Central Australian Desert Aerial: Tjilapulpa (or Mira Lakes) and channels among the longitudinal dune field. This is Yiningarra Country.

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Comments (8)

Ian Stehbens on March 2, 2009

The longitudinal dunes extend over great distances, all running almost exactly east-west. Their orientation coincides with the wind direction resultant for this latitude in inland Australia. The dunes are interrupted by the cross-country flows of water after rains. However, the flows of water into lakes and channels also feed the dunes, because the runoff carries significant sediment loads which are deposited on the beds of the channels, outwash areas and on the floors of the saltpans or claypans. As the water dries out, the sediment is then carried forward by the wind and provides more sand for the dunes.

The broad areas of different colours, reds and khakis, reveal the different areas that were burnt by wildfire at different times in the last few years. The surface soil, especially when moist is quite red, but the colour appears as khaki where grass and shrub cover have been established. The reason for the redness of the soil is the presence of iron in the topsoil due to the desert conditions resulting in the upward evaporative movement of water through the soil.

Fire has two main sources in this region. It is an important technology of indigenous Australians, and lightning strikes in dry storms set many fires, here also.

The traditional indigenous residents use fire for managing the environment to create a diversity of food supply (seeding grasses attract flocks of birds and insects, as well as particular species of the larger animals such as emu; burnt areas rejuvenate as green shoots which attract other species, especially macropods/kangaroos;...)

Ian Stehbens on March 3, 2009

SCALE: The rounded section of this long lake in the left foreground is 6kms in diameter, this image being taken from 11000M altitude.

The parallel longitudinal dunes average around 6M elevation in this area.

The broad band of redness, is the result of fire which has burnt much of the ground cover exposing the red iron rich sandy surface. The fire advanced from the south (left to right) with a fire front around 7 - 12 kms wide, with some side extensions. The lake or playa system finally blocked its advance.

For anyone interested in reading more or in exploring the Central Australian deserts, the best resource has recently been published by Hema Maps. Ian Glover & Len Zell (2007) Australia's Great Desert Tracks. Atlas and Guide. Hema Maps Pty Ltd PO Box 4365, Eight Mile Plains 4113 Qld, Australia www.hemamaps.com.au

Josef Grohs on March 4, 2009

Hi Ian, I appreciate very much indeed your new series of aerial-fotos of Australia together with such profound explanations !*!!!!!....

Warm regards


Ian Stehbens on March 14, 2009

Dear Giuseppe,

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 about 50kms NNW 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.

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 Lake Helen for many centuries, as the archaeological 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. Positive mythology.

That Tanami Downs Homestead is nearby and was sited here for the same reason.

However, as the extensive saltpans or lakes (Mira Lakes, I have named them) 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, had an indigenous person 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 paleo-channels 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.

Here is another riddle for 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.

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.


Josef Grohs on March 15, 2009

Dear Ian,

many many thanks for this very interesting article about MiraLake in NT, Australia

All the best for your further work on this topic


kim.mahood on March 23, 2009

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, 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

Ian Stehbens on March 23, 2009

Dear Kim,

Thank you very very much for your message, and for discovering the indigenous name for this system in your field diaries. I am pleased to be corrected on the slip I made with Lake Ruth. The additional information is also appreciated.

This has been a significant journey of discovery which began with a few photos. I am pleased that we can now publicise the Tjilapulpa name.



Ian Stehbens on March 24, 2009

Dear Kim,

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 very much and my thanks extends to the Warlpiri women, Gerry Waugh, and Bruce at Rabbit Flat for their helpful contributions. And I must also thank my Panoramio friends for their interest.


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