Lake Eyre: A Little Trip to a Big Place

When I was told about a temporal sea in the middle of the Australian Outback I was immediately intrigued because it sounded more like a myth than reality.

Apparently – the story goes – every decade or so when drought breaks (see recent Queensland floods) the rain and floodwaters slowly migrate throughout the continent via networks of newly formed rivers, basins and subterranean waterways.  They end up in the country’s lowest point, located in arid South Australia.  Somehow fish get inside this huge body of water.  I’ve even heard some say that there are fish eggs in the desert waiting to hatch upon the water’s return.  With the fish come bird migrations and colonies.  And if it floods enough, the water sustains a brief ecological spurt; flower blooms erupt in the middle of the desert.   All this talk about water and biodiversity in arid Australia was an image I had not associated with the Outback.

And so with my romantic inclinations, I looked into it.

Lake Eyre satellite image

This ‘sea’ is otherwise known as Lake Eyre.  It is as real as it is mythologised, having been portrayed as a site of fascination and fear all throughout the national narrative of Australia.  According to some aboriginal accounts, Lake Eyre is a Kangaroo skin laid out flat.  In other accounts it is the site of death, with the salty remnants of tears shed by the Sky Gods.  For explorer John Edward Eyre it symbolised disillusionment after failing to find the heroic prizes usually associated with territorial expansion – resources, drinking water, power.  He then proceeded to name the lookout point upon which he discovered the Lake, Mount Hopeless.  Prior to that Thomas J. Maslen drew a fictional map, featuring an inland sea in the middle of the Australian continent.  The sea is shown as being connected by a massive river labelled “The Great River Or Desired Blessing”.   He thereby set the agenda for a national ideal, for a reality, which was at that time yet to be explored.  For geologist J W Gregory the Lake was branded as “The Dead Heart of Australia”.  Charles Sturt unsuccessfully carried a nine meter long whaleboat into the Outback, in a failed attempt to discover an inland sea.  Hydrologists lobbied to artificially kick start a permanently flooded Lake Eyre, as a means to irrigate the entire continent.  The stories go on and on…

I had the recent pleasure of visiting Lake Eyre and it’s surrounding satellite towns.  Here are some travel pics:

 

The ochre coloured township of Coober Pedy. Famous for opal mines and landscapes reminiscent of Mars. 70% of the population live underground, presumably to moderate the extreme temperatures experienced there. The topography of the town resembles that of a re appropriated opal mine, along with random mounds of excavated earth scattered all over the place. It is within these mounds that the houses are located. We had an interesting underground experience at a cafe where the owner closed the kitchen upon our arrival and politely showed us to the door because he needed to leave the shop to “buy some milk”.

 

There was a very cool space ship parked outside the local opal shop/town lookout.
More space junk in William Creek. This one is legit though – Stage one R3 Rocket from the 70s. Tangentially it is also near the historical atomic testing sites. Population: 5, or something to that effect. William Creek is one shop/petrol pump/pub/camping grounds. It is located midway along the Oodnadatta Track, which roughly follows the nearby western edge of Lake Eyre North. The track was previously an early explorers path, which followed a network of water bores.

 

Oasis. Big drought break. The desert was surprisingly green.

 

The remains of a Mosque located in Marree. The town has a history of Afghan Cameleers who settled there in the 1870’s. Coincidentally our travel routing plans were affected by lack of accommodation because of the coinciding annual Camel Cup races. Marree is also home to the Lake Eyre Yacht Club, which hosts a regatta every time the Lake is sufficiently flooded. It boasts to be the world’s most exclusive yacht club for that reason. They are currently in dispute with local Aborigines who oppose the practice of sailing on the lake.

 

The main course: The shores of Lake Eyre. 80% full. It’s a very salty lake, not much fun for swimming in especially for those with cuts or scratches. Up close it is shallow and not quite swimmable where we met the shore. It has a very thick mud base which never fully dries out under the salt pans even in the Lakes dried state. By this stage I’m feeling nauseous in our 1970’s colour schemed mini plane. But nevertheless pretty snap-happy on the ol’ camera.

 

A rather disorientating moment that didn’t help with my fragile state of motion sickness and feelings of strange juju.

 

Some salt pans that weren’t submerged by water.
Leaving the Lake. See you again next decade!

 

fin.

 

Coming Home & The View Back

I flew back toward Home recently, on an airplane at about 850km/h, at about 8km off the ground.  I’ve found myself in the air a fair bit recently, with that ritualised placelessness made most obvious when flying internationally.  An idea I pondered when first flying from Copenhagen to Wellington in 2007 (after a six month stay) was whether I truly felt that I was going ‘back’ home, or ‘toward’ somewhere ‘next’.  I hoped excitedly it was the latter, but I don’t think it worked like that.  Then I left again.  Now, after two years away from New Zealand, I begin to believe and feel more authentically that I come ‘back’ to Melbourne now, sort of.

So as I sat there hurtling through the sky above the Tasman Sea, I watched Through the Wormhole, a TV-documentary series, cooly narrated by Morgan Freeman.

The episodes I watched covered two subjects that I realised were relevant to my thoughts about Home, and Abroad.  The first revisited the creation of our Home, otherwise known as the Big Bang theory; the second took a stab at the question of life outside Planet Earth, the ultra-Abroad.

 

Coming Home, 250 metres per second.

Home(s) with 11 Dimensions.

The first question raised, scientifically, wondered how stable the current theory of the Big Bang could really be, because it seems very difficult to explain or justify that there simply was Nothing prior to it.  It also raised the likelihood of the Multiverse, where ours might not be the only Home.

“Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.”

-King Lear, Act 1.1

“From nothing comes life”

-Apostle Paul, apparently.

One alternative theory to the Big Bang makes an analogy to an analogue watch, which ticks (the second-hand makes a discreet movement), then pauses, before repeating a discrete movement. In this model, the Big Bang (which in itself, as a massive, unbelievably uniform distribution of energy is not really disputed) occurs at the pause, which mathematically represents a nothingness.  Hence our current Universe is the ticking of a second-hand, to eventually arrive (i can’t remember how far we are through, but maybe passed-half, explaining the Universe’s alleged slowing speed of expansion) at nothingness again, and then Bang Bigly again.  Not too fancy, and sort of understandable.

The second alternative gets a bit trippy, and is only fathomable, maybe, to the three dudes that came up with it. M-Theory which is thoroughly not understandable, incorporates the super-string theory, with its 10-dimensionality, and adds time, to make an 11-dimensional fuckoff theory of how the Universe works.  The authors of this theory propose that membranes exist, called P-branes (mmhm), which are multidimensional objects (it can have 0 to 9 dimensions), which something something something (if I copy in Wikipedia it wont make sense anyway).  If String Theory’s account of the Universe is analogous to a body of water (continuous, fluid, and very messy, but accountable on a micro-level), M-Theory (I think) speculated that the Big Bang was more like a ripple, caused by two of these multi-dimensional P-branes colliding, sending a massive, but dissipating force out from the point of contact (explaining in its own way the slowing speed of the Universe’s expansion).  The animated diagram showed two shaky blobby masses (two Universes I guess) slowly colliding, and bouncing back. They also said these P-branes could be as little as 10cm away from us (meaning the 4-dimensional realm we can fathom), at which point I stopped trying to get it, but went, “hmmmmmm.”

And so I wondered who the other-dimensional being was that might be 10cm away from my lacklustre 4-dimensional cognitive ability, and whether he already knew about me, and could fathom me, and maybe, could ‘see’ me, and my Home.  I was glad we were both at Home (dimensionally speaking), and were wondering about the Other.

At which point, I realised how close theoretical physics is to various spiritual experiences.  It is not hard at all to imagine enlightenment, transcendence, and angels as useful analogies of such multi-dimensional being.  I have considerably little experience in either field of study/practice, so can’t really go deeper into the thought, so will keep it as a (public) thought.

The View Back

The second episode covered the usual base of the search for extra-terrestrial life forms, namely the work of the SETI Institute [Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence] .  Rather than zealous alien hunters, the SETI Institute’s Mission is “to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe” which seems pretty useful and profound.  It also resonated with my thoughts about Place and being-an-Other.

It’s become scientifically well-known that the existence of living organisms as we know them on Earth is the result of a microscopically, unbelievably unlikely chemical coincidence, which is so unlikely that it makes for a pro-God arguing point.  The phenomenally low probability that there is life at all (on Earth in our case) has a few scientists thinking the scary thought that, shit, maybe we are alone. Beautifully, these scientists reassure us that our yearning for knowledge and the study of Life and our Home is only made more precious by this position.

The ways we are looking for life is really what hooked me, particularly when the reverse notion was tabled: if someone was looking for us, would they see us?  Our first radio-waves (with any considerable strength) were sent out around the sixties, at the usual pace of 186,000 m/s.  Unfortunately, these messages have covered only a microscopic distance in astrological terms (about 50cm of 10km) to the nearest Solar System, and only 50cm to the equivalent of Mars in terms of reaching the edge of the known Universe.  That’s a bit disheartening, but when we start photographing space, we are fortunately more effective.

I don’t understand how precisely, but developing from the Doppler Effect (where the appearant frequency of (light/electromagnetic) waves are effected by relative movement and gravity) we are able to map distant solar systems, and even now, their planets, and even their size, gravitational field, and chemical composition of their atmospheres.  Apparently, the most effective way to search for signs of intelligent life is to look for something un-natural, a disturbance in the known laws of physics and chemistry.  Scientists are well aware that they may not be looking for humanoid life (especially when you start thinking about the small fraction of time that our ‘bodies’ have been around on Earth, and the haste with which they are changing with technological extensions/appendages), so what they are actually looking for is a trace.  It might be on the scale of a Solar System, or it might be an atmospheric anomaly.  Then they really flipped me out, by declaring that the best trace of our intelligent life is global warming.  Our strongest astrological beacon is the horrendous trampling of our ecological equilibrium.

It’s a funny one really, right now I don’t know where to go with it.

It does seem to somehow tap sharply at a part of me, a part that wonders about the nature of our dwelling here, on our Home.  I guess I’m just naturally curious what that inter-dimensional dude might be thinking, whether he’s on the next P-brane, or in the same Universe, wandering what the atmospheric anomaly might mean, if anything.

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