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Monday musings on Australian literature: Let’s get physical – Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre

May 17, 2016

Last week I wrote my fifth “Let’s get physical” post, and chose Adelaide because visiting there was bookending our trip last week to Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre. You’ll understand, therefore, why I’ve chosen the subject I have for this week!

Lake Eyre was named for explorer Edward John Eyre, the first European to see it in 1840, but in 2012 its official name was changed to combine its English name with its indigenous one, Kati Thanda. This recognition of indigenous place names is happening around Australia and is so important – not only to help reconciliation, but because these names mean something to the land we live in. 

Lake Eyre aerial view

Lake Eyre Basin aerial view, 2016

Lake Eyre, for my non-Australian readers, is a large shallow lake in remote and very dry South Australia, approximately 700 km north of Adelaide. It contains Australia’s lowest natural point, around 15 m (49 ft) below sea level. When it fills, albeit this is a rare event, it is also Australia’s largest lake.

There are many stories associated with the lake – indigenous ones, of course, and settler ones. It was the subject of intense exploration in Australia’s early colonial days – by those looking for an inland sea – and was where major land speed record attempts were made in the mid 1960s. Importantly, native title over it was granted to the local Arabana people in 2012. There are some tensions, particularly regarding water activities, between the indigenous desire to respect its sacredness and its role as a tourist destination.

Early reports

The first person to write about the lake was Eyre. His writings, Journals of expeditions of discovery into Central Australia and overland from Adelaide to King George’s Sound in the years 1840-1, were published in England in 1845. They can now be read at Project Gutenberg Australia. Here he is writing about the region – very dry one day and then rain the next:

Lake Eyre, aerial viewyre Ba

Lake Eyre Basin aerial view, after 2016 rains

In passing through the plains, which were yesterday so arid and dry, I found immense pools, nay almost large reaches of water lodged in the hollows, and in which boats might have floated. Such was the result of only an hour or two’s rain, whilst the ground itself, formerly so hard, was soft and boggy in the extreme, rendering progress much slower and more fatiguing to the horses than it otherwise would have been. (August 31, 1840)

Crossing many little stony ridges, and passing the channel of several watercourses, I discovered a new and still more disheartening feature in the country, the existence of brine springs. Hitherto we had found brackish and occasionally salt water in some of the watercourses, but by tracing them up among the hills, we had usually found the quality to improve as we advanced, but now the springs were out in the open plains, and the water poisoned at its very source.

Occasionally round the springs were a few coarse rushes, but the soil in other respects was quite bare, destitute of vegetation, and thickly coated over with salt, presenting the most miserable and melancholy aspect imaginable. (September 2, 1840)

Warburton River aerial view

Warburton River aerial view

This is desert, an area, that is, of very low and very erratic rainfall. The problem was that in the early days of settlement, explorers sometimes happened to visit areas like Lake Eyre at a rare wet time and drew conclusions that later, of course, proved false. In 1858 explorer Peter Egerton Warburton thought that “the abundant and sure supply of water” would make the region easy to occupy. The fact that the biggest towns here – Birdsville and Marree, for example – have permanent populations of 100 people or less rather puts paid to that forecast.

In 1887, a bore was sunk at the Coward Springs railway siding. A contemporary magazine, Pictorial Australian, reported that:

Acres of nearly level table-land were turned in a few hours to a swamp … it is only a matter of weeks before miles of country will be covered with water. (from an interpretive panel at Coward Springs)

Wetlands were created – and breeding grounds for birds and other wildlife ensued. Indeed Lake Eyre is  famous for its birdlife and its breeding grounds. Ornithologist Captain SA White undertook “an ornithological trip” to the area in 1914 to collect bird specimens. He wrote about the artesian bore at Coward Springs where the pipes had corroded, so that the water

now flows out at the surface and finds its way across the the plain, where for many acres it forms a swamp, mostly covered in green rushes trimmed down by the stock. Amidst this short vegetation many water-loving birds find a home and feeding ground. (from an interpretive panel at Coward Springs)

I don’t pretend to understand how water works here. We saw some water courses/ponds/springs that are permanent, and others that are caused by recent rains and will evaporate or otherwise dissipate very quickly. The critical point is that there is not enough – in quantity and quality – to support regular, intensive farming, though there are cattle stations in the area.

More recent writing

Lake Eyre South

Lake Eyre South (viewed from the ground)

Not surprisingly for such a fascinating place, many non-fiction books have been published over the years about it – by scientists, journalists, and travellers – but not much fiction. Given its remoteness you’d think it would provide excellent inspiration for novelists, but not so it seems. Arthur Upfield who, in the mid twentieth century, wrote crime fiction set in Central Australia did set one in the Lake Eyre region, Bony buys a woman, and another of his, Death of a lake, is about a fictitious lake that could be based on Lake Eyre.

As for non-fiction, I found a useful list of recommendations, including a trilogy by Roma Dalhunty who travelled in the region with her geologist husband. The books are The spell of Lake Eyre (1975), When the dead heart beats Lake Eyre lives (date?), and The rumbling silence of Lake Eyre (1986).

My own favourite work about the area is, however, a movie, the 1954 Shell-sponsored docudrama The back of beyond. It chronicles the trip made between Marree and Birdsville every fortnight, from 1936 to the late 1950s, by mailman Tom Kruse. Scripted mainly by its director John Heyer, the final narration was co-written by Australian poet Douglas Stewart. Marree is described as a “corrugated iron town shimmering in the corrugated air” and Birdsville as “seven iron houses burning in the sun between two deserts”. The drama of life in the region is described through lines like “Who passes or perishes, only the dingo knows”.

I’m sorry I don’t have anything more exciting for you, but at least you now know where I was last week!

Meanwhile if you know of any fiction set in Lake Eyre, please to tell.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2016 12:25 pm

    Love the Birdsville mailman doco of course, and big fan of Bony – seems to be very popular these days on Bolinda Audio. Not caught the L.Eyre one, but a number set in far western NSW. Closest book I can think of is Frank Clune’s Dig (Bourke & Wills, or should that be the King expedition?)

    • May 17, 2016 1:01 pm

      Yes, of course you’d love The back of beyond, Bill. I can see that!

      Fair point re Clunes’ Dig re Burke and Wills, and King. I’m glad you mentioned it – close enough for a mention I reckon.

      • ian darling permalink
        May 17, 2016 7:15 pm

        Surprising there is quite so little fiction or poetry inspired by Kati Thandar/Lake Eyre. I remember at school the library had a wonderful anthology of 19th century explorers accounts of the Australian interior published as an Oxford World Classic. Is Back Of Beyond a famous film in Australia?

        • May 17, 2016 11:49 pm

          Yes, it is, Ian and I keep waiting for someone to tell me I’m wrong, that there’s something obvious I’ve forgotten. That anthology sounds great. I love dipping into their journals on Project Gutenberg. Their perspectives on the landscape and on meeting indigenous people is SO interesting.

          I don’t think The Back of Beyond is famous at all. On our Lake Eyre tour, I’d say at least half hadn’t heard of it. A shame. Have you seen it?

  2. May 20, 2016 4:17 am

    Is Mr. Eyre any relation to Jane Eyre? Maybe he is that famous uncle who left his fortune! 😉 The lake looks like a beautiful place to visit though I don;t think I would want to be one of the residents in either of those small towns.

    • May 20, 2016 2:48 pm

      Haha, Stefanie, she might have had a more exciting life with him! No, I love visiting these places but a bit small for me. Interestingly, the couple who bought the Marree Hotel about five years ago are retirees from my small (only 300,ooo people) city looking for something “real”. I’m impressed and part of my loves the idea, but I don’t really think it’s me. I went to the ballet last night. Couldn’t do that there!

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