A PLAN TO FILL LAKE EYRE – HERALD MAGAZINE SECTION By MICHAEL SAWTELL
The huge, salt Lake Eyre lies in the centre of Australia—a challenge to us to use it. For several reasons we must investigate again the old theory of filling the lake from the sea.
Dr. Clunies Ross, chairman of the C.S.I.R.O., said in a recent lecture that the possibilities of making rain in the inland were “tremendous.”
Ritchie Calder, in his book, “Men Against The Desert,” tells what UNESCO is doing to re- claim the Sahara and other deserts in the Middle East and Palestine.
The late Sir Richard Baker, a former President of the Federal Senate and President of the South Australian Legislative Council, for a number of years took an active interest in the project of filling Lake Eyre from the sea. Sir Richard began his investigations as far back as 1883, and in 1905 said that the scheme was not practicable. But that was nearly 50 years ago. New facts have come to light. Army aerial surveys in conjunction with many ground surveys have increased enormously our topographical knowledge off the Lake Eyre Basin.
We now know that Lake Eyre is 39 feet below sea level, and that when a plane skims over the lake it is flying below sea sea level. The lake covers about 4,000 square miles of country, and about 10,000 square miles of the surrounding country are below sea level. Much of the railway line from Marree to Oodnadatta is below sea level. Port Augusta, 200 miles to the south, is 8ft above sea level, so it might seem that, with modern mechanisation, we could easily cut a channel from Port Augusta and let the sea in to flood the Lake Eyre area.
The intervening country is the great difficulty. The pioneers of the scheme thought that the intervening Lake Torrens, of about 2,230 square miles, whose southern tip is only 35 miles north of Port Augusta, was below sea level. They thought that it was only necessary to flood Lake Torrens, then cut another channel for 60 miles, and let the Lake Torrens water into Lake Eyre. But we now know that the bed of Lake Torrens is about 100 feet above sea level.
ENGINEERS say that, because of the high rate of evaporation – about 100 inches a year a channel at least 200 miles long, 12 feet deep, and more than a mile wide, would be needed tofill Lake Eyre from the sea at
Port Augusta. They do not know if it is possible to cut a channel.
MR. MICHEAL SAWTELL, who is aged 71 years and one of Australia’s best known bushmen, is planning another expedition to the inland – his “annual walk-about.”
He wants to travel from Oodnadatta in South Australia to Nappermerrie— a trip of more than 250 miles which skirts thenorthern end of the Lake Eyre basin.
Mr. Sawtell asked Mr. Ted Pratt, of Adelaide, manager for Kidman Estates, about the trip and received this reply in language every inlander understands and graphically descriptive of the country :
“The only ways of crossing that strip of country are by horse or camel, or by plane. There are some terrific sand- hills from Cowrie to the Macumba Creek crossing. It is hard to cross on horseback. Only certain crossings can be accomplished by motor transport, as the sandhills are badly drifted up. They are practically perpendicular, and it is impossible for miles to ride a horse either up or down them. As regards following the Warburton and getting round the points of these sandhills, they have drifted right into the channel, and this river will be running from the heavy floods up top. Personally I would not take it on with motor transport, even if they gave me the station. I would certainly advise you to keep out of it. You could go from Cowrie to the Haddon Corner by car or jeep, and go from there off to the Birdsville Trackto Mirramitta. From there you could proceed up the Diamantina and across from Miranda to Caldergo, then back to Haddon Corner, through the mud of Lake Torrens, or if they would strike rock at the top end of the FlindersRange, which is about 120 feet above sea level.”
Why do we want to flood Lake Eyre? We need to fill the lake to increase or stabilise the rainfall. The inland is dry paradoxically because it is dry. When there is no water in Lake Eyre, the evaporation cannot make rain clouds, but with a large surface of water, the evaporation would make rain clouds.
One of the characteristics of a drought is that every day, the great black rain clouds bank up, and although a deluge seems imminent, the prevailing winds from the west blow the clouds away. Then it is that modern science could do something to make those clouds burst into rain. Trees and surface water will most certainly improve the rain- fall and, reclaim the desert, now fighting the Sahara on a 10,000-mile front, by planting in many places our Australian eucalyptus trees.
IF at present the flooding of Lake Eyre from the sea is not practicable, we will have to cosider the alternative proposals of the late Dr. J. J. C. Bradfield, and also of Mr. I. L. Idriess, in his book, “The Great Boomerang,” and learn how to use the vast floods of water that pour down from a huge river basin, before they run to waste into Lake Eyre. The Lake Eyre river basin is the largest in Australia, for it comprises well over half a million square miles of country,including much of the Northern Territory, South Australia, and Queensland. The town of Alice Springs is on the Lake Eyre watershed.
My knowledge of the Lake Eyre Basin goes back to 1900, when I was a drover’s boy for the cattle king Kidman. I have often been with fat cattle from the famous Channel country, down the east side of Lake Eyre
to Hergott Springs, now called Marree. In those days we used to take cattle 80 and 90 miles without a drink. A stage of 120 miles is the record. I have often sat around the camp fire at night and listened to the old drovers talk about the country.
In my day, we had the forum of the camp fire, but now the drovers have wireless and listen to the Forum of the Air. I have talked to those families, the Scobies, the Crombies and others who have lived around the
lake for 70 years or so. IN 1950 I went up with big Tom Kruse, the famous mail-man, the year of the record filling of Lake Eyre. On that trip I saw the Cooper three miles wide with floodwaters. It took us three days to unload the 10 tons of beer that Tom Kruse had on his mail truck for the Birdsville Hotel. We had to unload the mail truck into a miserable little motor punt that would carry only 30cwt. at a time.
The sky was filled with sea-gulls, pigmy geese, all kinds of ducks and pelicans.
The aborigines told me that the river was teeming with fish. Out over the sandhills and “gibber” downs roamed great herds of wild donkeys, wild camels, brumbies, millions of kangaroos, wild dogs and a plague of rats. The whole country was a blaze of colours from the wild flowers. You have never seen wild flowers till you have seen the so called “Dead Heart” in a good season.