Lake Eyre is filling with water and the tourists are flocking to see it, so we sent Vic Widman out to see what all the fuss is about.
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Whilst a large portion of the country is still in the grip of a dreadful drought, it has been raining in the Red Centre. And with rain in the Centre comes the prospect of Lake Eyre filling with water. Social media has been alive with photos and video of Lake Eyre and its surrounds once more brimming with water – so is it worth a trek out there this winter to have a gander?
Too bloody right it is! In fact, as you read this I’ll be sitting in a plane flying over the Lake with the shutter on my Canon going crazy. But before we talk about what you will see and where you should go to see it, let’s have a look at a few facts about Lake Eyre.
It is Australia’s largest salt lake and is the 13th-largest salt lake in the world. I have to be honest, it surprised me that so many were ahead of it. But it is still darn big. Our Lake is split into the north section and the south section. Lake Eyre North measures 144 kilometres long by 77 kilometres wide, whilst Lake Eyre South is 64 kilometres long and 24 kilometres wide. That is a lot of country devoted to nothing more than glimmering white salt flats in dry times. It also gives you some idea of how much water it takes to fill it (more on that in a minute).
Lake Eyre is also the lowest point of our continent at 15 metres below sea level; and its drainage basin comprises 15% of the continent. Now when we think how big Australia actually is, 15% is a vast area.
If you have ever flown over Lake Eyre when it’s dry, you will agree it is indeed an amazing sight. A brilliant white glimmering surface that blinds you. There are stories of dingos wandering out onto the dry lake surface and losing sight of land, and becoming disorientated and never finding their way back to shore. I recall a conversation with the hotelier at William Creek in the mid 1990s where he related a story of a light plane that set down on the Lake and became bogged in the black oozy mud that lays beneath the thin layer of white salt. That light plane sat out there for years, attracting dingos and wild dogs… which then perished beside it, because they couldn’t find their way back to any visible landmark.
But the big attraction at the moment is the fact that Lake Eyre has water in it. This opens a whole new can of worms: When is the Lake actually full? Well, the biggest known flood was the flood of 1974 when, at its deepest, Lake Eyre had six metres of water in it. To get that into perspective the current depth (at its deepest point around Halligan Bay) is just 1.8 metres. Even during the big flood of 2010/11, when Cooper Creek crossed the Birdsville Track and flowed into Lake Eyre North, it was only 2.5 metres deep. The Lake does not have to be very deep to give the appearance of water over almost all of its surface area; hence most people think it’s full even though it may only have a few millimetres of coverage. Think about those sizes again: 144 kilometres by 77 kilometres. That is still a lot of water, even if it’s rather shallow.
Evaporation rates are enormous, too. There is a huge surface area exposed to the sun and wind. In fact, wind can cause far greater evaporation than a sunny day, and any Outback traveller will know there is nearly always incessant wind across the vast flat plain of Lake Eyre. So the shallower the water, the less time it will give the appearance of being full.
Harking back to that great flood of 1974, it took four years for the water to evaporate. The floods of 2010 through to 2012 were all gone by 2013.
Lake Eyre will have a really big top-up when there is a combination of weather events. Local rain helps a lot but doesn’t really provide long-lasting coverage, which is what is occurring this year. But when we get a tropical cyclone either from the east or the west crossing the continent and flooding vast areas of the Channel Country, the Gulf Country and Central Australia, we are almost guaranteed a big flood in Lake Eyre. The water drains down through Georgina and Eyre Creeks, the Diamantina (which becomes Warburton Creek) and Cooper Creek; and eventually, if there is enough, it will reach Lake Eyre… topping it up at spectacular rates.
For example, it is estimated that in a flood situation Warburton Creek is putting 1,750,000 cubic metres of water into the Lake every hour.
So what are the chances of seeing water in Lake Eyre over the next couple of months? Well, they are pretty good to be honest. Over Christmas 2015, Lake Eyre and its surrounds received good local rain and the Lake had a shallow cover over quite a large area. This was followed up by localised storms during January and February; and social media driven by Wrights Air at William Creek and the ABC news kept public interest in the fact that Lake Eyre once again had water in it. Then in early March, heavy rain fell again over the Lake – closing the Oodnadatta Track for about 10 days and stranding a few tourists. With the modern advantages of Facebook and drone footage, video clips of vast tracts of water flowing down Neales River into the Lake were splashed across our TV and iPhone screens. All good stuff for those of us who love to see the Lake with water in it.
This might help you to get some idea of how excited people are about Lake Eyre flooding. As you may know, I run a 4WD tag-along tour business, and on hearing that Lake Eyre had water in it, I planned a tag-along trip out to see it. The trip was booked solid in just two weeks, with people wishing see this amazing sight.
The best way to see Lake Eyre’s water is, without doubt, from the air. Yes, you can drive to the southern shores of Lake Eyre South – but to be honest, by the time you read this and get out there it is highly likely there won’t be any water within viewing distance at that point. You will have more luck if you take the road out to ABC Bay just short of William Creek; but standing on the edge of the Lake looking at its muddy shoreline is small reward for the long drive it has taken to get there. As Molly would say, ‘do yourself a favour’ and get out to William Creek and book a flight with Wrights Air… this is no advertisement for the air service but the fact is it is the best way to see the true vastness of Lake Eyre (whether it has water in it or not). From the air you also see the changing colours in the Lake bed: Deep blue created by deeper water; ice blue indicating very shallow water that is high in salt content; reds and browns caused by the receding water exposing mud and clay; and all around the feeder creeks and gullies there will be veins of greenery amidst the dry red earth sands of the desert. This alone is a sight to behold.
A road trip to William Creek is often reward enough – with the history of the Old Ghan Railway, the incredible stark Outback and million-star stopovers each evening. But now there is also the reward of seeing water in Lake Eyre. And who knows when that might occur again? It could be next year; or not until your grandkids are old enough to remember Pa talking about the day he flew over a mirror image of the sky in the driest place on Earth.
Lake Eyre is north of the Oodnadatta Track in South Australia.
Marree, William Creek and Oodnadatta. Oh, you wanted a supermarket? Then that would be Port Augusta or Coober Pedy.
ACCOMMODATION AND CAMPING OPTIONS:
On the way out along the Oodnadatta Track there are some great camping options. Just pick one of the Old Ghan ruin sites. If you want camping with basic amenities, you can camp at William Creek, Mulooorina Station and Marree. If you prefer a solid roof over your head, try the Marree Hotel or the campground at William Creek which has good cabins for rent.
BEST TIME TO GO:
NOW! Before it dries up.
The longest distance between fuel can be up to 400 kilometres depending on what parts of the shoreline you visit (William Creek to Marree via Muloorina). Basic food supplies are at these towns, but it’s best to carry all you need from either Port Augusta or Coober Pedy. Your 4WD doesn’t need any real special preparation. Having good all-terrain Light Truck style tyres will be a big advantage, and drop your tyre pressures to around 30psi when off the blacktop (to avoid punctures). If it rains forget it; the roads will be closed… therefore carry some emergency food (enough for at least five days). The last group of tourists spent an extra 10 days at William Creek, so it can be serious. If rain is predicted, don’t go.
Permits and Fees:
You will need a Desert Parks Pass if you visit Lake Eyre at Halligan Bay or Level Post Bay near Muloorina. Desert Parks Passes are available by visiting: environment.sa.gov.au
Phone: 08 8670 7962
William Creek Hotel
Phone: 08 8670 7880
Phone: 08 8675 8344
Muloorina Station – No need to ring the Station. Camping beside the billabong, follow the signs, pay at the honesty box; it’s cheap!
Maps:HEMA Great Desert Tracks maps are best for this. The HEMA HN7 navigator was also used.
Words by Vic Widman