Sailing in the desert as rivers rise

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By Gretel Sneath

For enthusiastic boaties, a lake with no water is a little like a pub with no beer, but members of the Lake Eyre Yacht Club are accustomed to the dry spells. Sometimes, it can be two years between outings, but there’s nothing like a heavy north Queensland flood to put some wind in your dusty sails.

In the outback town of Marree, where the yacht club has its headquarters, the ice cold tinnies are being cracked open – and the larger floating tinnies are being cranked into action – to toast the swelling rivers in South Australia’s thirsty desert.

Club commodore, Bob Backway, says the volume of water bringing relief to the channel country could eclipse 1991 levels.

Commodore Bob Backway, left, with Australian business icon Rear Admiral Dick Smith at the 2013 regatta at Lake Hope. Photo by Doreen Backway.

“If we get to 2m, it means that we can sail on Lake Eyre itself rather than just where the Warburton River flows in, and if the basin completely fills, you can go out sailing for a week and will need a compass to find your way back,” he says.

Established in 2000, the yacht club deemed Marree the ideal central meeting spot for 250 Australian and international members with a taste for adventure.

“Marree is the like hub of the outback, because it’s at the junction of the Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks and not far from the Strzelecki Track,” Bob explains.

The clubhouse is located in a heavily renovated shed at “the Lake Eyre end of town”.

The Lake Eyre Yacht Club house. Photo by Bob Backway.

“We lifted it up and made it two-storey so that there was storage underneath for boats, and then we added a launching ramp so that it looked like a yacht club and felt like home,” Bob says. “There’s no water lapping at the bottom, but we do have photos with water all around it from when it rained and rained in 2010; it looked like the tide had come in!”

Marree Hotel manager, Joe Calvert, says the yacht club has become a town attraction.

“Their regattas really bring business to the town for sure, and we appreciate anything that gives people a reason to stay or look around a bit longer,” he says.

The club’s next regatta for both power and paddle boats will run on the Warburton River from April 16–19.

The regattas lead to an increase visitors in the town of Marree. Photo by Bob Backway.

“Normally we camp in the one spot, but this is a bit more adventurous as we’ll be sleeping under the stars at Clifton Hills and Cowarie stations – it’s more like bushwalking on a boat,” Bob says.

The concept seems almost as improbable as sailing in the desert, but anything is possible in the outback.

“It’s completely different to sailing anywhere else; for starters, you don’t have to queue for the landing ramp, but you’re sailing in wilderness and that’s why it is so beautiful,” Bob says.

“It opens up a whole new dimension to the desert, and I think the experience ends up affecting people’s philosophy on life a bit; they wind down and start to see things differently. It’s a very special place.”

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