There are ten deserts in Australia, making up almost a fifth of the continent.
Where are they located and how many deserts in Australia are inhabited? Read on as we reveal the most interesting facts and trivia about Australian deserts.
Quick Australian Deserts Facts
- Australia is the second driest continent in the world, right behind Antarctica and the driest inhabited place on Earth.
- 1.37 million km2 of Australia’s mainland (18%) is a desert area.
- 70% of Australia’s territory is considered arid or semi-arid, i.e. gets less than 500 mm of rain annually.
- Deserts in Australia are mainly located in the central and western parts of the country.
- Australian deserts are tourist attractions, most of the visitors to the states where deserts are located are holidaymakers.
- Even though the living conditions in Australia’s deserts are harsh, around 3% of the population call it home. There are less than 600,000 people who live in desert communities.
- Many Australian deserts have thunderstorms, also known as dry storms since the rain evaporates before it hits the ground.
- There are annual monsoon seasons when native flowers bloom in the deserts.
- Compared to other world deserts, deserts in Australia get higher amounts of rain.
- The driest parts of Australia with annual rainfall from 100mm to 140mm are around Lake Eyre in South Australia.
Here is a list of the 10 deserts in Australia, their location and size.
|Australian desert name
|WA and SA
|WA and NT
|NT, QLD and SA
|SA, QLD and NSW
|SA, QLD and NSW
The four major deserts in Australia alone cover almost 12% of the mainland. For instance, the Great Victoria desert occupies 4.5% of Australia, whereas Great Sandy, Tanami and Simpson cover 3.5%, 2.4%, and 2.3%, respectively.
It’s worth noting that there are no sharp borders between deserts in an Australia map dividing the arid areas and the regions with moisture.
Fascinating Facts About Australian Deserts
Let’s see what makes each of them unique, and learn more about the history of Australian desert names and what kind of wildlife and plants you can expect to see there.
1. The Great Victoria Desert
The GVD is the biggest desert in Australia. It is over 700 km wide and stretches from the Eastern Goldfields region in WA to the Gawler Ranges in SA. It consists of many small sandhills, grassy plains, stony plains and salt lakes.
Rainfall in the GVD ranges from 200 to 250mm a year, while thunderstorms are very common—the area experiences about 20 annually.
Heat can go up to 40°C in summer and 23°C in winter, so the best time to visit would be outside of the summer months.
- Things to do: Horseback riding, hiking ATV riding, sand boarding, sand sliding, hand gliding
- Desert communities: the Kogara, the Mirning & the Pitjantjatjara
- Flora: Eucalyptus gongylocarpa (marble gum tree), Eucalyptus youngiana (Large-fruited mallee), mulga shrubs and spinifex grasses
- Fauna: The great desert skink, the Central Ranges taipan, the crest-tailed mulgara, sandhill dunnart, the sand goanna and perentie (i.e. the 4th-largest lizard in the world)
- 95 species of reptiles live in the Great Victoria Desert, 18 of which have conservation significance.
- The godfather of Great Victoria is the first European explorer to cross the desert, Ernes Giles, who named the area in honour of Queen Victoria, the monarch at that time.
- Only eight species of weed grow in the Great Victoria Desert.
- More than 21,000 square kilometres are protected within the Mamungari Conservation Park.
- Eucalyptus gongylocarpa found in the GVD is also known as desert or marble gum. It can grow up to 45 feet and is resistant to both frost and drought.
- Areas of the GVD are contaminated with plutonium-239 and multiple other radioactive materials from nuclear weapons trials carried out in the 1950 and 1960s.
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2. The Great Sandy Desert
Located in the northeast of WA, the Great Sandy is the second biggest desert in Australia. It is home to two of the most famous national parks, Rudall River National Park and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the latter of which houses the popular Ayers Rock, as well as the Wolfe Creek crater, the site where an asteroid hit the Earth 300,000 years ago.
The area is characterised by ergs (parallel dunes), red sand rocks, and salt lakes. Temperatures range from 38 to 42 °C in the summer (the hottest summer daytime temperatures in the country) and 25 to 30°C in the winter.
- Things to do: 4×4 guided tours
- Desert communities: the Martu and the Pintupi.
- Flora: Spinifex, scattered desert oak, acacia and grevillea.
- Fauna: The princess parrot, the mulga parrot and the scarlet-chested parrot, the perentie, red kangaroos, the thorny devil.
- The economy is mainly driven by tourism and the mining industry—the Telfer gold mine, one of the largest in Australia, and Nifty Copper Mine are both located in the Great Sandy Desert.
- Rainfall is low and not frequent, but still higher than what other deserts get (just below 250mm).
- The hottest summer daytime temperatures in the country are recorded in the GSD, the highest being 48.1 in January.
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3. The Tanami Desert
The Tanami desert has one of the most interesting Australian desert names—the word is an anglicisation of the Warlpiri word ‘Chanamee’ which means ‘never die’. Controversially, the survival of one plant species and 25 animal species in the area is threatened with extinction, including the little native mouse and the Australian painted snipe.
Most of the Tanami Desert is located in the Northern Territory, while a smaller part lies in WA between the GSD and the Kimberley. Most of the region is covered in sand plains with small dunes.
- Things to do: camping, visiting aboriginal culture centres. The area is also known for bird watching.
- Desert communities: the Kukatja, the Warlpiri and the Tjurabalan
- Flora: Spinifex, desert bloodwoods, acacias, grevilleas
- Fauna: The brush-tailed mulgara, the great desert skink, the greater bilby, the Australian bustard, the freckled duck, the grey falcon, the long-tailed planigale.
- 38% of the Tanami Desert is a conversation zone.
- 298mm of rain falls on average in the Tanami bioregion, most of it during the summer months.
- There is one endangered plant species: the dwarf desert spike-rush or Eleocharis papillosa.
4. The Simpson Desert
The Simpson Desert stretches across the Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia. According to Australian deserts facts, it is one of the world’s biggest deserts of longitudinal dunes—there are 1100 dunes, some of which are running for 200 km and 90m in height. The dunes display a range of breathtaking colours including shades of white, dark red, pink and orange.
The Simpson Desert is visited by tourists mostly in winter after the government closed the bioregion during the summer to stop visitors from hurting themselves. This is so because temperatures in summer can reach 50 degrees Celsius, and huge sand storms plague the desert.
- Things to do: camping, visiting the ruins and mound springs at Dalhousie Springs and Purnie Bore wetlands.
- Desert communities: the Wangkangurru and the Wangkamadla
- Flora: Acacias, and coolabah woodlands, spinifex, cane grass, river red gum
- Fauna: The Eyrean grasswren, the crest-tailed mulgara, the dusky hopping mouse, the Grey grasswren, the Painted honeyeater, the Woma python
- The Simpson Desert is part of the World Wildlife Fund ecoregion.
- The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge is held every year in September.
- Winters are cool, but there have been heat waves even in the middle of July.
- One million hectares of the Queensland area of the Simpson Desert is part of the Munga-Thirra National Park.
- The world’s longest parallel sand dune (40m high), the Nappanerica or the Big Red, is found in the Simpson Desert.
- The Simpson Desert is one of the driest deserts in Australia with a median rainfall of just 125mm.
5. The Gibson Desert
Named after the explorer Alferd Gibson who presumably died during an expedition in the desert in 1874, the Gibson Desert is located in Western Australia.
This desert has wide undulating sand plains and dune fields, upland regions of sandstone and vast plains of ‘buckshot’ (iron oxide pebbles that make the soil rich in iron). There are some isolated salt-water lakes in the centre and the southwest of the area, as well.
Rainfall ranges between 200 to 250 millimetres a year, so the weather is hot with temperatures rising above 40°C in summer and going down to 6°C in winter.
- Things to do: Guided tours
- Desert communities: the Warburton, the Mantamaru, the Pintupi and the Warakurna
- Flora: Acacia, spinifex, grevilleas, scattered mulga and desert oak
- Fauna: The great desert skink, the princess parrot, the Greater bilby, the northern marsupial mole, the brush-tailed mulgara, the grey falcon and the Australian bustard.
- Nearly 12% of the Gibson Desert is in reserves.
- The Gibson desert was also named by Ernest Giles, the same man who named the Great Victoria Desert.
- There are 5 endangered or vulnerable species of animals in the Gibson Desert.
6. The Little Sandy Desert
Located to the east of the Pilbara region and north of the Gascoyne region, the Little Sandy (LSD) is the sixth biggest desert in Australia. It is crossed by the Canning Stock Route, while the landscape is characterised by red sand dunes, rocky plains and sandstone mesas.
The LSD has a rich biodiversity with over 2000 plant taxa, two of which are recognised as threatened species. There are also various reptiles and bird species, i.e. a total 116 in the desert.
As with other deserts in Australia, rainfall is minimal and not constant with most of it falling in summer.
- Things to do: See endangered species and Indigenous art
- Desert communities: the Martu
- Flora: Hummock grasslands, a few eucalypts, acacias, grevilleas, umbrella bush and bloodwoods
- Fauna: The grey falcon, the Australian bustard, the northern marsupial mole, the princess parrot, the greater bilby, the brush-tailed mulgara, the bush stone-curlew
- About 4.6% of the LSD is in a protected area, most of which is managed as an Indigenous Protected Area.
- The main economic activities are copper and gold mining.
- The Carnarvon Range, considered sacred by the Indigenous people, has more than 25,000 lithic artefacts.
- Tourists are not advised to cross the desert unless they have years of experience due to harsh weather conditions.
7. Strzelecki Desert
The Strzelecki is one of the deserts in Australia that lies in three states: South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales, with most of its territory in SA. Together with the Simpson Desert and the Tirari Desert, it forms the Simpson–Strzelecki Dunefields (SSD) bioregion.
This area is dominated by long parallel sand dunes and saltpans, as well as a few stony plains.
Rainfall is scarce and typical for the summer months—this area is one of the driest in Australia, getting only 125mm of rain annually.
- Things to do: Visit national and conservation parks and historical sites
- Desert communities: the Yawarawarrka
- Flora: Sandhill cane grass, sandhill wattle, spinifex, acacia, grevillea, river red gum, coolibah, Broughton willow
- Fauna: The dusky hopping mouse, the crest-tailed mulgara, the Eyrean grasswren, the Australian bustard, the grey falcon the Woma python
- The Strzelecki Desert was named after a Polish explorer by Charles Sturt, the first non-indigenous explorer in the region.
- The Strzelecki Creek system, which runs through the desert, is one of the main locations for raptor breeding in the country.
- Some of the main highlights in this region include Cooper Creek, Strzelecki Creek, and the Diamantina River.
- Tourists can travel through the Strzelecki Desert via the Birdsville Track and Strzelecki Track.
8. The Sturt Stony Desert
The Sturt Stony Desert is located in between the Simpson and Strzelecki deserts in South Australia and Queensland. It is covered by gibber plains, formed of closely packed pebbles (angular and rounded) and cobbles. They glisten in the sun, providing an amazing view for any visitor.
The Sturt Stony Desert is also home to the singing rat, a native rodent that can sing at night from the burrows.
- Things to do: Explore Australian wildlife on guided tours, camp at the Sturt National Park
- Desert communities: The Wanggumara and the Yandruwandha
- Flora: Acacia, coolabah, river red gum, sandhill cane-grass, sandhill wattle
- Fauna: The knife-footed frog, the pickard’s wattle, the Kowari, the fawn hopping-mouse, the Ashy Downs skink, the Australian bustard, the grey falcon, the plains wanderer
- The winters in Sturt Stony are short and dry, while the summers are hot and arid, with an average of 168mm yearly rainfall.
- Like the Strzelecki, the Sturt Stony Desert was named by Charles Sturt who was on a mission to find the inland sea he thought lay at the centre of the continent.
9. The Tirari Desert
One of the smaller deserts in Australia, the Tirari Desert features giant dunes running from north to south and many salt lakes.
It is part of the Simpson-Strzelecki Dunefields bioregion and is partly located in the Kati Thanda – Lake Eyre National Park (as it forms the eastern end of Lake Eyre).
The Tirari Desert is accessible via the unpaved Birdsville Track which runs from Marree to Birdsville. There is only one hotel on the route—the Mungerannie Hotel which is Aboriginal for ‘big ugly face’.
Rainfall is very low (below 125mm a year) and weather conditions are extremely difficult, so it is not the most desirable tourist attraction.
- Things to do: Camel rides, camping
- Desert communities: the Dieri
- Flora: Sandhill cane grass, sandhill wattle, spinifex, acacia, saltbush, bluebush, river red gum, coolibah
- Fauna: The Woma python, the grey falcon, the crest-tailed mulgara, the dusky hopping mouse, the fawn hopping-mouse
- The Dulkaninna Station, one of the several cattle stations in the Tirari Desert, has been run by the same family for over a century.
- The dune fields are sparsely vegetated, however, they are covered with grasses, herbs and flowers after rains.
- The Tirari desert also includes a fossil site—the 3.5 square kilometres Lake Ngapakaldi to Lake Palankarinna Fossil Area.
- The region was settled by the Tirari, a small tribe of Aboriginals, who are now extinct.
10. The Pedirka Desert
Pedirka is the smallest of the deserts in Australia, occupying 1,250km2 of the mainland or less than 0.1% of the continent. It is located northwest of Oodnadatta and northeast of Coober Pedy and forms part of the Finke bioregion.
Did you know that some of the cheapest properties in Australia are located near the Pedirka Desert?
The desert is dominated by harsh stony plains and deep-red sands and low, parallel and eroded dunes. As other deserts in this region, the climate is arid and hot with high evaporation rates and less than 152mm of rain throughout the year.
- Things to do: guided tours to explore the amazing flora and fauna
- Desert communities: the Arabana
- Flora: Spinifex, acacia, hakeas, grevilleas, mulga, turpentine mulga, umbrella bush
- Fauna: The princess parrot, the grey falcon, the plains wanderer, the southern marsupial mole, the Australian bustard, the plains rat
- Since the land is eroded and dry, it is not that appealing to cattle graziers, although developments are being made to change the landscape function.
- The desert boasts some breathtaking colours—the white claypans between the fiery dunes in combination with a late afternoon sunset are a stunning view.
1. What is the largest desert in Australia?
The Great Victoria Desert is the biggest desert in Australia, stretching on a 348,750 km2 surface between Western and South Australia. Great Victoria is also one of the ten largest deserts in the world.
2. Did Australia always have deserts?
No, Australia’s deserts are some of the youngest in the world, formed just 1.5 million years ago.
3. Where is the Great Australian desert located?
The ten Australian deserts are collectively known as the Great Australian desert and are primarily found in the interior lowlands of the country. Despite being largely uninhabited, it is surprising how many deserts in Australia are full of flora, fauna and tourist attractions.