Wednesday, 12 August 2015

A salt lake somewhere - South Australia

It's a nine-shooter night lying out on the hard crust of the desert's lake. Where the sky and salt meet is difficult to tell. The stars are in both. If the future were this landscape then it would be endless and yet confined to its own reflection. Lying back in our sleeping bags, waiting for the next shooting star,  the thrill of being in such a strange and rare place makes Caz declare: "When I grow up I want to be an explorer."

This is explorer country, the hard open expanses of South Australia's desert outback, riddled with countless salt lakes and the winding tracks of Giles, Stuart, Eyre, Sturt and modern day Australian adventurer Jon Muir.

This sleep-out, on a salt lake somewhere, is also a lesson in how to have an adventure in just one night - how to break the boredom of a road trip, how to learn about the earth by living in it, exploring across it, sleeping on it. It was Caz's idea; that it would be fun to sleep on a salt lake. I wasn't so sure, but it certainly sounded better than camping at another toilet-paper infested highway road stop. So off we went and found a salt lake. 

We had an early dinner by the car, looking out across our chosen location. It was not the biggest in the area but the far shore appeared closer than it actually turned out to be. The flatness, the uniformity of the white surface, the glaring light, all play tricks with distance and perception. There was water out there too. A thin line could be seen where the hard salt finished and a perfect reflection of the cloudy sky began. After last minute ablutions and with the basics on board we hoisted our packs on our backs, locked the car and headed straight for where the world merged into a disorientating mess of white and light. 

It reminds me of a routine we had for a while back home, called our 'break-up-the-week-bivvy'. About once a month, we would leave work and grab our backpacks, cooker, pots, an easy dinner to reheat, and our sleeping bags and bivvy bags. We would throw a clean set of work clothes in the car for the next day and then drive off and find somewhere to sleep the night.  Our criteria was a place no more than a 45 minute commute to work the next day. We never walked far, often just 500m. Somewhere away from people and houses. Some call it stealth camping.

We ended up on local beach headlands, on tiny patches of gravel beside rainforest streams with glow worms as bedside lights, on sandstone cliff tops and in the sand dunes amongst spinifex and seagulls. Anything to bring nature back into our lives on an otherwise workaday week. What a feeling it was, having a morning brew in the bush as the sun rose, eating breakfast in the forest or looking out sea. 

Walking out across our salt lake for the night was full of unexpected charms and surprises. The surface of the lake was a hard, crunchy layer of jagged, crystallised salt set in angular patterns and squares, and encrusted upon poor lost sticks and shrubs blown onto the lake and now cemented to its surface.

We headed out towards the distant water's edge which proved to be a forty minute walk away. Caz left me at our chosen sleeping spot and continued on to take evening photos of this remarkable landscape. But in the flat, featureless refrain of dusk, finding his way back proved an explorers challenge. He had used a distant hill as a way-point but, with nothing burning bright on the horizon to illuminate or guide an intrepid adventurer, distance and bearing became blurred. Meanwhile, back at our camp I too had noticed the night fall, like a sudden turning off of the world. Caz was invisible to me, shrunk to the size of nothing by space. I stood up, turned on my head torch and waved it in bright arcs above my head.  After ten minutes, his silhouette was just visible. I kept the light burning. What we talk about now, is the night I guided him in like a lighthouse. 

The definition of silence is a salt lake rising in the night. I woke from a deep sleep an hour before dawn. A crescent moon had risen and yet it also flickered and glimmered right beside my head, reflected in a shallow sheet of water that now surrounded us. Caught in the blurred understanding between sleep and waking and lying in that illusory land of sky amongst land, I could make no sense of it all and fell back to sleep. Half an hour later the alarm went off. This time I woke enough to rouse Caz and point out that the tide had come in. 

Data on Australian salt lakes is as sparse as the lake's surface. Try reading this - a paper by Patrick De Beckker from ANU that aims to bring together material scattered through many scientific journals to give a complete review on the state of knowledge of salt lakes in Australia including plant and animal life.  The paper includes a simple but informative map of salt lake locations. Nearly all salt lakes occur in arid or semi-arid zones. All are ephemeral today. Generally, the lakebed is made up of gypsiferous muds, clays and silts with some gypsum crystals. A layer of salt crust, from 30 mm to 75 mm thick can cover this. On the large and famous Lake Gairdner in South Australia, this crust can range in thickness from a few centimetres to over one metre, although in the northern third of the lake  there is in fact no identifiable salt crust, the lake surface in most years comprising merely saline clays. Where the salt crust is particularly thick, as in the southwestern arm of Lake Gairdner, it forms a surface suitable for motor sport and land speed records.

But I have not managed to find any explanation for our rising 'tide'. We scurried about packing up our meagre equipment, now damp with the encroaching salty water which lay about a centimetre deep. It did not take much to retreat from the water's edge and onto a hard salt surface. Had we camped just twenty metres away, the water would have not reached us until after dawn. But it was definitely rising, creeping across the lake's surface at about ten metres every ten minutes - chasing us as we began the long walk back to shore. 

Where did it come from? No idea. By lunch time, the water had receded and the surface was once again hard packed salt under a brittle blue sky. All ready for the next adventurer. 

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  1. Great idea and a really nice read. Looks like you guys are having a great time.

    1. Thanks Phil. We are indeed having a great time!!!! Don't want it to stop.

  2. Stunning photos and words guys. Such a great idea. I particularly like those first two shots.

    1. It helps when you've got a beautiful and interesting landscape to photograph and write about. Thanks for the comments Cameron.

  3. If only there was a chocolate lake too..

    1. Ha Ha. Still looking for that one Sue. Wouldn't mind a rising tide on a chocolate lake!