08/02/2012 Off By Gayle Dickson

SHIMMER AND SPARKLE  – Lake Eyre’s mirror reflections and magical mirages 

By Liz Light

thought that Lake Eyre would be a massive white dead-lake of salt, something featureless and boring, so I am wildly delighted by the pearly pattern in pastels, an exquisite minimalist painting, laid out below me. 

Flying west from the airstrip at Innamincka, we pass over plenty of red brown Australia, occasional round circles being the crowns of gum trees and rare pencil lines of dead straight roads disappearing into infinity and heat haze. To prove that there are people down there, one pinhead-sized road train creates a magnificent plume of dust. After millions of propeller turns we arrive over the lake. 

The unique combination of salt and water makes magic with light; lake horizons merge with sky, islands shimmer above the horizon and sometimes mirror reflections make it impossible to distinguish between glowing white salt and clouds reflected in still shallow water. In places there are soft swirling patterns caused by sun shining through the water’s salinity variations.

Ben, our Air Adventure Australia pilot, takes the little plane high so we can experience the infinite vastness of Lake Eyre then low to get a close look at some of its features; where Cooper Creek enters, the white on white of dried-out places and fingers of peach and taupe where blown sand smudges the canvas.

Lake Eyre, hourglass shaped with Goyder Channel joining two parts, sits roughly north south and covers 5,800 square kilometres of South Australia. 

It drains a vast basin (1.4 million square kilometres) that includes five Australian states. Water runs into it but only leaves through the process of evaporation. Millions of years of evaporation accounts for the salt, which in some places is a third of a metre thick and, at its lowest point, is 18 metres below sea level. 

For years it was considered to be permanently dry but in the last four decades there have been 20 flood events, including spectacular fillings in the last three years as a result of the unusually wet wet-seasons in the Northern Territory and Queensland. When the water arrives there is an explosion of bird life, including pelicans, black swans, terns, gulls and cormorants. These birds feast on fish, shrimp and other forms of tiny of marine life that have adapted to stay dormant for the dry years but hatch and thrive in a frenzy of reproductive fecundity during the “water” months.

SHIMMER AND SPARKLE - Lake EyreThe plane turns south west, leaves the lake for brown land and soon Ben does a low, fast buzz over the airstrip at Marree…to scare off any birds, iguanas or kangaroos that might make for a bumpy landing. On the ground it’s 38 degrees and a hot wind dries my eyes. It’s not uncomfortable though as it’s so dry sweat evaporates before it properly forms. 

Marree, population 70, is at the junction of the Oodnadatta and Birdsville Tracks and the pub has been the home and watering hole to countless travellers, stockmen and station owners since 1880. Across the road from the pub there is a railway station, a few old locomotives, some cattle wagons, railway gantries and other train-loading paraphernalia…but the train line has gone. 

Central Australian Rail reached the town in 1883 and Marree became a major railhead for the cattle industry. Herds were driven here from Birdsville, Innamincka, Broken Hill and much of western Queensland to be taken by rail to the abattoirs in Adelaide. In 1929 the rail continued north to Alice Springs but through political nuttiness the gauge of the line changed at Marree. Everything – cattle, coal, freight and passengers had to be unloaded from one train and reloaded onto another.

Reg Dodd meets our small group next to an old locomotive. He’s 71 but looks 55. He’s tall and lean and has broad shoulders and smooth, dark skin. Reg has lived in the area all his life and is descended from a Scottish grandfather and Arabunna Aboriginal grandmother. He explains that until the line to Alice Springs was built further west, in 1980, there were 30 trains a week and Marree had a population of around 1,000. 

Because of the different gauge size of the railway line each train had to be unloaded and re-loaded, Reg says. “Think of a 1,000 tonnes of freight being moved from train to train with cranes, wheelbarrows, packhorses and on men’s shoulders. Each train from the north had 1,500 head of cattle that were off-loaded here, watered, spelled for a day then loaded on to a standard gauge train for Adelaide.” 

Reg has a little tourist bus for the likes of us and he tells stories of the land and points out features we would otherwise not notice as we follow the defunct line west, along the now smooth dirt road that is still called the Oodnadatta Track. The destination, 80 almost-straight kilometres from Marree, is Lake Eyre. Having flown over it, it would seem incomplete not to touch it, feel the salt, taste the water and wade in it. 

The lake has a glaring white salt beach and the water, 30 metres beyond the shore, is silver with undertones of blue. Where water meets the dry salt the sparkling effect is like a million flickering fairly lights. The glare turns the clear blue of the sky to inky purple and clouds streak in long wispy white brush strokes from the west.

I planned to swim but it’s too shallow and because of the salt it’s impossible to sink. I wade in and salt crystals beneath my bare feet look like millions of small square pieces of shattered windscreens and feel like cut glass. I peer through the shimmering water. Light ricochets off the myriad of facets of the salt crystals. It’s an amazing show of intense, sparkling light.

There are other nature miracles too. A red-bodied insect spread-eagled and perfectly preserved in salt; strange donut-shaped rocks, hollow in the middle and dusted with salt as if dunked in icing sugar and areas where a glass-like salt crust covers pitch black mud. This I discover, to my surprise, when I fall through it and end up standing knee high in mud with blood trickling from small lacerations made on my way through the broken edges of the salt crust. 

Back at the airstrip Ben and the aeroplane are waiting. I give thanks to small aircraft, dirt airstrips and Australians’ practical audaciousness in bypassing the tediousness of overland travel. Because of this, I have seen the unique, vast and surreal beauty of Lake Eyre. I have paddled in its water, licked its salt and fallen through its crust. 


Air Adventure Australia specialise in escorted air safaris accessing remote and remarkable parts of Australia by private aircraft 


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