Lake Eyre spectacular in green

By Natsumi Penberthy 13 March 2012
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Photographer Peter Elfes captures the continuing green flush at Lake Eyre, following unprecedented flooding.

THE LAKE EYRE catchment authority was so impressed by the pictures Peter Elfes took of Lake Eyre filling in 2010, that when rains leaked into the basin for an unprecedented third year in a row last year, they told him to spend a week in an open helicopter documenting the landscape. 

The nickname of the Lake Eyre Basin – the saline footprint of the world’s largest ephemeral lake – is Australia’s ‘dead heart’. But in his 2011 trip Peter witnessed its resuscitation; after decades of absent rain his images document a landscape now bursting with life.

Under whirring blades, in bitterly cold wind and at the mercy of moving frames, he shot new vegetation creeping across the landscape and hidden minerals resurfacing in the water. 

The special allure of Lake Eyre’s desert landscapes

“To be able to have that combination of the visual beauty, experience and the incredible photographic learning curve provided by the abstract minimalist forms of the desert it’s just incredible,” says Peter.

“I spent most of my career in the inner city working at a 150-year-old portrait studio. It’s wonderful working with people, but my dad was a photographer too, and took photos of the Syrian desert during WWII – I’ve always had a fascination with the desert.”

While in the field Peter was reminded that the filling of Lake Eyre has already been documented hundreds of times in the oral histories of the region’s indigenous custodians.

“It was fortunate that on my last few trips I had some car trouble and ended up getting on the radio. Some Aboriginal people came to the rescue and they took me in. I ended in the Strzelecki Desert, which was pretty exciting. Before that I spent time with the Arabunda people, who are the custodians of Lake Eyre,” he says.

“I didn’t say much because, of course, what can I say? This is a place they’ve known their whole lives. What are you going to tell them that they don’t already know? So you kind of keep your mouth shut and listen.”

“In that time I realised that I’m really just taking a skim of history; I’m doing a snapshot of a place they’ve lived in for the better part of 40,000 years.”

Continuing to document Lake Eyre

After a stint spruiking his work overseas this year he’ll head back to the Lake Eyre in April to avoid working around the summer storms.

“Now we’re going into the fourth year [of the Lake Eyre basin filling], which is unprecedented – it’s never happened more than two years in a row in recorded history – making it a once in a life time experience which needs to be documented, and I obviously have an interest to continue the story.”

It’s an experience he wouldn’t miss, says Peter. “Forget about Disneyland and IMAX and that sort of thing. This is like: doors off the helicopter, miles an hour, no sound, sideways to the water, wind blasting at you. Every second of it was slapping you in the face saying ‘you’re alive’!”

These images are currently on display at the Green Desert exhibition, showing at Sydney’s Customs House until 28 May 2012.