|"it burns so fiercely that a man on foot has no hope".|
Giles odious triodia and possibly the most cursed plant in Central Australia, it is difficult to find a favourable reference to the to the spiny hemispherical mass of vegetation. Useless to the pastoralist, avoided by the explorer and pity the poor surveyor and his chainman faced with a truly impenetrable wall of porcupine grass. Nothing but small beasts and spinifex snakes pass through a flourishing Triodia grassland, it would be a splendid place to hide a gold reef until burnt off.
At Madigans suggestion a confusion in names should be cleared up first. The true Spinifex genus has a familiar grass like form, a wider distribution and is "civilised and tractable", and serves a useful purpose in erosion control of coastal sand dunes, the inland variety is commonly called cane grass. The other sort masquerading under the gentler name, is correctly of the Triodia genus, but for reasons unclear this forbidding plant is universally known as spinifex and that's where the matter rests for the purposes of this entry.
Close up spinifex demands attention, the spiky nature of the plant is due to its ability to fold the leaves tightly about the stem as a means of water conservation, and after the first dry season the leaf enclosed stem becomes brittle and very sharp. The mass of stems pointing outward in all directions gives the appearance of an armoured ball or cushion, hence the alternative name porcupine grass. As a grassland it covers about 20% of the arid parts of the continent and as a mixed community with other plants, probably over 40%, it is sometimes difficult to avoid spinifex.
Coote didn't think much of spinifex as he and Colson jolted their way over the hummocky grass on the return to Ai Ai Creek in the unladen truck, "the bumping and nerve racking clatter" of Sunrise he put down to wind blown sand accumulating at the base of the plant. He and Colson discussed concrete roads during the unpleasant two day journey. On the other hand Blakeley writes that spinifex made the best travelling as the vehicles tyres could get a satisfactory grip on the tough grass.
Blakeley thought otherwise when struggling through dense high spinifex on the way to Mount Marjorie. The differential housing of the low slung Thornycroft uprooted the tussocks until the build up dragged the truck to a stop or caused the wheels to lose traction. Digging out the spiky sand matted mess with a long handled shovel, "was a brute of a job".
The men had taken to travelling with the fire extinguishers always close at hand, the incident on the 6th of August had been warning enough. An uncontrolled fire in the almost explosively inflammable grass could prove fatal, there would be no comfort in knowing that spinifex burns at over 900 degrees centigrade and can easily outrun a man.
Then there is the delightful story of Lasseter making tin gaiters to protect his camels legs from spinifex as he battled his way through another wild desert yarn. And Simon Rieff apparently did well out of his Tanami spinifex farms, these farms are simply very questionable and untested blocks of ground, pegged adjacent to a known gold strike and hopefully sold to city speculators for a goodly sum, who in turn trust the line of lode will enter their ground as they beguile shareholders with the certainty of impossible returns. the enterprise is aptly named in areas like the Tanami and the Granites where spinifex is abundant and gold hard to come by.
© R.Ross. 1999-2006