The Simpson Desert stretches 68,000 miles across central Australia, but it looks as surreal as anything on Mars. There are more than 1,100 parallel sand dunes, each a wind-sculpted ridge of quartz grains coated in iron oxide, which rusts over time, producing awesome red vistas that aerial surveyor Cecil Thomas Madigan noted, in 1946, “responded well to color photography.”
That’s putting it mildly.
When aerial photographer Joshua Smith flew over the Simpson Desert for the first time four years ago, on his way to visit a friend in a remote town, he couldn’t stop snapping. “There were shapes and colors and details that I just did not think were possible,” he says. The images turned out so cool that Smith got a crazy idea: Why not photograph all the deserts in Australia?
It’s a gargantuan, if not foolhardy, quest: Australia has 10 deserts occupying more than 500,000 miles (or nearly 20 percent) of its mainland—more land than is contained in all Peru. Yet they host just .15 people per square mile, meaning you’re often more likely to meet a reptile than another human. It’s easy to see why. Temperatures hit triple digits between December and February, and rainfall—below 10 inches—sometimes evaporates before hitting ground. If that weren’t enough, global warming could aggravate these conditions, possibly adding 100 miles or more to the deserts’ southern boundary by the end of this century. But Smith is dogged. Since that first flight over the Simpson Desert, he’s documented five other deserts—the Great Victoria, Strzelecki, Sturt Stony, Tirari, and Pedirka—and plans to tackle the rest next month.
The trick to traversing such a formidable landscape? Carefully plan your fuel stops. Weeks before departure, Smith and his pilot Joe (a pal from his hometown, Narrabri, in New South Wales) compile a list of shooting locations that they plug into flight apps AvPlanEFB and Ozrunways. The apps reference every nearby airstrip and fueling location, right down to the phone numbers of the small-town locals responsible for filling them up. By factoring in gear weight and weather conditions, they can figure out what distances the plane can cover without running out of fuel—a mistake you never want to make in the Outback.
Each flight lasts four to five hours, about as long as the men can take being folded up inside a single-engine plane before their legs start cramping. Joe steers the aircraft while Smith points his Canon DSLR out a giant hole in the back where the door used to be (it’s strapped into the seat beside him). The men chat through headsets, but mostly just blast Tycho. They’ve worked together for nearly a decade documenting everything from natural disasters to agriculture. “Joe knows exactly what I’m after,” Smith says. “As I’m making the shot, he’s usually lining up the next one.”
They spend the night wherever they can find a bed, shower, and maybe a couple beers—pubs, fuel stations, old farm cottages. But occasionally the light runs out quicker than they expected, and they simply bundle up in sleeping bags beneath the plane wing. They’re the only humans around for miles—a strange feeling, and the reason they’re out there. “It is such a beautiful part of Australia that not a lot of people will ever get to see in their lifetime,” Smith says.
Smith’s stunning images share his unique perspective, showcasing Australia’s otherworldly deserts for everyone to enjoy.
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