Central Australia’s Lake Eyre floods once every 20 years or so. You can view it from above or wallow in its salty shallows, but either way, it’s like nothing else on earth.
At Marree, traces of the past converge like desert trails, faint but enduring. A 1950s-era locomotive rusts on its bogies, a shunting yard behind it overcome with weeds. A skeletal truck, once used to carry mail to remote cattle properties on Australia’s toughest road, the Birdsville Track, sags on perished tyres. Far more ancient are the trails of the Arabunna people, who now populate the town but who once hunted and traded along a string of waterholes through the desert. Most surprising is the simple, mud-walled, thatched-roof mosque constructed by nineteenth-century cameleers from Afghanistan and the Northwest Frontier, known as ‘Ghans’, whose caravans formed the freight routes before the coming of the railways.
Our trail rode a different dimension. Dropping in a ten-seat Piper to the minuscule airstrip with its tin shed terminal, then transferring to our motel made of shipping containers known locally as ‘dongas’, we were the latest additions to the eclectic mix of characters who have passed through this sliver of the outback in south-central Australia.
Tourism has already made an impression on Marree’s identity. A camel-shaped sundial, built from railway sleepers, is a tribute to the Ghans. Signboards tell the history of the defunct railway station, once an interchange between the narrow- and broad-gauge lines that connected this desolate region with the cities down south. In the roadhouse, German backpackers bring us plates of boeuf bourguignonne and chicken tikka masala for dinner—though steak and chips is still very much an option. Gathering in the pub for a glass of wine, we mix with farmers and stockhands who’ve driven miles to enjoy a Saturday night on the ale, and no doubt find us more than faintly amusing, these gabbling creatures who flock in from the cities like migrating pelicans when, once every couple of decades or so, Lake Eyre fills with water.
There is an easy and a hard way to do outback Australia. The hard way, packing up a station wagon, SUV or campervan with stoves, tents, water and fuel and heading off for anything upwards of three months, is hugely rewarding but time consuming, and prodigally laden with heat, dust and long hours behind the wheel. The easy way is to book a light plane tour for anything from three days to two weeks. It might cost almost as much as the alternative, but it saves an awful lot of time and trouble, and what you lose in outback adventurer kudos you more than make up for by taking it all in from the air. And this is the thing: the wastes of central Australia, so unforgiving when you are amid them, are graphically beautiful when seen from above.
Travelling in twin aircraft, our group had flown from Sydney via an overnight stop in Broken Hill, a mining town in far western New South Wales. Flying at altitudes below 3,000 metres, with a window each and taking it in turns to sit in the co-pilot’s seat, we watched the bush-crowned sandstone escarpments of the Blue Mountains give way to the vast gold and green quilting of the Western Plains, which in turn dispersed into the patterned camouflage of the outback.
Landing at Broken Hill, we were in a very different Australia from the populous east coast. This is a town of glittering nuggets, muscular history and diminishing statistics—a town anchored in the twentieth century. A grid of sizzling streets overtowered by a mountain of tailings and surrounded by desert that shines with a strangely coloured softness, it tells stories like a scar on a face. Named for a crumbly ridge in a backwoods sheep run that turned out to be the richest lode of silver, zinc and lead ever discovered, it launched what is now the biggest mining company in the world, BHP Billiton—originally Broken Hill Proprietary. The hill has long since been replaced by a gigantic carbon-coloured mullock heap crowned with pit towers, and BHP closed its operations here in 1939. Although there are two new mines planned, with the mechanisation of the industry the population has dwindled from 36,000 to 20,000. What remains is a sunny specimen of old-fashioned industry, dramatically marooned amid magnificent wilderness.
The pubs tell the story: enormous beer barns dot the town, down to a handful from a boomtime peak of seventy-two, classic watering holes with wide verandas and dark bars. We lunch in the Sturt Club, surrounded by poker machines and old miners with muscles like ropes, where the choice is chicken schnitzel, beef schnitzel or fish and chips. (Asked what kind of fish, the waitress replies, straight faced, “Crumbed.”) The Sturt is on Chloride Street, just next to the butter chicken joint, and surrounded by Wolfram, Iodide and Argent Streets. We end the afternoon on top of the mullock, or tailing heap, taking in the view of the town and visiting a moving and innovatively designed memorial to the hundreds of miners killed in accidents over the last century or more. Beneath us are railway tracks, then the chemically-named grid pattern of the town, then an endless desert shimmering with purple and yellow flowers.
Sliding skywards again the following day, we watch the licheny earth swathe itself in shining crystal. Crossing the border into South Australia, we pass into the territory of the great salt lakes which dot the state, arid seas long since cut off from the ocean. They form the metaphoric heart of a desiccated continent. Approaching Lake Frome, we dive to 200 metres and fly a pattern of soaring zigzags. Looking out of the windows, we might be in Antarctica as the plane tilts and growls back and forth, the surface of the lake frozen into salty ripples. Then we climb over the rugged Flinders Ranges, twisting and turning amid the crumpled ridges before flying on to Marree.
The tiny town—Wikipedia lists its population as seventy, probably only a slight understatement—was a thriving transport hub until the railway was closed in 1980, with enormous yards for the cattle that were once shipped down south, and the vehicles and farm equipment that came up on the trains from Adelaide, 685 kilometres away. Nowadays it is home to a dirt football field, an Aboriginal school and health centre, an annual camel race and the tourist trade that comes to see Lake Eyre, which in outback terms is only just up the road—in other words, a couple of hours’ drive.
One hundred kilometres across, Lake Eyre is an enormous saltpan, the lowest point on the continent. Once every couple of decades, something extraordinary happens. Enough rain falls somewhere in Australia that the water dribbles across the desert in multiple narrow channels to fill the lake, drawing battalions of bird life in its wake and turning the desert multiple shades of green. In 2011, the rainfall took the form of a cyclone and massive floods in Queensland, a full four months dribble away. It was the first full inundation of Lake Eyre since 1976.
Our first sight of the lake would not be from the air. Rather, it took the form of a modern-day walkabout as Aboriginal elder Reg Dodd drove us through his ancestral land in a minibus. Speaking from beneath a broad-brimmed hat in the round-vowelled English of indigenous Australia, the former railwayman, community leader and tour guide rattled off stories that made the 1960s sound like pioneering days, and the Dreaming as if it were last year. All the while, he managed to mix a quiet pride in the traditions of the Arabunna with a guarded reserve about their myths and beliefs. Lake Eyre was a remnant of an ancient gulf that once connected these parts with the ocean, he explained. Its salt content was ten times that of the Dead Sea, and the minerals it contained could cure all kinds of skin ailments. We sensed a fantastical creation story lurking in the shadows, but none of us dared ask. Reg talked on. A set of hills in front of us looked for all the world like a pregnant woman resting on her back. It had been revered as a place of fertility, and its flanks held remnant rainforest species dating back millions of years. Around the lake, we would find ocean fossils of unfathomable antiquity.
The route followed a series of waterholes formerly used by the Arabunna as they migrated through the region—the only place where the Great Artesian Basin, an enormous underground body of water, rises to the surface, enabling stock grazing on the otherwise arid land. The wells stitch a pattern across the desert that was later followed by a narrow gauge railway, known as the Ghan, all the way to the outpost of Oodnadatta. Old rail bridges and abandoned stone cottages lined the route, and at one point Reg stopped and proudly lifted a stone off a spring which provided an ever-replenishing supply of cool, fresh water. The desert alternated between stretches of yellow waste and swirls of green and red. Three tabletop hills amid a hallucinogenic landscape were sacred sites for the Aboriginal men of the region, we were told, then heard no more on the subject.
Then after an abrupt turn off the road and onto Reg’s ancestral land, we were heading for the shores of the lake. The smell hit us as soon as we stepped off the bus: salt, with a subtle undertone of mud, propelled by a gentle breeze across a vast, milky green emptiness. Far off, the horizon was a shimmering black-brown line, broken up by stretches of glittering white. Our boots crunched on the crusty surface as we began the trek along the shore. Stepping onto what looked like solid ground, I slid and almost went for a tumble. Where my feet had slipped, the white crystals of the surface had given way to a rich brown mud, looking like someone had just taken a spoonful of frosted chocolate pudding. A couple of other people made the same mistake, briefly teetering and giggling before realising it was a good idea to stick to the sandier soil.
We followed the sweeping curve of the shore, heading for a point behind which the reflection of the sun was like a shower of stars. A few minutes later we rejoined the rest of the group, who had stayed on board the bus. They were already knee deep in the water, half ecstatic and half dumbfounded at the sight we had all come to see. Having flown for a day and a half across sun-dry wilderness, all we could see was water. Very, very salty water, we realised as we looked down at our crystal-coated legs.
Driving back to Marree, we stopped once more at Alberrie Creek Station, where we had had a barbecue lunch with billy tea earlier that day, cooked by a group of Arabunna people. This time we looked over a sculpture park which bizarrely occupied this place, probably as close to the middle of nowhere as it’s practical to get without specialised equipment. There were twin light plane bodies fashioned into a double cross and painted with Aboriginal designs, an ancient bus turned into a make-believe hovercraft and a giant dog made from a car body and a railway water tank, as well as lesser works cobbled from rusting bits of iron. All the flotsam of modern life that, in the desert, never quite goes away. Outside the old farmhouse, our Arabunna friends greeted us once more. Time, it seemed for a few moments, had become a colossal joke.
The next day was the last on our four-day tour, and we spent the morning criss-crossing Lake Eyre in the planes. Instead of an infinity of aquamarine and a shower of sparkles, we saw vast swirls of salt and pelicans preening themselves by the hundreds. Microbe life turned vast swathes of the water pond green, while other parts were roseate, stretching in a giant sheen until it hit the horizon and melded with the blue wash of the sky. It might have been the beginning of the earth. And then we town-hopped back across New South Wales, refuelling in dust-smothered villages, their surroundings like sheets of rusty metal splashed with moss-coloured paint, till we vaulted the cloud-shrouded Blue Mountains, dropping back down amid the helter skelter of Sydney as evening closed in.