The car lurches to avoid a camel that has galloped on to the road and is keeping pace alongside the vehicle just centimetres from the doors. Ahead stretches the road to Lake Christopher, two sandy wheel ruts divided by a hump of spinifex that conceals concrete-hard termite mounds. This is the Gibson Desert.

Red plains and dunes stretch to the northern horizon. To the south, the distant folds of the Rawlinson Range recall an Aboriginal dot painting, spots of shrub greens on a background of buff spinifex and red sand. Plumes of smoke on the horizon mark patch-burning by the traditional owners, the Ngaanyatjarra people.

Tucked into a desert oak grove at the foot of the range is Desert Discovery base camp, a temporary home to a group of desert enthusiasts on a volunteer mission to help protect the environment in remote regions of Australia.

It doesn't get much more remote than this - the red centre near the Western Australia-Northern Territory border. The nearest settlement is Warakurna Aboriginal community and nearby Giles Meteorological Station. Desert Discovery is here for three weeks at the invitation of the Ngaanyatjarra people and with approval of the Ngaanyatjarra Land and Culture Council and support from the Ngaanyatjarra Working on Country Program. Elder Ernest Bennett, of the Warakurna community, leads a group of traditional owners working with the expedition to increase scientific knowledge of the region.

For Desert Discovery president Keith Johnson, a 72-year-old retired accountant from Victoria with an interest in birds and marsupial moles, this is the culmination of two years of intensive planning. "We have about 130 people coming in and out of base camp over three weeks," Mr Johnson says. "They head out in small groups on extended field trips. Ages range from pre-school to 91 and they come from almost every State in Australia. One couple come all the way from Switzerland."

Education by involving students in field studies is part of each biennial expedition. Students from Canberra Grammar School are part of this year's project for five days. However, the major focus is contributing to on-the-ground research.

"This is the best team we've ever had," Mr Johnson says. "We've put together 680 days of field research by reputable scientists in areas ranging from botany, insects, mammals, reptiles and birds to geology.

"There are also historians interested in Australia's explorers and anthropologists joining the teams. That doesn't count the volunteer support, including people with skills in all aspects of outback travel and logistics. Then there is the back-up from organisations like the WA Herbarium, BirdLife Australia and the Department of Environment and Conservation WA.

The information collected is eagerly shared around the group's evening campfire, together with all-important weather reports. There's an excited announcement that one of the "birdos" has sighted a flock of nomadic desert princess parrots. According to ornithologist Boyd Wykes the bird team has identified about 100 species, with the regionally restricted but locally abundant dusky grasswren being the camp favourite.

The botany team are pleased by some rare finds, including an Eremophila (emu bush) that may be a new species, but it's the breadth of the collection from an area that hasn't been well surveyed they are most proud of.

Neville Walsh, senior conservation botanist with the National Herbarium of Victoria, says the team will not know all the special discoveries they have made until the plants are studied in the laboratory and compared with reference specimens.

"One set of specimens goes to the WA Herbarium. Duplicate collections will go to other State herbaria where specialists in different plant groups will assist with identification of difficult specimens, some still to receive botanical names," Mr Walsh says.

"As each collection is incorporated into each herbarium's database, it's added to the Atlas of Living Australia database along with geospatial information. The information has implications for land management and conservation efforts.

"It's immensely valuable because this country is so remote and difficult to access that it's hard for organisations to mount research trips. It will also assist our Aboriginal hosts with management of the Indigenous Protected Area and Working on Country programs.

"The exchange of information is two-way as we learn a lot from the traditional owners who attend the projects."

Each group has something to share. One has hiked into gorges that could be traced to descriptions of Ernest Giles' explorations in the 1870s.

Some gorges hold precious water in rock pools, no less important for life now than in Giles' day when he recorded the "sunless caverns of this Gorge of Tarns, with a limpid liquid basin of the purest water at my feet, sheltered from the heated atmosphere which almost melts the rocks and sand of the country surrounding us - sitting as I may well declare in the shadow of a great rock in a weary land."

As always, it's the small furry animals that grab the limelight. The expressions and outstretched hands of the children from Warakurna Primary School say it all as fauna team leader Clive Crouch lifts a tiny marsupial mouse from the traps.

Mr Crouch is the centre of attention for the camp's "paparazzi" of keen nature photographers as he carefully handles and releases the rare brown desert mouse, spinifex hopping mouse, sandy inland mouse, fat-tailed false antechinus, lesser hairy-footed dunnart and stripe-faced dunnart.

"We have recorded nine species of native mammals," Mr Crouch says. "Probably the most significant from a conservation viewpoint is numerous sightings of the black-flanked rock wallaby, warru in the local language. The elders say they were once widespread through the Rawlinson Range but now as a vulnerable species, sightings and records of fresh scats are important."

Mr Crouch considers the Rawlinson Range Project as the most successful fauna survey he has ever been involved with. "That is something, in that this is my 52nd year of undertaking fauna surveys," he says. "During the project, we recorded a total of 190 mammals and reptiles, representing 49 species."

The fauna team illustrate the calibre of Desert Discovery volunteers, with a range of degrees and diplomas, and the diversity. "We have conservation professionals, farmers, a teacher, nurse, shire councillor, station manager and science students," Mr Crouch says. "One of the joys of these trips is working with so many fantastic people and sharing knowledge."

While much of the focus is on scientific outcomes, it's the interactions with the people that leave an indelible imprint. For example, Mr Bennett and his family cooking kangaroo on their campfire in base camp and leading volunteers on expeditions to show their country. The Aboriginal women returning from a hunting trip with a sand goanna. Elder Daisy Ward taking a group, including her own grandchildren, to see her "birthing place" in the hills of the Schwerin Mural Crescent where she was one of the last generation of Aboriginal people to be born in the bush. Artists weaving imaginative sculptures from desert grasses (tjanpi), wool and raffia. Laughter as the Aboriginal children commandeer cameras to photograph each other.

Desert Discovery Inc is a non-profit volunteer organisation and expeditions are not open to the public. Australian Desert Expeditions ( www.desertexpeditions.org ) runs outback expeditions that also often have a research focus.

The West Australian

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