In 1802 a ship called ‘The Investigator’ captained by a young man named Mathew Flinders left England on its way to Australia.
Flinders was assigned with a special mission: to find out what Australia was.
No one knew.
All was speculation.
No one had ever circumnavigated Australia.
A hundred years before, the Dutch had mapped the long western coast of Australia. James Cook had mapped much of the eastern coast.
But there were still many bits of the puzzle to be filled in, the major one being the enormously long southern coast stretching from the tip of present day Western Australia to Melbourne: 2000 miles of unknown coast.
The reigning theory at the time was that Australia (or as it was then known, New Holland), consisted of two big islands divided by what was termed an ‘extensive straight’. Either that or there was a huge river – a Ganges, an Amazon, a Nile – which connected up to an inland lake.
For nineteenth century Europeans, the notion of a land as big as Australia with no major rivers or lakes, no water, was beyond their frame of reference. The experience of the Europeans in the other parts of the world – India, Indonesia, Africa and the Americas – supported the idea that big continents and big tracts of water went together.
It never occurred to anyone that Australia might be one big land mass and have no rivers and no lakes and no ‘inland sea’. It was as unbelievable as the existence of such Australian animals as the platypus and the wombat, the kangaroo and the koala bear.
When The Investigator left England, Flinders was charged with proceeding to the southern coast of Australia and finding the ‘extensive straight’.
Mathew Flinders was a James Cook in the making. He was a brilliant sailor and navigator. It goes without saying that he was very ambitious; if he hadn’t have been, he would never have got to where he was, given his lowly birth. All in all, it can be said that he deserved something altogether better than the hand which Fate ultimately dealt him.
Flinders sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and straight across the Indian Ocean, arriving at the southern-most point of Western Australia. From there he sailed eastwards hugging the coast all the way in order to map it accurately.
And what a coast it was!
The Great Australian Bight, that magnificent ellipse, is home to some of the most unpredictable and violent waters in the world. Huge cold swells pump up from the Antarctic and crash into towering cliffs – 1100 kilometres of them.
Flinders didn’t know of course, just how far the Bight went.
As the Investigator sailed adjacent to the cliffs and the days passed – one after the other – Flinders hypothesized that behind the cliffs was a large inland ocean or lake.
If only he had known.
Above those cliffs was an endless desert.
The Great Australian Bight comes to an end when it reaches the first of two deep gulfs which cut deep into the Australian continent like two slices taken out of a pizza. Today they form the distinctive contour of the coast of South Australia.
Flinders entered the first of the two gulfs. He subsequently named it ‘Spencer’s Gulf’ (after Lord Spencer, one of the patrons of Flinder’s voyage)
By any standards, Spencer’s Gulf is enormous.
At its commencement, where it opens to the cold, wild, dark blue waters of the Great Australian Bight, it is 130 kilometres wide. It is 320 kilometres long.
But this enormous gulf, with its very wide opening, eventually funnels into a narrow point. At its head, the waters of Spencer’s Gulf are shallow and edged by mangrove swamps: an ignominious ending for such a massive body of water.
In March 1803 when Flinders sailed into ‘Spencer’s Gulf’ he thought – quite understandably – that he was entering the beginning of the ‘extensive straight’ which divided the Australian continent – or failing that, the mouth of a mighty river. He thought that his time had come: that he was on the point of making a great discovery, one which would ensure that he would be remembered for posterity. After a dazzling career and a meteoric rise through the ranks, the young, ambitious Flinders was full of hope and expectation.
What lay ahead?
What kind of miraculous sights?
What Flinders found in Spencer’s Gulf was disappointment writ large. The further he advanced into the Gulf, the more sceptical he became. His hopes of entering that ‘extensive straight’ were
‘..considerably damped by the want of boldness in the shores, and the shallowness of the water; neither of which seemed to belong to a channel capable of leading us into the Gulph of Carpentaria, nor yet to any great distance inland.’
A day later he wrote in his diary:
‘Our prospect of a channel or straight, cutting off some considerable portion of Terra Australis, was lost, for it now appeared that the ship was entered into a Gulph..’
And then at the head of the gulf came the ultimate denouement: he sighted a ‘chain of rugged mountains’.
The ‘chain of rugged mountains’ was subsequently named after Flinders and became ‘The Flinders Ranges’.
Whether Flinders would have been so pleased with this ‘honour’ is doubtful. Their ‘discovery’ represented the biggest defeat of his career. If Spencer’s Gulf had indeed lead into a giant inland sea or divided the Australian continent into two halves, Flinders would have been remembered as one of the greatest explorers of all time. Instead he vanished into the pages of history, an ignominious failure, leastways as far as the British were concerned.
Flinders became a pioneer in a way he never bargained on.
He was one of the first but certainly not the last European explorers to come to Australia with high hopes of finding an inland sea – only to return to Europe physically and mentally broken.
From the end of Spencer’s Gulf, the Flinders Ranges swings to the north and runs vein-like into Central Australia: one of the driest, hottest, and most inhospitable regions on the planet.
As it makes it way deep into this end-of- the- world land, the Flinders Ranges ceases to be a continuous range but rather, becomes a series of reptilian like spines, rising and falling, with large open corridors land between them.
The further north one goes, the more lunar in appearance the Flinders Ranges becomes until it dwindles away into nothing.
Yet there is an inland sea out there, only not the kind that any English person was capable of imagining.
Some 400 kilometres from where Flinders first sighted the ‘chain of rugged mountains’ the Flinders Ranges peters out before a garland of four huge dry, shimmering salt lakes. These lakes are below sea level and in the course of thousands of years, have functioned as massive collecting trays for the run-offs from creeks during the times when substantial rains have fallen. The lakes have been formed by water running there and evaporating, leaving behind a layer of salt which built up over the aeons.
The largest of the salt lakes is named Lake Eyre. Covering an area of over 8000 square kilometres, Lake Eyre is the largest salt lake in the world. Since ancient times, it has generally filled with water a few times every century. For the rest of the time, its a sun-blasted white ‘ghost of a lake’.
In 1939 the explorer Cecil Madigan wrote about Lake Eyre:
‘All who have travelled there have felt this haunting sense of desolation and death….it’s like entering a vast tomb; one hesitates to break the silence. The rivers are dead, the trees are dead…but overshadowing all in the qualities of death is the very heart of the region, the great lake itself, a horrible travesty, a vast white prostrate ghost of a lake. Here time seems to have stood still for ages and all is dead…’
In recent years, Lake Eyre has been filling with water more often – ironically, due to Global climate change.
Every summer (November – February), the Australian continent experiences two climatic zones. In the north, there is a monsoon and heavy rains; in the south there are soaring temperatures, droughts and bushfires. North, wet, South dry; North floods; South; fires.
Thanks to global climate change, this cycle has become extreme.
The bush fires in the south have been devastating – and the rains in the North equally so: lives lost, homes lost, billions of dollars of damage thanks to fires – and rain.
Half the country is flooded, the other half on fire.
When the rains in the north are particularly heavy, water flows into Lake Eyre. The water can flow either all the way from Queensland and New South Wales through creek beds which are normally parchment dry – it travels for hundreds of kilometres. Or it can flow from regional catchment areas.
Thanks to global climate change, Lake Eyre is filling more frequently than ever before: in the last decade, it has filled four times. 8000 square kilometres of dry, dead, salt lake has filled to a depth of several meters.
When water appears in Lake Eyre, Cecil Madison’s lake of death becomes a lake of life.
The dry, dead salt desert metamorphoses into its antithesis: a place of wonder, of miracles and mysteries.
Fish which have laid their eggs in the salt, suddenly spawn to life. Those eggs can survive for decades in the blasting heat (between 40 -50 degrees in summer) and the freezing cold (near zero in the winters).
When the water appears, the eggs trigger into fish and for a month or so, the fish swarm and reproduce and lay their eggs before the precious water evaporates in the furnace- like heat.
When the water appears in the lake and fish spring to life, the birds appear – thousands of them.
To this day no one has worked it out.
How do the birds know when there is water in the lake?
They know – and they fly hundreds of kilometres into the centre of the Great Australian Nothing.
(The scientists are working on it: at the moment the theory is that the birds are acutely sensitive to changes in barometric pressure).
Flooded, Lake Eyre’s waters have a salinity level similar to the sea. As they evaporate, the salinity rises, the waters turn pink, and there is a massive fish die-off.
When the lake of death suddenly turns Cinderella-like into the Lake of Life, the birds flock there – and so do the tourists.
These are strange times we are living in. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not in favour of global climate change. I think it’s by far the biggest problem facing us today. Yet because of it, we can witness a miracle unfolding in the midst of the most formidable desert in the world.
A lake of death metamorphoses into a lake of life and the birds fly north.
The mirage called the inland sea appears and later, vanishes.