Lake Gairdner salt lake touring: the calm before and after the madness of Speed Week

STORM OVER SALT: An outback thunderstorm rolls over Lake Gairdner and the
surrounding desert.
STORM OVER SALT: An outback thunderstorm rolls over Lake Gairdner and the surrounding desert.

I blame David Lean and his movie Lawrence of Arabia for giving deserts a bad name.

Mr Lean (with some help from Mr Lawrence) fostered the notion that deserts are nothing more than endless tracts of sand, soulless wastelands in which only camels and scorpions survive.

Yes, I know the whole Lawrence desert was pretty much that. but if Lean had shot his movie in Australia, instead of Jordan and Morocco, he might just have shown the world a different kind of emptiness because, apart from a few small examples, Australian deserts are far from empty.

I'm at Lake Gairdner, one of South Australia's amazing and vast salt lakes. Located some 550 kilometres north-west of Adelaide, it is one of the main entry points to the lovely and comfortingly lonely Australian outback.

At about 160 kilometres long and 50 kilometres wide Gairdner is one of Australia's biggest salt lakes but what makes it truly special is that, once a year, this quiet, quiet place rumbles and roars with the thunder of Speed Week, a special time when men and women driving or riding all manner of monstrously modified motorcycles, cars and trucks gather for the sheer joy of going as fast as they possibly can in something influenced by their own philosophies and largely imbued with their own souls.

HEAVYWEIGHT HUDSON: This heavily-modified old timer is capable of almost
300 kmh.

HEAVYWEIGHT HUDSON: This heavily-modified old timer is capable of almost 300 kmh.

There is also the vain hope that, by going full throttle, they will go home with their names in the record books; but I somehow suspect that the thrill of rocketing across the salt lake's sparkling white surface, simply going blindingly fast for the sake of it, is way more satisfying.

I am on assignment, principally, for Speed Week, organised by the Dry Lake Racers Australia group, but the truth is that, in many ways, I find Australia's vast outback just as interesting as the vehicles racing across the lake's glistening bed.

Why? Because to me the notion of a desert, in the Australian context, is more about a lack of humans than it is about a lack of vegetation and that this vast swathe of land, with its stunted plants, low mountain ranges and muddy billabongs, tells its own interesting story through a fascinating tale that is long and ever-changing.

Lake Gairdner is a comfortable six-hour drive from Adelaide on a reasonable (but boring) highway that manages to bypass almost every small town along its length. Sure, they are all reached by convenient exit points but the encouragement is there to crank-up the music, set the air-con for "soothing", tap the cruise control button and enjoy the drive rather than actually call-in for a look.

Skirting St Vincent Gulf's eastern shore before crossing the top of the South Australian peninsula, the highway kisses Spencer Gulf at Port Pirie, running alongside the water before touching the gulf's top at Port Augusta.

After almost four hours in the saddle Port August looms as an oasis, a thriving regional city giving travellers a chance to fuel-up both body and vehicle, stock-up on any last items and make any phone calls before hitting the Big Empty because, not too far north of here, mobile phones become paperweights and the internet is nothing more than a good idea.

Port Augusta is a major transport hub with tourists and truckers alike passing through to head almost anywhere on the continent. A well-marked right turn shows the way to Broken Hill and the gateway to the eastern states, for example. Conversely, taking the Eyre Highway through Ceduna eventually reaches Perth after hugging the Great Australian Bight.

DESERT ART: Graffiti, advertising signs and community notices come together on
roadside water storage tanks near Port Augusta.

DESERT ART: Graffiti, advertising signs and community notices come together on roadside water storage tanks near Port Augusta.

Choosing the B100 just a few kilometres out of Port soon finds Whyalla and, a little later, Port Lincoln. Opting for the A87 means going roughly north through Coober Pedy, Alice Springs and on to Darwin.

Travellers really are spoiled for choice and any of those choices mean seeing spectacular countryside on roads tracking across what was once the bed of a vast inland ocean pre-dating human history. You get the feeling you could take any one of these roads and keep driving forever, such is the vastness of our island continent.

For me, though, it's the Gawler Ranges and Lake Gairdner and after an all-too-brief dalliance with "Port'"the view from the ute takes on some interesting changes. Broad, flat plains, surgically intersected by the highway, run east and west to vast escarpments and the fingerposts show names we learned in school when geography teachers made us look at our atlases: Alice Springs, Ceduna, Coober Pedy, Woomera, Roxby Downs, Andamooka, Kingoonya and Iron Knob, a one-horse town built around a mine.

FORAGING FOR FOOD: Sheep on Mt Ive Station blend into the landscape.

FORAGING FOR FOOD: Sheep on Mt Ive Station blend into the landscape.

Turning left off the Eyre Highway takes travellers into Iron Knob. Turning right launches them onto kilometre after kilometre of fast, well-made gravel road for an experience that brings people closer to the wilderness landscape and its stunning, stunted vegetation.

It is here that mobile phones stop working and that feeling of contented isolation sets in, a feeling that seems almost unique to the Aussie outback. Time slows and you even find yourself thinking a bit more slowly and speaking in more measured tones.

Listen carefully and you will hear the outback drawl creeping into conversations, such is the calming effect of the vastness and, for some reason, things that may have mattered in Adelaide or even Port Augusta start losing their importance.

The dust, of course, becomes a reality, an entity that seems to find its way into everything, even hermetically sealed, air-conditioned cars. Those who know about these things will tell you the dust has a taste unique to its colour - red has a slightly metallic tang, white is chalky and black has a subtle richness of flavour.

The salt of the lakes? Overpowering and more than anyone ever wants on their fish and chips.

NO PLACE FOR KIDS: These lonely desert graves, dating back to the 1800s, are the
final resting places for two children.

NO PLACE FOR KIDS: These lonely desert graves, dating back to the 1800s, are the final resting places for two children.

The long, well-made and well-maintained gravel road from Iron Knob to Mount Ive Station is nothing short of impressive, a fast track to the outback across flat plains and through stands of stunted, stumpy bush. The 125-kilometre run is an easy two-and-a-half hours.

Raised cattle grids add interest for drivers and the sound of gravel pinging against the car's undersides as it flicks from the tyres adds a happy, high-speed soundtrack to the experience.

Mt Ive Station's gate, marked by a fair rendition of a breaching submarine, is surely one of the most unique portals in the country, leaving travellers in no doubt of their location. The station, the only one in the Gawler Ranges offering accommodation, is an oasis for travellers with powered and unpowered camp and caravan sites and a variety of fairly basic rooms which, for a portion of the year, are the shearer's quarters.

THAR SHE BLOWS! A breaching submarine marks Mt Ive Station’s main gate.

THAR SHE BLOWS! A breaching submarine marks Mt Ive Station’s main gate.

They come complete with shared amenities blocks and a communal kitchen and recreation room.

There is a modest shop and the small Spinifex Bar is a good place to de-dust the throat after a day spent unwinding in the empty tranquillity of the dusty plains and surrounding hills.

Very importantly for the outback traveller, Mt Ive also sells fuel and the prices, while higher than those of the bigger towns, are not insulting.

Covering just over 100,000 hectares and with 2500 head of sheep (that's 40 per hectare, the number indicating the lack of water on the property) Mt Ive, established in 1864, is more proper working sheep station than dude ranch.

And the breaching submarine at the gate? "A group of workers, here for annual maintenance, got bored when there wasn't much to do so they found an old water tank and some steel plate and, well, there it is," a staff member said.

Lake Gairdner, effectively the station's northern boundary, is another 34 kilometres further on and can be reached in a comfortable half-hour drive.

BASIC BUT APPRECIATED: One of Mt Ive Station’s accommodation blocks.

BASIC BUT APPRECIATED: One of Mt Ive Station’s accommodation blocks.

During Speed Week the lake and its sprawling - but incredibly basic - campground takes on a survivalist feel. Encampments pop-up on the lake's shores and bed and the noise and bustle contrasts sharply to the general tranquillity.

The lake itself is huge and racers say that, if they venture far enough onto its surface, they can see the earth's curvature across the salty white brilliance as they rocket towards the unreachable horizon.

A religious experience? "Nah, not really, but you do get a bit of a chill up your spine when you see it," one racer said.

In the early autumn heat the lake's surface shimmers, the dark and distant hills stand stern and the desert rolls down to the petrified shores, the deep ochre landscape flowing into the salt's rich pearlescence and all of it capped with the rich, deep blue of the endless sky.

Viewed up close, the red soil nourishes grey-green foliage and dry grasses. Low-growing trees and bushes provide a canopy and the whole vista has a majestic timelessness.

Lake Gairdner and the surrounding ranges stand as a deeply spiritual place for its traditional owners and guardians, the Gawler people. Indeed, photographers attending Speed Week are shown two hills and expressly requested not to photograph them, such is their cultural significance.

Curiously, the racers share the respect for Gairdner although possibly not for the same spiritual reasons. Regardless, respect is respect when all is said and done and no one visits the lake without feeling touched by it.

The outback can be fickle though, a moody entity intent on having some spiteful fun.

MAKING SMOKE: Rob Waters lays out a smoke trail in his Kenworth truck, The
Prospector.

MAKING SMOKE: Rob Waters lays out a smoke trail in his Kenworth truck, The Prospector.

Overnight the constant zephyrs blowing across the broad, flat landscape can change from warm and playful to strong and bitingly cold, whipping-up sand and fine grip that stings the eyes, abrades the skin and deposits dust in ears, noses and other cavities.

Then thunder and lightning arrive with a natural light show good enough to rival any million-dollar, man-made laser spectacular, a heavenly ritual unfolding on the biggest stage possible.

There is an enjoyable formula to it all. Huge, towering clouds turn from white to dark grey before transitioning into vast thunderheads in an ever-darkening blue-black canopy shot through with lightning, crackling and sizzling as it streaks to contact the earth.

Heavy rain drops plop lazily down, making tiny craters in the desert floor and running across the lake's concrete-hard surface. Those that strike skin hurt, almost with the sting of hail.

Random drops soon become constant, forcing animals of all kinds to run for cover. Sheep and kangaroos head for the protection of the tree canopy, lizards, scorpions and snakes disappear beneath the surface, humans dive into cars, caravans or tents and all wait for it to pass.

When the assault is over the clouds dissipate, the gentle breeze returns, the sun shines through with an intensity seemingly making up for time lost behind the storm front and the desert's peace and quiet returns.

And when Speed Week is finished and the crazy people with the strange, noisy machines go back to where they came from? Then Lake Gairdner and its desert surrounds, the low hills, the native wildlife and the profuse, scrubby plant life settle back into their somnolence, enjoying the peace and quiet of the changing seasons. And they wait.

And after one full rotation of the earth around the sun, the passing of four human-defined seasons, a time in which lambs are born and sheep are shorn, the crazy people and their crazier contraptions come back to do it all again.

If only David Lean had lived long enough to be persuaded to make a movie about it.