Of droughts and flooding rains

Sue Wallace witnesses a seasonal miracle: the flooding of Lake Eyre.

As we fly over a vast saltpan something shimmers in the bright sunlight ahead. It's water heading to Lake Eyre, bringing new life to an arid land.

Fed by the recent Queensland floods, waters from the swollen Georgina and Diamantina rivers have converged in Goyder Lagoon and are now surging through Warburton Creek and into the lake, 700 kilometres north of Adelaide. In the past 40 years or so, the lake has seen many floods of varying sizes but it has filled to capacity only three times in the past 150 years. When it does fill, it becomes the biggest lake in Australia.

Lake Eyre covers 9690 square kilometres, an area roughly the size of Cyprus, and when the waters come it's an exciting time for locals. There's even talk of members of the Lake Eyre Yacht Club dusting off their yachts.

Tess McClaren, who runs the Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary with husband Mark, says there's a lot of water coming down the creek and spreading over the salt pans.

The McClarens have only been here for only two years but a neighbour tells them it is the most water she's seen filling into the lake in 13 years.

"It is exciting for us as we can't wait to see the vegetation that follows when the waters subside," McClaren says.

Our pilot drops to 8000 metres and we trace the swollen Warburton Creek and river beds, watching streams creeping over the parched flood plains.

The area is a kaleidoscope of colour; from the dark muddy waters rushing down the creek to shades of green spreading across the salt pans. The water turns pink, purple and blue because of the varying concentrations of minerals.

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Since the waters have started filling Lake Eyre it has become home to masses of waterbirds, including Australian pelicans, banded stilts, ducks and waders. Even camels from the Simpson Desert head this way for a drink.

For lunch we land at William Creek, one of Australia's smallest towns, population three. The town's timber and corrugated iron pub is on the Oodnadatta Track, about halfway between Oodnadatta and Maree and was built in 1887 to service the Ghan railway line.

There's lot of talk at the pub about Lake Eyre. The pub resembles a giant visitors' book with walls of business cards and mementoes such as hats, T-shirts, undies and the odd bra.

"Throw your business card up there, luv," says a local who's called in for a slab, and I do.

Our next stop on this two-day flying trip is the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary in the northern Flinders Ranges, where the late Reg and Griselda Sprigg dedicated their lives to returning the 610-square-kilometre sheep property to its natural state.

Dr Sprigg was a gifted geologist, avid fossicker, explorer and educator, his wife a pioneering woman who supported her husband in his conservation efforts.

When frustrated by so much official red tape she had a "bulls---t" rubber stamp custom made, which she all but wore out when filing government correspondence.

Today Arkaroola is run by their children, Doug and Margaret, who are continuing their parents' legacy of preserving this property.

Doug meets us at the airstrip and we head off on Arkaroola's four-wheel-drive tour. We follow what was the original mining exploration access track carved out in 1986 to allow access to the old mining areas of Radium Ridge and Mount Painter.

It's a bumpy drive as we leave Arkaroola Gorge on the western side of Dinnertime Hill and climb a quartzite bluff, then pass into granite country. The colours of the Flinders Ranges are spectacular and they seem to change as we look out over Lake Frome.

Heading northwards into the Mount Painter heartland the landscape features rugged granite terrain covered by native pines as well as wattles, eucalypts and clumps of spinifex.

"Hang on," Doug yells as we bounce our way along what looks like an impossible track to Sillers Lookout. We are rewarded with 360-degree views over the Yudnamutana Gorge to Freeling Heights, over the Paralana Hot Springs along the eastern range escarpment and far across the great outwash plains to Lake Frome and Lake Callabonna.

Just when we think it can't get much better, Doug produces afternoon tea - complete with lamingtons.

Sue Wallace travelled courtesy of Smart Air and South Australian Tourism.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Two-day packages to Lake Eyre are available from Albury. From Melbourne, Rex flies daily to Albury. From Sydney, Rex, Qantas and Virgin Blue fly daily to Albury.

Touring there

Two-day Lake Eyre flying tours with Albury's Smartair in a Piper Navajo all-weather, twin-engine aircraft cost from $1595. Price includes flights, transfers, accommodation at Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, tours and stops that include William Creek and Broken Hill. Meals not included. Phone 6021 2929 or see smartair.com.au and arkaroola.com.au.

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