Crossing Lake Eyre by kayak

By Suzan Muir 15 May 2012
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Facing hypothermia, isolation and a long paddle, a couple takes on the challenge of crossing Lake Eyre by kayak.

Jon Muir is the 2002 Australian Geographic Society Adventurer of the Year. His wife, Suzan, is his sometimes adventure companion and a freelance writer.

NOW, THE NARROW CHANNELS of the Warburton River are eerily estuarine, crowded with densely packed lignum, and not totally unlike the mangrove-lined rivers of northern Australia. But it’s too cold for crocs here; at night the frost gathers in a fine sugared layer on our sleeping bags.

So while freedom from the possibility of crocodile attack is making this journey a little more relaxed, it’s only if I don’t dwell on what awaits us a couple of hundred kilometres downstream, at the river’s mouth. Lake Eyre fills my mind with the enormity of its vast and silvery expanse. It’s a treacherous, unpredictable, inland sea of shifting winds, shallow water and cloying mud. A giant salina, ringed by low-lying sand dunes, flat-topped mesas and desert. According to the beliefs of the Wangkangurru people, Lake Eyre is under the influence of Kuddimukra, a spirit not renowned for benevolence. We shall travel warily. 

Several days earlier, back at our home in Victoria’s Grampians, my husband Jon, 50, had paced up and down the house. “Off on a big adventure,” he said, practically shivering with excitement. “There are some big question marks hanging over this one, I tell ya!” Our plan was to catch the tail end of the Cyclone Yasi flood on its way down the Warburton River into Lake Eyre.

We would put the kayak into the Warburton at Cowarie, a cattle station straddling two deserts: the Marda-purru-purru (meaning “very stony”), or Sturt Stony Desert; and the Arunta, the Simpson Desert. Cowarie lies 220km north of Marree in South Australia, just west of the Birdsville Track. From Cowarie we planned to paddle 220km downstream and into Lake Eyre, where we hoped to make the first human-powered crossing of the water body. The crux of it would be the lake traverse, which was entirely dependent on favourable wind conditions and sufficient water levels to float our boat.

Jon is intimately acquainted with arid environments; he has travelled by foot and kayak across 3000km of desert salt lakes. In 2001, sponsored by the Australian Geographic Society, Jon made the first unsupported crossing of Australia. Then, in the same style in 2007, he trekked to the geographical centre when Australia was in the grip of its worst drought in recorded history. He hunted and gathered the majority of his food on these trips, and through his understanding of the landscape was able to find water in the desert. According to Jon, these long, unsupported walks across Australia’s interior have pushed him far harder than any of his previous expeditions, including to the Poles and Mt Everest.

Adventuring is a remarkable pastime that I fell into by default through Jon. Being exposed to wilderness in all its raw power gives you the chance to momentarily shed many of the trappings of the modern world. The odd adventure is unavoidable if the person with whom you spend your time happens to be a professional adventurer. Jon’s momentum swept me along on my first hunting and gathering journey in 2004, when we paddled in the ocean from the Daintree River, Queensland, 1000km north to the tip of Cape York and around to Seisia. Four months was a little too long for me out there – vulnerable to 6m-long crocs and wild seas – but far too short for Jon. But we both revelled in the awesome beauty of the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef.

Lake Eyre – Australia’s natural wonder

Australia’s inland deserts sing to me, even more so than our oceans. The stillness at dawn and dusk is all-pervasive, penetrating. I like that feeling. So when Jon – always searching for a journey full of uncertainty – suggested that we paddle down a flooded desert river and then traverse Lake Eyre north to south, I leapt at the opportunity.

When most people think of Lake Eyre, they are thinking of Lake Eyre (North) – and this is what we were setting out to traverse. With both sections, Lake Eyre is Australia’s largest lake covering in north-eastern South Australia. It is the terminal point of a basin encompassing one-sixth of the continent, draining inland rivers from Queensland, the Northern Territory and South Australia. Rivers that originate in northern Australia – the Georgina, Diamantina, Barcoo and Thomson – typically provide the lake with the majority of its water. These rivers flow intermittently and whether or not they reach the lake is dependent entirely upon monsoonal deluges providing enough water to backfill numerous lagoons and swamps along the rivers’ courses. Only then can any overflow continue downstream and finally flow into the lake.

The most reliable water source for Lake Eyre is from the Diamantina and Georgina river system, which forms the Warburton River at Goyder Lagoon. Every so often, the Warburton makes the journey further south to add some of its silt- and fish-laden waters to parts of Lake Eyre. Briefly the lake flushes with life. The nutritious flood feeds micro-organisms, field shrimps, water plants, insects, fish and birds. The fecund flurry lasts only as long as the waters remain. Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, the flow ceases and the water quickly evaporates from the lake’s surface into the desiccating air of the surrounding desert country. Through this process ever more salt is deposited. In some places the salt crust is 50cm thick.

In living memory only two major flood events have been recorded. However, it’s debatable what constitutes a ‘full lake’, as in our recorded history of floods, none has filled it to the highest shoreline, still visible from prehistoric times. In 1974 – the greatest filling on record – the water level fell short of the ancient shoreline by 2.8 vertical metres. At its deepest point that year, the lake was 6m. Even considering the rains and floods across Australia in 2010 and 2011, the greatest depth in June 2011 was just 1.4m. That’s still 4.6m shallower than the 1974 lake, but it’s a much more significant difference when you think about the volume and mammoth surface area and how the lake spreads out across this largely flat landscape.

Aeons of floodwaters from the Warburton River have created a channel in Lake Eyre (North) called The Warburton Groove, known colloquially as ‘the Groove’. It begins where the Warburton spills into the north-east of the lake and then runs all the way south for 90km to Dulhunty Island. Dulhunty sits just outside Belt Bay, the westernmost bay at the southern end. At 15.2m below sea level, Belt Bay is the lowest point in Australia. We hoped to be able to follow the Groove for its entire length, in one hard push to the island, then complete the journey by paddling 20km south-west from Dulhunty Island to the shore of Belt Bay. 

There are only two public access routes to Lake Eyre. One leaves the Oodnadatta Track near the township of William Creek, then cuts through Anna Creek station to the northernmost edge of Belt Bay. At the time of our journey, the other access route, at Level Post Bay, wasn’t an option, as the water hadn’t yet reached the shore there.

Across Lake Eyre by kayak

On 30 May, our adventure begins as we set off on a three-day drive to Cowarie station, at the edge of the Warburton River, the kayak carefully tied into a homemade cradle on the roof of our vehicle. We travel north to the Murray River then through South Australia’s peaceful country towns to the west of the magnificent Flinders Ranges. North of the Flinders it becomes more arid, and the spell of the outback starts to take a grip. A tiny speck in a landscape of plains and flat-topped mesas, we trundle north up the Birdsville Track.

Just past the isolated Mungerannie Hotel, we turn off the track and head north-west towards the Warburton River.

Between cream-coloured sand dunes on the river flat at Cowarie station, we spend a day packing a month’s supply of dried and tinned food into the kayak, before we’re finally ready to launch, straight into the main flow of the Warburton. The swift, caramel waters quickly sweep us downstream. Ibis, egrets, herons and coots, black-winged stilts and red-necked avocets, ducks, budgerigars and galahs abound. It is a pulsing, splashing, skimming, flashing paradise of birds.

A flotilla of pelicans paddles past, lifting themselves into the air with great noisy thrusts of their wings, drawing our gazes skyward to where they join hovering raptors and rise in a wondrous spiralling symphony. Later that day, we camp on an exquisitely water-sculptured sand island and are serenaded at both dusk and dawn by the poignant calls of dingoes.

I am apprehensive about the crossing. In 1974, when floods filled Lake Eyre to its greatest extent in modern times, adventurous out-back guide Rex Ellis led a crossing of the lake in a tinnie with an outboard motor. Rex, now 69, is the most experienced traveller of Australia’s flooded inland rivers. Since 1974 two other parties have attempted to cross Lake Eyre in boats, but each time they were air-lifted out because adverse conditions and inadequate communication prevented them from liaising with their support crews. Neither Jon nor I want our adventure to end like that, so we agree that if conditions on the lake are not ideal, we’ll walk out from the north shore 160km to the Oodnadatta Track. Having been in contact with Rex about current river and lake levels, we knew that he would be guiding a trip down the Warburton at the same time we would be there. If possible, Rex would tow our empty kayak back up to Cowarie.

Paddling Lake Eyre the “stuff of dreams”

Each day paddling down the river I have plenty of time to consider the possible complications of the lake traverse. My anxiety increases the closer it looms. On one particularly cold afternoon I raise my fears with Jon. “We won’t go if the conditions aren’t right, but if they are the moon will be full for our crossing,” he says. “Don’t worry about it yet. It will be the stuff of dreams.”

Further downstream we stop to camp where a giant sandhill abruptly ends in a cliff at the river’s edge. Walking up to its crest that afternoon we’re suddenly aware of the foreign sound of a motor. The chance of bumping into Rex was slim considering the complexity of the Warburton’s channels, but we suspect that no-one else would be on the river. Four boats come into view. They cut their engines and someone yells, “That you Jon?”

“Yep, and you must be Rex.” I could see Rex nod as he answered, “Almost mistook you two for ant hills. Don’t usually see anyone out here.” 

Jon launches straight into gathering more information, “What do you reckon about The Warburton Groove?”

Rex considers his answer for a moment, and shakes his head. “I don’t think it’s a goer. It was full in ’74 and it was still touch and go, but if anyone can do it you can. Crossing the lake is like a horizontal Everest!”
Jon chuckles. “Well that’s not too hard then.”

“Yeah, except you can’t walk the lake like you did Everest. If you get out  10 to 15km into the Groove then you’re home and hosed.”

They begin to drift almost out of earshot as Jon calls out a farewell, and the group rev their engines and quickly disappear up the river.

Days blend into each other as we continue our leisurely way downstream. On the eighth night we camp at Wild Dog Waterhole, where there is a disused stockyard made in the old way from twisted local timber. The pale dunes of the southern Arunta stretch away, deep into the heart of the traditional land of the Wangkangurru people. A flood event like this would have been an opportunity for the Wangkangurru to leave their mikiri (permanent soaks), and journey south to the river to feast on fish, waterfowl and eggs. The last permanent inhabitants walked out of the desert in the summer of 1899/1900. They had heard of more reliable sources of food at the surrounding stations and at Killalpaninna Mission. Because this environment is a place where survival is such a marginal affair, it seems a reasonable choice for them. But it was the sad loss of a way of life.

As we wander around the yard at Wild Dog we see the fresh hoof prints feral cattle have left behind. Years ago this was a mustering area for Kalamurina, a property that spent several decades as a cattle station. In 2007 the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) secured the lease to provide a vital link from Lake Eyre National Park to the Simpson Desert reserves.

Panoramic water views on Lake Eyre

We journey down the river for 11 days, the last two bitterly cold, before reaching the northern end of the lake. I have unavoidably wet arms and hands from the water dripping from my paddle and resort to sucking my fingers to get the circulation going. If we are stuck out on the lake for too long during the crossing, hypothermia is a real possibility.

We camp on a sparsely vegetated river flat on the last bend before the Warburton meets the lake. Finally, I am about to see the object of my fear. We climb a series of dunes that give us a panoramic view down over tortuous ochre-coloured canyons. Beyond these lies the vast inland sea of salt-encrusted mud and shallow water. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and seemingly benign, the softest blue imaginable, stretching away to merge with an infinite sky. In our proposed direction of travel there is no discernible horizon. Three days pass before the southerly winds abate enough for us to attempt the crossing.

In the pre-dawn preparation, Jon has a wildly intense look in his eyes. “This is as exciting as any of my summit attempts in the high mountains of the world,” he says. We set off at daybreak, the lake an opalescent blue and cream, with a soft southerly breeze pushing small ripples onto the nose of the kayak. Terns wheel overhead crying mournfully and huge mobs of pelicans glide by on silent wings as the sun rises on one horizon and the moon sets on the other.

About 15km down the Groove the kayak grounds out in shallow water. Jon steps out and pulls the boat into a slightly deeper part of the channel. From then on it seems that the Groove is just deep enough to float us all the way. We paddle onwards for the rest of what is a long day, snacking on pumpernickel bread, nuts and chocolate.

Towards evening, as the cold sets in and my energy starts to wane, a party of pink-eared ducks flies by and lands in front of us. As we cruise past they take off again and leapfrog ahead, staying nearby for the next hour. The sun sets and the breeze drops away, the crystalline desert stars reflecting in the mirror of the lake. We find ourselves floating through a universe of stars with the faint yelping of red-necked avocets tinkling from some distant galaxy.

A breeze picks up a little and the moon rises, its light shattering into a trillion sparkles on the tiny ripples. Some hours later, just 16km from our destination of Dulhunty Island we bottom out yet again. Once more we find that the boat floats if Jon steps out. He decides to tow it, walking through heavy mud and freezing darkness, while I shiver in the kayak, calling out directions from the GPS. The next five hours seem to blend into an ordeal of muddy, sloshy, rhythmic striding, dim torchlight and jiggling to stay warm. There’s nothing real to gauge our progress except the navigational device. Were we getting anywhere?

Completing the Lake Eyre crossing

Finally, a faintly darker strip appears within our watery night world. Could that be our island? A sudden raucous assault by Caspian terns grinds the island into reality. We land at 2am, after 20 hours on the move. The indignant terns come to a tenuous truce with us. They cease screaming as long as we stray no further along the sand-spit than our hastily erected tarpaulin. I’m happy with that.

I’m totally focused on getting out of the intense cold and into my sleeping bag, but Jon’s jumping around like an excited child. He keeps planting kisses on my cheeks and shoving feathers under my nose, exclaiming things like, “Isn’t this a lovely one!”

I just keep on sorting my bedding and answer him a little gruffly, “I’m sure it will be very lovely tomorrow morning.”

“But it already is tomorrow morning..” Jon finally gets the message when I wriggle into my bag and promptly fall fast asleep.

We spend three days on Dulhunty before the westerly winds drop enough to allow us to continue on our way. In that time we find nine tektites, glassy rocks, which are formed when meteorites hit the Earth’s surface.
Finally, three weeks after starting out, we paddle the last 20km and land at the edge of Belt Bay. Although Lake Eyre posed many questions that challenged me emotionally and physically, that leg turned out to be the highligt of the trip. This event in my small life satisfied my deepest craving: to be cradled for a moment in time, to drift within the heart of nature’s perfection. It was, as Jon had said, the stuff that dreams are made of.

Source: Australian Geographic, Issue 105 (Nove/Dec 2011)