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.

 

The Water Bullies, the Great Local Government Swindle, the Erosion of Democracy and those fucking cows.

There is something terrible afoot in New Zealand at the moment and it is being played out in a few different ways all over the country.

Aucklanders’ are being swindled with changes to their local government, leaving them with say over only about 35% of what their new Supercity council does. Control of utilities is being given to a non-elected body run by a CEO who will answer to the Minister of Local Government. This means Aucklanders will be at the mercy of interests of the rest of the country, with national parliamentary elections their only opportunity to exercise their democratic rights and have a say about how water and roading are run in their city. Considering that it is current Local Government Minister Rodney Hide who has overseen the erosion of Aucklanders’ democratic rights I don’t think Aucklanders should be too happy with this corner that their democracy has turned.

And then there is the situation in Canterbury. All elected members of the regional council Environment Canterbury (ECAN) were recently sacked and replaced with a board of commissioners. This was in response to a government ordered review of the council’s performance and concerns about its management of water in the region.

From www.teara.govt.nz

Canterbury has over 70% of New Zealand’s fresh water supply, mostly stored in a huge network of aquifers under the plains. Since 2002 there has been a huge increase in dairying in this geographically dry region, an industry that requires lush green pastures to sustain it. I grew up in here and each time I return to visit I notice more and more of the land is covered in huge green circles, the product of massive irrigation systems. What is so scary about this is that no one knows how much water there is in those aquifers. Scientists haven’t been able to accurately estimate the volume and regeneration rate of water and there are no real measures in place to track or control how much water is being taken out of them by agriculture and industry. I will also go out on a limb and say that dairying is now New Zealand’s number one polluter. Farmers fertilise soil with nitrogen to make lots of grass grow for their cows. And then the cows shit and piss a whole lot of nitrogen back into the soil and into water systems in the area. Nitrogen leaching in soil is a problem to which there is currently no solution and it takes decades for its river and lake choking effects to become apparent. Increasing nutrients in water systems and soil cause things like algal blooms which have severe effects on the ecosystem and kill other species. Dairying is draining and polluting the Canterbury aquifers, NZ most valuable water resource, and our minister of the Environment Nick Smith is busy helping dairy farmers to get irrigation consents by sacking the very organisation set up to manage water use.

According to their website “Environment Canterbury is the regional council working with the people of Canterbury to manage the region’s air, water and land. We are committed to the sustainable management of our environment while promoting the region’s economic, social and cultural well-being.” So get this, the Creech report into ECan’s performance says that “ECan put too much emphasis on the environment”. I’m a tad confused, isn’t that what it is suppose to be doing?

There are some serious conflicts of interest in all of this too. Wyatt Creech the is a director of Open Country Cheese, which has convictions for dirty dairying. Creech’s firm has been twice prosecuted for contaminating Waikato farmland and rivers. And Nick Smith’s brother Tim Smith has just pleaded guilty to 21 charges brought by ECan because of unconsented discharges in the region. Last June Tim had this to say about ECan “I told them their organisation was bloody hopeless and they were all useless bastards who should be sacked,” he said. “I also told them that with some luck my brother and Rodney Hide would do something about it”

It turns out that they did do something about it.

After sacking the council Environment Minister Nick Smith has cancelled the upcoming ECan elections and Cantabrian’s won’t be able to vote in a new council until 2013. This is a blatant removal of democracy and in my view suspicious and totally unnecessary. If the real issue was that this council weren’t up to scratch then surely an election later this year would have been the perfect opportunity for improvement.

What is Rodney Hide up to removing our democratic rights? Something stinks and I think it is the National Government. Here is some more interesting reading on the issue: No Right Turn.

And I have ranted this much without even talking about their intention to mine in the Coromandel, one of New Zealand’s most valuable conservation areas. And how convenient that they don’t have to pay anyone to mine on conservation land! They also want to privatise the management of our prisons and introduce a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy in an attempt to reduce crime. It doesn’t work in the US so why would it work here?

A friend of mine put it well recently: “National releases new fuck everyone policy”

Touché