Existing Member?

We didn't 'Planet'! One camper van. Two blokes. Four weeks. What could go wrong?

The final a-salt

AUSTRALIA | Tuesday, 3 April 2007 | Views [2689] | Comments [2]

NEW MOVIE! Took a wee while to get uploaded, but here it is!

“With a full tank of gas, water replenished and good information obtained, we headed up the Madigan track with the aim of reaching the Muloorina waterhole. A sleep there would put us in a great position for an early morning assault on our objective – Lake Eyre”.

That was the final line in our last blog, and it was almost accurate apart from the “good information obtained” bit. So far on this trip we have relied on local information much to plan ahead, but I have to say it has always depended on who you speak with, how much beer they have inside them and probably what phase the moon is in at the time. Regardless, we have got away with things so far without mishap. However, the landlord of the Marree Hotel advised, “ah yeah, she’s a good track that one, no worries getting there”. As it would turn out, we seem to have a very different understanding of what a good road should be. If you want my opinion, and you are going to get it anyway, he could not have got things more wrong if he had told us there was a casino with dancing girls at the end.

I know I keep on saying this, but our surroundings do keep getting emptier all the time. I have kind of run myself into a corner now though, as the horizon on this drive was completely empty. Therefore, we have reached the end of this particular descriptive prose. The huge sky merged with an unbroken horizon, the only interruption to visibility being the heat shimmer. Distances are easily misjudged under these conditions, and the eyes really do play tricks on the mind. We passed through the Great Australian Dog Fence. There is more to write about this, but I don’t want to digress now or we may get stuck in the sand. I ought to tell you that it is “The longest man-made object in the world”, as people around here keep reminding us. I’ll need to do a bit more digging around before reporting back; because I have a sneaking suspicion the Great Wall of China will be a close contender. That aside, the huge stone ramparts of the wall have to rate slightly higher in the “great achievement stakes” than a rickety old wire fence. Bugger, I digressed anyway.

Reaching the Muloorina camp was simple enough. The waterhole was a fly infested puddle of stagnant water, and with only 50km to the revered lake (which has now become our holy grail), we decided to push on and camp there the night. From here, events took a turn for the worse. According to a visitor book we found at the camp, the last vehicle to follow the dead-end route was two weeks ago. We followed their faint tracks faithfully, having to occasionally skirt around a wet hole created by recent rains. Initially the surface was the usual baked hard grit. It was mid-afternoon, so we had four hours to cover the short distance.

It may be prudent of us to mention Travellers Autobarn (TAB), one of the main sponsors of this project. The Australian owned company has offices in almost every city and are specialists in vehicles for independent travellers. Selling your wheels when you leave the country can, at times, be a headache. Plenty of folk end up letting theirs go for peanuts, simply because they have a flight out and have no other option. TAB runs a great buy-back scheme, a guaranteed price for your vehicle at the end of your trip. And the best bit? You are not tied to this at all – if you can manage to sell your wheels for a better price, there is nothing stopping you! Personally, our only concern is getting the vehicle back in one piece. This will be undoubtedly made easier by the fact that she is running like a dream. We have now covered close to 5000km without a single problem – testament to their rigorous maintenance procedures. A well maintained vehicle can be the difference between a good day and a very bad one in this part of the country. What I am trying to say, is we love the guys at TAB very much right now, even if they may not like us too much.

Cruising along at a sensible speed, chatting and generally content that our goal was near, the Ambassador van slowed suddenly as it hit a wet spot. Quick reactions got us out and onto the hard surface, before momentum was lost. A closer look at the surface revealed waterlogged mud with a hard-baked surface that was difficult to notice when walking, let alone driving. So this is what we are up against, is it? What was a short final journey was now looking like a bit of a worry; we’d have to drive steady and keep our eyes peeled from now on.


Like us, it may have crossed your mind? Well, firstly it was a case of geography. We are obliged to return the Ambassador van to Sydney after a month (hmm… not looking so good just now). We have both travelled the south and east before, and getting to the far west or north would be nothing short of impossible in the time available. That left a big chunk of western NSW and outback SA to choose from. Lake Eyre seemed like a sizeable enough feature, and then we learned it was actually beginning to fill after rains further north. This is an event that only occurs every eight years on average. What better reason did we need?

Still following the ever so faint marks from a previous vehicle, we picked our way along. Occasionally the track became deep ruts that somebody had powered through and would have been mud just days ago, but have now dried. About fifteen kilometres in, we approached an oasis; literally an area of sand dunes with green vegetation. The track had long waterlogged sections, and the wheel marks we had been following promptly ceased. From the ends of those marks, we followed footprints around in a rough circle that brought us back to the start. Obviously, this visitor had had the good sense to give up. Under the circumstances, I think it is reasonable to say that any normal, intelligent person would do the same.

Walking through the oasis, Matt and I cast around to find firmer ground and a possible way through. We tested for firmness using our heels, and marked a route on the scorched surface with a stick. It seemed to us that the standing water from recent rains had mostly withdrawn to sporadic low lying parts of the track. Like a couple of rally drivers in slow motion, we negotiated our way, following the marks with matt keeping a careful watch while calling out directions. On the other side, we triumphantly drove on; a few kilometres further the scenario repeated itself.

Time was getting on, and by now we had negotiated our way through five such areas. We had to ask ourselves how much longer we could do this before our luck was to run out; it would be a long trip at this pace. It is moments like this you really appreciate having a like minded travel buddy; if I was alone I would have surely given up at this point. Our collective confidence urged us on, one more time.

Not just another lake.

Lake Eyre is the lowest point in Australia, lying fifteen metres below sea level. It is and extensive salt sink, covering an area of 8430 sq km, and derives its mineralisation from the evaporation of floodwaters over countless years. Each time it floods, the salt crust begins to dissolve until the salt level in the water reaches saturation point. When the lake initially fills, the surface water is fresh and drinkable because the heavier saltwater lies on the bottom. From the air, water salinity variations can be seen as remarkable swirling current patterns. The main river systems which feed it include the inland systems of the Diamantina/Warburton, the Thomson/Barcoo and Cooper, the Georgina/Eyre Creek, the Peake, Neales, Macumba and Hamilton Rivers. Collectively, they drain roughly one fifth of the entire country. Think about that! Though the lake receives some water on average every eight years, it has only filled to capacity three times in the last 150 yrs, making about four metres in depth. During this time the lake, roughly the size of Holland, comes alive with a profusion of flora and fauna. Water birds travel thousands of kilometres, somehow knowing the lake has filled. The normally barren landscape explodes with plant and insect life as they race to complete their life-cycles. The waters fill with easy pickings of fish washed down the river systems, and species endemic to Lake Eyre such as the Brine Shrimp, Eyre Dragon, Skinks and more go bonkers.

On a slightly more eccentric side, The Lake Eyre Yacht Club, with its own clubhouse back in Marree, awaits the fill so they can take the boats out for a rare sail!


Clearing the fifth oasis, the road improved beyond measure and we were able to keep moving. Just 12km short of the lake, the road gently climbed and disappeared into a drift of fine sand. It was too late to stop without instantly getting bogged, and again with luck our momentum carried us through. This was starting to get ridiculous. This is a dead-end track with absolutely no passing traffic. The nearest farm is 50km away. On the plus side, we had plenty of supplies that could be made to last a long time, ample experience in the great outdoors and almost a whole brain between us. More to the point, there was nothing we could do about this tonight other than drive on and reach our objective.

The final fifty metres of the track gently climbs, and at the top opens into a small area of sand dune just large enough to turn a vehicle. We were finally rewarded with the view we had been looking for – the salty expanse of Lake Eyre, as far as the eye can see. So excited was I, that I drove a little too far forward and promptly sunk into the sand. It didn’t matter – we had reached the lake in time for sundown, and along with the flies, we fully intended to walk out onto the white plain.

Personally, the fact that the lake is currently filling was a bit of an inconvenience. The water is trying to hijack the story. There are plenty of lakes to go and look at, but I have never stood on a salt plain before; so I am quite content that the wet stuff has not reach this far down yet. Donald Campbell set a land speed record here in the 1960’s, but all thoughts of cranking the van up to a decent speed on its surface were quickly dispelled. Under the crust, our feet sank two inches – the result of recent rain. More to the point, it is actually against park rules to drive any vehicle on the surface (unless you go by the name of D Campbell). The weirdest part of a stroll along the salt lake is the compelling desire to keep walking. It is billiard table-flat, and just like the outback landscape, the horizon seems close and there is an urge to “see what is over the other side” – something that was the undoing of more than one bunch of explorers. Luckily for us, and you also I suppose, it is an urge we managed to suppress. The decision was reached with the help of a cloud of attentive flies, two empty bellies and a sun fast heading towards Europe or wherever it goes when Australia sleeps.

Lake Eyre was our most isolated camp yet, and I spent the night worrying about use of lights in case we flattened the battery. Matt pointed out that we have always used lights, computer, radio to name a few, and never had problems. Somehow, I just feel that if a battery is going to pack up, it will be now. When not turning off lights, I fretted about getting over that sand drift in the morning, and started making calculations on making our supplies last and reaching the nearest station. If I knew how to find Witchetty Grubs, or even what they looked like, I’d have been out gathering the things. Matt, a Kiwi to the core, again pointed out that we were here anyway and worrying about it won’t change a thing. Fair enough. I drifted into sleep with a clear view of the Milkyway and absolute silence.

The following morning we ate breakfast with the flies and examined prints in the sand around our van. We had seen a few large spiders last night, drawn by our light, but since then we had been visited by the Fox and a Dingo. There was time to take another walk on the lake. In spite of the scorching temperature, it reminded me of the Gobi desert in Mongolia or Lake Baikal in Siberia, but the crunching underfoot was salt and not ice. If I wasn’t wearing shorts in the photo’s, I could seriously pass off these pics as being in those places, I thought. We collected salt as a gift for the guys back at WorldNomads HQ (how kind are we)? Putting a bit aside, a couple of Tequila Slammers with Eyre Salt are on order when we reach civilization.

And the drive out of there? Well, you’ll just have to watch the attached movie!

Tags: ambassador van, misadventures



Dude - you guys are crazy. How did you get that van through the sand? Been great following the trip, movies really are awesome.

Keep it going!

  ben Apr 20, 2007 8:20 AM


slm millett nasılsınız çok yakında yepyeni 2007 mix lerim
sizlerle olacak

  djsting Apr 22, 2007 10:17 PM

Add your comments

(If you have a travel question, get your Answers here)

In order to avoid spam on these blogs, please enter the code you see in the image. Comments identified as spam will be deleted.



Travel Answers about Australia

Do you have a travel question? Ask other World Nomads.