Australia is the second driest continent in the world, only Antarctica tops us, which means there’s a whole lot of desert country out there. In fact, 18% of Australia’s mainland is covered by desert – that’s almost a fifth of the country!

Introduction to Australia’s Deserts

Did you know Australia is the driest inhabited continent in the world? Despite our flooding rains, 70% of Australia is considered either arid or semi-arid land.

With ten different deserts stretching across the mainland, collectively known as the Great Australian Desert, these unique regions touch almost every mainland state and territory.

But most of Australia is a damn dry place, so what exactly constitutes a desert?


Lambert Centre of Australia – Down Under's Dead Centre (NT), Conor Moore, desert, red sand, drone shot, scrub, car, 4WD, troopy, dirt road, outback

On track to the centre of Australia | @conormoorephotography


A desert is any (mostly) uninhabited and desolate region that receives less than 250-500mm average annual rainfall. A further 35% of Australia receives such little rain, it almost counts as desert too. But we’re here for the real deal – sand, snakes, sun, and seriously cold nights.

Here’s everything you need to know about Australia’s ten deserts.

Australian Deserts: Overview and Facts

Australia has ten distinct deserts. Ranging from largest to smallest in size, the Australian deserts are:

  • Great Victoria Desert
  • Great Sandy Desert
  • Tanami Desert
  • Simpson Desert
  • Gibson Desert
  • Little Sandy Desert
  • Strzelecki Desert
  • Sturt Stony Desert
  • Tirari Desert
  • Pedirka Desert

The harsh conditions of the Australian Outback could fool anyone into thinking these arid regions are devoid of life. But contrary to popular belief, Australian deserts are hopping with life – flora, fauna, and human.

Australia’s desert flora and fauna have adapted and evolved to not only survive but thrive in the seemingly desolate conditions of the country’s arid landscape. Deserts are home to a range of native mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and insects – from the Greater Bilby to the Thorny devil and even ground-dwelling frogs.


A lizard on top of a dirt field

The Western Blue Tongued lizard | photo by Jenny Sedgwick

On the other hand, Australia’s deserts are also rampant with non-native species that were introduced by colonists. Feral camels, cats, and dogs can be found in Australian deserts, with feral cats, in particular, threatening the stability of native fauna populations. In fact, cats are the primary reason for the extinction of 30 mammal species in Australia in the last 200 years. Big cats, big yikes.

Deserts aren’t devoid of flora life either. Much of the desert is covered in spinifex or mulga scrub, with desert flowers and even some River red gums found in the more water-drenched pockets of desert regions.


4WDing Across The Simpson Desert, Eva Davis-Boermans, sand dunes, wildflowers

Vibrant plant life in the desert | @evadavisboermans

Although the definition of a desert is a place that’s ‘uninhabited’, Aboriginal Australians have been living in the desert for tens of thousands of years. Small Indigenous communities and towns still exist in these remote arid regions today – like the desert community of Yulara near Uluru in the Great Sandy Desert.

Currently, around 3% of the Australian population lives in Australia’s arid zone, however this covers a greater area than just the following ten deserts.

10 Deserts of Australia

1. Great Victoria Desert

Location: Western Australia, South Australia
Size: 348,750km²

By far the largest desert in Australia, the Great Victoria Desert sweeps its way from the Eastern Goldfields region in Western Australia to the Gawler Ranges of South Australia, almost touching the Northern Territory border. It sits above the Nullarbor Plain and makes up roughly a quarter of South Australia. It also borders the Gibson and Little Sandy Deserts.


Part of the Great Victoria Desert from space | Photo by NASA Johnson on flickr

The main people living in the desert are Aboriginal people of the Kogara, Mirning, and Pitjantjatjara groups.

31% of the Great Victoria Desert lies in protected areas, such as the Great Victoria Desert Nature Reserve, Lake Gairdner National Park, Nullabor Regional Reserve, and Gawler Ranges National Park.

The Great Victoria Desert is made up of a variety of landscapes, including grassland plains, gibber plains (hard, compact, and interlocking rock and cobble fragments), sandhills, and salt lakes.

Although there are few roads across this desert, the Connie Sue Highway and Anne Beadell Highway are the more trafficked roads. There are even some tours available that start at Coober Pedy, SA and finish in the Goldfields region, WA and stops at the Maralinga atomic site.

2. Great Sandy Desert

Location: Western Australia
Size: 267,250km²

As the second largest desert in Australia, the Great Sandy Desert makes its way from the Northern Territory’s south-west, near the likes of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, right across Western Australia to almost touch the West Coast near Port Headland.


The Great Sandy Desert from space! | Photo by NASA Johnson on flickr

The Gibson Desert sits to the south, while the Tanami Desert can be found to the east.

The Traditional Owners of this region are the Pintupi people to the east, and the Martu people to the west.

One of the main features of this desert is the Wolfe Creek crater, caused by the impact of a meteorite some 120,000 years ago.

You’ll also find large ergs (essentially the quintessential idea of a desert – large, wind-swept sand areas with little to no vegetation) with longitudinal dunes, as well as ‘fairy circles’, random and mysteriously barren, circular patches between 12-22 metres in diameter.

Any trip to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park includes a trip to the Great Sandy Desert.


What Red Centre Events Are on When You Visit?, Tourism NT/Matthew Vandeputte, Uluru, red sand, sand dunes, desert

Red sand dunes and Uluru | Photo by Tourism NT / Matthew Vandeputte

But to dig deeper into the red sand, a 4WD road trip along the 1,850km Canning Stock Route is the way to do it! Running from Halls Creek in the Kimberley to Wiluna, this is the longest stock route in the world! A 4WD and several weeks up your sleeve are essential for this drive!

3. Tanami Desert

Location: Western Australia, Northern Territory
Size: 184,500km²

The Tanami Desert stretches across the centre of the Northern Territory, tipping over into Western Australia as well, where it borders the Great Sandy Desert.

The Tanami Desert falls on Warlpiri and Kukatja country, and there are a lot of culturally significant sites found there. In fact in 2012, 10 million hectares of the Tanami Desert was declared either a conservation zone or an Indigenous protected area.

The main road through the desert is the unsealed, 4WD Tanami Track, which connects Alice Springs in Central Australia to the Kimberley region, WA.


The Tanami Track | Photo by Robyn Jay on flickr

Tanami Desert is often referred to as the Northern Territory’s ‘final frontier’ as it wasn’t completely explored by white people until way into the 20th century.

4. Simpson Desert

Location: Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia
Size: 176,500km²

The Simpson Desert is one of the most well-known deserts in Australia. Spreading itself across the borders of Northern Territory, Queensland, and South Australia, Aboriginal people, including the Wangkangurru, have lived in the Simpson Desert for thousands of years, and still do so today.

Crossing the Simpson Desert and its hundreds of undulating sand dunes is a top bucket list item for many avid 4WDers. In fact, the desert is home to 1,100 of the longest parallel sand dunes in the world, which is what makes it such a sought after drive!

Read more: 4WDing Across the Simpson Desert


The dunes travel north-to-south and vary in height from 3-30 metres, with the largest and most notorious dune, known as Nappanerica or Big Red, standing at 40 metres high!

People have even pedalled fat bikes across the Simpson Desert!

Underneath the desert lies the Great Artesian Basin, which brings with it naturally occurring springs like Dalhousie Springs found in Witjira National Park, SA.


4WDing Across The Simpson Desert, Eva Davis-Boermans, Dalhousie Springs, man, swim

Soaking in Dalhousie Springs | @evadavisboermans

5. Gibson Desert

Location: Western Australia
Size: 156,000km²

The Gibson Desert sits to the centre-east of Western Australia, nestled between the Great Sandy Desert, Little Sandy Desert, and Great Victoria Desert.

Some of the Pintupi people, who live in the Gibson Desert, are believed to be the last group of Aboriginal people to make contact with modern Australia when they walked out of the desert in 1984 due to severe drought.

The desert is named after Alfred Gibson, one of British explorer Ernest Giles’ expedition party who got lost and assumedly passed away in the desert in 1874.

The Gibson Desert has a wide variety of landscapes, including red sand plains and dunes, saltwater lakes, low ridges covered in rock and gravel, and lateritic ‘buckshot’ plains.

6. Little Sandy Desert

Location: Western Australia
Size: 111,500km²

Found almost in the centre of Western Australia, Little Sandy Desert sits to the east of the Pilbara and north of the Gascoyne region. It borders both the second largest Australian desert, the Great Sandy Desert, and the Gibson Desert.

The Traditional Owners of the region are the Mandilara and Martu people.

The landscape is made up of rocky plains and red sand dunes from which sandstone mesas erupt at random.

Little Sandy Desert has a biodiverse ecology, with over 2,000 different plants, 116 bird species, as well as small to medium mammals, although many have gone extinct due to feral animals, fires, and weeds.

Very few tourism facilities exist in the desert, however the Canning Stock Route passes through the desert and a handful of remote campgrounds exist.

7. Strzelecki Desert

Location: South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales
Size: 80,250km²

Found sprawled across the borders of South Australia, Queensland, and New South Wales, the Strzelecki Desert sits to the north-east of the Lake Eyre Basin and north of the Flinders Ranges.

The desert was named by Charles Sturt, the first non-Aboriginal explorer in the region, after Polish explorer Pawel Edmund Strzelecki. That’s right, Strzelecki hadn’t even been there himself! Surely this desert is due for a name change?

The best way to see the Strzelecki Desert is to drive through it on either the famous 517km Birdsville Track, from Birdsville, QLD to Marree, SA, or the 472km Strzelecki Track (go figure), from Innamincka, SA to Lyndhurst, SA.

The well-known Dingo Fence also runs through the desert and as well as multiple waterways including Cooper Creek, Strzelecki Creek, and Diamantina River.

Dingo-proof fence | Photo by Caroline Jones on flickr

South Australia’s Strzelecki Regional Reserve preserves much of the desert, with the Sturt National Park in NSW conserving parts of the desert to the east.

8. Sturt Stony Desert

Location: South Australia, Queensland
Size: 29,750km²

Most of the Sturt Stony Desert resides within north-east South Australia, with part of the desert spilling over into Queensland.

In 1844, Charles Sturt named the desert after himself it seems, while he was on an expedition to find an inland sea he believed was in Australia’s centre.

Rather than an abundance of soft sand, the Sturt Stony Desert is mostly covered in gibber, hard, compact, and interlocking rock and cobble fragments formed by the desert sandstone sheets that once covered the region.


Sturt Stony Desert | Photo by John Benwell on flickr

Sturt Stony Desert also features gilgai, small short-lasting lakes that are formed by a depression in the soil surface in expanding clay soils.

Unique to the this desert is the Kowari, a small, carnivorous, nocturnal mammal that mainly hunts the Long-haired rat.

The Birdsville Track also crosses the Sturt Stony Desert.

Read more: 10 Best Sleeping Bags in Australia in 2023

9. Tirari Desert

Location: South Australia
Size: 15,250km²

Located in north-east South Australia, Tirari Desert just touches part of Sturt Stony Desert and runs 212km north to south, and 153km east to west. Part of the desert also lies within Kati-Thanda-Lake Eyre National Park and forms the eastern edge of Lake Eyre, Australia’s largest lake.

Tirari Desert features large north-to-south running sand dunes, salt lakes, flood plains, and even some permanent waterholes thanks to Cooper Creek, which flows through the desert.

The area was first settled by a small group of Aboriginal people called the Tirari, who are believed to be extinct. The desert is within the native title claim of the Dieri people.

The best way to access Tirari Desert is on the unsealed but graded Birdsville Track between Marree, SA and Birdsville, QLD. This is a very remote adventure, with only one place to stop for services along the way, at the Mungerannie Hotel.

10. Pedirka Desert

Location: South Australia
Size: 1,250km²

Australia’s smallest and cutest desert, Pedirka Desert, lies in South Australia’s north, just near the Northern Territory border, around 250km north of Coober Pedy.

This desert has deep red sands and a covering of mulga woodlands. Its sand dunes are spread widely apart and sit parallel to each other, but are quite low-lying and eroded. The desert is slowly being turned into pastoral land.

You can drive across Pedirka Desert in a 4WD, and it should only take a few hours or less!

How to Prepare for a Trip to an Australian Desert

Visiting the desert isn’t the simplest of trips. Australia’s deserts are incredibly remote, often with little if any water sources, shops, reception, or even paved roads, which means you’ll need to be self-sufficient.

It’s likely you’ll need a 4WD to visit Australia’s deserts, with the exception of a few popular places, like Uluru and Kata Tjuta, that have 2WD access, and the Birdsville Track, which is unsealed but graded and usually 2WD accessible.

Read more: How To 4WD for Beginners

It’s important that before you leave for a trip to the desert your car is in working order. Before heading off it’s worth having your car serviced, or at least topping up the oil, water, and tyre pressure. You don’t want to get stuck in the literal middle of nowhere because of a preventable mistake!

Read more: How to Prepare Your Car for a Summer Road Trip


Road Tripping to Mungo, Nick Kohn - Mungo National Park, outback, Road trip, desert

Road tripping in Outback NSW | @strokeofstoke

Essential Gear for Visiting an Australian Desert

If you’re planning on driving through an Australian desert, here’s what you’ll need to bring:

  • Drinking water and a few extra days’ worth of water
  • Food
  • 4WD (most likely)
  • 4WD recovery gear (most likely)
  • Hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Face fly net
  • Cooking equipment
  • PLB or satellite phone
  • Map
  • Spare tyre
  • Tyre jack and change kit

Safety Tips for Visiting an Australian Desert

  • Take a few days’ worth of extra food and water in case you become stuck or stranded
  • Bring plenty of sun protection and warm clothes – the temperature can change dramatically!
  • Limit the amount of time you spend outside during the day to avoid heat stroke and exhaustion
  • Let someone know where you’re going and when you’re expected to return
  • There’s often minimal or no reception in desert regions, so bring some kind of communication device such as a satellite phone or personal locator beacon
  • If you become stuck or stranded, don’t go walking through the desert to find help, stay with your vehicle


Lambert Centre of Australia – Down Under's Dead Centre (NT), Conor Moore, desert, red sand, scrub, car, 4WD, troopy, outback, dirt road

The roads out here can be rough (or really really soft) | @conormoorephotography

FAQs Australian Deserts

How many deserts are in Australia?

There are ten deserts across the Australian mainland.

What are the 5 major deserts in Australia?

The five largest deserts in Australia are the Great Victoria Desert, Great Sandy Desert. Tanami Desert, Simpson Desert, and the Gibson Desert.


Feature photo by @evadavisboermans