SOME­THING IN THE EYRE

CUT A PATH through the SOUTH AUS­TRALIAN out­back to sink a beer at Wil­liam Creek’s TIN-SHED PUB and drink in the majesty of KATI THANDA-LAKE EYRE from the skies.

Australian Traveller - - Contents - WORDS STEVE MADGWICK PHO­TOG­RA­PHY JONATHAN CAMI

See­ing Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre from above.

HOW THIRSTY WOULD YOU have to be be­fore you gave in, be­fore the piti­less out­back swel­ter forced you to lap up salt water like a des­per­ate an­i­mal? Up ahead, a pan­nier-bur­dened bi­cy­cle lies cum­ber­somely on its side on the stony track’s shoul­der, as if cast away in panic. Fur­ther down, a fig­ure kneels over the edge of a slack, shal­low creek. The mother of Aus­tralia’s salt lakes, Lake Eyre shim­mers away on the hori­zon through in­fi­nite stumpy salt­bush, a soli­tary stripe of un­tainted white­ness that would make a Hol­ly­wood den­tist sali­vate. I edge closer. “Need any­thing?” I ask, shak­ing my drink bot­tle, eye­brows raised. “Isn’t that salt water?” “Nah, this one’s not too salty!” he says res­o­lutely, from un­der his fly-net, lips so cracked that a sneeze would blow them clean off into his knotty, to­bac­costained white whiskers. “There’s al­ways fresh water around, if you know where,” he says abruptly, af­ter an un­com­fort­ably long pause. “Mate, I’ve been rid­ing out here for 25 years!” Word­lessly, he piv­ots and ghosts back to his bike, as if of­fended by the en­quiries. I ac­cel­er­ate away, to­wards Wil­liam Creek, which he would have passed through per­haps two days be­fore. His out­line dances in the dusty heat haze and grad­u­ally dwin­dles to noth­ing in my shud­der­ing rearview mir­ror. The im­age lodges into my con­scious­ness. Char­ter flights aside, there are far eas­ier means to reach the re­mote com­mu­nity of Wil­liam Creek than that cho­sen by this cy­cling mi­rage, but the path is sim­i­larly ad­ven­tur­ous. The in­scrutable town lies on the cusp of Lake Eyre (of­fi­cially known as Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre), 871 kilo­me­tres north of Ade­laide; up and over the Flin­ders Ranges, when as­phalt even­tu­ally gives over to the un­sealed Ood­na­datta Track. If the big sign at Mar­ree says ‘open’, only then are you free to roam into the realm of wild camels. Wil­liam Creek is a catch­ment of in­ter­ested and in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters, from out­back drifters and tena­cious grey no­mads to life-path-ques­tion­ing mer­chant bankers and ill-pre­pared Span­ish tourists, all with their own mo­tives for seek­ing the ir­re­sistible wide-open spa­ces of the South Aus­tralian out­back. Out this way, where sum­mer tem­per­a­tures nudge 50, life has its chal­lenges: peo­ple talk in hours in­stead of kilo­me­tres, self-suf­fi­ciency is not ne­go­tiable, and sup­plies should be or­dered weeks in ad­vance. The town’s base pop­u­la­tion used to os­cil­late be­tween four and five peo­ple plus an out­go­ing black dog. Trag­i­cally, the pooch suc­cumbed to a snake bite re­cently. In the cooler months, num­bers bal­loon to be­tween 20 and 25 peo­ple, when de­mand for flights over Lake Eyre is great­est and the out­back ‘traf­fic’ more pro­lific.

To­day, ‘the Creek’ is ba­si­cally the do­main of one man, Trevor Wright, who lit­er­ally landed here back in the early ’90s. “There were more peo­ple back in the ’80s, maybe 50 or 60, but a nat­u­ral at­tri­tion set in,” he says [grad­u­ally, af­ter the old Ghan line closed]. “Over time, I bought ev­ery­thing: the blocks of land first, then the houses. The last thing that you get is a ho­tel, a bit like Mo­nop­oly re­ally.” His­tor­i­cally, Wil­liam Creek suf­fered from a law­less, Ta­tooine-es­que rep­u­ta­tion, earn­ing it its ‘Dodge City’ nick­name. “It was the rab­biters ver­sus the fet­tlers [rail­way work­ers],” says Trevor. “Both were very big drinkers and their sense of pa­tience was se­verely lack­ing. They’d get drunk and try to shoot each other. The town has be­come a lit­tle bit more sub­dued over time.” The word ‘town’ seems a bit of an over­state­ment, the in­fra­struc­ture lit­tle more than a car­a­van park and cab­ins, a shop and petrol bowsers, plus a smat­ter­ing of sundry struc­tures that ra­di­ate away from one of Aus­tralia’s most fan­ci­ful ‘tin shed’ pubs. On the kitschrich (dirt) main street, a sin­gle park­ing me­ter blows a big wet rasp­berry to big-city pre­pos­ter­ous­ness. Rock­ets launched from Woomera rocket range last cen­tury have found their way to the me­mo­rial park, with its many-armed street sign an­nounc­ing that Mu­nich is just 14,235 kilo­me­tres away. Mo­bile phone cov­er­age is im­prov­ing, but call­ing home from the gold-coin­in­hal­ing so­lar-pow­ered public pay­phone is way cooler. Among the odd­i­ties lies a sub­tle, sober­ing com­mem­o­ra­tion to an Aus­trian woman who per­ished try­ing to walk back to town from a bogged ve­hi­cle at Lake Eyre. Her part­ner, who stayed with the ve­hi­cle, was res­cued. The town’s first and only de­fence against a blaze, Fire 1, is per­ma­nent street fur­ni­ture, parked across from the pub, like a lonely, home-made Tonka truck. “We’ve set a cou­ple of trucks alight for prac­tice, but our train­ing is not the best,” says Trevor, who lists un­of­fi­cial fire chief among his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, which also span tyre re­pairer, ditch-dig­ger and gar­bol­o­gist. Ul­ti­mately, Wil­liam Creek Ho­tel is the town’s acme. Here, the food is hearty and de­cent, the beer frosty, the cof­fee noth­ing to write home about; all bit play­ers next to the pub’s in­de­fin­able, inim­itable at­mos­phere; a po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect, non-con­form­ing cul­ture with a mind all of its own. The dry as the prover­bial ‘dead dingo’s donger’ in-jokes start at the front door, which has a han­dle on both sides (only one works: gotcha!). An abun­dance of Aus­traliana binds the struc­ture to­gether; mounted an­i­mal heads share the walls with in­fi­nite busi­ness cards, sig­na­tures and throw-away mus­ings from would-be bush philoso­phers. Fur­ther in­side, a friendly fire­place stands ready to com­bat the desert-evening chill. The din­ing room is fash­ioned from old Ghan rail­way sleep­ers (the Ood­na­datta ba­si­cally fol­lows the route). “We’re a mil­lion years ahead of the game in that way,” says Trevor. “If we have another ice age, we get the chain­saw, cut up the sleep­ers, and go for it [re­build the rail­way].”

The tech­ni­colour pal­ette soon suc­cumbs to white and blue. No longer can you trust your eyes: sky be­comes land, land be­comes sky, water vapour con­founds the two.

But it wasn’t sim­ply an out­back pub that coaxed pi­lot Trevor from his small north­ern Vic­to­ria home­town into the South Aus­tralian out­back. “I was fly­ing over and, I thought, Lake Eyre would be a great place for a scenic flight busi­ness. Al­though, the first two weeks were a dis­as­ter – just one flight.” More than a quar­ter of a cen­tury later, Trevor still gets as worked up as a kid be­fore a Minty hunt when he lifts off the airstrip. From town, he traces the trib­u­taries to­wards the un­mis­tak­able Great White. Flora flocks around the un­brack­ish water like fauna does around a wa­ter­ing hole. The out­back colours are de­li­cious; mochas, caramels, milky teas and mus­tards. In sea­son, wild hops glow a dis­tinc­tive red. Trevor has seen these de­ci­sive swirling pat­terns else­where. “If you look at old In­dige­nous art, you would swear they [the artists] could fly,” he says. The tech­ni­colour pal­ette soon suc­cumbs to white and blue. Even at 250 kilo­me­tres per hour, the plane feels like it has stalled. No longer can you trust your eyes: sky be­comes land, land be­comes sky, water vapour con­founds the two. The bat­tle for per­spec­tive is never won; the cloud re­flec­tions pure witch­craft. Down there, some­where, is the low­est point on the con­ti­nent, Belt Bay, 15 me­tres below sea level; to the north, the mighty Simp­son Desert. Most folk will never go near these on their life’s jour­ney. The glow­ing ex­panse seems in­ca­pable of host­ing life, un­til the plane cir­cles down a few hun­dred feet. A pair of emu prints trot off di­rectly into the sun, or so it seems. Pools of fresh water vac­uum in black swans and pel­i­cans from who-knows-where. Even barely half full, Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre is a be­witch­ing mas­ter­piece. Like Uluru, it plays dif­fer­ent shows at dif­fer­ent times of the day, trans­form­ing in colour and at­ti­tude from dawn to dusk. Yet many only want to see the lake when it’s ‘full’, which only hap­pens a few times in a gen­er­a­tion (1974 was the year, 2010/11 the best re­cently). “The mo­ment you have a lot of water, peo­ple from all over the world sud­denly want to come,” says Trevor. “We are like the farm­ers out here: we need rain too. You might get a run for a cou­ple of years and then go a decade with­out.” When the light soft­ens, the white turns a bluish hue, gift­ing Eyre a sea-like per­sona. Penin­su­las stand out like con­ti­nents, so it truly feels like you’re fly­ing across another world. As we leave this other-world and bank to­wards the airstrip, the plane’s tiny shadow passes over gi­ant let­ters scratched into the earth, SK (Kid­man), a brand that re­minds you the world’s largest work­ing cat­tle sta­tion, Anna Creek (24,000 kilo­me­tres), has tried to tame this land­scape. Wil­liam Creek feels even smaller now, like a few grains of salt that have bound to­gether against the out­back’s im­men­sity. Back on the Ood­na­datta Track, Coober Pedy bound, my rear pas­sen­ger-side tyre fizzes flat like a gas leak. No one drives past. I grab the jack and the spare, swig warm yet fresh water from my bot­tle, in­hale a breath of fresh air, and smile an un­en­cum­bered, sat­is­fied smile.

CLOCKWISE FROM THIS IM­AGE: A low pass over Lake Eyre re­veals glo­ri­ous de­tail and a sur­pris­ing wealth of flora and fauna; A fuel sta­tion for planes punc­tu­ates the flat land­scape; Pass­ing by wild camels along the Ood­na­datta Track . PRE­VI­OUS PAGE: Fly from Wil­liam Creek and trace the trib­u­taries to­wards Lake Eyre.

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