Outback in bloom as floodwaters travel hundreds of kilometres into Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre

It’s a special time in the outback and deserts of Central Australia.

For many tourists, it’s not the dust bowl they envisioned.

A woman leans in to photograph a wildflower amidst a dry red landscape
It’s hard to imagine the variety of wildflowers in these arid landscapes, and Zippy says she’s blown away.(ABC Western Qld: Carli Willis)

Zippy Warnecke from Cairns is currently touring the region.

“When you think of the desert, don’t expect life there, but right now it’s full of it; Flowers, animals – everything,” she said.

Across much of outback Queensland and the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre Basin, unusual autumn rains have left carpets of wildflowers and greenery in their wake.

“It’s not at all what I imagined — it’s so much better,” Ms. Warnecke said.

Two children wearing light pink shirts jump into the stars surrounded by bright yellow flowers.
Wildflowers have emerged from the arid landscapes following recent rains.(Supplied: RLR photography)

months in the making

Flood water from months of rain has moved through free-flowing rivers in Channel Country into the famous Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre in northern South Australia.

An aerial view of a flock of pelicans landing on a brown body of water.
Floods turn arid landscapes into rivers teeming with birds like pelicans.(Delivered: Wright’s Air)

“This is just an amazing time with these floods going down these big rivers in Channel Country,” said Richard Kingsford, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of New South Wales.

“Lake Eyre gets water every few years, but a really big fill doesn’t happen that often.

“In terms of surface area, probably 70 or 80 percent of Lake Eyre has water in it… that’s a pretty rare occurrence.”

A satellite image shows Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre awash with a blue body of water in the middle of a desert land.
Satellite image of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre in late July 2022.(Included in delivery: Digital Earth Australia)
Satellite image of a dry Lake Eyre on January 9, 2022.
Satellite image of a dry Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre on January 9, 2022.(Scope of delivery: SentielHub)

Hundreds of miles from either shore, the Lake Eyre Yacht Club has seen members and tourists in the waters of the Warburton River, which empties into the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.

“It’s an adventure in itself. It’s a 440 km round trip from our starting point,” said Commodore Bob Backway.

“When you reach the lake, you can sail about 4 miles before you run aground.”

Pilots report an increase in requests and bookings to see Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre and the surrounding river systems while conditions are “spectacular”.

A plane flies over Kati Thanda Lake Eyre and the water is pink and blue against a blue sky and white clouds.
As Kati-Thanda-Lake Eyre begins to fill, the water changes color.(Delivered: Wright’s Air)

“We’re starting to see a lot of people planning their trips now, and the planes fly to Lake Eyre every day,” said Talia Ellis, Birdsville Aviation senior pilot.

“Lake Eyre is over 170 km long from north to south. People are absolutely amazed by its sheer size.

“We give people a perspective from below so they can see the bird life – pelicans nest on islands.

“We also give people the perspective from above so they have the perspective to match it with the rest of the landscape.”

Water ‘a tonic’ for desert stations

Water flowing through an outback stream creates intrinsic patterns through a brown landscape, and green growth emerges around it
Nappa Merrie Station typically sees little rainfall and relies on the flooding of Cooper Creek.(Included in delivery: Station Nappa Merrie)

At Nappa Merrie station on the border with South Africa, Cooper Creek flooding was vital.

The station relies on the flooding to grow feed for 11,000 cattle and to fill the 30,000-gallon (136,382 liter) tank that provides running water for the family household.

“Just last Christmas we were struggling with a couple of waterholes that dried up and then we got a run into the river,” said station manager Peter Degoumois.

“It really means a lot.

“It’ll hold us up pretty well over the summer and you can carry a lot of cattle.”

A man with gray hair and a blue shirt sits in front of a waterhole in the outback and looks into the camera.
Richard Kingsford is a river ecologist and conservation biologist.(Scope of delivery: UNSW)

Professor Kingsford, who has studied the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre basin for decades, said community morale changed when the rivers were irrigated.

“It’s really a fantastic tonic for droughts, which are really harsh and are getting severe with climate change,” he said.

An aerial view of the green carpet of Cooper Creek.
An aerial view of the green carpet of Cooper Creek.(Delivered: Air Central West)

Researchers galore

Associate Professor Tim Cohen of the University of Wollongong is a desert beach chaser on a mission to track the great seafilling events of the past millennium.

La Nina’s “double-dip” pattern prepared the landscape to track extreme weather events up to 10,000 years ago.

Spacebar to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
The water that finds its way into Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre supports an abundance of life(Delivered: Timothy Cohen)

“I think one of the most exciting things that we discovered on this last field trip was … evidence of events as large or larger than 1974 in the recent past,” said Mr. Cohen.

“We know that there are cycles that lead to droughts and floods, and understanding how these manifest themselves across the continent allows us to see how anthropogenic global warming affects this.”

A recent aerial view of the edge of Lake Eyre's Belt Bay.
A recent aerial view of the edge of Belt Bay at Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.(Supplied: Moshe Armon/ETH Zurich)

North of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, the Kalamurina Sanctuary – a reserve at the crossroads of three Australian deserts – was the site of a recent birdwatching event.

“The biggest benefit to the birds that we found from this survey is the rain we had earlier in the year,” said wildlife ecologist Keith Bellchambers.

“[We found] lots of the smaller boom and bust species…we had big flocks of diamond doves, zebra finches, budgerigars [and] cockatiels.

“Things like this have increased tremendously in the last six months just because of the food resources they were able to find after that rain.

“It’s visually spectacular, but it’s also a spectacular soundscape.”

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