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South Australia's Adventures of a Lifetime: Flightsee Lake Eyre

Get the lowdown on the best way to experience Australia’s largest lake—from above.

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An aerial view of Lake Eyre in South Australia.


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Covering an area 90 miles long and 48 miles wide, Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre is Australia’s largest lake, a huge white salt pan when dry, teeming with life when deluged by infrequent rains. Synonymous with the outback, it is something of a mecca for Australians, but it is so remote that the most practical way to see it is from the air.

When flooded, the lake comes alive in hues of blue, green, red, orange, and white. Tourists flock from all over the country to see the outback come to life, and the small planes that “flightsee” the area are in hot demand.

But Lake Eyre is also an impressive sight when dry, especially when combined with the red deserts, the folds of ancient ranges, and other salt pans. Flights are the best way to appreciate the vastness and color of this section of the outback.

Lake Eyre

Lake Eyre, protected by the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre National Park, is Australia’s largest lake when filled, but that has occurred just three times in the past 160 years. Lake Eyre, the lowest point in Australia at 50 feet below sea level, forms the center of a vast desert basin that covers almost one-sixth of the country. In an area of low rainfall and high evaporation, most of the time it is a shimmering white salt pan.

After heavy rains, feeder rivers from the northeast, such as Warburton Creek and Cooper Creek, carry floodwaters from Queensland into the lake, turning it into a vast wetland. Thousands of pelicans, silver gulls, red‐necked avocets, banded stilts, Caspian terns, and other waterbirds flock to the lake. Freshwater fish are carried in with the flood, while brine shrimps hatch and vegetation sprouts. Major floods occur about every eight years, but more frequent minor floods fill parts of the lake.

Flightseeing

Flights over the outback and Lake Eyre run from the major cities like Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide, but flights from outback towns such as William Creek, Marree, Coober Pedy, and Wilpena are cheaper and will usually fly on demand.

The closest town to Lake Eyre is William Creek, where Wrightsair offers flights. William Creek is little more than a pub on the Oodnadatta Track, but it gets an awful lot of traffic during tourist season. Wrightsair offers hour-long flights over the lake, and also flies over Anna Creek Painted Hills to see remote desert mesas on the huge Anna Creek Cattle Station. Wrightsair also offers flights out of Coober Pedy and Wilpena Pound.

Flights also leave from Marree, near the southern end of the lake. Lake Eyre Helicopters departs from Marree and offers tours to the north and south ends of the lake, the seldom visited Willouran Range, Birdsville Track, and other locations. The Marree Hotel and Oasis Café sell tickets for flights that will pick up from Marree.

The Flinders Ranges are a center for outback flight tours, where outfitters offer a range of longer tours. Air Wilpena mostly does popular flights around Wilpena Pound but also flies over Lake Eyre with visits to a cattle station, Arkaroola, and Coober Pedy. Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary flies over the sanctuary and to Lake Eyre, with a stop at the William Creek Hotel on its biggest tour. Rawnsley Park Station and Angorichina are pastoral properties turned tourist concerns offering a variety of accommodations, tours, and outback flights.

Bush Pilots Australia flies from Hawker over Wilpena Pound, and has full-day tours to Lake Eyre.

TRAVEL TIPS

Fun Fact: Lake Eyre is named after Edward John Eyre, the first European to reach it in 1840. It was officially renamed Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre in 2013. Kati Thanda is the name used by the lake’s traditional owners, the Arabana people. Few Australians use or have heard of Kati Thanda; then again, it took over a decade before Ayers Rock eventually became universally known as Uluru.


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