A Lake Eyre photo assignment from GEO magazine got us quickly driving 3,000 km to the heart of South Australia to meet German writer Markus Wolff in Roxby Downs. Markus was flying in from Hamburg with many connecting flights to reach Adelaide and we were driving straight from Far North Queensland with all of us heading to Roxby Downs by 4WD. A mining town in northern South Australia, the Roxby Downs mine owned by BHP Billiton produces copper, uranium, silver and gold. This town was surreal. After passing many rural rustic towns, Roxby Downs gave us a shock looking shiny new, like it could be in any big city town! This meeting place was our gateway to William Creek which is closest to Lake Eyre.
With the flooding of Lake Eyre for the third consecutive year, everybody seemed headed for William Creek – permanent population of 6 people plus a dog. Oodnadatta Track is the looooong corrugated gravel road that everyone had to pass to reach William Creek. Beside the Old Ghan railway with wooden sleepers and massive rusted nails littered all over the place, the Oodnadatta Track is part of the trilogy of unsealed tourist routes along with the famous Birdsville Track and the less famous Strzelecki Tracks. We travelled ALL these roads to find our magical creatures.
With Yogi driving 80km/hour, we were eating everybody’s dust – every vehicle seemed to have super strong suspension and they zoomed past us like they were in an autobahn. But we were not rushing this. We wanted to savour every minute and every opportunity, being this far away from home at the heart of the Australian Outback.
When we didn’t see many pelicans in the 2009/2010 breeding ground of Lake Machattie, Trevor had a hunch the pelicans were in Coongie Lakes near Cooper Creek. Our eyes were glued to the windows, anticipating to see a natural phenomenon. Pelicans breeding in this massive scale is quite a rare occurrence. How lucky are we to see this?! And it was magnificent. There were three islands chock-a-block filled with pelican adults and babies. For Yogi to get his shots of the pelicans, Trevor circled the islands at a safe distance.
Witnessing the dramatic changes happening in the outback from 2009 to 2011 through his flight company Wrightsair, Trevor singlehandedly brought Lake Eyre to the attention of the local, national and international media which led to thousands of visitors making a pilgrimage to Lake Eyre – us included.
At another lake, Yogi who just kept shooting saw image details later on in the picture. One gem is this image below – nesting cormorants and darters with eggs in their nests on treetops totally flooded in! Unbelievable!
After photographing the pelican colonies from the air, we were obsessed to find them on ground level. We met travellers who said they saw pelicans in the gazillions. When we gave them the look of disbelief, they scrambled to show us their happy snappys as proof! Ooooh but this meant we had to make a 1,000 km detour, one-way through the Strzlecki Track! The Birdsville Track just had to wait. In retrospect, this detour turned out to be the best, most wonderful experience I have ever had.
So off we went to the Cooper Creek in Innamincka via the Strzlecki Track. In the national park camp ground beside the river, we saw the birds. At first we saw a few pelicans, cormorants, herons and egrets and kinda freaked out that we were too late! It wasn’t the same as what we saw in the happy snappys. So we camped for 10 days and everyday, we were rewarded for our patience when hundreds of pelicans and cormorants flew up and down the river – nonstop. We were in heaven.
The young pelicans practiced flying with their parents. They flew high and always in beautiful formation. Looking so graceful up in the air, the pelicans had the best comical landing ever!
Every morning after sunrise, a mass frenzy of feeding would happen. The cormorants dived effortlessly to catch fish while the pelican bullies waited for the little black birds to surface, then chase and steal the cormorant’s hard earned catch. This went on and on and one day, Yogi had this bright idea to pitch our extra tent (doubling as bird hide) to be closer to the aggregation, hoping the birds would not see us. The ground was a little inclined and all nightlong, it was hell to sleep. I was mandated to keep totally quiet and yet I kept slipping all the time! Needless to say it was not one of my best nights! But we got close to the feeding frenzy – so a little sacrifice goes a long way giving us great rewards and unforgettable experiences.
After the 10th night, we finally had to leave. It was a sad day when we bid goodbye to our fellow campers and to leave Innamincka, back on the unsealed Strzlecki Track on our way to Birdsville. To show how one track mind Yogi was, I wasn’t able to convince him to do a super short detour to visit the famous Dig Tree of the ill fated Burke and Wills Expedition of 1860-61 .
For much more pictures of birds and Lake Eyre Basin, please visit our website gallery.