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newt 06-12-2012 04:21 AM

Lake Eyre, South Australia
Australia has a Queen. The Queen has a birthday. Several, in fact: In New Zealand they had a long weekend for it on June 4th, June 11th was most of Australia's turn -- except Western Australia, where they'll do it on October 1st.

Must be great to be a Queen. So many birthday presents.

So anyway, there's a 3-day weekend, nice weather, and an RV-6 in the hangar. What to do, what to do?

I was talking about it with my brother a few weeks ago, and we decided that it'd be good fun to make a trip to Lake Eyre.

For most of its existence, calling it a "Lake" is a bit ambitious. Lake Eyre is usually a dry salt pan, about 9 to 15 metres below sea level, deep in the South Australian outback. The lake is fed by the Warburton River, which also spends almost the entirety of its existence as a dry river bed. But when times are wet, its catchment area covers about two thirds of Queensland and nearly one third of New South Wales.

And times have been wet in those parts lately. It took about four months after the floods, but the trickle of water down the Warburton turned into a flow, then a flood, which added to the remnants of a 2009 partial fill to produce the highest water levels the lake has seen in 60 years. We're now about a year and a half into the three years it'll take to evaporate.

The water brings life to the outback. Usually white salt, red rocks, billions of flies and almost nothing else, the lake's waters bring birds, insects, even frogs and fish.

Visiting it while it's full is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Visiting it while it's half-full, like it is now, is perhaps a thrice in a lifetime opportunity :)

So with that background out of the way, what do we do about it?

A series of phone calls to my brother during the week told him what to expect about travel in the smallest plane he's flown in. "Pack light."

The plan was to fly to Rawnsley Park Station, a sheep station next to Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges which happens to have an airstrip, (expensive) AVGAS, and accommodation.

Loading up.

Departing Parafield, we accepted a nice 7 kt tailwind to track around the Edinburgh airforce base to St Kilda, then up to Bowmans, Jamestown, and Rawnsley Park. More or less the same track as last year, about 1.5 hours on the Hobbs.

Arriving in the Flinders Ranges with the Elders in the background.

Wilpena Pound from the North.

To be continued...

newt 06-12-2012 04:43 AM

Sunday: Take off fully fuelled and head north.

Planned track is outbound past Parachilna to Leigh Creek, then veer left and run 143nm straight to William Creek.

Take a few moments to look at those Google Map links to get an idea of how isolated this trip is. Having passed Leigh Creek, there's basically no bitumen. Dirt roads, 4-wheel-drives and roadtrains. Maybe one person per 20 square kilometers, and the poor guy is probably lost.

40 minutes out from William Creek, the Southern end of the lake becomes visible:

Lake Eyre South

After the first glimpse we proceeded to leave it behind us: Forewarned about fuel prices in the Red Centre, I wanted to top off the tanks with as little as possible at William Creek, then use the resulting full tanks to tour the lake and get back to Rawnsley Park.

The damage: 45 litres of fuel. $127. So that's about $10.69 per gallon for you Americans who always bitch about five dollar gas. :)

William Creek was originally established as a supply base for the Ghan railway line which ran from Adelaide in the South to Alice Springs in the dead-centre of Australia. Building the line was a momentous feat, not just because of the engineering challenges of building a permanent railway through the thousands of miles of dunes of an eternally shifting sandy desert, but also for the sheer enormity of the challenge of keeping the work crews fed and watered in the outback's desolation.

... and now I can do the trip in 3 hours in an RV. Ain't technology grand.

In the present day, William Creek has a permanent population of 2 (count 'em!), and exists ostensibly to be a pub in the middle of nowhere that everyone simply has to visit at least once (more on that later). It's on the Oodnadatta Track, one of the main semi-navigable "roads" that joins the Flinders Ranges to the Simpson and Strezlecki Deserts.

With water in the lake, there's also a bustling tourist flight industry: Airborne daytrips from places like Innaminka, Coober Pedy, and Wilpena use the William Creek pub as a lunch stop. About 20 aircraft of various shapes and sizes landed and took off from this isolated little airstrip while we were there.

It's also downrange of the Woomera Defence Establishment, which is Australia's major missile testing range. Some relics of past launches are assembled in a park across the road from the pub:



After fuel and a comfort stop, we were off to see the lake itself.

It's huge. The Google Map really doesn't do it justice; it's more of a sea than a lake. If you're at 2500' on one side, you can't see land on the far horizon. The water is glassy smooth, and when the sun is shining at just the right angle you can't see a horizon at all, because the water simply merges with the sky.

The pink tinge is an algae. It's more pronounced in some places than others, the shot above is from the south west corner.

To be continued...

newt 06-12-2012 04:56 AM

So yes: Smooth, glassy, no horizon.

Sounds a bit dangerous, eh?

So in 1990, a pilot flying a few friends around the lake in a Cessna 210 observed that the lake is below sea level, and figured it'd be pretty funny to fly so low that the altimeter read backwards.

In an evil-minded way he was exactly correct: It was dead-set hilarious.

With no horizon reference he became disoriented and... well, he landed in the lake.

Picture, if you will, the moment of silence between everything coming to a halt and the first word out of a passenger's mouth...

He was 12 kilometers from the shoreline, so the rescuers simply left the plane where it was, and it's sat out there ever since. It's been out there for 22 years, a white plane covered in white corrosion on a white saltpan. Almost impossible to find even if you have the GPS coordinates, which, of course, we did.

Crashed Cessna 210 VH-XAG

Time hasn't been kind to it, and it no longer has recognizable wings or empennage, and it's maddeningly hard to get a good photo of it when the sun is too bright to enable you to see the camera's digital viewfinder... but the top left of that photo definitely shows a Cessna fuselage, and the story definitely isn't an urban legend.

The Warburton River near the north end of the lake streams unsalty water uncontaminated by pink algae into the lake, so the water is a different colour. It runs about three quarters of the length of the lake down its spine, a grey stripe in pinky-brown brackish water. The moving water also erodes the lakebed, so it's called "The Warburton Ditch" when the lake is empty.

The Warburton Ditch

Most of the lake is currently only about 1 foot deep. In some places it's definitely deeper, but never more than about ten feet. Here's the deepest bit we found:

"Deep." Don't think a life jacket would be very useful...

As the water evaporates it leaves salt on the lake shore, water in the centre, and... something else in between.

Just North of ABC Bay, near the south west corner, looking south.

After a bit over an hour of sightseeing, we headed back to William Creek for lunch.

To be continued...

newt 06-12-2012 05:12 AM

Jason ordered a steak sandwich, and ended up with something that could best be described as a "steak loaf."

The front bar of the pub is a definite landmark. The town's traditions are literally stapled to the wall.

Business cards. ID cards. Hats. Shirts. A shredded tire. Bus tickets. Boarding passes. Drivers licenses. License plates. All relics left behind by previous visitors.

There are archeological layers of the stuff: If you peel back a business card you'll see another one underneath it from 20 years earlier. The pub has been where it is since 1887, and I'm pretty sure it looked a lot bigger on the inside when it was built...

A Queensland Police Officer has cut the patch off his uniform shirt to decorate the wall, next to a student card, various boarding passes and a schoolteacher's business card:

A frequently asked questions list:

("Well, you had to ask...")

The famous exterior:

(The pink gumboots on the hitching rail posts have been there for years too, and are another relic from another visitor who was unlikely to need them in the middle of the Australian desert!)

More missiles: A British Skylark rocket, 1957 vintage:

The first stage of a "Black Arrow R3" 3 stage rocket, which launched the Prospero satellite in 1971. The first stage fuel tank and Bristol-Siddley Gamma 8 rocket motors were found nearby in 1990.

(I like the heat discoloration of the aluminium around the nozzles. It seems to have hit the ground tail-end first)

The car park behind the pub:

Time to depart.

To be continued...

newt 06-12-2012 05:23 AM

Take-off, runway 11 at YWMC. Chasing our shadow towards the south.

The contrast between "water" and "not water" is pretty jarring in the Australian outback.

Here's a creek flowing towards the south west out of the southern tip of the lake (which is off the top-left of the shot):

Trees, bushes. Greenery. Teeming with life.

Here's the shot out of the other side of the cockpit:

UPDATE: Jason is a smart cookie. My brother has pointed out that if Lake Eyre is the lowest part of Australia, the creek can't be flowing OUT of it. And even if it was, the salinity would mitigate against "Greenery, teeming with life." So, uh, yes. The creek is feeding INTO the lake. From somewhere. Probably an artesian spring.

An hour later, we're overflying Leigh Creek, with about 30 minutes to run.

Leigh Creek is a coal mining town. The mine's sole purpose is to supply coal for the Port Augusta power station about 300km to the South. Two trains run down the railway line between the mine and the power station daily (including one train which derailed while I was on a flying trip in the Flinders Ranges last year - That made a big mess.

Here's the mine:

(I'd say, "Beautiful, isn't it?" except that it isn't)

Back near home, one final circumnavigation of The Pound:

Saint Mary's Peak, highest point on Wilpena Pound

Then, finally, back to Rawnsley Park.

How was your weekend?

RV10inOz 06-12-2012 05:29 AM

Awesome pics

If you get this in time say hello to Tallia Shepherd for me, rather short young lass and Chief Pilot for Wrights Air :)

This is a once in a lifetime event.........that I have flown over 3 times now.

So our RV is a 3 lifetime time machine :D

More reports please!

Watch out ofr a Retard Vehicle -10 enroute YAYE to YBDV :D:D:D

newt 06-12-2012 08:18 AM


Originally Posted by RV10inOz (Post 668358)
Awesome pics
If you get this in time say hello to Tallia Shepherd for me, rather short young lass and Chief Pilot for Wrights Air :)

I think I heard her on the CTAF. Her voice sounded way, way too young to fly :)


Watch out ofr a Retard Vehicle -10 enroute YAYE to YBDV :D:D:D
Were you out there this weekend? I haven't done Ayers Rock yet, I think that's next on the list.

Bumped into Mick, a guy with an RA-Aus registered RV-7 who flies out of a paddock just a few miles away from my gliding club. Sounds odd to hear a callsign that says "1234" when you're expecting "alpha bravo charlie." He had lunch at Parachilna on Saturday and visited the lake on Sunday, so I know I definitely wasn't the only RVer out and about in that part of the world last weekend.

- mark

Vlad 06-12-2012 10:11 AM

Nice thanks. Love trip reports from exotic lands! Those rocket remnants wake some memories.

Tumper 06-12-2012 10:20 AM

Wow great trip and write-up. Brought back a lot of memories.

I lived in Australia for a year back in the 90?s. Still have friends in Sydney. I?ve been to Alice Springs, Coober Pedy, Ayers Rock. If you have never been to, or studied Australia and the outback you can?t fully grasp the amount of real estate out there.

I use to say that if you took the population of the five major cities in Texas and locate them in five cities on the coast of the US, then took the rest of the population of Texas scatter them across the US, you would have a fair representation of Australia. I?m not sure if that is still accurate but it fit back then.

What a country. Thanks for the pics.

newt 06-12-2012 04:27 PM


Originally Posted by Vlad (Post 668441)
Nice thanks. Love trip reports from exotic lands! Those rocket remnants wake some memories.

They're British rockets -- You'd have memories of them pointed at you, wouldn't you? :)

- mark

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