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Issue #1764      February 8, 2017

Book Review by Rob Gowland

Desert Australia

My father was born in Broken Hill in 1907. At that time it was a hot, dusty and extremely isolated community, with none of the electrically-driven modern conveniences we take for granted today. His father, my grandfather, was a blacksmith, and when Dad left school he started work as a timber-getter and boundary rider in the White Cliffs and Wilcannia area. After that he became a stockman and a drover and eventually humped his swag around inland NSW as a shearer.

Many years later, when he heard that my wife and I were planning a trip by car out west, he told us how splendid it would be: “Sunsets – you’ve never seen sunsets like them!” And he was right: the uninterrupted expanse of sky went rose pink from horizon to horizon, an amazing and beautiful sight.

And then the stars came out. The absence of ambient city light meant the sky was absolutely full of stars. By day, we drove down broad, deserted stock routes that Henry Lawson would have recognised, across red-soil plains. Most of these stock routes (the “long paddock” in traditional bush parlance) are now padlocked and appropriated by the local graziers, after Frank Packer put pressure on the ALP to permit this bout of blatant modern-day “enclosures”.

On our next trip we went to South Australia and drove around the Flinders Ranges and out towards (but well short of) Lake Eyre. What struck us most forcibly about this region, apart from the magnificent colours in the rocks and the bush, was the enormous number of ruins, the remains of stone or wattle and daub farmhouses, sad reminders of would-be settlers who were fooled by a good season into thinking they could eke a living out of a farm in what was essentially a desert.

A desert is defined as a region that receives less than 250 millimetres of rain per year. Eighteen percent of the Australian mainland meets that definition. A further 17 percent receives so little rain that it is on the brink of being a desert. Australia is in fact the driest continent on Earth, which foredoomed many of the efforts of early European settlers, like those whose ruins we saw in South Australia, to introduce into this new land the agricultural practices of Europe, the wettest continent on Earth.

But while they may be hostile to life and especially to settlement, Australia’s desert regions are full of flora and fauna that have adapted to the arid conditions. Combined with the intense light of inland Australia, the nation’s desert regions have striking beauty. Photographer Nick Rains has captured that beauty staggeringly well in his book Desert Australia, published by Explore Australia, a division of Hardie Grant Books.

A large format hardcover, Desert Australia is informative as well as beautiful. As the author says in his introduction: “To 19th century European eyes, the land was there for the taking, but ... massive areas were needed to support viable populations of livestock. ... Even today, Anna Creek Station, near Lake Eyre, is the world’s largest operating cattle station: at over 23,000 square kilometres, it’s bigger than Israel and more than seven times the size of the largest ranch in the United States.”

Australia’s great realist writer, Henry Lawson, knew how harsh the outback could be, especially for rural workers – stockmen, itinerant shearers, station hands, etc – and selectors, small farmers and their hardworking wives, whose holding weren’t measured in square kilometres.

As the various reminders photographed by Nick Rains show, the desert areas are doubly harsh. Life for the poor souls attempting to farm there must have been hell.

Nick Rains has been a professional photographer for 30 years, shooting assignments around Australia and the rest of the world. In 2002 Nick was awarded Australian Geographic magazine’s Photographer of the Year and continues to shoot assignments for the magazine all around Australia.

Nick writes of the subject of Desert Australia: “Having spent many months over many years travelling in these arid regions, I find it hard to imagine what it must have been like to live in the desert even 40 or 50 years ago, let alone in Victorian times. The heat is unrelenting, the remoteness can easily be life threatening and the vast, treeless horizons can wear you down.”

The photographs in his book certainly don’t wear you down. There is tremendous variety, from a double-page spread of the huge stone woolshed on Cordillo Downs Station in SA, a display of desert flowers in the eastern Simpson Desert, another double-page spread of goanna tracks crossing a sand dune in western Queensland, an aerial shot of an isolated homestead near Broken Hill surrounded by the vast and featureless Mundi Mundi plains, a startled flock of corellas in the Diamantina National Park, and spectacular wildflowers in the Gibson Desert, to the remains of a car that failed to complete the traversing of the Birdsville Track, and many more.

Despite the connotations inherent in the harsh environment, all of the photographs are breathtakingly beautifully presented. The book would make a splendid gift for anyone interested in Australia or photography, or for anyone who enjoys the beauty of the natural world.

Nick Rains has written 12 books over the course of his career, beginning with Kimberley – Journey Through an Ancient Land in 1997. Desert Australia and its companion Tropical Australia are his latest. His next book will be Aerial Australia, in production now and due out next August, and frankly I can’t wait.

Next article – Israel’s shadowy role in Guatemala’s dirty war

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