An overnight stop-over with a difference can be had at Victoria’s Lake Tyrrell where you can just about watch the salt crystals grow.
Lake Tyrrell is the largest salt lake in Victoria at over 20,000 hectare (more than 50,000 acres), about an hour south of Mildura and just north of the town of Sea Lake. Over the years I must have driven past it or flown over it 20 or so times but I had never stopped to smell the salt bush, so to speak. I always had to be somewhere in a hurry, such are our sad little 21st century lives. It is quite pathetic really. Anyway, out of the blue a small job popped up that would have me in Sea Lake for several days and I immediately saw that as an opportunity to camp and explore the local area.
There were several highlights I was keen to investigate. I had heard about the daily advance and retreat of the lake’s surface water in response to the prevailing winds, something I was keen to see with my own eyes as it is like a fast moving tide sweeping in. And that particular feature is readily seen at Lake Tyrrell as the winds are pretty consistent and being in a cooler area there is more likely to be a small amount of surface water for about 8 months of the year. The thin layer of water (usually just a few centimetres at the southern end of the lake) marches across the salt crust at walking pace once the sun goes down and the breezes subside. Other salt lakes are often in hotter zones where surface water does not last long, or the prevailing winds are not consistent enough to push the liquid layer around the lake. Lake Tyrrell is just a great place to see it.
Another highlight was the prolific lizard and bird life in what I had assumed would be a relatively dead moon-scape. The lake itself is pretty much dead with no fish so it is not a place the cormorants and pelicans hang around. But there is a gull rookery safe from predators on a couple of the small islands within the lake. The morning chorus was something to hear with bird calls I was not familiar with. I’ll have to head back with my bird book and a lens that can capture them at a distance for the littlies, but the emus were pretty obvious.
And one more was the serene night time aspect and the way the night sky was reflected off the water layer once it had reasserted itself across the salt crust. In fact that is one thing that attracts many star-gazers and it is responsible for the name Tyrrell, apparently meaning “Big Sky” in the local Aboriginal language. Far from polluting light sources and with reflection of the night sky off the lake, it is quite an impressive view.
Camping around the edge of the lake is quite pleasant with a scrub band of salt bush, samphire, grasses and some spindly gum trees around the lake itself elevated by 10 metres or so over the lake surface. The surrounds are an open wheat growing area. As if the sensible person would need to be told, you are not to drive out onto the lake surface and a few signs provide that obvious guidance. The crust is often reasonably soft and you will fall right through in a vehicle, and I understand a couple of the local wheat farmers make a few dollars using their big tractors to fish out dopey tourists. Stay on the tracks and you will be fine. Otherwise . . . . I hear the going rate is about $600 to haul you out as it is no easy task. I watched one such activity underway one night and from the swearing and the 3 hours it took, I reckon the farmer earned his reward because it was a difficult task.
The area open to the public is 6 kms north of Sea Lake and well sign-posted. There is a wooden observation deck half way along the access road for astronomy viewing which is apparently something Lake Tyrrell is well known for with the star-gazers. A track along the south western section of the lake is easily negotiable even by 2WD and will lead to several nooks and crannies for suitable campsites. As lakeside camping goes it is average to look at by most standards but with some surprising highlights. Walking out to the advancing water front as the evening breeze drops off is the big one and if you are a photographer you will enjoy the reflections and the surreal feeling of an incoming tide on a lake. The night show is spectacular and the dawn chorus was icing on the cake. I regret the many trips when I zoomed right on past Lake Tyrrell and I think on future excursions this will have at least an overnight rest allocated. Avoid Queen’s Birthday though as that is the timing of the Mallee Rally, an off-road race right around the lake. Probably worth seeing but you may not get so much of the serenity I am referring to.
If you are in the area and travelling up or down the Calder Highway, perhaps take some time out to stop and see a fascinating salt lake in action. With a bit of luck there will be some surface water and suitable winds that drop off at dusk and give you a show. Even without that feature it is a very handy stop with fantastic sunsets and night skies. Forget Discovery Channel and see it yourself at Lake Tyrrell.