The Lake Eyre Enigma
on 14 Jun 2023
South Australia’s Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre is a beautiful outback enigma. Not only is it one of the world’s largest salt lakes, it is also Australia’s largest inland lake, and the lowest point of Australia. To put that into numbers, Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre covers an area of around 9,500 square kilometres, comprises 400 million tonnes of salt, and sits 15 metres below sea level.
Sitting 647 kilometres north of Adelaide, Lake Eyre is actually two lakes: Lake Eyre North and Lake Eyre South. The lakes are connected by the 15-kilometre-long Goyder Channel. The salt content here is extreme – approximately ten times that of standard sea water and double the density of the Dead Sea.
None of these numbers alone, though, are the reason Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre captures the imagination.
The magic of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre is in the water. This is one of the driest places in Australia, often an arid salt pan, yet every now and then, when the weather gods play their cards right, the lake floods, transforming the landscape. On average, Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre experiences a small (1.5m) flood every three years and a large (4m) flood every 10 years, filling entirely an average of only four times each century.
Without water, the shimmering salt pan is a spectacular sight. With water, Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre is mesmerising. In flood, it’s not just human visitors that find this part of the country beguiling. The lake attracts roughly six million birds, from pelicans, to silver gulls, red-necked avocets, banded stilts and gull-billed terns. It becomes a breeding site, teeming with species that are tolerant to salinity. These feathered friends feed on the aquatic bounty that also makes its way here – frogs, yabbies, a plethora of fish and brine shrimp – the latter contributing to the sometimes-pink hue of the lake’s water.
In flood, the lake takes on a somewhat mystical air, although Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre has long been an important site for Arabunna and other Aboriginal people, year-round. To this day, the lake is considered to be a significant cultural site. Despite its status as one of the driest places in Australia, the waterways and mound springs also encouraged European settlement in the 1860s, with pastoralists establishing cattle stations, many of which were abandoned during times of drought. The largest cattle station in Australia, Anna Creek, remains, located on the south-eastern side of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.
It may be hard to believe, but there’s even a yacht club. Lake Eyre yacht club has its clubhouse and headquarters in Marree, where its members gather and patiently monitor the lake for sailing opportunities. The main tributaries into the lake are the rivers in south-west Queensland, the Diamantina and Georgina river systems and Cooper Creek, but water levels in these waterways don’t guarantee a flood. High evaporation rates and the many channels along the way make it hard to predict whether the flow will reach its final destination. As an example, after severe floods in 1990, Cooper Creek reached the lake for the first time in more than 20 years. It took another 20 years until it made it there again.
How much water is in the lakes can only be judged with any degree of accuracy from the air via satellite imagery. Once the water appears, it’s the visitors turn to take to the air, the lake’s extraordinary expanse best viewed via a scenic flight. With Outback Spirit, you can explore this spectacular region from air over 7 days, on Outback Spirit's Lake Eyre & Wilpena Pound adventure.
Click here for more information on Outback Spirit's Lake Eyre & Wilpena Pound Adventure.
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