Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
Pelicans enjoying the flood water that has filled Lake Eyre in the heart of Australia.
S Reed/Newspix / Rex Features
Pelicans enjoying the flood water that has filled Lake Eyre in the heart of Australia.

Rare water in vast Australian lake sparks row between boaters and locals

Lake Eyre, which fills only a couple of times a century, offers a unique challenge to sailors - but the local Aboriginal people say the lake is sacred and yachting in the desert is sacrilege

SYDNEY // Lake Eyre, where Donald Campbell set a land speed record in 1964, fills with water only a couple of times a century. This year, thanks to the Queensland floods, is one of those occasions - and among those drawn to the lake are Australia's most unconventional sailors.

In a country with 60,000 kilometres of coastline, members of the Lake Eyre Yacht Club hanker above all to sail in the desert. "It's so different from anywhere else," says the club's commodore, Bob Backaway. "You're sailing in a completely alien landscape. The creatures around you are different, the view is different, and you experience some very unusual effects."

However, Australia's largest lake, which sprawls across a large area of South Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales, is also a special place for the local Arabunna people. They regard sailing there as sacrilegious, and they are concerned about its effect on Lake Eyre's delicate ecosystems. National parks authorities have outlawed all boating there, infuriating the yacht club, whose members have flouted the ban and are threatening to do so again.

Most of the time, Lake Eyre, the basin of which covers one-sixth of the continent, is just mud, topped with a thick carpet of salt. When water flows into it from its tributaries, though, it can reach several metres deep, and it attracts a rich variety of bird life, including pelicans, gulls, cormorants and black swans.

Balancing the interests of those drawn to the lake has always been tricky. In dry years, it attracts tourists keen to walk on it; on the rare occasions it fills with water, environmentalists hurry there to witness the explosion of mammal and bird life.

The great salt pan in the middle of Australia is also part of the Arabunna's creation story, and there are many significant sites around its perimeter. "It's a sacred place. It's like Uluru [Ayers Rock]," says Aaron Stuart, who represents traditional owners seeking recognition of their claim to the lake and surrounding area.

When Campbell raced his Bluebird-Proteus CN7 across the lake's salty crust, reaching average speeds of nearly 650kph, Aborigines were horrified, according to Mr Stuart. At that time, though, they were not even recognised as Australian citizens. "But Australia has grown as a society, so we now have a voice and we're standing up for our rights," Mr Stuart says.

Mr Backway, who lives in Melbourne, first sailed on Lake Eyre in 1997. He was smitten. Three years later he founded the Lake Eyre Yacht Club.

The club held a regatta last year on Cooper Creek, one of the lake's tributaries, which attracted 58 boats, some of them coming from as far away as Sydney, nearly 2,000 kilometres away.

In recent weeks, he has sailed on the lake twice, on one occasion experiencing what he calls a "mirror effect". He explains: "You've got a thin fog around you that goes up about a metre and a half, and sitting on top of that fog is a little breeze, so you've moving along but you've got a mirror effect all around you, and no horizon." Mr Backway dismisses the Arabunna's objections, claiming that they are based on a "bogeyman story" dating from an era when it was hazardous to go out on the lake. "We have modern technology now. I'm not saying I don't respect Aboriginal heritage, but there are no carvings or burial sites there. The Arabunna are trying to throw their weight around."

Mr Stuart denies that. "If you hold your hand out in front of you, the palm represents Lake Eyre and the fingers represent all the estuaries coming into it," he says. "The lake is like a large map for us, and that's where trade happened, and ceremony, and song and dance, and art and culture."

Moreover, Mr Stuart says, his people's ancestral spirit, Warrina, lives in the lake and is disturbed by boats. "We want people from Australia and around the world to come to our country, but let's leave it alone and just enjoy its wild natural beauty."

Stephen Kenny, an Adelaide lawyer pursuing the Arabunna's native title claim, condemned the yacht club's flouting of the sailing ban. "The view of my clients is: if they don't respect their own law, how can we trust them to respect ours?"

Mr Backway claimed that Australians had a common law right of access to waterways, and he warned that the Lake Eyre ban could set a dangerous precedent. "I know that every other yacht club in Australia is watching this," he said. "You're tampering with people's fundamental rights."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Fatema holds a picture of her son Nurul Karim as she poses for a photograph in front of her slum house in Savar. Fatema lost her son Nurul Karim and her daughter Arifa, who were working on the fifth floor of Rana Plaza when it collapsed on April 24, 2013. All photos Andrew Biraj / Reuters

These women know the real price of cheap high street fashion

Survivors of the world's worst garment factory accident, struggle to rebuild their lives from the rubble of the Rana Plaza collapse as Bangladesh prepares to mark the first anniversary of the disaster.

 Supporters of unseen India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate and Chief Minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, wave as he arrives to file his election nomination papers in Varanasi. Sanjay Kanojia / AFP Photo

Best photography from around the world April 24

The National View's photo editors pick the best of the day from around the world

 Iranian workers at the Iran Khodro auto plant in Tehran on March 18. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

Iran’s love of cars survives devastating sanctions

Sanctions and energy subsidy reductions might have hurt the Iranian automotive industry. But car makers at one factory are still optimistic, Yeganeh Salehi reports from Tehran

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greeted by university students as he leaves Sistan University in Sistan and Baluchestan’s provincial capital of Zahedan on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

In Iran’s most troubled province, Rouhani hears pleas for change

Hassan Rounani aims to connect with residents of far-flung Sistan and Baluchestan province.

 Prince Bandar bin Sultan in Riyadh on March 3, 2007. Hassan Ammar / AFP Photo

Saudi Prince Bandar promised a victory he could not deliver

Saudi Arabia's controversial intelligence chief stepped down this week after rumours that his policies on Syria had fallen out of favour.

 Aiza Tonida puts out laundry amid the ruins of her parents home in Leyte province that was destroyed when Typhoon Haiyan struck central Philippines on November 8, 2013. Joey Reyna for The National

Filipinos seek Middle East jobs to rebuild lives after Haiyan

Work in the GCC seen as only hope for thousands left homeless and jobless after devastating storm in November.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National