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Sailing Lake Eyre stopped by National Parks

by Nancy Knudsen on 15 Feb 2011
Water heading for Lake Eyre SW
Even though the current inflow into Lake Eyre means that there'll be plenty of water for sailing in 2011, there's a risk that the Lake Eyre Yacht Club won't be able to sail this year, or maybe ever.

Leisure sailors fly in from all over Australia and even from overseas for the opportunity of sailing in one of the most unusual yacht clubs in the world, and 2011 could be unusual because it would be the second year in a row that sailors can zoom their catamarans across the famous lake.

So what's the problem? According to the Commodore of the Yacht Club, Bob Backway, the National Parks and Wildlife Service is refusing to give permission to sail on the lake until the native title claimants have given their permission.

'We were planning an informal gathering on the Lake around Easter,' says long time Commodore Bob, 'and another regatta at Lake Killamperpunna in July, as it would be easy to repeat and we all had such a great time in 2010.

'Believe it or not, even though Etadunna (Station) are quite happy to have us return to Killamperpunna, the Aboriginal Heritage Department are threatening to take action against us sailing on any waterway in the Lake Eyre Basin.'

2011 promises to be a bonanza year, with the Lake expected to reach a level comparable with or slightly higher than the level in 2000, but that won't help if the South Australian Government removes the Yacht Club's right to access and boat on the waterway once it is navigable.

'Unfortunately,' says Commodore Backway, 'We cannot match the free legal services the complainants have at their disposal... and... realistically speaking the only way to boat on Lake Eyre this year will be by committing an illegal act - and given the anger in our membership this may happen.'

If that weren't enough, there's more trouble at the south end of the Lake. Backway explains, 'In addition the Station Manager of Stuart Creek, a BHP owned property, has cut access to Lake Eyre South in response to pressure from the native title claimants. This access track, has been used since the year dot, by locals and those in the know to access Lake Eyre South in an area of firm beach with water only 30m from the National Park boundary. It has never been formalised as a public access track because it is only a few kilometres off the Oodnadatta Track and had never caused problems.

Backway maintains that the sailors in the yacht club 'recreate in the National Park (of Lake Eyre) in an environmentally sustainable way,' and therefore should be given permission to sail.

The Lake Eyre Phenomenon:

Sailing on Lake Eyre usually has to be preceded by flooding in Queensland, and the water takes an amazing seven week journey to reach the Lake. The experience of being there to see the flood waters and even more to sail on the salty water is what makes people travel so far to be there.

The sight of headwaters rushing down Warburton River, which is 300-400 metres wide in some places and into Lake Eyre, seven weeks after flooding begins at Camooweal in northwest Queensland, is a marvel few people have witnessed firsthand.

So salty is the Lake Eyre basin that even when the water reaches a metre deep it remains thick and heavy, and it still crystallizes around anything that breaks the surface.

And when the floods come, the shimmering pink hue spreads far into the distance, engulfing thousands of square kilometres in South Australia's north and bringing life to the normally parched, barren landscape. Up to 50 species of bird will head for the lake to breed, as well as insects, invertebrates, frogs, crustaceans and fish.

'It's just so different to sailing anywhere else in the world,' Backway says. 'With shallow floods you tend to be becalmed when you're out in the middle of the lake. There's a weird effect that happens. The prevailing winds tend to be south-easterlies. But the evaporation from the lake is so great, that you get an updraft and the wind is actually deflected up and over it. It's like a bubble in the middle of the lake, where everything is still.'

With stronger winds, the effect is lost but Backway says even then the biggest waves are only 200mm high. 'That's because the water is like oil, very heavy because of the salt,' he says. 'The pink bacteria that live in the lake also produce glycerine ... it's like sailing in pink oil, that's what you feel like you're doing.'

Located about 700km north of Adelaide, what is commonly known as Lake Eyre is actually made up of two lakes, the largest 144km long and 77km wide. The lakes were named after Edward Eyre, the first European to see them in 1860. Only a handful of times since then has it filled to capacity, the last in the 1970s.

Currently the Lake Eyre Yacht Club has about 150 paid-up members with some, almost unbelievably, coming from as far away as Scotland and the United States. Most sail catamarans, the shallow waters causing difficulties for any craft that needs a keel. But on occasions, like in 1984 and `89, water levels have exceeded four metres. Backway recalls some taking larger yachts onto the lake and organising races in the 1970s, especially when water levels peaked in 1974 at 5.7 metres.

But it might be an experience merely to be nostalgic about, if sailing is not to be allowed in the future.

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