Lake Eyre by air
The best way to see one of Australia's most spectacular sights. The reporter was a guest of The Tailor and South Australian Tourism Commission
Craig Platt finds Australia has become a wide, not-so-brown land as he takes in one of the nation's most spectacular sites.
Australia is a huge country that's mostly desert – that's a given. It's a fact that's taught in the geography classes of schools around the world and used to explain why, with our vast amount of land, our population remains relatively small.
That's why, flying over the Australian outback thousands of kilometres from the coast, it's astonishing to be looking at what is, virtually, an ocean of water.
This is Lake Eyre, the giant salt lake that covers as astonishing 9690 square kilometres in the north-east of South Australia. And it's currently enjoying the rarest of states – it's full of water.
This is the third year in a row Lake Eyre has flooded, an event that typically happens only once every 10 years.
We take off early in the morning from Leigh Creek, having spent the night (after first flying in from Adelaide) in the tiny township of Parachilna, which consists, mostly, of a gastropub and hotel offering such local delights as kangaroo pie, feral goat curry and emu pate.
There was a downpour during the night and we rise to find the sky filled with dark clouds. It doesn't bode well for good views of one of Australia's most spectacular sights.
Fortunately, as our nine-seater (not including the two cockpit seats) Beechcraft B200 Super King Air (a former Royal Flying Doctor Service plane) heads north, the sun breaks through and soon we are flying in a perfect blue sky.
As we watch the rain fall away in the distance, Lake Eyre appears below us. From this height much of the surface appears like glass, stretching away as far as the eye can see, with a reflective quality that makes it almost impossible to determine where the land ends and the sky begins.
Fed by the Diamantina, Georgina and Cooper Creek catchments in the north, the lake is expected to continue filling over the coming months – with water possibly rising as high as four metres. The water from the Queensland floods has not even reached the lake yet, we're told.
The flatness of the land means we can see for hundreds of kilometres and take in the diverse colours of the lake. While some of the widest parts give us the bright blue reflections of the sky, other, shallower areas offer bright greens of plant life, the white of the exposed salt base and the pinks caused by algae.
We head north into the south-west corner of Queensland, where the water from the floods is still clearly visible in the many pools and tributaries of the lake. We touch down in the famed outback town of Birdsville to refuel the plane and ourselves.
It's warm, breezy and clear as we pay a visit to the pub and then cross town (which takes all of five minutes) to the bakery for morning tea. Then it's back to the airstrip to follow Cooper Creek southwards.
We land again, this time on a gravel runway, for lunch in Innamincka – population 12.
Innamincka is close to the famous Dig Tree, the place where members of Burke and Wills party had left buried supplies with instructions to dig – something the doomed pair never saw before they died of hunger.
Today though, like much of the region, the Dig Tree is cut off by floodwaters from the swollen Cooper Creek so we're unable to pay the site a visit.
Flying in, we saw huge flocks of pelicans on the banks of the creek, so I decide to head down to the river bank to snap some photos. Leaving the others behind, I soon find the water has turned the normally dry, crusty ground into a muddy bog. I press on to find myself a short distance from an enormous crane. I kneel down to change my camera lens, taking care not to drop anything in the mud.
That care takes too long and by the time I get the zoom lens attached the crane has flown off. I trudge back to town, my brief excursion having achieved only one thing – ruining my sneakers.
We head over to the town's central feature – its pub – where I slip off my shoes and leave them in the sun, hoping the heat will bake the mud enough that it will cake off if I give it a bash on the wall of the building.
Over our meal of traditional pub fare, my fellow passengers – a group of six septuagenarians from Perth – regale me with tales of their days in Australia's wild west.
The group are all ex-graziers and have some fascinating stories about life on the land in the West Australian outback and the characters who inhabited it (with names like 'Blowfly' Jones and 'Boofhead' Taylor).
To them, the trip has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience and throughout they journey they have inundated our guide, Dean, with endless questions about the land, the livestock, the flora and the history of the region. Dean, a knowledgeable local, has little trouble answering.
As mid-afternoon approaches we board the plane again and head back towards Adelaide, making two brief stops along the way – a return to Leigh Creek to drop Dean off and another refuelling stop Port Augusta.
When we touch down at Adelaide Airport we find it blowing a gale and pouring with rain. In fact, the rain is virtually horizontal. We make a quick dash across the tarmac to the General Aviation terminal, shivering all the way.
I think back to the warm, clear skies of Birdsville I was enjoying just a few hours ago. It's been a whirlwind trip, but one that has given me a new appreciation for this wide, not-so-brown-any-more land.
The writer travelled as a guest of The Tailor and South Australian Tourism Commission.
The Tailor is running a series of flying trips over Lake Eyre from $2499 per person including one night's accommodation at Prairie Hotel in Parachilna, meals and a guided tour of the Flinders Ranges. Trips depart from the General Aviation terminal at Adelaide Airport. See www.thetailor.com for details.