This gallery section includes photographs from a trip to Lake Eyre and surrounding outback areas in 2009 after the floods. A fascinating area, some information is provided below that includes links to featured photographs.
Lake Eyre is located in the harsh deserts of Central Australia some 700km north of Adelaide and is the continent’s lowest point, with an elevation of 15m below sea level. On the rare occasions that it fills, it is the largest lake in Australia, and also the 13th largest salt lake in the world. It is named after drover Edward John Eyre, who was the first European to sight it in 1840. Lake Eyre is actually a system of two lakes (North and South) that are joined by the Goyder Channel, with an overall surface area of 9,500 km2. Iconic outback towns near Lake Eyre include Birdsville, Maree, Coober Pedy, Oodnadatta and Innamincka, with cattle grazing being the main land use on the huge stations of the region. Most trips to Lake Eyre embark from either Marree or Birdsville, the latter well known for its annual Races, its classic pub and marking the beginning of the Birdsville Track. The famous Big Red Sand Dune of the Simpson Desert is also close by and is a fascinating outback feature and challenge for four-wheel drive vehicles.
Lake Eyre is the focal point of the vast Lake Eyre Basin, which covers an area of 15%, or one-sixth, of Australia. In context of areas elsewhere, the Basin would fit the combined areas of France, Germany and Italy. Extending across much of inland Queensland and parts of South Australia, Northern Territory, and New South Wales, the Basin includes the outback towns of Longreach (central Queensland), Broken Hill (western NSW), Camooweal ( NT/Qld border) and Hermannsburg (NT). Whilst the Lake Eyre Basin has a similar size to the Murray-Darling Basin, it hosts much less water. However, the entire flow of the Murray Darling would be insufficient to fill Lake Eyre, and would only keep pace with evaporation. In contrast, the Mississippi could fill Lake Eyre in 22 days, the Amazon 3 days.
The Basin includes numerous creeks and rivers that flow towards Lake Eyre, including the Diamantina River, Georgina River, Finke River, Eyre Creek, Warburton Creek and Cooper Creek. These watercourses are usually dry creek beds and channels that snake their way through the mostly flat desert country. Two of the main tributaries include the Diamantina and Georgina Rivers, which flow through the Channel Country of south-west Queensland before meeting in the Goyder Lagoon, located north-east of Lake Eyre. The Channel Country and Goyder Lagoon are known for their networks of channels which intertwine through the flat ancient floodplains. If there is sufficient flow, water continues on from the Goyder Lagoon via Warburton Creek towards Lake Eyre. Cooper Creek is probably the most famous of the tributaries, as it was along this creek in 1861 that the explorers Burke and Wills met their deaths in the vicinity of their depot camp and the Dig Tree.
Water to Lake Eyre is mostly from the inflows of wet-season monsoonal rains in northern Australia via these Basin creeks and rivers in the central Australian outback. Whether these waters reach the lake, and the extent to which the lake fills, is dependent on the volume of the monsoonal rains. The arrival of floods heralds a steady flow of water towards Lake Eyre, rejuvenating the desert landscape with outbreaks of wildflowers and green pastures, the latter being a boon for the region’s cattle stations as their cattle graze into prime condition. Water can take months to flow into Lake Eyre, and can originate from distances of over 1,000km away, such as in the case of the Georgina River. Filling or near-filling of the Lake is infrequent at about four times per century, and last occurred in the strong La-Nina year of 1974 when a 6m flood was recorded. The frequency of lesser flooding events is typically per three years for a 1.5m flood, and per decade for a 4m flood. The most recent 2009 flood peaked at 1.5m, mostly due to floods in the Georgina River. Local rain can also fill the lake to 3-4m levels, as occurred in 1984 and 1989.
During times of flood, the Lake waters are near-fresh and a trigger a spectacular outbreak of life, with masses of fish, crustaceans and other invertebrates flourishing in the lake and in turn attracting up to 60 species of birds in huge numbers of 6-8 million, including pelicans, terns, banded stilts, ducks and gulls. How the birds know that the lake has flooded and sprung to life remains an enduring mystery, although there are no shortage of theories. Birds from the Top-End, such as whistling ducks usually found in Kakadu, are thought to follow the flood waters south, feasting along the way. Birds on long distance reconnaissance flights possibly report back to the flock that the floods are in and to embark for migration to the Lake. There may be a scent that they detect, or older birds with prior migratory experience to the site mentoring the young, or the guidance of in-built compasses. Research continues!
The birds establish temporary colonies for a feeding frenzy and breeding boom, with the huge breeding colonies of pelicans the feature of the floodwater areas. The pelican colonies can number tens of thousands, with similar numbers of chicks born during the boom time. The pace of growth is frantic as the food supplies are reaped ahead of the inevitable flood decline, amid the pressure to be up and flying before this time passes. Sadly, many don’t make it and die of starvation, with some former colony sites marked by the remains of up to thousands of dead chicks.
Flood waters also allow members of the Lake Eyre Yacht Club to sail on the lake and host boating events. Formed in 2001, the club has a motto of “you gotta be jokin’ – no we’re not!” and aims to disseminate information on the lake, and to support boating and boating events on the lake. A variety of watercraft, from inflatable dinghies to trailer sailors ply lake waters as possible. Launching and retrieval of boats seems to be amongst the most challenging aspect of a boating trip on Lake Eyre, with the flat shorelines resulting in kilometre long launching ramps which end in soft muds that conspire to wallow boats, boat rollers and people as they attempt to get out on the water.
Flood waters in Lake Eyre soon recede owing to the high rates of evaporation in the desert climate, leaving hypersaline remnant waters in small sub-lakes and a salt-pan lake bed. The flat, smooth and hard salt pan surface was found to be ideal for high speed land travel, with the lake hosting numerous world land speed record attempts. Most famous of these attempts were those of Sir Donald Campbell in the 1960’s in his Bluebird cars, which included setting a record of 648.73 km/hr for a four-wheeled vehicle on 17 July 1964.