Salt Lake City

Brent Davison  |  May 2019

Brent Davison heads south in an Amarok for the annual pilgrimage to the salt flats Lake Gairdner, where man, machine, and nature collide.

It was my first experience of the frightening majesty of an outback storm and it was nothing less than stunning.

Yesterday, warm, playful zephyrs blew across the broad, flat landscape. Overnight they became strong and bitingly cold winds that whipped-up the sandy surface, the fine grit stinging eyes, abrading skin and depositing dust in ears and noses.

Huge, towering thunderheads rolled across the sky, changing from white to dark grey before transitioning to an indigo canopy, spectacular cloud formations backlit by lightning then shot through by the electricity, crackling and sizzling, streaking to earth.

Nature’s light show could rival any million-dollar, man-made laser spectacular, the rolling thunder a perfect accompaniment and making any air-breathing creature feel incredibly insignificant.

Rain started as the violence raged above. The drops, random at first, plopped lazily onto the desert floor, making tiny craters. Then heavier, striking skin with the force of hail. Then constant, forcing animals of every kind to run for cover.

Sheep and kangaroos headed for the trees, lizards, scorpions and snakes disappeared beneath rocks and humans scurried into anything available, all waiting its passing.

When the fearsome, spectacular attack was over the clouds dissipated, the gentle breeze returned and the sun struck with renewed intensity, making up for time lost behind the storm front.

I’m at Lake Gairdner, one of South Australia’s amazing and vast salt lakes. Located some 550 kilometres north-west of Adelaide, it is one of the main entry points to the lovely and comfortingly lonely Australian outback, a place with a long, fascinating and constantly changing story.

The lake is an interesting and comfortable six-hour drive from the South Australian capital on a highway lazily following St Vincent Gulf’s eastern shore before crossing the top of the South Australian peninsula to kiss Spencer Gulf at Port Pirie then run alongside the water to touch the gulf’s tip at Port Augusta.

After almost four hours driving, ‘Port’ looms as an oasis, a small regional city giving travellers a chance to fuel-up both body and vehicle and stock-up on provisions before going bush.

Port Augusta is a major transport hub with tourists and truckers alike passing through to head almost anywhere on the continent. Broken Hill and the eastern states are a day away and the Eyre Highway finds Ceduna and, eventually, Perth after traversing the Great Australian Bight.

Choosing the B100 a few kilometres out of Port finds Whyalla and Port Lincoln and taking the A87 north brings Coober Pedy, the Northern Territory border, Alice Springs and Darwin.

For me it’s the Eyre Highway towards the Gawler Ranges and Lake Gairdner and soon after leaving town the vista starts to change.

Broad, flat plains run east and west, climbing into vast escarpments and at the roadsides the fingerposts show names most only heard in school.

Alice Springs, Ceduna, Coober Pedy, Woomera, Roxby Downs, Andamooka, Kingoonya and Iron Knob, a name that always makes 14-year-old boys titter uncontrollably.

A right turn off the Eyre Highway, almost opposite the Iron Knob exit, launches travellers onto kilometre after kilometre of fast, well-made gravel road and into a wilderness landscape, a fast track to the outback across flat plains and through stands of stunted trees.

The 125-kilometre run is an easy two-and-a-half hours. Raised cattle grids add interest for drivers and the whole is experience underscored by the happy soundtrack of gravel flicking from the tyres and pinging against the car’s undersides.

... and it was nothing less than stunning. 

It is here that mobile phones stop working and a special feeling of ease, unique to the Aussie outback, descends. Time slows, thought and speech becomes more measured and things seem less important. What mattered in Adelaide isn’t important here.

The dust, an entity that seems to find its way into everything, even hermetically sealed, air-conditioned cars, becomes important, the colour denoting the taste. Seriously. Red is slightly metallic, white is chalky and black has a subtle, woody taste. The salt of the lakes is overpowering and more than anyone ever wants on their fish and chips.

Mt Ive Station’s gate is marked by a submarine rising majestically through the desert floor and its northern boundary by Lake Gairdner, another 34 kilometres further on and reached in an easy half-hour.

Gairdner has a sprawling – but incredibly basic - campground. What does ‘incredibly basic’ mean? No levelled and powered campsites, no amenities blocks, no public phone, no rubbish bins, no street lights . . . . basically nothing but red soil and stunted, stumpy trees. Oh, and anything you bring in you must take out.

The lake itself is huge, 160 kilometres long and 50 wide. Those who have ventured far enough onto it say they can see the earth’s curvature as they look across its glittering white surface towards the horizon.

 

In the early autumn heat the lake’s surface shimmers, the dark and distant hills stand stern and the desert rolls down to the petrified shoreline, the deep ochre landscape flowing into the salt’s rich pearlescence and all of it capped with the lustrous blue of the endless sky.

Viewed up close, the red soil nourishes grey-green foliage and dry grasses. Low-growing trees and bushes providing a protective canopy for the malnourished soil.

Gairdner and the land around it have their own special majesty though, the surrounding ranges stand as a deeply spiritual place for its guardians, the Gawler people. Indeed, two hills are regularly pointed-out to visitors who are expressly asked not to photograph them, such is their cultural significance.

It is hard to visit the lake and not be touched by it, even when – or especially when – Mother Nature conspires with the outback to have some spiteful fun and hurl lightning bolts at the ground to the bass rhythm of rumbling thunder.

Time has stood still for aeons in this beautiful, isolated place. Yes, it has seen the world change but ignored it. To a place this old, one full rotation of the earth around the sun is a mere blink in time.

The low hills, the native wildlife and the scrubby land’s profuse plant life, the somnolence and the overpowering peace and quiet of the desert’s changing seasons: that is the beauty of Lake Gairdner and its magnificent deserted surrounds.

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