Following the Big Wet - 2011 Trip – Part 10: Lake Eyre and Cooper Creek

Saturday, Oct 22, 2011 at 15:01


Cooper Creek drains a large area of inland Queensland, parts of South Australia and the Northern Territory, and a small area of NSW, a total area of about 290,000 square kilometres, which is greater than the whole of Victoria or Britain.

While we usually think of creeks flowing into rivers that then run into the sea, Cooper Creek is different. Not only do rivers drain into Cooper Creek, itself it drains into Lake Eyre, the largest ephemeral lake on the planet. Although there had been some earlier sightings of water in the lake, the first recorded filling occurred in 1949. The lake drains an area of about 1.1M square km, but in an area of very low and erratic rainfall. It is most unusual that the lake should largely fill in each of two successive years, 2010 and 2011.

Cooper Creek flooded in 2010 and 2011, following exceptionally heavy rain in its catchment. Vast amounts of water flowed from Queensland, through the Strzelecki and Sturt Stony Deserts, transforming the usually bare and arid area from its usual red to every shade of green, and precipitating spectacular flowerings of native plants. Extensive desert areas and ephemeral wetlands became flooded and became breeding grounds for vast flocks of water birds. The Birdsville Track, an iconic route connecting the Lake Eyre/Flinders Ranges region in the south with the SW corner of Queensland, became flooded. A one-vehicle ferry service was activated for the first time in many years at a narrow point where the usually dry Cooper Creek was only 250 metres wide and 6 metres deep.

We approached Lake Eyre and the Cooper Creek from Marree, a tiny town at the intersection of the Oodnadata and Birdsville Tracks in central South Australia. From Marree a track heads northwest to Muloorina Station, one of only a few jumping off points for visiting Lake Eyre. It was from Muloorina that Donald Campbell set out to establish a land speed record in his car “Bluebird”, clocking almost 650 km per hour in 1964 on the smooth salt flats provided by the dry lake. The speed attempt had its setbacks though. It was set up for the previous year, but rain fell on the Lake for the first time in 20 years. The showers turned into torrential rain and when the floodwaters rose the precious Bluebird was hastily evacuated in the middle of the night. The attempt on the record was successful the following year after the lake had dried out and the 50+cm thick salt crust had solidified.

Muloorina Station covers a big area – about a million acres. [Image not found]The homestead is some 50 km on a well maintained gravel road from Marree. The nearby campground provides travellers with a large and pleasant area beside an extensive wetland fed by a bore. The area is well appointed, with flushing toilets, picnic tables but no showers. There is no charge per se, though a small donation to the Royal Flying Doctor Service is requested. Visitors are welcome to explore the wetlands, which are home to numerous waterbirds.

Muloorina borders on Lake Eyre which is a further 45 km northwest from the homestead via a heavily corrugated track that goes out to Level Post Bay. The country is flat until some small sand dunes near the northern tip of L. Eyre South. The track then follows the (dry) Goyder Channel that joins the two lakes. We stopped often to look at this astonishing country – dry, windswept and glaringly bright, yet still home to flowers and occasional birds and other small animals. On the dry lakebed crystals of calcite stuck out of the salty mud like angular skeletons. Dried mud mixed with salt and calcite made a fine powdery dust, good for leaving deep footprints. We saw that after any rain, this powdery stuff would become deep mud bogging any vehicle foolish enough to venture onto the lakebed.

The lake itself was partially filled when we visited, with the water’s edge maybe two or three kilometres from the shore. It was very difficult to judge distance. Val undertook the walk towards the water and found it an eerie experience – the bright, open sky above, constant wind, a perfectly smooth horizontal surface below, a vague horizon, and, apart from a multitude of footprints left by earlier visitors, very little else to provide orientation. She found it very difficult to estimate the distance to the edge of the water and turned back before she quite got there.

Back to Muloorina over the corrugations, and the following day out to Marree and north along the Birdsville Track. This “track”, once a challenge, is now a well maintained gravel road. We stopped at Lake Harry now full of water, where a long time ago date farming was attempted and failed. Left was a solid stone building, now long deserted and in ruins, by some mound springs. It was curious yet somehow not surprising to find that an open air shower fed by a hot mound spring had been installed more recently over a concrete slab. There can’t have been a person residing this side of the horizon, yet there it was, and fully functional for use by any passer by.

Further up the track we passed through big parched stretches of treeless gibber plain, surely forbidding country in the heat of summer. The track here passes through huge stations, and as the road is unfenced each station has signs warning of wandering cattle. But even in this good season we only saw a few cows.

As we approached the flooded Cooper Creek, we followed the 50 km detour to reach the ferry. Just as the fully functional shower in the middle of nowhere seemed not unexpected in this country, so too the incongruity of a vehicle ferry to cross a huge water body in the middle of a desert didn’t seem surprising. The ferry operates on a narrow (250m wide) stretch of the creek where it enters Lake Killamperpunna. The ferry isn’t very big but our Troopy and trailer combination fitted easily. There were those, we knew, who covered the 150 km from Marree and arrived to find their rig didn’t fit. A local entrepreneur, for a suitable fee, would load their trailer on his truck and take it across, then the towing vehicle would cross on a separate trip. The same operator ran a tourist cruise boat, and a helicopter was stationed at the ferry to provide sight seeing flights over the water and surrounding desert.

Having driven onto the ferry we got out, donned lifejackets and savoured this unique experience which lasted less than 10 minutes. Once on the northern side, we set up camp by the Cooper and the Lake, some distance back from the water as the only waterfront options were in use. There were a few coolabahs and shrubs, but in this sparsely vegetated country there was not much shade or shelter to be had.

We marvelled at the amount of water. In normal times this is would all be dry. Now it was a vast expanse populated by many waterbirds. Squadrons made up of dozens of pelicans wheeled overhead and there was the occasional flurry as flights of ducks took to the air, thought better of it and returned to the water. Dozens of kites wheeled in the thermals. We were surprised to see many dead fish along the shore. Local wisdom suggested that they had died because of lack of oxygen due perhaps to the decay of vegetation in the water, or that the unseasonal cold had allowed the growth of a fungus which affected their gills. The birds were disinterested in the dead ones, so there were surely many more living ones for them.

We’d been warned that there was still a goodly population of native rats in the area, the tail end of a widespread plague resulting from the abundant food supply due to the exceptional season. Rats there were, and they were not shy. We became accustomed to them surprisingly quickly, though it was a bit unnerving to have one investigating one’s feet and wonder if it intended climbing up further! We’d heard of campers who’d unwillingly shared their sleeping bags with the rodents, so were careful to keep Troopy closed up. We reasoned that they were clean native rats, not to be confused with dirty urban disease carriers, though it was apparent that they were partial to footwear and interested in trying anything they could get their teeth into.

Sunsets and sunrises provide wonderful photo opportunities and we took full advantage as the light and colours changed. There were enough vehicles moving about and raising a bit of dust into the air to really enhance the sunset colours.

Our neighbours had with them a small sailboat which was a most picturesque addition to the lake. When they left the following day we took over their waterfront site, inflated our own boat and took to the water. This provided another opportunity to relearn the old lessons on preparedness. Before leaving home, ensure that everything works! The blower used to inflate the boat failed after about 30 seconds so inflation proceeded the slow manual way. We hadn’t done a test inflation before leaving home, so it was with some relief that we found that the boat had no holes in itWe thought of the consequences of the friendly rats having had a few test nibbles, or even a good square meal of boat! But everything worked well and the little electric outboard gave us a pleasant run up the shoreline. Don’t know if we were boating in the Tirari Desert or the Strzelecki Desert, but the incongruity couldn’t be ignored.

The following day was windy, too windy to take the boat out again unfortunately so we simply lazed, walked the shoreline with cameras and readied for the run up to Birdsville tomorrow.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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