Lake Eyre – Don’t Drive on the Lake Bed.

Lake Eyre National Park is now formally known as Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre National Park. Since 2012 the management of the park has been a partnership between the Arabana Aboriginal Corporation and the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources.

We recently travelled the Oodnadatta Track, a highlight of which is always a stop at the lookout overlooking Lake Eyre south. It is an awe-inspiring sight and for me it always brings back the memory of my first view of the lake, when it was full and teeming with birdlife. Then, just six weeks later, on my second visit it was a dry barren wasteland.

Lake Eyre is Australia’s largest salt lake with the lake’s two sections, Lake Eyre North covering 8,030 square kilometres and Lake Eyre South covering 1,300 square kilometres,  connected by the Goyder Channel, about 13 kilometres long. Flood waters cover the lake on average once every eight years. However, the lake has only filled to capacity three times in the last 160 years. Widely held belief is that the lake fills from Cooper Creek, however it is rare that the waters from the Cooper reach the lake. Water normally flows into Lake Eyre from the Macumba, Neales, Warriner, and Margaret Rivers along the Warburton Groove at the north end of the lake.

This trip was a little different. We were in a party of three 4WDs and wondered why the lead vehicle had stopped just before the lookout. Pulling up we could see two dishevelled and tired looking young men. The story was all too apparent looking in the distance to the lake proper where their vehicle was clearly stuck.

We bundled them into our 4WDs and drove across to the lake to investigate. The whole area is criss-crossed with tracks where 4WDs have gone across country to have a look at the lake. Perhaps they don’t realise that the best lookout is just a few kilometres to the north and right on the road. Perhaps they need a good map.

Looking at the vehicle stranded in the mud, it seemed a bit pointless to say

‘Don’t drive on the lake surface’.


Away in the distance you can just see a tiny speck on the lake

I was impressed by the way these two young German tourists, Daniel and Thomas, had tackled the problem.

They engaged 4WD, let the tyres down, unloaded the vehicle to try to lighten it, they had a good supply of water, fuel and outback supplies (I know this because it was neatly laid out on the salt pan), then they had walked to the nearby disused Old Ghan railway line and carried sleepers back to lay in the wheel tracks – all to no avail.

In fact, apart from the rush of blood at the outset of their misadventure, where they had followed someone else’s tracks onto the lake surface they had done everything right, they even hauled a 10 litre container of water with them when they decided to walk to the road to seek help. In most situations we would advise staying with the vehicle but in this instance, they could see the Oodnadatta Track, and several passing vehicles, from where they were stuck and thought it the better option for getting help.

bogged 2

First attempts at digging out.

The first thing to do in any situation like this is to stop and think about how to tackle the problem. We had one Nissan Pathfinder in the lake and three 4WD vehicles, parked well away from the lake surface on solid ground, two winches, at least four shovels and a few snatch straps.

We headed off with shovels in hand. It almost sounds like I was heading to the rescue – in truth I was taking photos and thinking about how to write this story – while Graeme and Craig did the hard work. Salt pan mud must be the stickiest, stinkiest mud there is. But then, I live in sand country so my experience in mud is limited. Before long we were joined by another Toyota Troopy. This was a couple we had camped near the previous night at Farina. They saw our group from the lookout and had said – ‘surely this mob know you don’t drive on the lake surface.’

bogged 3

More shovel work.

But they thought they had better come and investigate and see if they could help. Now, here was a young man (also named Tom) with a troopy and all the bells and whistles that young men are wont to have on their 4WDs. Again, there was a bit of a tyre kick and a discussion about different ways to tackle the problem. Digging wasn’t achieving much as the whole belly of the Pathfinder was resting in the mud.

A new plan was hatched. The troopy had the longest winch cable and so Tom would gently drive out towards our German friends, but only so far as could be easily winched in by our vehicles on the solid ground.

Tom slowly headed onto the salt pans that dot the edges of the lake proper. Fortunately, the surface held firm until he reached the extent of his winch cable and all the snatch straps joined together. Much digging continued to unearth a recovery point on the Pathfinder but once the cable was attached Tom was able to carefully winch and then tow the Pathfinder back onto solid ground.

Two very relieved young men then repacked their vehicle and set off once more on their journey to Coober Pedy.


Lesson learned. Back on solid ground.

They will now be good advocates of the often-repeated request – ‘Please don’t drive on the lake surface’.

About Lake Eyre – Kati Thanda.

Kati Thanda is a special place, particularly the Arabana and the Dieri People. Aboriginal people have been living around Kati Thanda for thousands of years, and it plays a significant role in many of their stories and songs.

European discovery of the lake was by Edward John Eyre in 1840. He believed it to be part of a great horseshoe lake barring any passage to the north. In 1858 Babbage and Warburton found a way through the lakes and a year later John McDouall Stuart started his series of explorations to cross the continent.

Little importance was placed upon Lake Eyre and no major exploration was undertaken until the 1920s when Dr C T Madigan carried out a series of ground and aerial surveys. His conclusions were that little if any water reached the lake, and that it could never fill. Madigan’s statements were proved wrong soon after his death when heavy rains in Queensland during 1949 and 1950 brought a massive flood down the Diamantina and Cooper River systems resulting in the first major filling seen by white man.

It is believed that Lake Eyre was much bigger and permanently filled more than 20,000 years ago. The climate then was much wetter and the lake probably drained into the Southern Ocean near Pt Augusta. About 15,000 years ago the climate changed and the lake dried. Sand from the lake-bed drifted out to gradually form the sand ridges of the Simpson, Tirari and Strzelecki Deserts. During the last 10,000 years the climate has become wetter allowing the area to stabilise.

Aboriginal History and Culture. Several Aboriginal stories relate to Lake Eyre. Many are secret and Aboriginal people believe that telling them to uninitiated people would result in danger to the country.