Brisbane, Lake Eyre & Birdsville in a day

Posted 27 Feb 2019

Ucango's Dave Hulsman boards a 36 seat Dash 8 chartered plane from Brisbane Jet Base and sets out to see Lake Eyre and have a beer at the iconic Birsdville hotel while still making it home for dinner that night.

We’re a few hours into the flight when the terrain of south western Queensland 14,000 feet below dramatically changes. The wide expanse of brown land has made way for an intrinsic web of river systems which dart in all directions, meeting up with another tributary before again darting off into another direction.

The brown land is gone. It’s now green. Not a little green, bright green. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was flying over the Congo.

I’ve just embarked on the “Lake Eyre & Birsdville in a Day” trip ex Brisbane, or as I’m calling it, two-ticks-off-my-Bucket-List-in-one-day. Yep, Australia’s largest lake and a beer in the front bar of the Birsdville Hotel, arguably Australia most iconic (and remote) pub. And I’ll still make it home for dinner.  

But I wasn’t expecting this. I’d steeled myself for ‘a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains’, followed by some salt flats before that well-earned beer. Not the tropics.

“We’ve just entered Channel Country,” says tour host and expert-of-all-things-western-Queensland, Graham Reid, who operates this tour with his wife Debbie.

The pair have been hosting the tour for five years, however interest has soared of late… of the 52 trips they’ve done, more than half of those were last season.  We’re on the first one for this season.

And while the tour is promoted as ‘Lake Eyre & Birdsville’ it is in fact a very informative and entertaining rundown on the journey of water from northern Australia as it makes it way to Lake Eyre.

Pictured: Channel Country (left) and Lake Eyre (right)

It’s an interesting journey... it really is. While the land we’re flying over hasn’t had rain for some time, the rivers are flooding and roads are cut off from rain that has fallen up to four weeks ago and thousands of kilometres north. This is the norm for life out here.

Graham does not bring notes on his tour nor does he have a scripted spiel that he rolls out for each wave of guests. He talks freely of the terrain below, answering any questions from the passengers, letting the conversation flow in whatever direction the crowd takes it.

And it’s this commentary, Graham’s dry sense of humour, his small-town good guy persona plus, of course, his wealth of knowledge that makes this tour.

Pictured: Hosts Graham & Debbie Reid

“Everyone reckons accountants are boring,” he says when asked if some might not see the fascination with the river systems as he does, “but if you’ve got the right one who can deliver the right message, even that can be interesting for everyone.”

“I don’t take notes on these trips, I interact with the passengers of the day. If they want to talk about Burke & Wills,  John McDouall Stuart or Charles Sturt, I will. If they want to talk about the Diamantina River or Cooper Creek, I will.

“I don’t talk about everything because there’s simply not enough time to cover it all.”

But back to terrain below; Channel Country as they call it. And as quick as it turned green, a few minutes later it just as dramatically returns to the brown, barren landscape that was there before.  It’s spectacular and a pleasantly surprisingly bonus of this trip. Appropriately named, too, I might add.

We land in Birdsville for refueling stop number two (first one was at Charleville). It’s only a quick stop so we don’t venture far from the new ‘terminal’…. I mean shed. It’s hot, it’s humid and the flies are suffocating but the new shed is air conditioned so I stay put.

It’s noon. The pub’s probably air-conditioned too. And seeing as the town’s population is just 115, one would assume it’s within spitting distance. That beer would be great right about now, I think. But it can wait, Lake Eyre's the first item to check off that bucket list. So we re-board the flight, and begin our journey south.

It’s about 45 minutes later that you notice the first salt pan. The wings of the Dash 8 actually sit above the windows so you get an unobstructive view of the terrain below. The one salt pan turns into two, turns into three until one almighty lake takes up all the terrain. Welcome to Lake Eyre.

Due to the abnormally wet weather patterns of the past few years, it’s the fourth consecutive year there has been water in Lake Eyre. A run of water in the lake for this long is extremely rare and the water is unlikely to be there next year. And a good chance not to return for another decade at least. 

The white soon turns to a pinky hue as we make our way south towards where the water actually is. While Lake Eyre is actually home to its own Yacht Club, sailing on it is not allowed as the water can move with the wind and sailors could soon for the water disappear from under them only to be ankle deep in salty slop. Today, with not a great deal of wind, the water is located in the south, the lowest part of the lake.

In all, we spend about an hour traversing most of the lake, Graham reciting interesting facts about it and pointing out the location of certain landmarks including a plane that crashed (no casualties) in 1990 because they attempted to ‘skim’ the lake and consequently achieve the feat of flying below sea level.

While it would be good to touch down and run across the salt flats, our plane is simply too big to land. And besides, the larger plane (36 seats) is the reason we’re able to cram so much into one day.



So we made our way back to Birdsville and I finally got that beer (eight bucks for a schooner mind you) and the obligatory photo in front of the hotel.

It took 12 hours, we covered 4000kms of surprisingly diverse landscape but as promised I ticked two items off my bucket list in one day and still made home for dinner that night.

The 1 day tour departing and returning to Brisbane costs $2250pp.  For more information contact Ucango Travel on 1300 822 646 or email info@ucango.com.au



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