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."