Australia’s interior is dotted with deserts including the Great and Little Sandy deserts, Tanami, Simpson and Victoria deserts. In the 19th century, white settlers begun arriving in these areas. Before European settlers arrived, Indigenous Australians lived here in harmony with the land and with an abundance of wildlife.
There is a portal between two worlds on the way to Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary. Alice Springs is a thriving urban metropolis with 25,000 inhabitants, which is what counts for an urban metropolis in Outback Australia. In Australia’s Great Sandy Desert, the second-largest desert, there is a region of isolated red-rock desert massifs, salt lakes, and spinifex plains. The next moment, a 50m-long road train is speeding past you on the Stuart Highway in town. In the Tanami Desert, the road narrows and becomes sand-covered. You suddenly find yourself deep in the heart of the desert.
In addition to the birdlife and stunning desert landscape, Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary is open to self-drive visitors at Easter and from May to the end of September. It is also what all of inland Australia once looked like.
These vast deserts stretch for hundreds of kilometres across Warlpiri territory. There are more than 120,000 Warlpiri in the world. The Warlpiri lived in the desert for thousands of years and were among the last Australians, alongside the Pintupi from west, to enter contact with colonial Australia and throw away their semi-nomadic lifestyle.
Among the last Warlpiri women to be able to recall that life is Alice Ellis.
During her childhood, she played in sand dunes in the country north and west of here, moving from one waterhole to another as the seasons changed. Other groups communicated through fire with her family. Her siblings and her, when they were young, would run and hide whenever white men appeared in their vehicles.
There are hundreds of kilometres of Warlpiri land in the Tanami and Great Sandy Deserts. One of the larger Aboriginal nations, the Warlpiri are a language group with their own culture and language. The Warlpiri, along with their neighbours the Pintupi to the west, were among the last indigenous peoples in Australia to come into contact with white Australians, in turn leaving behind the nomadic life they had been leading that had enabled them to survive for centuries.
It is said that Ellis learned to interpret and find tracks from the foot prints of Australian macropod marsupials, such as black-footed rock wallabies, bettongs and bilbies, almost as soon as she learned to walk. Besides feral cats, the Ellis’s also hunted birds and reptiles. She was fascinated by the goanna, one of Australia’s largest carnivorous reptiles, and one of the largest reptiles in the world.
Newhaven sanctuary in her hometown is run by Australia’s Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). Ranger, she keeps the secrets of the desert. Australian deserts are being destroyed by feral animals, such as cats, foxes and rabbits that are brought with European settlers from overseas.
Over the past five centuries, one-third of the world’s mammal extinctions have occurred in Australia, mostly in its arid zone. It’s impossible to know for sure, but at least a dozen species that once lived alongside Ellis and her ancestors have disappeared. They were mostly destroyed by cats. Cats have forced other species to the edges of their former ranges, pushing them to the extinction edge in the process.
There are places where bloodwoods and ghost gums serve as shelters for returning native animals; nearby, the wind in the desert oaks sounds like waves crashing against the shore. Thousands of bright-green budgerigars chase prey birds, seeming to leap from one place to another at high speed. A sacred place and a beautiful place, the salt lake in the sanctuary’s west is called Yunkanjini by the Warlpiri (and was named Lake Bennett by the explorers). Changing with the light, its brilliant colours change according to the time of day.