Officially known as Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre, located in South Australia, is the country's largest salt lake and the 13th largest lake in the world. The only thing is, the Lake Eyre rarely has any water. So why drive 2,000km to see a lake with no water in it? It was a question I asked myself at 5:45am as my LandCruiser rattled down a bone jarring corrugated road and passed the occasional wheel wrenching bulldust hole. I would soon find out that this isolated salt plane (and occasional lake) provided an unparalleled serenity and determined sailing culture well worth the drive.
Image Credit: Peter Elfes Photography
The closest community to Lake Eyre is William Creek, 64 km’s away with a population of 6. Given the remote location, this magical lake gets extremely few visitors. It is a treacherous, unpredictable, inland sea of shifting winds, crunchy mud, deep salt beds, and rarely shallow water. Lake Eyre is a testament to the size of Australia, the lake alone is the size of Belgium. At its lowest point, Lake Eyre is 15 meters (50 feet) below sea level. The ethereal landscape is characterized by an unpredictable cycle of flooding and drying. The boom and bust nature of the region drives the ecology of the ecosystem which is home to a surprisingly high number of species, despite the regions barren appearance.
Dingo on amongst the sand dunes
The cream-colored sand dunes denoting the shoreline harken to a prehistoric time when the lake filled. In living memory only two major flood events have been recorded. Water drains into Lake Eyre from a drainage basin that covers one-sixth of Australia. The last time the lake held substantial amounts of water was in 1975, yet then, just as suddenly as the water appears, the flow ceases and the water quickly evaporates from the lake's surface into the desiccating air of the surrounding desert country. Through this process ever more salt is deposited. In some places the salt crust is 50cm thick.
This is a lake? Evidence of the all pervasive drought.
Watching the sun rise over Lake Eyre's truly alien but marvelous landscape is full of optical illusions: the salt beds glisten like sunlight hitting a vast sea of water. You could easily walk for hours thinking that water is just on the horizon only to find more salt - which I did in fact spend more hours than I am willing to admit thinking water was just beyond the horizon. Meanwhile each footstep forebodes a crunch of salt beneath your shoes.
Serenity of being so isolated
setting up the sunrise "Lake Eyre coffee shop"
Lake Eyre Yacht Club is perhaps the most perplexing sight of all. Located hundreds of kilometers away from a body of water that only occasionally has water... The lake's otherwise landlocked members can only sail on the very rare occasion when floodwaters from other states turn the salt beds into inland lakes. The club, has approximately 250 members from all over Australia and international members from the United States, United Kingdom and Germany.
Jacque Cousteau Inspiration Overload
So, while freedom from the possibility of crocodile attack made my time on the lake more relaxed, the looming rain clouds brought worry. The region is in a severe multi-year drought. Rumor had it, and the building cumulus clouds agreed, rain was on the horizon. While a positive outcome for the communities, the rain + bulldust infused 4WD tracks would make driving next to impossible until the “road” dried out. As such we cut our time on the lake short and began the journey back to the Oodnadatta Track.