Great Sandy Desert, Australia
The Second Largest Desert In Australia

Great Sandy Desert

The Great Sandy Desert in Australia

Size and Location

About the Great Sandy Desert

Size and Location

The second largest Australian desert, after the Great Victoria Desert, is the Great Sandy Desert. As with our other deserts different sources of information will give you different sizes for it. Let's trust the Australian Department of Environment and Heritage and say it covers about 284,993 km2 (110,038 miles2).

The Great Sandy Desert is located in the north of Western Australia, below the Kimberley region on the northern coast, and to the east of the Pilbara, as this part of the western coast is called. A small part of it extends into the Northern Territory.

Further inland you find only more deserts, the Tanami Desert to the east and the Gibson Desert to the south.

The famous Kata Tjuta Uluru National Park (Ayers Rock) is actually located in the far south east corner of the Great Sandy Desert, where the Great Sandy, the Gibson and the Tanami deserts come together.

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You guessed it, the climate is pretty dry... But for a desert the Great Sandy Desert receives a surprising amount of rain. Especially the northern parts are affected by the monsoon and see a good amount of thunderstorms during the wet season in Australia's tropical north (Nov - April).

The average yearly rainfall is about 250 mm for most areas, higher (300 mm and more) in the northern regions. But the huge evaporation rate means you still look at a desert...

Summer days are very hot. You will be looking at 38 to 42°C or more (100 - 108F). The further south you go, the hotter the days will be. If you get some cloud cover due to a monsoonal trough affecting the area then the days will be cooler, but at the same time the humidity will be higher and make things more uncomfortable.

Winter days are a pleasant 25 to 30°C (77 -86F). Nights can get very cold, even freezing, though frosts are rare. But if you come from the coastal regions or the Kimberley, and if you compare the sunny, warm days to the nights then the nights certainly feel freezing, believe me....

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The Great Sandy Desert is very flat, which is all the more noticeable next to the rocky ranges and hills in the Kimberley or Pilbara.

It is also, as the name says, sandy. In the Great Sandy Desert you can actually find what many people expect from a desert: sand dunes. Tall red sand dunes in parallel rows cover miles and miles of this desert.

But you also find sandstone country, low hills, and even chains of salt lakes. The prevailing vegetation form is tree steppe, and shrub steppe in the south, meaning open grasslands with occasional tress or shrubs: bloodwood, acacias, grevilleas, and further south desert oaks.

The Great Sandy Desert has the same problem as the other Australian deserts: native animals are threatened by introduced feral species. Cat and fox populations are high, camels are plentiful, and rabbits are present in the southern parts. Cats and foxes are a direct threat to the native species they prey on, whereas camels and rabbits are detrimental to the native vegetation.

Another problem I already mentioned on other desert pages is the increasing tourist pressure. In the Great Sandy Desert the area most under pressure is obviously Kata Tjuta - Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the south-east corner.

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Of course the Kata Tjuta Uluru National Park is a tourism hot spot. Information regarding travel in that area can be found in the Ayers Rock section.

But thank god there are also tour operators offering trips going well beyond the crowded mass tourism areas.

A great way to experience the desert is to follow the Canning Stock Route. This 2000 km trek crosses the Gibson, the Little Sandy, and the Great Sandy Desert. There are several options, ranging from four wheel drive bus tours, tagalong tours (follow a guide in your own vehicle) to self drive packages. By the way, this trip requires several weeks!

If you want to go on your own, or travel in other parts of the deserts, please be aware that it requires thorough preparation, experience and knowledge. You need a very reliable vehicle and detailed maps, enough fuel, necessary spare parts, and plenty of water. You can never take too much water!

And above all, let someone know where you are going, and when you intend to arrive. People have died in the Great Sandy Desert, because they neglected this one simple step...

So, unless you are an experienced desert traveller, please put yourself in the hands of an experienced Canning Stock Route tour operator.

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