A sodium crusted eerie salt lake in the lower Yilgarn Craton lies 51Kms west of the Northern Western Australian Goldfields township of Menzies, 2.5hrs drive north of Kalgoorlie, where standing are computer scaled down sculptures, laser-scanned in hardened steel of 51 Menzies locals. This is the installation site named “Inside Australia” created by renowned English artist Sir Antony Gormley which was commissioned at the salt lake of Lake Ballard 29°25′33″S 120°45′07″E in 2002/3 and was the next stop on our trip.
Most days (when mobile internet is in range) we usually first check the weather. It was no different on our 5th day in Cape Le Grand and we noticed after the “rain-event” of a week or so before, the low pressure system that brought the rain had somewhat hung around to the north and had reduced temperatures on the goldfields well below average for this time of year – in fact, down to mid-20’s. We could’ve easily spent a week or more at Cape Le Grand however in the first week of February we had to be in Kalgoorlie to replace the D4’s windscreen (which now looked like it had circle-work performed on it) and our bull bar which saved us from a lot of vehicle damage in the Emu incident in South Australia. The latter had slowly deteriorated and dropped on its compression brackets from all the road corrugations and was now starting to lean on the D4’s front mud guards and flaring and needed to be replaced before creating more superficial damage. We booked all this work to be carried out when in Albany a few weeks prior and insurance took care of the rest.
And with the brief window of milder temperatures in the north, we decided to miss Cape Arid altogether and head north to Kalgoorlie for one night (to re-stock most things), and on the following day leave early for Lake Ballard. Which we did, and arrived at Menzies about 10am the next day. Menzies is a very small town these days (an old gold mining town a mere fraction to once it was) with a recently renovated council building/cum-townhall (with a clock tower showing the wrong time(s)), a small visitors centre, surprisingly a lovely little cafe, a pub, several closed shops and a self-service unmanned fuel station that only provides diesel on high-flow pumps. We first head to the visitors centre to double check that the recent rain (75mm was recorded in Menzies) had not filled up lake Ballard and to find out more on the road conditions out to the lake. We soon discovered the road only reopened the day before and the lake was slowly filling but should be fine to see the sculptures over the next few days.
With the good news we decide to have a quick coffee at the cafe which was, surprisingly, not bad at all for this part of the world. Soon after, we pull out of Menzies and head north-east out of town on a wonderfully maintained and super-smooth wide red gravel road …and NO corrugations for once.
This rare dirt road moment also meant not having to worry about adjusting 8 tire pressures – a rarity on our trip. Along the 51Km journey we saw plenty of run-off water by the side of the road, some dams that were now near full, a few skinny but otherwise healthy looking cattle on the road, and numerous indications of grader work repairing many washouts caused by the rains of the past week. It was a calm and relaxing trip with plenty of nice landscapes and scenery to look at and we made the journey in great time in under 40mins – even with a quick photo stop.
Soon enough we arrive at the campground turnoff and at the beginning of the approach road (and back into some minor corrugations) there was not much to see at this point. A couple of minutes further on we could see a couple of looming red sand dunes several hundred metres ahead and in the background, a strange looking prominent hill (called Snake Hill) jutting straight up like one of those sand worms out of the movie ‘Dune’. We round the last red dune and get our first glimpse of the salt lake and we could just make out a couple of the Gormley sculptures in the distance. Apart from a new looking long-drop WC, nothing or no once else was here – we had the entire site all to ourselves. We stop under a cluster of large acasias providing decent shade and all casually walk over to take a better look at the salt lake. What an amazing site – Wow! I think we must have stood there for a couple of minutes trying to absorb what we were looking at before any of us said a word – even Aidan was silenced and he never stops talking.
It was now after midday and we were thinking about where exactly to set up camp. As with most occasions when we free-camp, the first thing we do is pull out the compass and check out the sun orientation – especially when it’s warm/hot or if the satellite will be used. We work out where west is, pick a spot, and set up both awnings within 30 mins. The temps were rising moderately so Celia and I decide to grab a coldy and sit back to listen to the nothingness you typically only experience in the desert and both with a feeling of vindication about missing out on doing Cape Arid.
After lunch, we head out on the salt lake to take a closer look at many of the sculptures. They are simply wonderful.
We could see that a majority of them were ankle-deep in water beyond Snake Hill and almost impossible to get out to them with the highly sticky, slippery (as I find out first-hand the follow morning) and very saliney mud to negotiate. The sunlight on the lake bed is harsh for decent images at this time of the day however we take a few test shots and some shots of each other to gain a better perspective for composing shots at sunset and first light. That afternoon, the temp rose to low thirties and as we sat out under the shaded trees we were watching a couple of 3-4ft Yellow Spotted Sand Monitors (Goannas) hunting around the campground for ground beetles and scorpions – they were funny to watch as they naturally wallow, constantly tasting the air and observed several times of they’re masterful hole digging proficienties.
The sunset quickly came around and the boys and I get out again amongst many of the sculptures again to shoot a few images. We were immediately amused by bright fluoro green jewel beetles (size of a 10c piece) with their very long legs running all around the salt lake bed at break-neck speeds. I have never seen a beetle run so fast and the boys had a blast trying (mostly in-vain) catching them and we affectionally called them “speed-racers”.
After about 45mins we head back to the van (about 600M away) and cook up a storm and after the boys had retired for the night, I decide to go back out on the lake and shoot the massive amount of stars this amazing place puts on show of an evening.
We’ve mentioned in the past how the wind in southern WA often increases in the evening – evidently this weather pattern also occurs in the northern Goldfields. The wind by 10pm was well over 30kms p/h and was stronger out on the salt lake. This wind was great for keeping away the mozzies, however it limited my options to take long exposures so I walked around the base of Snake Hill to see if there was a sheltered side, and there was. The Jewel beetles were still hammering around, as well as was a increasing group of bats that showed up to feed on the many moths and other insects that were lured to the occasional use of my head torch. The small bats were swooping around from all directions cutting through the air in a loud and eerie way just above my head and I quite liked being present to such unusual company whilst standing still taking upwards of 30-40 second exposures of the stars.
There was no moon and the milky way was taking on colour contrasts similar to the various lake colours presumably reflecting off the pink-white salt.
(Observation/Comment: Lake Ballard is the only place that I have been to when there was zero moon light, the stars radiant reflection off the salt lake was bright enough to walk around without a torch. I only had to use a torch to change a lens, filter or change a setting on the camera)
I soon find a good spot to position the tripod out of most of the wind and decided to use the outline of Snake Hill’s trees on one of the steeper flanks as a silhouette against the backdrop of Millions of stars and the Milky Way. I am a bit of a novice when it come to astrophotography and I am using a camera-body well known for not liking high ISO’s over 1000 due to the large amounts of noise the camera sensor creates. (There are cameras purpose-made for this type of photography but I did not have one of those). Nevertheless, I didn’t care too much about this problem and spent an hour or so using the time to learn a little more about what settings and techniques gave interesting results – trial and error if you will, and the above image was one of those that came from a little tinkering.
Earlier in the evening, just after dusk, we met a local wolf spider just outside our van door perhaps attracted to the bug that accumulate to the step light we have. Aidan took a macro image of the spider with an image reading of 11.1mm distance – well done Aidan.
The next morning, I rose 40 mins before sunrise, make a quick espresso, adjust the boys bedding for extra warmth as it was quite cool and head in an easterly direction on the salt lake. I can just make out in the emerging pre-dawn light the rising water is now almost touching Snake Hill’s northern flank. There was very little breeze and now the mozzies were out in force. I leave my camera and filters standing out on the lake and I quickly run back to the van to get some ‘deet’, return, and walk (gingerly) up to the furtherest sculpture I can see that is not standing in water that faces directly east.
I thought I would try to position almost directly behind the sculpture (relative to the sun’s rising point) and keep shooting the changing dawn light before the sun tipped it’s head over the horizon, with a small moon and a star (not sure which star it is – maybe someone could tell me?) in the pre-dawn sky.
One of the most incredible beauties of this place is the amazing light and colour. It is constantly changing and the degree of colour change and reflection is amazing. One minute it is stark orange with rich blue hues that dominate, and the next, deep magentas with red & pink reflective hues. Keeps you on your toes with white balance, but hey, nice problem to have and such a privilege to take images in such a photogenically beautiful place.
About 25 minutes after the sun had risen, the salt bed was slippery and my boots were now ladened with mud. In thinking about what to do next, I notice to my right a rather unusually high localised vegetated area just off the salt pan and decided to take a closer look. Bingo! There was a large pool of water (10-15″ deep) that when significant rain occurs, gathers in this collection pool and sits there until it evaporates. I decide to make my way to the southern end of the pool when I slip and fall flat on my bum, and with it, lose grip of the camera, ND filter and tripod. Sitting in the mud, I turn to see where my camera ended up and there is was sitting on top of a small salt bush with a little branch of it wedged between the rear screen and camera body. I pick myself up and inspect the camera, power it up, all appears fine. No mud on it anywhere and I think of the need to buy a lottery ticket. I moved very gingerly around to where I wanted to take an image. It looked great, I set up the tripod, got out a polariser filter and fired off a couple of shots – one of those is the image above.
It’s 5:30am by this time. Everyone back at the van was still asleep and the light was starting to becoming harsh. I decided to clean my boots a little and walked (carefully) over to the base of the climb up Snake Hill.
The 51 Gormley sculptures only cover a 10 square kilometre radius and all of them can be seen from the summit of Snake Hill. When I reach the top, I sit down for a few minutes and take in it’s magical views all the while thinking how this moment – these past two days has been such a privilege. A gentle breeze that was slowly picking up was delightful with many insects flying around the sparse vegetation on the hill doing their thing. I could hear Galahs, Major Mitchell’s and the odd crow in the distance, all taking advantage of the beautiful morning sun. The smell of the crisp air was intoxicating – the only thing that could have been better was if Celia and the boys were there to also share in the moment – so I lean into the viewfinder of the camera and take a shot across to the campsite as is shown below.
Moments later I hear in the far distance a vehicle of some description traveling at speed on gravel and after several minutes see a 4WD emerge at one end of the camp ground. I stand up to get a better position to see who it is and briefly observe them from the summit – after all, Celia and the boys were still asleep and no one else was within miles of this remote place.
A lady photographer, her husband and their little old terrier dog (being wheeled around the salt lake in a wheelie thingy) emerge and they head out on the salt pan with thermoses and start taking photo’s. 30 mins later, I greet them and drum up a conversation for a while and learn they are from the north of Perth and they drove out from Menzies that morning where they are testing a new caravan but did not want to take it just yet on the gravel roads. A lovely retired couple and the wife was still a keen photographer and had for the past 10 years wanted to come out to see these amazing and inspiring sculptures and in what can only be described as a very special setting.
Later that morning as we were packing up to leave lake Ballard, a lovely semi-retired couple arrive in there 4WD/caravan looking for a place to stay for a couple of days – Kim and Karen were their names and we suggested they should take our spot as it was well shaded and temps that day forecasted in the mid-thirties, so they do. We were to meet Kim & Karen in Kalgoorlie a few days later.
The next night back in Kalgoorlie over cooking dinner, Celia and I were discussing our stay at Lake Ballard and trying as best we could on how to sum it up. We’re not your typical artistic types by any measure, however the whole installation, the shear vastness with the ever-changing contrasts, remoteness, wildlife, colours and sights and sounds perhaps is best summed up in the words of Sir Ian McKellen (a.k.a. Gandalph)
“…It’s one of the greatest artistic installations I’ve ever seen…I think it changed my life a little bit…” June, 2010.
Well said Gandalph!
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