When more than 400mm of unseasonal rain was dumped on the northern end of South Australia’s Flinders Ranges in February 2022, it wasn’t only local graziers who welcomed it. The deluge meant a huge ephemeral inland water body – Lake Boocaltaninna – formed on a tributary of Strzelecki Creek, part of the Lake Eyre Basin. Quick to realise the potential this presented for adventure sailing in the desert was Bob Backway, commodore of the Lake Eyre Yachting Club (LEYC), perched on the gravelly corner at the start to the Oodnadatta Track. I’d been waiting a decade for something like this and the photographic opportunity it presented. So when I heard Bob had put out a call to club members for an organised adventure sail on Boocaltaninna, I was already packing for the 4000km odyssey from my home in Sydney’s Blue Mountains to join the the world-renowned inland yachting club to document the event.
I enter LEYC’s gate as Bob emerges, wiping some oily solution or diesel from his hands with a rag. I first met Bob in 2012 when I joined 139 sailors and 43 yachts west of the Strzelecki Desert for a regatta on the 7m-deep Lake Killalpaninna, another ephemeral water body, which periodically fills with water from Queensland’s Channel Country. Numbers for this 2022 event aren’t expected to be as high because of COVID restrictions and upward-spiralling fuel prices. But a few outback adventurers are here already. Bob takes me to a campsite and introduces long-term friends and previous desert sailors Peter and Heather Bullen.
The following day I find Bob manoeuvring his Caper Cat-class vessel into position to be hosed down. “We’re off tomorrow morning,” he says, swinging the yacht around by the trailer’s socket joint. Peter, too, has stepped up, and he and Bob dive into the tangle of sailing vessels and paraphernalia that defines the club’s underbelly. In search of a second boat, outboard motor and other essentials, Bob tries to make sense of his stacking arrangement. “That’s Dick Smith’s boat, that one under there,” he says, referencing Australian Geographic’s founder.
Once topped up with fuel and supplies from the Marree Roadhouse, next door to LEYC, we head north, convoy-style, up the Birdsville Track. At Etadunna homestead we’re greeted by station manager Jason Dunn, whom we’ve caught at the end of his lunchbreak. Swaggering onto the homestead’s lush lawn in grease-soaked denim and polishing off a bowl of ice-cream, he extends a gargantuan, calloused hand in welcome and directs us to the highly seasonal sailing venue we’re seeking.
We press north, diverting through an unmarked access point – an open gate off the Birdsville Track. For another 70km we pummel through gibber desert and bull dust, crossing numerous dry creekbeds until Bob pulls up at the base of a towering dune, our entry point to the Strzelecki Desert. We stop dutifully behind. He gets out of his vehicle and makes his way to me, holding up the rear. “I think it’s time we lock in our hubs,” he says.
“Ah, that’s not possible, sorry,” I reply. “I only have two-wheel-drive.”
“Christ! Didn’t I tell you to bring a four-wheel-drive?” he asks in exasperation.
The dune is deep and wide and I suggest they push on and that I’ll see them on the other side. The dune’s loose white sand contrasts against the brutal gibber on which it rests. I see Peter’s cat, towed by his 4Runner, disappear around a bend at the top of the dune. I take my chance and hit the accelerator. My twin-cab ute is comparatively light, its tyres are wider than factory issue, and I’m quietly confident I’ll get it over this seemingly impossible hurdle. I soon realise the dune is wider than what was visible from the gibber flats. But at a constant 60km/h, I make my entry into the Strzelecki Desert with relative ease. “Nice piece of driving,” exclaims Peter and I accept the compliment as a badge of honour.
With the sun sinking fast, there’s no time to gloat; we now find ourselves standing on the shoreline of Lake Boocaltaninna. Bob makes a quick assessment of the road forward. “I’m not sure we’ll get any further; perhaps this is our best position to launch the boats and there is good flat land here for camping.”
Bob comes down from his fortified, desert-faring vehicle and ascends the spine of an ancient pristine-white dune to survey the landscape and take stock of our locale. As he reaches the summit, his arms go out like a sundial: “To the east lies the Strzelecki and south you can observe the alluvial fan of the North Flinders Ranges.” Bob has the skill to see the landscape as contours and gradients in what looks to the layperson like an insufferably flat, arid world – one that formed millions of years ago but now seems unchanging. “You can see how the Strzelecki, in its relentless march south, collides violently with the Flinders Ranges,” he says, pointing out the geological forces at play. “The prevailing south-east winds have shaped these parallel dunes that now contain this body of water.”
From the apex, Bob scans the shoreline, searching for where we can manoeuvre our boats onto the main water body. Sandpipers have taken up residence around the periphery in the shallows, where signs of evaporation are already evident from the gathering of pools. “This might well be our best launch site,” Bob says, with his vast experience as he gestures to a deep gully, winding through a thicket of lakeside shrubbery. “We just need to be able to drag the boats across that section of sand, but we can manage that, I reckon.”
Reversing his vehicle, Bob puts us to work as he places his Caper Cat at the water’s edge. Desert adventure sailing is not for the feeble of either heart or mind. At 78, sporting a snow-white beard and standing almost 180cm tall, Bob has the energy and strength of a man 20 years younger and soon the mast is fastened and rudders are in place. Working in unison, we drag, push and roll the cats across intermittent puddles and dry stretches into the deeper gully, where the boats can float unaided. It’s tedious and exhausting – even with four able bodies – and we toil until sundown, securing the boats to an access point at the lake’s edge in preparation for the next day’s sail.
At first light, a sturdy, cool desert breeze sweeps across the Strzelecki from south-south-east and expended bodies of migrating monarch butterflies tumble haplessly across the dune corrugations. Kites launch from lofty roosts in the coolabahs to prey on small marsupials that have failed to heed the warning of dawn’s approach following a night’s foraging.
After breakfast, we wade through shallows to the awaiting boats. Bob hooks up Peter and Heather’s cat, motoring across the lake to a sandy clearing on the opposing dune to rig the sails. Heather takes the helm and Bob sends them on their way, moving quickly across the lake to take advantage of the southerly airstream. “Desert sailing presents a whole new set of dynamics and principles not present in conventional ocean sailing” explains Bob. “You can experience wind shadows created by dunes, and it can bounce off the dunes creating wind shear not observed on the open ocean,” he says, as he runs the mainsail up the mast. He gestures for me to climb aboard, and I position my cameras on the trampoline, set for a swift departure.
We hug the shoreline of the eastern dune while Bob adjusts his rigging. Heather and Peter, now harvesting the strengthening winds on the opposing side of the lake, pull steadily away from us. “Jeez, she’s moving now, Bob. Get me up there; we need to get in front of them!” I shout.
“Yes, I’ll get you up there,” he replies. “Hold your horses.” He settles in, sets a course out of the wind shadow, and in a split second there’s a loud crack. The mainsail is filled and the boat lurches forth, accelerating now at an exponential rate. In an explosive moment the pontoon lifts violently from the milky waters. I watch my precious cameras sliding across the trampoline as it becomes clear we’re headed for a capsizing. It’s too late to reach my equipment, but as soon as we stare down the possibility of losing all and sundry, there’s an almighty snap as the shroud gives way. The boat comes to an immediate halt, and with the mainsail now in the drink, the pontoon comes back down and my cameras are saved. “Whoa, that was lucky,” I say, heart pounding as I ponder losing my entire kit to the lake’s murky depths.
“Sure was,” Bob says calmly. “That’s only the second time that’s occurred in my life. The first was on the Whitsundays nearly 40 years ago.”
Soon floundering in a stiff southerly airstream, Bob wrestles to rein in his mainsail. Together we manage to bring it in, fasten the mast to the cat and take off under motor across the lake where Heather and Peter, marooned in the partially submerged tree line, are struggling to break free of entanglement against the ever-increasing wind. Bob directs me to take charge of the outboard as he launches himself overboard to help our fellow sailors’ vessel towards a tow line and helps drop their sails. It’s all very discombobulating – sails flapping wildly and boats bashing menacingly against submerged trees.
And so, just 15 minutes into our first sail, we’re limping back to base for emergency surgery on the boats. “I hope I have a spare shroud that fits,” Bob says, realising the trampoline, in the ensuing pandemonium, has become perforated and also requires immediate attention. Once the repair work is complete, it’s decided to abandon sailing for the day until better conditions prevail. But with a pending weather system threatening to isolate us, Bob is conscious of every shift of wind direction or cloud formation that heralds an approaching change.
The next day, Bob stands with his morning cuppa gazing across Lake Boocaltaninna’s choppy surface. “Wind’s a bit strong; I don’t want another capsizing,” he says. “This wind by now should have blown itself out; there must be a huge high pressure system if it’s bringing cold air this far up.” Concerned and frustrated at a lack of meteorological data, Bob retrieves his satellite phone from his 4WD and calls his son Steven in Melbourne for a more nuanced forecast. “How big is the high? Where’s the centre? Are there any associated troughs or fronts? Has it got any rain in it?” he asks. “And can you feed the fish and check the pool’s chlorine?” Then he gives us a summary of the conversation: “Says there could be 40mm in it. We’ll have to be out of here the day after next.”
It’s decided, given the wind’s persistence, that another lay day is needed. So we set off on foot to explore the lake environment. Bob is perplexed by the inflow mechanism to this water body. His theories never completely satisfy him and he’s ever-more determined to find the answers.
A racket of galahs ushers in the next day’s dawn. It’s agreed we’ll run the boats towards the end of the lake under mainsail in search of the connection between the palaeochannel – old inactive river – and the lake. For Bob, this has become an obsession.
He takes Heather and Peter’s boat under tow, transporting them under motor to the far shore for preparation. Once rigged and checked, we head off under a steady breeze and swiftly reach the northern bank. Without modern drone technology, we’re navigating blindly – part of the allure of desert adventure sailing. We coast gently, traversing one finger of the lake’s myriad inlets, hunting for a break, or indicator at least, of the ancient riverbed. Bob knows it exists. Several attempts, requiring getting off the boats and physically manoeuvring them back around, lead to a dead end.
Having exhausted the surrounding inlets, we secure the boats to the western bank. Bob trudges up the dune, where he hopes to find an answer to his quandary. At the top he’s silent for a moment, then his arms splay out reverently: “You see, this is what I’m talking about; this is what adventure sailing is all about! It’s not just about sailing on these waters, but understanding how they came to be and their relationship within the greater basin.”
We join him and look in awe across what resembles a vast fairway on a major golf course. For Bob, it’s confirmation of his long-held theories: a further piece of the jigsaw puzzle in his lifelong quest to understand the complexities of one of the world’s few remaining pristine river systems. “If you look south, you can see the tree line snaking around the alluvial fan from Lake George. Then you have this palaeochannel here and that eventually links up to Cooper Creek,” he says. “It’s this system that pushes back on the Strzelecki’s relentless march south-west – it’s a battle.”
We descend in to the green corridor, walking through lush vegetation. Absorbed in his discovery, Bob ambles about excitedly, life vest still fastened. He wants to be sure of his findings, because they’ll be written up and published on the LEYC web page, which now enjoys an international following, not just of desert sailing romantics and ephemeral water chasers, but of climate science specialists and hydrologists – even NASA experts. “My son suggested the website looked dated, but it’s functional, easy to navigate, and gives facts: people go there for the truth!” Bob says of the website that gets 1000 hits a day. “Few people knew much about the basin until we started our site, but now people visit us for all kinds of data; it cuts through the bullshit that can be peddled out this way on rain and floods, which often leads to inaccurate media reporting.”
We cross again over the dune’s spine and head into a wind-swept depression. These areas can be rich in Indigenous artefacts and Bob picks up an old grinding stone, then points to what may be a spear head or cutting device. He subscribes to the “take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints” philosophy and places the stone gently back on the sand before we move on. To the north the harbingers of the approaching trough have begun creeping over the horizon.
“We’ve got 40mm coming our way; we need to get packed up and [gone], unless you want to spend the next week out here,” warns Bob as he makes a final scan of Lake Boocaltaninna, which has been dulled by the rolling blanket of grey, diffusing the mid-morning sun.
Back at base camp, we begin retrieving and dismantling the yachts, once again painstakingly dragging, rolling and pushing the boats across the rapidly evaporating inlet before hitching them to the vehicles for departure. Concerned about our exit strategy, Bob again studies the dune that’s hemmed us in these past days and his gaze falls to me: “I think you should head off first. If you don’t make it out, we won’t be able to turn around to get you!”
Confident in his knowledge of the region and rainfall patterns, Bob suggests we make one last detour before returning south to Marree, because no outback adventure sail is complete without a celebratory drop-in to the famed Mungerannie Hotel on the Birdsville Track. He wants us to meet Phil, the publican since 2006. “He’s the real deal out here and doesn’t set out to fleece you,” Bob says. “He’s an amazing-looking fellow too.”
With his trademark beard and Akubra, Phil Gregorke is a walking, talking anachronism of when Afghani men roamed these parts and you can’t help but be transported by his disposition.
I awake next morning in the pre-dawn light to Bob banging on my ute. “Time to go,” he urges. “We got to keep ahead of this rain and it’s only a few hours off.” We hit the road for Marree; under an ominous sky we churn through the dust of the Birdsville Track, impelled by the impending rain.
As we negotiate the rutted track, three touring bikes whirr by. They’re fitted with long-haul petrol tanks, the riders in full body armour. “Might be a long stay in Mungerannie with this rain coming,” Bob says, as we pull up at the Cooper Creek crossing and he points out the extent of the 2010 flood, when the regatta used a 3.8km stretch of the Birdsville Track and road markers as its sailing course. The Cooper then extended 5km wide.
The next evening we’re propped up in the front bar of the Marree Hotel, enjoying a final cleansing ale to celebrate another successful desert adventure, when through the side door a man staggers in covered in mud. Barefoot, he questions the bar staff about the possibility of fresh clothing, yet his appearance to Bob barely raises an eyebrow, the sight all too common in these parts.
Bob has already clocked him as one of the bikers who passed on our way back from Mungerannie and is quick to strike up conversation. “So, how’d you guys get on?” he asks. “We passed you yesterday, heading north.”
“Not so good. The two other fellas had to get medivaced out with broken collarbones and ribs, and my bike is still stuck,” comes the reply. With thinly veiled embarrassment, he flashes us a photo of his bike upright in the quagmire and exits with a handful of dry clothes, heading to the showers.
“Rain out here is the lifeblood of all things living,” Bob says, as he swirls his glass and downs his last mouthful, before looking wistfully at the dry mud left on the hotel’s floor. “But as you can see, it can be treacherous too, for the uninitiated.”