ranger at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, in the Great Sandy Desert, some 200 miles northwest of Alice Springs. Australia’s first Indigenous ranger program began back in 2007. Now, close to 200 such programs operate on protected areas overseen by local Indigenous communities or, in the case of Newhaven, in partnership with nonprofit conservation groups. Such reserves make up nearly half of Australia’s protected areas.

I had heard about Newhaven, of a desert reborn, of a partnership between Warlpiri rangers and a conservation nonprofit, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, to bring threatened wildlife back to the desert. Some of the species that were being returned, many of them from a captive breeding program at Alice Springs Desert Park, were central to the traditional creation stories told by elders such as Ms. Nampitjinpa Henwood.

Convinced that Ms. Nampitjinpa Henwood was right — that the desert was indeed better than town — I drove north from Alice Springs on a chilly morning.

The two-lane Stuart Highway wandered between low, bare hills. I shared it with the great “road trains” of Australia’s remote byways. Carrying everything from cotton to cattle, these three-trailered giant trucks were nearly 200 feet long.

After about 12 miles, I took the Tanami Track that branched to the northwest. One of the world’s longest shortcuts, the Tanami connects Australia’s Red Center with the tropics of its Top End, passing just one town, Yuendumu (population 759), in 600 miles of desert travel.

Soon the road narrowed to a single lane. Low tea-tree scrub, fire-scarred in places, lined the roadside as red sand and clusters of tumbleweed-like spinifex blew out of the desert. Wedge-tailed eagles, with their 7.5-foot wingspans, circled overhead. A flock of wild budgerigars swarmed the sky in a flash of green. There were no other vehicles.

Nearly 90 miles from Alice Springs, taking the turnoff for Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary felt like casting off into the ocean from a deserted shore. Wide and well-graded, the red-sand Newhaven track was gun-barrel straight. Away to the south, the Stuart Bluff Range resembled waves frozen in the act of breaking. I saw one other vehicle, a man driving very slowly. We each kept our hands on the steering wheel and raised a single index finger: the outback salute.

After passing beneath an honor guard of desert oaks, the road narrowed, snaked through a rocky canyon, then emerged into another world. It was a first glimpse, but I was reminded why my destination, Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, was special: Here was the Great Sandy Desert as it once was: rich in wildlife, cared for by Indigenous custodians, and in thrall of a deep, desert silence. I knew of few other places where I could wake in a Hilton early one morning and find myself in a remote corner of the desert by lunchtime.

Much like the American West, the Australian outback looms large in the popular imagination. European explorers tried to cross it. Settlers tried to tame it.

But there were people here long before the settlers came, and to them it was the center of the universe, not the outer reaches of some far-distant civilization.

First Nations people, who have lived here for tens of thousands of years, have a deeply spiritual connection to the land. “The land, our country, is central to everything that we are as a people,” Wanta Jampijinpa Pawu-Kurlpurlurnu, a Warlpiri elder, told me. “The law, our language, our ceremonies, even our kinship system — everything comes from the land.”

This is Luritja and Warlpiri Country. It is also the Great Sandy Desert, Australia’s second-largest desert, comparable in size to Nevada.

Passing through the narrow defile in the Siddeley Range was like entering some secret portal. West of the mountains, the earth was a deeper shade of red. In the shadow of desert massifs lay salt lakes fringed with spiny clumps of spinifex and desert oaks. White-trunked ghost gums clung to the steep rock walls.

I pulled over and got out. The wind roared through the desert oaks like a road train. The sand was alive, marked with runic inscriptions from the animals that call the desert home. I came upon a blue-tongued skink sunning itself on the sand, then a thorny devil. It struck me that this was how the land must once have appeared to those who lived here before the Europeans arrived. Until well into the 20th century, Warlpiri and Luritja people shared this land with an astonishing array of wildlife.

As the settlers moved in, Newhaven became a cattle station. In 2000, Birds Australia (now Birdlife Australia) purchased the property. Six years later, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy bought and took over Newhaven, which extends across 1,000 square miles. Four years later, the traditional ownership of the property by the Warlpiri and Luritja was officially recognized. Ever since, the traditional custodians and A.W.C. have worked together to restore Newhaven to its pre-settler past.

Already numerous small marsupial species — the burrowing bettong (which can turn over nearly 30 pounds of soil in a single night), the greater bilby (Australia’s Easter bunny) and the rufous hare-wallaby (known as the mala) have been returned to the sanctuary. Until their reintroduction, these animals hadn’t been seen here in more than half a century.

It was getting late when I pulled into Newhaven’s shaded campground, close to the sanctuary’s headquarters and with its own showers and toilets. In the thin shade of acacias — far enough away from my neighbor’s campfire to maintain a sense of desert solitude, yet close enough to ward off the great emptiness when in need of company — I raised my vehicle’s rooftop tent. At sunset, I climbed a nearby hill and took in a view that stretched deep into the heart of Australia.

The next morning, and over the mornings that followed, I woke to a glow on the eastern horizon. Near the campground’s entrance, I stopped by an unstaffed post to pick up information sheets and self-drive itinerary instructions. Then, accompanied by the sound of songbirds, I set out.

Each day had its own discoveries, and every trail told a story.

One Newhaven path took me almost as far west as I could go in the reserve. There I wandered amid the faint traces of Mount Gurner Homestead, a former cattle station where the owners struggled through droughts until they bowed to the inevitable and fled. Ruins such as these haunt the Australian outback, forlorn monuments to the ill-fated dreams of its settlers.

Another route took in the salt lakes and spinifex plains that cut through the sanctuary’s interior. Trailside there were the still-intact burrows of bettongs. Popularly known as rat kangaroos, bettongs were once so prolific that 19th-century explorers were able to survive almost entirely on them. By the second half of the 20th century, the burrowing bettong was largely extinct. In 2022, A.W.C. reintroduced them into Newhaven, and there are signs that they may return to the same burrows that their ancestors dug.

One story above all others shadowed me wherever I went in Newhaven — that of the mala, which is rather like a kangaroo in miniature. In First Nations stories from Jukurrpa, or Dreamtime, the period when First Nations peoples believe that the world was created, the mala emerged from the earth here, on Luritja and Warlpiri country. The sacred sites remain, known only to Indigenous keepers of the story.

One of these is Stephen Connor, a Warlpiri elder whose family is among those responsible for keeping alive the mala’s songline, which is at once a story and the physical route traveled by the animals in First Nations creation stories. “The mala’s story begins at Newhaven,” he told me. “The songline follows where the mala went after it came out of the earth. One branch of the songline goes south, to Uluru. Another goes north, along the Tanami. That’s my country. My parents and grandparents used to see mala there all the time, but I’ve never seen a mala. Only in Alice Springs Desert Park, in the zoo. But we still look after the songline. We go to the sacred sites to carry out our ceremonies with our songs and our stories.”

Back at headquarters, I tracked down Ms. Nampitjinpa Henwood. “There were lots of mala out in the bush,” she told me as we sat in the shade and spoke about the animals that she remembered from her childhood. “There were so many that we used to hunt them.”

She explained that the mala disappeared from Newhaven, probably sometime around the 1970s, driven to extinction by dry-season fires, feral cats and the clearing of land for livestock. Only a tiny, fast-shrinking population hung on in the Tanami Desert.

In the 1980s, scientists captured what was believed to be the last wild mala, which then formed the basis for a captive-breeding program. The hope was that the mala, which was officially declared extinct in the wild in 1991, could one day be reintroduced into the wild.

Years later, the A.W.C. and others realized that Warlpiri people like Ms. Nampitjinpa Henwood, who grew up in the desert and knew how to read the country, were essential to the land’s renewal; they began to draw on their deep wells of knowledge.

In 2020, Ms. Nampitjinpa Henwood was among those who released captive-bred mala into Newhaven. For the first time in more than half a century, the animals were back where their journey across the earth had begun. “For a long time, we didn’t see any mala,” she told me. “They’re only here at Newhaven.”

It was a homecoming of sorts. The reintroduction of the mala by the Warlpiri was a circling back to the Dreamtime, to pre-European Australia.

On my final afternoon, I set off in search of Yukanjani, reputed to be one of the Great Sandy Desert’s most beautiful lakes and which European mapmakers called Lake Bennett. Where the vehicle track ended, I walked to a high sand dune and went no farther; the lake bed is considered sacred to the Warlpiri. There I sat overlooking the lake, surrounded by golden grasslands and red sand under a blue desert sky. Rising above the far horizon were the West MacDonnell Ranges with Mount Liebig, a shapely quartzite mountain, silhouetted purple against the darkening sky.

I sat, spellbound in the gathering moonlight, here in a land alive again with the songs of the past.

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