ON THE ROAD — No need for a bird hide to get up close and personal with the Australian magpie (Cracticus tibicen, probably race telenocua). This glossy specimen came to greet us when we stopped the car near the walking track to the bird hide at the Arid Lands Botanic Gardens. “Over there”, he or she indicated with a gesture of the beak. Neither the Black-backed, nor White-backed, nor Western Magpies extend into the Top End of the Northern Territory, but with many races they cover most of the rest of the continent.

ON THE ROAD — surrounded by a large expanse of small desert shrubs, a small patch of greener and larger vegetation marks an artificial water point at the Arid Lands Botanic Gardens, Port Augusta. In the mornings and afternoons the water attracts many of the small birds that spend most of their lives very privately amongst the shrubbery. From a permanent bird hide about 15 metres away we saw the White-winged Fairy Wren (Malurus leucopterus, race leuconotus), Variegated Fairy Wren (Malurus lambertii), Crested Pigeon ( Ocyphaps lophotes) and Zebra Finches (Taeniopygia guttata).

ON THE ROAD — In the 1930s Lake Hart, not far south of Woomera, produced 9000 tonnes of the finest salt each year. The commercial operation failed because of the continuing difficulty of sourcing water to process the product, and the tyranny of distance from market. Today the Ghan railway runs beside the lake … but it doesn’t stop. The amazing sight of nearly 30km of brilliant white salt flats makes for a brief stopover for road travellers but there is little to linger for.

ON THE ROAD — 2750km from Darwin and 300km from central Adelaide is a treat for nature lovers — the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Gardens. Among a wonderful, extensive and well labelled collection of plants of the desert a few water points concentrate birdlife. Zebra finches (Taenniopygia guttata) are found almost everywhere in Australia — except Tasmania, a few other southern locations and where Jan and I live in the Top End of the Northern Territory. The female (in lower picture) is not as brightly coloured as the males.

ON THE ROAD — Troglodytes get a pretty bad rap in popular culture with the common cartoon depiction being a creature half hippie/half sasquatch squatting in a dingy cave with a sooty ceiling. There’s nothing dingy about the underground homes of Coober Pedy’s cave dwelling opal miners who discovered the thermal advantage of living underground in a searingly hot desert. Visitors can stay in a number of underground motels and ours was called, quite descriptively, the Underground Motel. Our room was at the end of a somewhat luridly appointed hallway — all carved out of the soft sandstone. We enjoyed a very comfortable overnight stay with all modern conveniences. In China some 30million people still live underground.