Switches were flicked, buttons pressed, and dials rotated, as I watched the pilot, Ali, do his thing, before a final thumbs up was given to the passengers. The throttle eased forward and next thing we were bouncing along the tarmac of the Marree International Airport. With the wheels off the deck, things got decidedly smoother. It was time to focus my attention, on the landscape below me, for I was in the process of ticking one of the things off my bucket list — a flight over Lake Eyre!
Back in 2011, after devastating flooding in Queensland, the waters finally made their way south and filled Lake Eyre to its highest level since 1974. I remember seeing it on the news and thinking that I would love to see it in flood. So, that is when a trip to Lake Eyre, in particular a flight over it, was put on my bucket list. Back in those days, I wasn't even a photographer!
Fast forward eight years, and after a run down the Birdsville Track, I find myself out the front of the historic Marree Hotel. Not only does this place serve ice-cold Coopers off tap and one of the best pub burgers I've ever had the pleasure of wrapping my laughing gear around, it also serves as a booking agent for scenic flights out of Marree. So before a visit to the public bar to sample those aforementioned delights, I checked out what flights were available over the next couple of days.
GETTING IT BOOKED
Back in Brisbane, when the planning for this trip was being undertaken, I'd already done my research to work out which flight I wanted to go on. The two-and-a-b–it hour flight was the one for me, and as luck would have it, there were seats available for the flight tomorrow afternoon. Money was exchanged, details relayed, and directions were given. My face was also beginning to hurt as I was grinning from ear to ear. I just needed to be down at the airport by 2.30pm.
As has become customary on our outback wanderings, we snuck next door to the public bar to wash away some of the dust from the morning's drive. While propped at the bar, my heart skipped a beat and I let out an audible gasp.
I had noticed that the clock above the bar wasn't telling the same time as the one wrapped around my wrist. Then it dawned on me. We were in South Australia and in a different time zone to Queensland! This could have had catastrophic repercussions if I turned up late for my flight tomorrow. On explaining my predicament to my wife, we worked out that if we just left our watches on Queensland time, then there wouldn't be any problems because South Australia was behind us. With that disaster averted, we finished our beers and got back in the ute bound for Muloorina Station.
Now, I know this story is meant to be about Lake Eyre, but seriously, if you are ever in this neck of the woods, be like Molly and do yourself a favour and get out to Muloorina Station for at least one night. It's only 50km from Marree and well worth the drive. Make camp beside the waterhole and enjoy a dip in the heated artesian pool. From Muloorina, it's 40 odd kilometres out to Level Post Bay, and one of only a couple of places where you can drive to the edge of the lake. Here's a tip, do the trip out late in the afternoon and enjoy watching the sun slip below the salt encrusted surface before heading back to camp.
After an early start and cracking sunrise over the waterhole, we had a pretty easy morning before making our way back to Marree and the hotel. It was getting pretty close to lunchtime and one of the famous Marree Hotel Works Burgers had my name on it. I wish I had taken a photo of said burger, but when it arrived, I wasn't going to waste any time in destroying it, so I guess you'll just have to take my word for how good it was. Besides, using your mobile phone in the public bar will incur the wrath of the barman, and your wallet will get a little bit lighter thanks to the donation you just made to the RFDS.
Before long, it was time to have a couple of Kwells (yes, I suffer from motion sickness in small planes and choppers, but that was never going to stop me!) and make sure my lenses were clean, memory cards were empty, and batteries were full.
Following the directions we were given the day before (keep on going down past the pub then take a right), barely a minute later we had arrived at the Marree International Airport. If you are expecting a fancy check-in area and frequent flyer lounge, you are going to be severely disappointed. But on the plus side, you can park a metre from the runway and won't be subjected to stringent security measures.
There's no long lines or formal check-in process either. Instead, the pilot will do a roll call for passengers, similar to what we all experienced back in school, before making your way out on to the tarmac. It was at this point that Ali, our pilot, let me know that I would be flying up front next to him in the co-pilots seat. If I thought that my smile couldn't get any bigger, I was wrong. Seriously, I must have looked like the Joker!
After being strapped in, it wasn't long before we were wheels up and heading towards our first point of interest, Marree Man. If you've never heard about Marree Man before, do a little Google search. It's an interesting read.
From the Marree Man, we started north, first over Lake Eyre South, which unfortunately didn't see any inflows from this latest rain event, before crossing from desert and dunes to the salt pans of Jackboot Bay in Lake Eyre North. It was at this point we could start to see water glimmering in the afternoon sun and my excitement levels went up another couple of notches. The sound of my shutter going off must have made the pilot glad he was wearing his headphones!
As we exited Jackboot Bay, another bunch of sightseers on a flight from William Creek came into view. After a bit of chatter between the two pilots, and some encouragement from myself, there was a couple of aerial manoeuvres and a fly-by or two. I thought I was Goose, and we were hot on the heels of Viper.
But I digress. Giving up on our pursuit of Viper, we picked up the Goyder Channel and followed this to the northern extremity of the lake and the mouth of the Warburton River. The majority of the water flowed down the Diamantina, which becomes the Warburton, before finally entering the lake. Ali explained that the water fills the lake like filling a glass. It flows down the Goyder Channel, all the way to the south at Belt Bay, before then spreading out and filling up the rest of the lake. At its peak, it was estimated that this flood filled the lake to approximately 70 per cent. By the time I flew over the lake, you could already see where the water had receded from.
We followed the water up the Warburton River for around 30km, as it was here that there was the greatest concentration of birdlife. Great flocks of pelicans that would have easily numbered in the thousands were huddled together on the exposed sand spits, while spoonbills, cormorants and various raptors added to the spectacle. As a bonus, we flew over a section of water that was home to around twenty black swans.
After our birdwatching exploits, it was time to turn south and head back towards Marree. We tracked along the eastern edge of the lake, at the extremities of where the water had reached, which created some of the most amazing patterns and colours in the surface of the lake below.
We flew across Madigan Gulf as the sun started to get lower in the sky, casting a golden glow across the landscape, while revealing even more textures and enticing another frenzied burst from my very well used shutter button. Our last glimpse of Lake Eyre was as we crossed back into the dune fields at Level Post Bay, before taking a slight detour over the homestead at Muloorina Station.
A little over two hours after we had taken off from Marree International, we started our descent and touched down just minutes before the sun slipped away for another day. As I unclipped from my harness before making my way across the tarmac, it started to sink in just how awesome that experience was. Back in 2011, when I first put a flight over Lake Eyre on my bucket list, not even I could imagine just how good it would be. Lake Eyre had just delivered well beyond my wildest expectations, and one day, I'll do it again!