When looking at maps of outback Australia, one might be surprised at the number of lakes noted. If you look closer, you’ll usually see that the outlines of these lakes are shown with dotted lines. These lakes only sometimes have water. In a particularly rainy season, enough water may flow into these lakes that they are actually filled. Suddenly, waterbirds appear in the thousands and plants spring up nearby. But most of the time, these lakes are dry (though people are warned to stay off the dry surface, because, depending on how long it has been since the last rainfall reached the lake, it might be a dry crust on top of thick mud, and you don’t want to break through and get stuck in the sticky, salty mud below).
However, if you’re driving through the outback, that doesn’t mean you might not see what looks like water.
In the poem “In The Droving Days,” Australian poet Banjo Paterson refers to the “The deep blue gleam of the phantom lakes.” These are the lakes we began to see more often as we crossed the outback of South Australia. The deep blue is actually just a reflection of the sky. When there is no water in these lakes, they turn into great sheets of white salt, and at the right angle, the reflective salt presents what appears to be a welcoming stretch of blue water. It is a wonderful thing to see—well, it’s wonderful if you weren’t hoping that it was really water.
When you’re not at the right angle to see the reflected sky, or when there are clouds, rather than unbroken blue, these lakes simply present an unbroken sheet of gleaming white, as with the lake below.