Witjira National Park
These neighbouring desert parks are striking in their diversity: in the west is the largest collection of artesian springs in Australia, ringed by stunted tea-tree and century-old date palms, and artiﬁcial wetlands attracting 60 species of bird; and in the east there is the largest parallel dune desert in the world, with brilliant red sandhills, glistening silver saltpans, stony tablelands, harsh gibber plains and ephemeral lakes.
There are three parks here, stretching east–west across the north-east of the state, adjacent to the border with the Northern Territory and Queensland. Witjira National Park is most famous for its delightful mound springs. To the east, Simpson Desert Regional Reserve and Simpson Desert Conservation Park span the dune ﬁelds of the Simpson Desert. Travel through this country requires considerable skill and perseverance, as well as expertise and very careful preparation.
Access is by 4WD. From Adelaide via Oodnadatta, Hamilton and Dalhousie or Eringa ruin; from Birdsville (QLD) across Simpson Desert via Purnie Bore; from NT via Kulgera and Finke or Old Andado and New Crown
Autumn and winter
1300 km north of Adelaide; 120 km north of Oodnadatta
- Parks SA (08) 8204 1910
- Parks SA Port Augusta (08) 8648 5300
- Desert Parks Hotline (08) 8648 5328
- Transport SA Outback Hotline 1300 361 033
Desert Parks Pass required per vehicle, contact Parks SA (08) 8204 1910; camping permit required for Simpson Desert NP (QLD), contact QPWS Birdsville (07) 4656 3272
776 900 ha (Witjira NP)
3 million ha (Simpson Desert RR and CP)
Oodnadatta 1800 802 074
Featured Activities in the National Park
Enjoy a warm relaxing soak in Dalhousie Springs
Spend time birdwatching among the reed-rimmed wetland at Purnie Bore
Visit the forlorn ruins of Dalhousie homestead
Camp out under the stars
- Witjira National Park, Eco-friendly activity
A look at the past
The ﬁrst Europeans to come across the mound springs, naming them Dalhousie, were survey crewmen working on the Overland Telegraph Line in 1870. Pastoralists soon moved in and Mount Dare station was established here in 1872. Sheep were grazed on the vast leases and later cattle, with bores being sunk at outlying areas. Crumbling walls of stone are all that remain of the original Dalhousie homestead but the date palms planted around it are still standing. There are also ruins of a shed, workmen’s quarters and blacksmith’s shop in the vicinity.
Mound springs provided vital water for early explorers and expeditions into the Simpson Desert. Charles Sturt reached the eastern margins of the Simpson in 1844 but turned back soon after encountering the desolate gibber plains that bear his name. In 1880 Augustus Poeppel surveyed and marked out the state borders of South Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland. Inspired by Cecil Madigan’s 1929 aerial surveys of the desert, Ted Colson and Aboriginal guide Peter Ains succeeded in the ﬁrst west–east desert crossing, travelling by camel from near Mount Dare to Birdsville.
In the 1960s and 1970s mining exploration was carried out in the remote desert country to the east of Witjira. In the search for oil and natural gas, mining companies cut tracks across the Simpson to carry out seismic surveys. The ﬁrst was the straight east–west French Line in 1963, then the Rig Road, which took a more southerly route.
Simpson Desert Conservation Park was established in 1967; Witjira National Park was declared in 1985 to preserve and protect the mound springs around Dalhousie; and Simpson Desert Regional Reserve was set aside in 1988.
Part of the traditional lands of several Aboriginal groups, Witjira National Park is co-managed with the Irrwanyere Aboriginal Corporation representing the Lower Southern Arrernte, Wangkangurru, Arabunna and Luritja people. This arrangement includes provision of permanent living areas within the park so Aboriginal people can effectively manage their land. Archaeological evidence in the parks suggests Aboriginal occupation stretching back thousands of years. The springs have always been central to life and culture, determining the lines of important trade routes through the desert.
Witjira National Park features ﬂat-topped hills, breakaway country, saltpans and open plains. To the east gibber plains and dunes present travellers with unforgettable challenges. The 70 mound springs are scattered around the western side of the park, but Dalhousie is the most accessible. It is the largest artesian spring in Australia, the warm waters perfect for a swim. The emerging spring water has ﬂowed for thousands of kilometres through the Great Artesian Basin underneath central Australia. Each drop may have taken millions of years to get to this desert pool. The character of each spring is different but all support patches of lush green vegetation. Purnie Bore, drilled by miners in 1963, is now used as a water source, feeding a large wetland area that attracts large ﬂocks of birds. A bird hide on the western side is used by birdwatchers.
The dune ﬁelds of the Simpson extend for 150 000 square kilometres, with over 1000 dunes varying in height from several metres to almost 50 metres.
Growing around the springs are paperbarks – Witjira takes its name from the Lower Southern Arrernte word for these trees – along with a lush growth of reeds and water plants. Creek beds are lined with gidgee and red mulga, while coolibahs are found along the wider watercourses. Emubush, senna, hopbush and the pretty honeysuckle spider ﬂower are also found here.
Further east towards the dunes of the Simpson, mulga gives way to spinifex (Triodia basedowii), the dominant vegetation found between and around the large Simpson dunes, and sandhill canegrass (Zygochloa paradoxa), which provides a habitat for the elusive Eyrean grasswren. There are also woodlands of Georgina gidgee (Acacia georginae), dubbed stinking wattle because of the unpleasant smell it gives off in wet or humid weather. There are some good stands of this species east of Approdinna Attora Knolls.
After rain this country springs to life as ﬂowering shrubs and trees burst into bloom and spread their seeds. On the Rig Road, near its junction with the Erabena Track, stands the Lone Gum, a coolibah tree that is the only one of its species known to exist in the desert. Its growth and ability to survive in this arid environment defy explanation.
The park is home to a variety of native desert animals, although many are not commonly seen. Planigales and spinifex hopping-mice tend to hide from the heat of the day, and marsupial moles spend their entire life burrowing through the sand. There are also other rarely seen desert dwellers, such as the mulgara (a mouse-like marsupial) and other rodents and bats. Dingoes and red kangaroos are seen occasionally, along with introduced species such as the camel. Reptiles of all sizes are common so watch out for central bearded dragons, lizards, geckos, Gould’s sand goanna and the intriguing thorny devil.
Birdlife includes Eyrean grasswrens, budgerigars and honeyeaters. At Purnie Bore watch for zebra ﬁnches, painted ﬁnches, crested pigeons, purple swamphens and black-winged stilts. Most commonly seen are the birds of prey while brolgas, darters and Australian white ibis also frequent the springs. Rare birds found in Witjira include the ﬂock bronzewing and the plains-wanderer, as well the metre-high Australian bustard.
Several endemic species of ﬁsh inhabit the springs, some adapting to extremes of temperature.
These desert parks offer outback camping and 4WD touring as well as fascinating natural features and historic sites. This is remote country so you should be totally self-sufﬁcient and carry plenty of food, water and fuel.
The most popular journey undertaken in this area is the crossing of the Simpson Desert. Only experienced and very well-prepared outback travellers should attempt it. There are stories about foolhardy individuals making the crossing on motorbikes and one or two have even done it on foot, but it remains a journey requiring careful preparation and a reliable high-clearance 4WD vehicle ﬁtted with radio communication and navigation equipment.
First time travellers are advised to take the most direct 500-kilometre route from Mount Dare to Birdsville, travelling from east to west in order to tackle the gentler sloping faces of the track’s soft sand dunes. Several attempts are sometimes needed to climb them even with reduced tyre pressures. For those who make the journey, the rewards include the stunning views across waves of vivid red dunes. The trip should take around four to ﬁve days.
Mount Dare homestead, once the centre of the Mount Dare pastoral lease, now offers accommodation, camping, food, fuel, minor repairs and supplies for travellers. The ruins of Dalhousie homestead are just south of the springs along a 16-kilometre signposted track. Purnie Bore, which is 94 kilometres east of Dalhousie along the French Line track, was originally sunk for oil exploration. The water here emerges at a scalding 85 degrees Celsius and swimming is not recommended. The outﬂow has formed a small lake system with reed beds surrounding a series of pools. The wetlands attract considerable numbers of the 180 bird species that are found in these desert parks.
At Dalhousie Springs a swim in the warm artesian waters is obligatory. The spring is really a small lake fringed by shady trees and it is a pure delight to swim in its slightly steaming water.
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