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; 7000 kilometres of it.
There was intense speculation of there being a vast inland lake or lakes in the centre of the Australian continent with a huge river – a Ganges, an Amazon, a Nile – connecting it to the coast. For Europeans the idea of a huge continent with no major rivers or lakes was inconceivable. Their experience was that large continents and mighty tracts of water went together.
Flinders was charged with sailing along the southern coast of Australia and finding the mighty river – and then sailing into the centre of the continent and mapping the inland sea.
He was in for a surprise and not the pleasant kind….
He sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and straight across the Indian Ocean, arriving at the southernmost point of Western Australia. From there he sailed eastwards hugging the coast all the way.
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.
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 (which he subsequently named it ‘Spencer’s Gulf’ after Lord Spencer, one of the patrons of Flinder’s voyage). At its commencement, where it opened to the cold, wild, dark blue waters of the Great Australian Bight, it was 130 kilometres wide. It was 320 kilometres long. But this enormous gulf eventually funnelled into a narrow point. At its head, the waters of Spencer’s Gulf were shallow and edged by mangrove swamps: an ignominious ending for such a massive body of water.
When Flinders sailed into ‘Spencer’s Gulf’ he thought – quite understandably – that he was entering the opening of an ‘extensive straight’ which would lead him into the heart of the Australian continent…..and the inland sea.
What Flinders found in Spencer’s Gulf was disappointment writ large. The further he advanced into the Gulf, the more sceptical he became, until he reached the head of the gulf where it ended before 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. The Flinders Ranges stood between him and the inland sea.
If only he had known the full story, the bitter reality.
Well, there was an inland sea, only not the kind any white European could appreciate, let alone value.
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.
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.
The largest of the salt lakes is named Lake Eyre. Covering an area of over 9000 square kilometres, Lake Eyre is one of the largest salt lakes in the world. Since ancient times, it has generally filled with water a few times every century. For the rest of the time, it’s a sun-blasted plain of shimmering white.
Sometimes, when the rains in the north are particularly heavy, water flows into Lake Eyre.
The water flows all the way from either Queensland or New South Wales through creek beds which are normally parchment dry – and it travels for hundreds of kilometres.
The dead salt lake fills to a depth of a metre or two – and bursts into life.
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.
When the water appears in the lake and fish spring to life, birds appear – thousands of them.
How do the birds know when there is water in the lake?
To this day no one knows. But the birds know – and they fly hundreds of kilometres into the centre of the Great Australian Nothing.
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.
And the birds fly back to the coast.
And it all happens within weeks.
The miracle of the inland sea appears and then vanishes, Cinderella-like into a relentless obscurity.