For several years I've been busting to return to Elizabeth Creek to photograph the amazing salt encrustations left on twigs and rocks by the evaporating, supersaturated, salt water.
Pernatty Logoon is a usually dry salt lake, a couple of kilometres wide and maybe 30 kilometres long.
The most significant part of Elizabeth Creek from a pastoral viewpoint is Elizabeth Waterhole, adjacent to which is Mahomet's dam, built by an Afgan dam sinker named Mahomet, using camels. A channel joins Elizabeth Creek and Mahomet's dam allowing the dam to fill in flood time but rendering it safe from flood damage.
In 1858, the explorer, John McDouall Stuart, camped two nights at Elizabeth Waterhole, his horses being rather knocked up due to a water shortage that had dogged the party for several days. Mr Stuart wasn't all that impressed with The Elizabeth. Here's what he had to say:
Friday, 18th June, The Elizabeth. We must rest our horses to-day, they have not yet recovered from their long thirst. I am quite disappointed with this creek and the surrounding country. The water is not permanent, it is only rain water; since we arrived yesterday it has shrunk a great deal. There are small plains on each side from a quarter to half a mile broad with salt bush; the hills are very stony with a little salt bush, and destitute of timber, except the few gum-trees in the creek and the mulga bushes in the sand hills.
The Journals of John McDouall Stuart, William Hardman, second edition 1865
There are no worthwhile waterholes upstream from The Elizabeth, and half a kilometre downstream the creek becomes salt, marking the cessation of the magnificent redgums that line it from its source.
From this point, downstream to Pernatty Lagoon, the creek is usually a string of salt waterholes, no use to the pastoralist but a photographer's paradise; at least, paradise to this photographer.
The track past Mount Gunson Mine to Mount Gunson Cattle Yards isn't too bad. The yards are built on a broad flat, more or less overlooking Pernatty Lagoon and Elizabeth Creek, only a kilometre or two away to the east and north
It was no trouble getting the ute and trailer past the Mount Gunson copper mine, over an arm of Pernatty Lagoon and about as far as you'd take a 2wd, high clearance vehicle. There I made my camp, seven kilometres as the crow flies from the good dirt road that terminates at the open cut mine.
Not such a bad camping spot except it's very open to the wind, but at least there was excellent myall firewood not far from my camp; a lot better than some of my camps in this country where there's scarcely a stick to the horizon.
On a clear night, rugged up well by the campfire, I could see the glow from the lights of Port Augusta, 130 kilometres to the south east, Woomera, 40 kilometres to the north west and Olympic Dam Mine, a 24/7 operation, 110 kilometres away to the north.
Within that area and way beyond to the east, there wouldn't be more than a few dozen people: the Mount Gunson Mine workers, workmen at a hard rock quarry a bit further south east and the station folk spread thinly over this vast land of huge sheep and cattle stations.
The wind blowing fairly well the afternoon I arrived at Mount Gunson Yards, I got the tent up and the fly in place on a mound a couple of inches above the surrounding clay pan, with some difficulty mind you. With the ute parked close beside the tent to the windward, I tied the tent to this solid anchor.
All night the wind violently fluttered the tightly pitched tent fly right beside my pillow and was still blowing well in the morning after a less than ideal night tucked down snugly in a winter weight sleeping bag.
By daylight the wind had swung around 90 degrees to come from the front of the tent, straight in under the awning, so I moved the ute around and once again tied the tent to it.
Not long after sunrise the rain began, steady at first but soon increasing in intensity, driven hard by the incessant wind, now from the north east. It rained all day, all night and up till lunch time on the second day.
In an empty bean tin, I measured 35mm of rain, and later the station overseer confirmed the rainfall when he stopped by to toast his sandwiches on my campfire while on his rounds to check the dams and waterholes after the much longed for, revitalising rain.
Enough rain to make the creeks run for the first time in well over a year, the dry spell was broken. Dams and waterholes all over Pernatty Station were replenished; if not full, then full enough to bring delight to the overseer and of course any of the men and women of the land of the arid region of South Australia.
For a couple of days the ground was way too wet to travel, even on the 4x4 quadbike, and as I started to get about, twice I turned back rather than risk a long walk back to camp with the bike stuck in the sandy clay that turns to mud after only a small rainfall.
Good thing I had ample fresh water and plenty of tucker: flour, yeast and salt for bread in the camp oven, some fresh veggies and quite a bit of tinned food. No way am I going to starve or die of dehydration out in the arid region.
It was 10 days before I could get out in the ute and head the two thousand kilometres home, having to cross a wide gully and an arm of Pernatty Lagoon.
The gully had carried a good flow during the rain and for a short time after, as indicated by the mud left over a distance of 100metres of the track. The causeway, slippery when wet but firm underneath, built up of overburden from the nearby copper mine, took me a kilometre across the salty, mud flat of the lagoon.
Several days went by before I got to the salt water holes of Elizabeth Creek. The creek had run, dissolving the intriguing salt crystals and encrustations on twigs and rocks before I'd got to see them, never mind photograph them, on this trip.
The main object from my visualisation of Elizabeth Creek had washed away into the wide, shallow expanse of Pernatty Lagoon, no more than the memory of a previous trip when I had little time to make a job of photographing the exciting, random forms that the wind and sun created from the diminishing, supersaturated, salt water.
It would be six months before the salt water table of Pernatty Lagoon replaced the brackish water at present in the creek and the salt crystallised out into the forms that I so enjoy.
Yes, so disappointing, yet I've long held to the idea to not wish the rain away; we need it!
I've seen the arid land dry. I've seen the waterholes and dams dry, or no more than a muddy slop in the very bottom that will bog animals that venture in, striving for the last drop of thick, smelly water. I've seen the bones in the bottom of dry dams. I've stood and pondered the irony of the dried carcase of a beast, right beside the water of an overfull dam, recently replenished.