Central Australian Desert Aerial: Tjilapulpa in Mangkururrpa Country

Selected for Google Maps and Google Earth

Comments (19)

Ian Stehbens on March 2, 2009

Dear Mira,

This is the Australian desert, and the red soil is a feature of the landscape.

However here you will see that the read earth is very evident because of fire as large areas of the photo have been burnt, and some smaller areas have not. You can discern the routes of two roads through the area, one in the top right (NW) corner, the other creating a circular boundary to the main fire area, although you can see where the fire jumped the road. I have no way of knowing whether this was a deliberately lit fire, either indigenous management, or "Tanami Downs" (cattle) management or whether it was the result of lightning strikes from dry summer storms.

There is a different pattern of burnt areas on the associated GE image, because of different times when the image and the photo were produced. This photo of mine is dated June 2007, a time after some good summer rain a few months earlier.

This area receives its rain in summer months, and almost none through the rest of the year. It is therefore an area with marked seasonal differences in the landscape and the grasslands will burn easily whenever they are dry, which here on the margins of the Tanami Desert, is often.

As far as I know this lake is unnamed, though it extends for around 50km! That's the way here. I am sure it had an indigenous name, and I am trying to find out what that is or was. The manager of the cattle station, Tanami Downs, just to the north of the lake, is new and he doesn't know. And one of the geologists at the big gold mine at The Granites to the east knows the country very well, having combed and lived here for years, but he doesn't know the name of the lake either. I am still searching. Perhaps as you are the first to comment we should name it Mira Lake.

My warmest regards,


Hazel Coetzee on March 3, 2009

Ian -

As Mira says, the colours are beautiful, reminding me a bit of the arid area on the Namibian/northwestern border of SA. The dunes there are a similar colour and when they have clumps of bleached grass on them the contrast is stunning.

This is a beautiful photograph and I'm amazed that SOMEONE.. SOMEWHERE.. doesn't have some sort of name for such a large lake! As you so wisely say: there must be an indigenous name for it.

Cheers, Hazel

Ian Stehbens on March 3, 2009

Dear Hazel,

I hope it becomes Mira Lake, for it does do a great job with the azure sky above! But you are right, Hazel, and to emphasise its size, all three images, this and the next two, are of the same lake, so its about 70 kms long and up to 8kms wide! Ephemeral it may be, but a name it deserves.

I have only been to Transvaal in SA, so my experience of South Africa is limited, but I was stunned by how much the terrain there reminded me of areas of Central Australia. And I have thought that the capital of Namibia has a setting very much like the much smaller Alice Springs.



Josef Grohs on March 4, 2009

What a nice name: Mira- Lake !

Ian Stehbens on March 6, 2009

Dear Mira,

I have continued seeking to identify an existing name for this lake.

Because it is often dry, the locals seem to just refer to it as "the salt pans", though they agree there would have been an indigenous name for this feature. I am still working on that, and have yet to connect with a young woman who lived here on the property (Tanami Downs) and now continues to engage with local indigenous people through an art centre, advising and advocating for the artists. Her brother, Bob, told me tonight that if any one knows a name or can unearth a name, that she will. I'll keep you informed.

If you don't mind a little more geomorphology: The lake fills a "paleo-channel". The arid interior is etched with many ancient river channels that have been distubed by mild tectonic movements since the ages when they were the courses of large discharges. I believe this one flows northward - to the right- if water were to follow the course of the channel further "downstream".

During 2006, there was very heavy rain in this area, and the channel filled again for it is the low part of the landscape. Because of its size the waves on the lake have shaped beaches in some shores - obvious at the northern end and along the western shore.

When the lake first fills it is fresh water, and the wildlife and birds come from miles (including wild camels, roos, and myriads of birds). But after about 15 months, if there is no further runoff, the lake begins to become brackish then ultimately very salty as it evaporates and dries out.

It is now 3 years since the big rains that created this, and 20 months since the photo was taken, so it is now almost dry again. Bruce, the operator of the store and service station at Rabbit Flat, 50kms from here told me today that they are currently being bothered by the camels again, an indicator that the lakes are either saline or dry.

For the record, here are the relevant Montly Rainfall records for Rabbit Flat (50kms NE of this lake). The photo was taken in June 2007.

Dec2005 87mm / Jan2006 299mm / Feb2006 194mm / Mar06 89mm / Apr06 89mm / May06 0mm / Jun06 0mm / Jul06 1.4mm / Aug0mm / Sep06 0mm / Oct06 4mm / Nov06 0.8mm / Dec06 98mm / Jan07 286mm / Feb07 1.6mm / Mar07 129mm / Apr 07 0mm / May07 30mm / Jun07 22mm / July07 0mm / Aug07 0mm / Sep07 0mm / Oct07 0mm / Nov07 88mm / Dec07 93mm

I have highlighted the two period that produced runoff floods that put water into this paleochannel, to create Mira Lake.

The rains of Jan 2006 set a new record for the area. A cyclone formed over the land to the far north and then travelled southward dumping very heavy rain over this area. The meteorologists have coined the name "landphoon" for it, as it was a typhoon feature that formed above land.

You will notice also the curved line bounding the large burnt area, across which the fire has jumped in a number of places, rejoining and burning towards Lake Mira. The curved line is a "bore run" - a vehicle track that the grazier uses to check on the bores regularly. The bore run is not visible becaue of the high altitude from which this was taken, but is a clear barrier to the advance of the fire.

After the good rains of Jan 2006 and the follow up rain of Feb, Mar and April, the country came to life with dense spinnifex, and many acacias responded quickly. But then there followed 7 months of almost no rain, and the grasslands dried out. Aboriginal people have traditionally fired the country to generate diverse patterns of ecosystems and therefore variety of food sources. Sometimes traditional burning occurs today, but the extent of this fire indicates that it was carelessly lit by some locals, who were just lighting fire for the "hell" of it. Non-aboriginal people in this region must apply for permission from the Traditional Land Council before lighting any fire, and this is clearly not a fire that a grazier would have lit - destroying such a vast area of fodder.

So, my dear friend, this single image tells many a story. I trust that you have enjoyed the education, for I have enjoyed researching and checking on all this through several interesting phone calls. All in the name of naming a lake, if we can.

My very best wishes,


Ian Stehbens on March 10, 2009

Dear Mira,

Mira Lake it still is! No one can identify it by any other name.

And I am very happy to be able to share with you on geographical topics and know it will be understood and appreciated. So thank you so very much. Keep your imagination active. You are not the only one who has learnt a great deal because of this photo, for it has all been new learning for me too, including the absence of a name, landphoons, and all the local details shared by Bruce, my Rabbit Flat authority!

Kindest regards dear Mira,


Ian Stehbens on March 14, 2009

Dear Mira, Giuseppe and Hazel,

You are going to learn more about Australia, and find this interesting, indeed, I anticipate!

There is no known name for this lake (or salt pan as it is referred to for it spends most of its life dry). And there are some very good reasons, a experiential/scientific reason and a mythological reason.

I have had a very special conversation with Kim Mahood who has lived almost all her life out here, growing up on Tanami Downs cattle station, the homestead for which is located to the north of this image. She has been closely involved also with the local indigenous people including as a advocate for them and as an encourager of their art. Kim says that the local traditional gaurdians of this country have never used a name for this/these saltpans. Other knowledgeable locals as well as her family have referred me to Kim.

Which reason do you want first?

To the north of here the next lake is Lake Helen, and though it is not permanent either, it is regarded as a freshwater lake, for it is smaller and has low soluble salt. So it is drinkable whenever there is water. The local aboriginal people have gathered at this Lake Helen for many centuries, as the evidence keeps appearing when the lake has been filled and the waves alter the shoreline, exposing old middens and other evidence of old indigenous occupancy here. Therefore Lake Helen is very significant in their folklore or mythology.

That Tanami Downs Homestead is nearby and was sited here for the same reason. (By the way, if anyone were to go looking for this homestead on an older map, they will find that it used to be called Mongrel Downs, which has quite negative connotations in Australian English, so it has been changed to Tanami Downs.)

However, as the very extensive saltpans or lakes to the south (that are photographed here and in the other 2 adjacent images in my gallery) become salty as they evaporate, this is dangerous country. Because, if an indigenous person had wandered here on a hunt they would only find salty water, and therefore because of the long distances they would have perished.

This is the prime basis for the mythology concerning these lakes, I believe. The local women refer to this country around these saltpans as "cheeky snake country". This means that by passing on this description others do not venture there. Cheeky snake means a poisonous or dangerous snake. They are to be avoided. This is what we may call "negative mythology".

The paleochannels of ancient rivers are the tracks of mythological snakes or of the Dreamtime Rainbow Serpent, the source of creation and life in this region. Generally the snake is therefore very positively regarded and deference is given. But, sometimes there are evil or negatives that one has to contend with in life. Such negatives derive from "cheeky snakes".

It was only in 2006 that a species of venomous snake, previously unknown to science, was found in this area. It is currently being referred to as the Central Ranges Taipan,(Oxyuranus temporalis). It is likely to be extremely venomous given its close DNA relationship to the other two species of Australian taipan - but we don't know just how venomous until more of them are caught and the venom is tested. But it is likely to be among the most venomous in the world.

Dr Doughty, the heptologist who discovered this Central Ranges Taipan, was working on the first scientific inventory of the animal and plant species of the remote Walter James Range region across the border from here in Western Australia. The Western Australian Department of Environment, the South Australian Museum, and representatives of the Ngaanyatjarra Council as well as traditional owners from the Warakurna and Tjukurla communities have all been involved in this research. One might expect that this snake is one of the real life "cheeky snakes" of this area.

So Mira Lakes this is, with your permission, Mira.

Hope all of this is coherent, if unbelievable - to European minds - that a lake 75kms long and up to 8 kms wide should be unnamed!

And another thing, neither Kim nor the locals know which way this lake would flow if the channel ever fills. This mystery should appeal to your inquiring mind Guiseppe. The reason is that Mira Lakes will flow or fill from north to south if the rain has fallen to the north, or from south to north if the rain has fallen on the southern scarplands, or in both directions if the runoff arrives first from the west or the east and the water then spreads from the entry point across the level salt surface in both directions from the inflow points.

In fact the paleo-channel, I believe, would overflow to the west ultimately into Lake White, a more expansive salt pan/lake bisected by the WA-NT border. This means that the outflow from Mira Lakes is about 30kms south of Tanami Downs homestead, about midpoint in the length of Mira Lakes.

And so inquiry and discovery continue.


Hazel Coetzee on March 15, 2009

Wow. Thank you for all that info, Ian.

Congrats to Mira on her lake. Lake Mira - so special!! Australia is indeed a fascinating country, with or without Taipans/cheeky snakes (shudder).

Cheers from Hazel

Ian Stehbens on March 16, 2009

Dear Hazel and Mira,

Without correspondents and their excellent questions and interest, I would not have gone to the lengths I have to research the phenomena in the photo! So thank you very, very much, for I have enjoyed the inquiry and learnt some very special things about my country! Thanks! Thanks!

"Mira" may be short for mirage, lakes that appear to be ahead in the landscape but are not there when one arrives! "Mira" may also suggest that the surfaces of the lake, whatever the depth, act as great mirrors set in the landscape. And of course from a balloon or aircraft the azure sky of the desert is reflected giving the deepest blue appearance. So Mira Lakes are like jewels set in the red centre of a vast continent.

And one more thing that I learnt from Kim. The curved line that has acted as a firebreak for considerable lengths but which has been jumped by the fire in a number of places, is not a bore track as I suspected but a mining company's exploration track.

We are still exploring and discovering. Aren't we all.

Fond regards,


Margrit M. Berger (S… on March 18, 2009

Ian, beautiful photo and view! You show us, how beautiful deserts are. My very best regrads, May

Ian Stehbens on March 18, 2009

Very different beauty from the Emmental, but appealing all the same. I am pleased to be able to share 'my place' with you.


Ian Stehbens on March 23, 2009

Dear Mira, Hazel, Seppe and May,

I have been in touch with Kim Mahood, the woman I referred to in my March 6 entry to Mira Paskota. Kim, an authority on the area has now identified the indigenous name for this particular lake and the stream that is seen here flowing into it from the northwest: Tjilapulpa. Kim writes,

Hello Ian, I found a reference to the lakes in my field diaries, and the creek and northwestern part of the lake system it runs into is called Tjilapulpa, indicating the track of the ancestral snake travelling into the lake. In a system this size there would be many Indigenous names for specific places around it, rather than a single name for the whole system. Also a couple of corrections - the lake to the north near the Tanami Downs homestead is called Lake Ruth, not Lake Helen [My mistake, I am sorry. Ian], and its traditional name is Mangkarrurpa. It is at the intersection of several significant dreaming tracks including bushfire dreaming (Warlu) and curlew dreaming (Wirntiki). I spent my late childhood and teens in the country, before leaving for a period of twenty years. For the past 17 years I have revisited at regular intervals, in recent years spending several months each year in the area. The traditional owners identify as Warlpiri people, but the area is a border zone between Warlpiri, Ngarti and Pintupi.

Cheers Kim

Isn't this wonderful news? So Mira Lakes refers to the whole system of ephemeral lakes that occupies the paleo-channel, the track of the ancestral snake. Each section of the Mira Lakes probably has a name given in indigenous history. We now know the name for the section in this photograph: Tjilapulpa.

I trust this exercise of discovery with Google Earth's help, gets this name into the official place names record.

Josef Grohs on March 24, 2009

Dear Ian, thanks again for your very interesting informations! Cheers, Sepp

Ian Stehbens on March 24, 2009

Dear Friends,

I have drawn the attention of the Place Names Committee, Department of Planning & Infrastructure, Northern Territory Government to the fact that Tjilapulpa is an indigenous name for the creek and lake pictured. It seems to me that this is of significance culturally. And if climate change does increase the rainfall of this region, then one can expect that these paleo-channels will contain water more often. I would anticipate that the Place Names Committee will consult the Central Desert Land Council and the Mangkururrpa Land Council on this, and if they have no objection, or know of no other name for these features, then we may see this naming become official. If there are further developments, I will let you know, as appropriate.

Thanks to Kim Mahood, the Warlpiri women, Gerry Waugh, and Bruce at Rabbit Flat for their helpful contributions to this. And thanks to the Panoramio friends for their interest.


Ian Stehbens on May 7, 2009

Dear Mira and Friends,

Today I received a reply from Place Names Committee of Northern Territory Government, as a result of my photographing this intermittent lake system, and discovering that it had no official name! So my thanks to everyone who took an interest in this modern day exploration and naming.

Here's the reply from the NT Place Names Committee:

Hi Ian

The Place Names Committee at last week's meeting agreed to recommend the name "Tjilapula Lakes", subject to support from the Central Land Council and the Central Desert Shire Council (as is required under the Act).

I will inform you when the name is approved.


_Stuart Duncan, Secretary,

Place Names Committee

Website: www.nt.gov.au/lands/lis/placenames/index.shtml Register: www.ntlis.nt.gov.au/placenames/index.jsp

Ian Stehbens

Ian Stehbens on May 7, 2009

I am quietly delighted, too Mira. However, I think that I could have approached this differently for I believe that Tjilapulpa is a generic indigenous name, that refers to all Rainbow Serpent tracks across the desert (all paleo-channels). It's a bit like calling a particular river, River River. Anyway, it is very good from my perspective, in that it honours indigenous culture. And Mira Lakes is our European name for Tjilapulpa Lakes as Ayers Rock is the name for Uluru, and The Olgas is the European name for Kata Tjuta.

One day... one day ... you will have to fly over them for unless you are as moneyed as Steve Fossett I don't think you will ever balloon over them.

Warmest regards from Brisbane,


Ian Stehbens on May 22, 2009

Dear Mira,

I saw Mira Lakes - Tjilapulpa Lakes - again yesterday, but we were on a track 100kms east of the lakes. I could see them in the distance and had enough visibility to see that there was some water still in them but much less than in this image. (And a photo to prove it! - but not good enough to upload.) The fellow passenger behind me had asked me to interpret some of the colours below, a little earlier, so she got to hear our story of the naming of Tjilapulpa and Mira Lakes!

I am safely in Bali and just back from a wander through a Balinese garden with my camera. And as I can I will keep an eye on your new uploads.

Kindest regards,


Ian Stehbens on May 27, 2009

Thanks Mira,

Received! and file will be sent, but it will take about a couple of weeks before I am home.


Ian Stehbens on May 27, 2009

I won't get to see Our lakes on the way home, Mira: I fly home at night, leaving Denpasar at around 2350 and arrive in Sydney at 0730.

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Photo details

  • Uploaded on March 1, 2009
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    by Ian Stehbens