Just north of the Gawler Ranges in South Australia, Lake Gairdner National Park provides a wilderness experience with high scenic, aesthetic and wilderness qualities.
If you’re looking for a photogenic area that is well and truly off the beaten track, the Lake Gairdner National Park is worth visiting. At about 160 kilometres long, Lake Gairdner is the largest of three ephemeral lakes that are remnants of the huge inland sea that once extended north from the Eyre Peninsula to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Lake Gairdner is fed by a number of creeks which only flow for a short period after rain. As a consequence, when there’s water in the lake it’s only a centimetre or two deep. When it dries out the salt crust, which is more than a metre thick in places, provides a glittering white surface that contrasts with the surrounding red of the hills.In recent years, the spectacular scenery has provided backdrops for films and TV commercials. Mount Ive is normally used as a base by both Australian and international media crews because it provides the easiest access to the lake.
Two smaller lakes, Lake Everard and Lake Harris, can be reached from the main through road between Kimba in the south and Kingoonya in the north on the Trans Australian Railway. The park covers an area of approximately 5500 square kilometres and was proclaimed in 1991 to protect the unique environment, flora, fauna and scenery.
The changing moods of the salt lakes will delight landscape photographers. When the sun is overhead, the lake surface shimmers and the horizon and lake appear to melt together. Still water can create spectacular reflections of clouds and the lake margins. Around sunrise and sunset, the crystalline salt crust turns from snowy white to pale pink, mauve or apricot.
Sunlight penetrating the rising mist causes the red rocks along the margins of the lake bed to glow.
When to go
The best times for photographers to visit are during winter and spring, when maximum daytime temperatures average between 18 ° and 22 ° Celsius. This is also the wettest time, although rain may fall in summer as a result of thunderstorm activity. The average annual rainfall decreases from about 270mm near the southern boundary of the park, to about 190mm near the northern boundary.
Intending visitors should avoid the area immediately after rain, when muddy conditions can make it inaccessible. If you wait a day or two, the roads usually dry out and walkers can get onto the lake, although its boggy surface can make walking difficult.
In summer, temperatures rise sharply, averaging 33 °C and it can become stiflingly hot and dry. High evaporation dries the lake rapidly and wind kicks up a lot of dust. Flies can also be a problem.
Late winter and spring provide the best photo opportunities because the desert comes alive after good rain, which encourages plants to flower. Red and western grey kangaroos and euros are abundant and birds range from solitary emus to flocks of tiny bush birds.
A partially flattened clump of spinifex on the hillside overlooking the lake.
The majority of park visitors reach Lake Gairdner National Park through Mount Ive station on the southern side of the park. This pastoral property is 126km from the Eyre Highway on an unsealed road and is the only place off the highway selling fuel. It has a camping area (sites with and without power), offers accommodation in the shearers’ quarters and runs a basic store selling a few foodstuffs. Campï¬res are allowed from May to October but gas or fuel stoves are preferred.
Visitors to Mount Ive are usually welcome to watch seasonal activities at the working sheep station. You’ll need to obtain a key for the locked access gate to Lake Gairdner (a fee applies). The trip takes about 45 minutes depending on road conditions.
No vehicles are permitted on the lake surface outside of a Controlled Vehicle Access Zone on the southwestern arm of Lake Gairdner near Mount Ive, which is used under permit for motor sport and 4WD ecotourism. Once a year at the end of summer the lake is the venue for the Dry Lake Racers’ speed trials. Information can be found at www.dlra.org.au/lake-gairdner.htm and the site has some useful maps and satellite images showing conditions at the lake over a number of years.
There is an informal camping area at the end of a track leading off the Yardea to Kingoonya road. Turn east at The Brothers Well, a concrete catchment at the side of the road at the Southern end of Moonarie station. This well is one of the few places in the park where you can get water (which must be boiled before consumption). A track leads up a nearby hill to provide a panoramic view over the lake.
Misty mornings provide great scope for abstract pictures.
What to photograph
Both still pictures and movies will work best when there is light and shadow to add depth, so avoid shooting in the middle of the day (unless flat lighting is your objective). Most of the detail on and around the lake is quite subtle and will show up best when the sun is low in the sky. This means getting out of your tent before sunrise and staying out until after sunset. You can rest in the middle of the day.
A close-up shot of structures in the salt crust near the margin of the lake.
Get in close and look for patterns and textures in the salt and sand. Wildflowers also make excellent close-up subjects. Compose your shots to include something in the background that gives a sense of place to the picture. Using a relatively wide aperture will reduce the depth of field, causing the background to be pleasingly out of focus.
Article and images by Margaret Brown
Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 67