What is it that draws travellers, year upon year, to stand on the shores of a dry lake in the Australian desert? Like pilgrims, they traverse hundreds of kilometres of corrugated roads through remote Outback South Australia, across a blistering, barren landscape. Vehicles squeak, rattle and groan their protest as they bounce and shake their way over the worst stretches of road. Dust clouds trail behind, obliterating all from the rear-vision mirror, while inside the car a thick layer of dust accumulates, covering the tightly packed goods. It permeates the unimaginable, and its strong, lingering smell hangs in the air making it difficult to breathe. And, just to really test your patience, you may have to make one, or maybe even two, unscheduled stops for changing a pestiferous flat tyre – a task made all the more unbearable by the scads of Outback flies, and their interminable, frenetic fascination with the human face.
So, then, what is it that drives people to make the trek out to this remote location? Maybe for some, it’s a personal obsession with superlatives – Lake Eyre is Australia’s biggest lake after all. For others, it could be the prospect of ticking and flicking the 3rd largest endorheic lake in the world. While still others might be propelled by an unconscious desire to romanticise the fact that they will be standing at the lowest point in all of Australia – but at only 15 metres below sea level, it’s nowhere near as impressive as those that rank in the top ten lowest points on earth. Or, is it the fact that Lake Eyre is a salt lake that rarely fills with water – just three times in the last 160yrs – and so when it does, it’s a fairly significant event. Or maybe it’s just that salt lakes are unusual and, as humans, we have a natural curiosity for things that are different.
In the months leading up to our trip in 2016, considerable rains caused the Oodnadatta Track, the main access road to the lake, to be closed on a number of occasions. With our trip looming, and no definite sign of the rain abating, we were beginning to think we might not get the chance to discover what it is that draws people here, after all. But luck was on our side, and when the time came to set off, the Track was open to 4WDs. We weren’t so lucky though, when it came to the smaller 4WD tracks out to the lake’s edge, which, surprisingly, remained closed. We soon realised we’d have to abandon any thought of camping at, or standing on, the lake’s edge and instead settle for seeing what we could from the roadside.
We caught our first glimpse of the lake as we drove along the Track, some 90 kilometres or so north of Marree. The salt crystals shimmered on the lake bed in the midday sun, under a crisp azure sky. The expanse of lake bed seemed vast; it was impossible to tell its parameters. In the distance, what seemed like a mirage in the heat of the day, was actually water pooling in the depressions in the lakes crust. The road closely followed the lake for a way and we soon came to the lookout.
This viewing point, although elevated ever so slightly, provided a surprisingly good vantage point for taking it in the rugged beauty of this landscape. It was the first salt lake I had ever seen and I found myself suitably impressed. But what I didn’t realise at the time, was that we were seeing the smallest possible section of the lake. Lake Eyre is in fact made up of two lakes – a substantially large lake in the north and a much smaller lake in the south – joined by a narrow channel approximately 15 kilometres long. And, it is only when you see a map of Lake Eyre that you begin to fully appreciate its size – a staggering 144kms long and 77kms wide!
The explorer in me longed to drive down to the lake’s edge, especially since it was partially full of water and I’d heard that in the wet, the lake is teeming with birdlife and other saltwater species. However, with the roads closed, the lightly-crusted mud around us looking like it was ready to claim its next victim, and no recovery vehicle in sight, we opted to play it safe and stick to the main Track. For another day, maybe.
To really get the chance to explore this salt lake, and provided the weather is good, consider spending a few days camping at Muloorina Station which provides access to the south lake, the channel and the north lake. Alternatively, you can camp out at Halligans Bay Campground on the shore of Lake Eyre North. Both locations require a 4WD to access, and it’s important to enquire beforehand at the Maree Hotel or William Creek Hotel as to whether these tracks are open following any rain.
Possibly the best way to truly appreciate the wonder of this lake, though, would be from the air. I have no doubt the experience would be most rewarding, whether or not there is water in the lake. To avoid disappointment, book your flight early by contacting Wrights Air. Flights can also be booked locally from Marree or William Creek Hotel, or from further afield such as Coober Pedy and even Adelaide. But as is the case with most scenic flights, this option is not one for the budget conscious traveller.