Trevern Dawes has lost count of the number of times he’s visited Lake Eyre.

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Although storm clouds over Lake Eyre are a rare treat for photography it’s wise to have the vehicle on solid ground to avoid the prospect of being bogged down for hours, if not days.  

‘You welcome the thunderclouds and the atmosphere they can create,’ veteran outback photographer Trevern Dawes says of Lake Eyre, ‘but boy you’re worried you’re going to be there for some time if it starts to come down.’

If it rains heavily enough, they close the roads because the four wheel drives can cut it up so much that they have to bring the graders out.’ (And if they have to bring the graders out because of you, the fine could easily run into thousands.)

Describing himself as ‘semi-retired’, Trevern’s working years were divided between his day job as a survey draftsman and a very active photographic career. His imagery first began appearing in Australian and overseas magazine titles from around 1967.

Along with exhibiting, teaching and publishing, he was an associate editor for Camera Craft, Photography News, Camera and Cine. He is still a regular contributor to Camera and ProPhoto magazines.

An author (along with his wife Anna) of numerous photographic books on the landscapes of both Australia and New Zealand, Trevern recently had a collection of his Lake Eyre images acquired by the National Library of Australia.

‘My first experience with Lake Eyre was in 1976 en route to Central Australia,’ he explained. ‘As the journeys that immediately followed involved book and magazine projects in Central Australia, travel up and down the Oodnadatta Track was simply a convenient route – often with limited time to linger. As the fascination with Lake Eyre grew, basic snaps and records were soon replaced with more serious endeavours. Film at that time, in both 35mm and 6 x 7cm formats, eventually led to DSLR cameras.’

In 2013, Trevern created a one-off book and a set of A2 prints which were, he wrote, ‘intended as a summary of work, with no real intent to be shown other than to family and friends.’ But after coming across a large format book called about an artists’ camping expedition to Lake Eyre and environs by the likes of John Olsen and Tim Storrier, Trevern was inspired to pull together a collection of his own Lake Eyre photographs.

It was these images – some of which are included here – that would be acquired by the NLA and which are now freely available on the Library’s website.

‘Access to Lake Eyre for the general public is limited to just three small locations,’ says Trevern. ‘For Lake Eyre North these are Halligan and ABC Bays, located about 60 kilometres out from William Creek, and Level Post Bay to the north of Marree and Muloorina. For Lake Eyre South there is a viewpoint about 10 kilometres out from Curdimurka.’

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Cracked salt crusts can be as high as 300mm. They weather down soon enough.  

Having made some 30 trips to Lake Eyre since 1976, Trevern says that normally it is a barren and inhospitable place, and a real challenge to photograph.

‘It’s a case when you go out there, that “you pays your money, takes your chances” really. You never know what you’re going to find, what the conditions on the lake will be like, and also what the sky’s going to be about. Sometimes we’ve missed out completely and just moved on, and other times it just been absolutely wonderful.

‘Sometimes it can look like the salt is ice. It can be that it has that appearance, particularly when the water’s evaporating off the surface – which is rare of course. But if the lake is flooded it can sometimes be quite uninteresting. The water covers the salt and you don’t see anything but water, which is a bit boring.

‘Despite variable conditions and limited locations, it’s a case of considering all possibilities from broad vistas to close up details. The very best conditions, at least to my mind, are when rare floodwaters from the channel country in far off Queensland are drying out (Lake Eyre South is the lowest place in Australia at 15 metres below sea level) to leave wind sculptured patterns and formations.’

Trevern says that he typically spends just one night at each of the available access locations because invariably, he’s stopping on his way elsewhere. ‘We don’t use Lake Eyre as a prime target at all. It just happens to be a place to stop on the way to Coober Pedy, Oodnadatta, the Flinders Ranges, etcetera.’

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A sun glint over the salt requires initial exploration to find the best location.

Asked if he’s noticed any particular patterns or changes over the years, Trevern responds; ‘It can just change so much from one year to the next. The best time really is just when the water’s starting to move off, just starting to evaporate, and the wind is starting to create the surface structures – which don’t last very long. Once the heat starts to get at it, it just tends to demolish the surface, so it can become quite dull and uninteresting.

‘The wind does most of the work. It swirls the water around and then as it evaporates it can create circles and semi-circles. But it just depends. If it’s flood waters coming down from the channel country, it tends to be different from local rainwater which just falls straight down, whereas the flood waters move about a lot more – and I guess they evaporate a lot quicker too.

‘It’s just one of those weird places that most people wouldn’t bother with, I suppose. You have to say it’s a challenge. And that’s what it’s about as far as I’m concerned. You just persevere with it and when “it’s on” – you go like crazy.’

Going like crazy typically involves getting up very early to get the best lighting, to beat the sun and, of course, to get more uncommon perspectives.

‘Most of the time, to get something worthwhile, you’ve got to be prepared to hike,’ says Trevern. ‘If you just go where tourists go, well, all you’re going to get are their footprints. You’ve got to be prepared to hike to the edge of the surface and if you can get on to it – if it’s not too boggy around the edges – you then move out on to it and scout around and see what you can come up with. But you do this early morning or late afternoon. You very rarely do this in the middle of day – the glare is just enormous and the heat… well, you just don’t do it!’

‘It can be quite surreal at times. There’s no sound because there are no animals there apart from the occasional lizard. So there’s no noise, it’s absolutely silent. I’m not a religious person, but I sometimes think, “this is special”.

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Driving on Lake Eyre is prohibited and just plain foolish. At least some tracks provide scope for camera studies.  

Article by Don Norris,  excerpt from  Photo Review Issue 59

See more of Trevern’s Lake Eyre images at the NLA website

Trevern is co-author of ‘New Zealand – A photographer’s guide’    

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