Everything you need to know about spinifex… and how to stop it killing your 4X4
Spinifex is tough and hardy and it can also do significant damage to you and your vehicle. Here’s what you need to know about spinfex and how to stop it from turning your 4X4 into a flaming wreck.
Words by Grant Hanan and Linda Bloffwitch. Photography by My Aussie Travel Guide: When something as tough as spinifex has had to adapt to survive in some of the driest and harshest Australian environments, we naturally think it deserves a little respect. But there’s more to this plant as it’s one of the most common types of vegetation covering the remote parts of our continent. Without going overboard on all the botanical info, there are some thirty different spinifex species around the country, and the two we’re talking about here, Triodia pungens and Triodia basedowii, are found in Western Australia’s Gibson Desert.
If you’ve never come face-to-face with spinifex, it’s a plant you could say wears a suit of armour; it’s covered with thin porcupine-like needles that are waiting to pierce anything that brushes against it. So you could well be asking what is there to love about spinifex? In fact, there’s lots, starting with the very heart of the plant, which has its own micro-climate that makes the perfect home for small mammals like hopping mice, kangaroo and desert rats. It’s also a refuge for many of Australia’s reptiles that seek shelter from the extreme environmental surroundings; while other plants aren’t afraid of their prickly neighbour and live alongside spinifex in complete harmony.
But there’s far more to love about this spikey desert dweller. If you’re a keen photographer, we’ve found spinifex can also put on a spectacular display depending on the time of year. There’s been occasions where we’ve seen broad plains look like sewn cereal crops as hundreds of spinifex plants gently sway together in the morning breeze as if in a trance. Their golden stems containing seeds rise well over a metre and glisten as the morning sun pokes its head up over the horizon. And when visiting desert regions, it’s not uncommon to drive through areas where spinifex can line the tracks, which is something to behold. For us, it lends a feeling of remoteness and puts the vastness of our continent into perspective.
But the appearance of a spinifex landscape after being windswept by a wildfire is like chalk and cheese – it loses all its beauty and can be almost reduced to ashes. As it begins to recover, the new spinifex growth can look like perfectly manicured hedges that you’d expect to find in a quaint English garden, but now’s not the time to be fooled. You need to resist any temptation to run your hand through the young, bright green foliage as the pain from the resulting needle spikes is not at all pleasant.
In the past, spinifex has been used by the indigenous as they found its resin to be an excellent adhesive agent, and the smoke from its burning foliage was used as a cold treatment when inhaled. But in more recent times, explorers have used the resin to repair leaks in metal buckets and tanks which otherwise would be discarded. The plant’s foliage also makes a great campfire starter, but things can quickly turn pear-shaped due to its volatile nature. It’s not uncommon for fine embers to quickly become airborne, which could potentially start spot fires close by, so it comes down to having adequate knowledge and skills when preparing a firepit in spinifex country.
Dealing with such a prickly plant while travelling means personal protection is a must and covering up is the best way to avoid being spiked. It’s sometimes hard to avoid not walking among spinifex, so wearing good quality footwear such as a boot with high ankle support can go a long way to protecting your feet, while thick socks or gaiters and long pants such as heavy denim or canvas style workwear help protect your legs from needle spikes. A good quality pair of rigger type leather gloves also works wonders to protect your hands while bushwalking, but worth their weight in gold if you’re about to fall and put your hands in a clump of spinifex.
Besides personal protection, it’s also critical to prepare your vehicle before travelling through spinifex regions as it can ignite quickly and burns hot and rapidly. Start by protecting the intake air cooling systems; things like radiators, intercoolers, oil coolers and evaporator units. Using some simple shade cloth and cable ties, make a spinifex screen deflector that you can attach to the front of your 4X4 that covers the grille and wraps around under the front of your vehicle. Then block any gaps using cheap sponge offcuts, as your aim is to prevent the fine seeds from entering the engine bay area. Periodically use a stiff banister style brush to clear the seeds away or a portable air compressor with an air nozzle, which can make fast work of it and get rid of stubborn seeds that a brush can’t get to.
Naturally, a high clearance 4X4 will have some advantages in a spinifex environment, but you still need to be diligent and stop frequently to check your vehicle. Travel with a crawl mat, gloves, a rod and some stiff wire that can be used as a hook to pull any spinifex clumps out from underneath your vehicle. It also pays to check around the exhaust areas, driveshafts, brake rotors, and under bash plates; spinifex clumps love to find their way into every nook and cranny. Most importantly, carry fire extinguishers and pressurised water sprayers that you’ve got at the ready as you can’t be complacent.
So when you next travel through spinifex country, remember to respect this tough Aussie character and everything it has to offer. While it may not be the most friendly living thing in the desert, it’s a significant part of our country’s eco-system that would look completely different without it.