The Great Victoria Desert is one of Australia’s hidden treasures - a vast sand dune and sand plain desert - the largest in Australia. Its area is shared equally by the States of South and Western Australia, north of the Nullarbor Plain and south of the Musgrave Ranges, and is bounded on the west by Laverton and the goldfields and to the east by Mabel Creek Station due west of Coober Pedy and the Stuart Highway.
The desert was named after Queen Victoria by the explorer Ernest Giles in 1875. Its dunes trend east west, and aside from the major palaeo-drainage basin at Serpentine Lakes it has no major watercourses. Save for a few vehicle tracks, this vast wilderness is virtually untouched by man. The international significance of the Unnamed Conservation Park that lies on the South Australian side of the desert was recognised in 1977 when it was proclaimed a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. It is one of the largest arid zone biospheres in the world.
Sandplains and dunefields are the dominant landform, forming the southern part of the anticyclonic whorl of dunes that include the Simpson and Great Sandy Deserts. The dunes are longitudinal, from 5-20 metres in height and can run for up to 100kms. Salt lakes are another feature of the desert, the best known are the Serpentine Lakes, other lake systems are the Nurrari and Wyola Lakes, Lakes Maurice and Bring, and Plumridge Lakes and Yeo Lakes in Western Australia.To the south is the vast limestone Nullarbor Plain, and to the south east Tietkins Plain and the Ooldea dunefields.
This expedition travels across an extraordinary diversity of landscapes and vegetation, the scenery changing constantly. Both the Nullarbor and the Great Victoria Desert are veritable Botanic Gardens teeming with life. Departing Coober Pedy, (which is serviced daily by Rex Air from Adelaide) we travel west on the famed Anne Beadell Highway through Aboriginal Land to Tallaringa Nature Reserve. We visit once top secret ground zero at Emu Field, the site of the first atomic tests on Australian soil. We cross the GVD along the Anne Beadell Highway to Laverton. From the goldfields we return across the northern Nullarbor, crossing expansive and evocative sweeping plains. This program offers an astonishing diversity of landscapes and scenery. For more information on the Great Victoria Desert, go to our Discover section here.
The Great Victoria Desert is remarkably well vegetated, and contains diverse acacia, casuarina and Eucalyptus communities. The most spectacular tree is the marble gum Eucalyptus gongylocarpa. The desert provides a biogeographically active corridor that links mallee inhabiting species from south eastern and south western Australia. Its diversity of flora is enhanced by having never been grazed by stock. Being the least populated area of Australia the desert has an undisputed ecological integrity with a powerful wilderness character which has resulted in many describing it as a veritable botanical garden.
Successive anthropologists have attempted to delineate the complex Aboriginal habitation patterns of the Great Victoria Desert. Ronald Berndt described those occupying the spinifex plains as pila and those on the stony ground to the north as yapu. Tindale classified them into a number of groups, Kokatha, Nangatadjara, Ngalea and Pindinii. These groups did not occupy set areas, but rather ranged across the desert according to seasons and the tjukurpa (law). There was population movement post European settlement. Daisy Bates established a settlement on the Indian Pacific railway line at Ooldea Soak, there were missions at Ceduna which later moved to Yatala, and settlements today at Tjuntjuntjarra and Oak Valley. There has over the years become a cultural amalgamation, all now speak western desert language and identify themselves as ‘Southern Pitjantjatjara’.
After World War 2 it was proposed that the British and Australians establish a joint weapons research facility and rocket range at Woomera. A centre line of fire needed to be surveyed from the launch site at Lake Hart near Woomera over two thousand miles to the Eighty Mile Beach south of Broome. The task fell to sapper and surveyor Len Beadell who spent several years, often alone with a jeep cutting his way through the mulga scrub using astro fixes to survey the eventual flight path of the rockets. The road he constructed along part of this route was named after his wife Anne.
After successful atomic tests on the Montebello Islands in Western Australia in 1952, the British Government were keen on establishing a site for ground based testing. The Great Victoria Desert seemed a good place, remote, out of the way, and in October 1953 two top secret tests were carried out - Totem 1 and Totem 2. A more convenient site was located 35 kms north east of Watson siding on the Indian Pacific Railway and was given the name Maralinga - meaning “Field of Thunder”, and a further seven bombs were detonated here as well as numerous “minor trials” from 1956 to 1957. In 1958 a three year moratorium was signed between the UK, USA and USSR against atmospheric nuclear testing