On a winter’s day, when cockatoos flap across blue sky reflected in sheets of shallow water, it is hard to imagine the Pink Lakes, in Murray-Sunset National Park, in any other mood. Yet Victoria’s northwest Mallee region can suck you dry in summer.
It was under bludgeoning summer sun, intensified by the crystals under their feet, that salt harvesters worked for 60-odd years from 1916, cutting the mineral layer by hand and wheeling barrow loads ashore on planks.
This month’s walk, the fairly easy 5.5km Kline Nature Walk, introduces us to Mallee salt mining, the pink lakes and some of the 600 species of native plants, delicate spider orchids among them, that survive and thrive in this unforgiving environment.
The walk starts at the day visitor area at Lake Crosbie, west of Ouyen and about 14km north of the Mallee Highway, on all-weather unsealed road – which can be closed (check with Parks Victoria).
Orange arrows lead us on a stroll along the lake’s shore, through low-slung salt-tolerant plants, the saltbushes identifiable by their edible red and yellow berries. The trees to the right are mallee eucalypts that store water in underground lignotubers.
At the first track junction we turn right. With widening views of Lake Crosbie, over our shoulder, we climb a grassy hill. Past a remnant patch of cypress-pine and buloke woodland we crest the hill and get our first view of Lake Kenyon. Red-rumped and Mallee ringneck parrots keep us company as we descend through mallee trees and rings of porcupine grass to the shore; we might also spot a sun-baking bearded dragon.
The Pink Lakes are named for the shades of the water and salt at different times in their cycles of filling and evaporating: from baby-pink blush to rich fairy floss, the colour is most intense on overcast days. Early settlers thought this was due to Mallee dust but it is due to Dunaliella salina, algae that produce beta-carotene, a pigment that protects their cells from harsh light.
A sandy track follows Lake Kenyon’s shoreline northwest through mallees and paperbarks but we could also walk along the shore if it’s not too slippery. From the lake’s northwest tip we turn left up a gully and then climb a hill bristling with porcupine grass, the largest of which, several metres across, are more than a century old.
Now following signs to the Salt Museum, we swap a view of Lake Kenyon for Lake Crosbie and pass a ridge-top scattering of rusted vehicles and machinery. Then it’s down the hill to the open-air Salt Museum.
The museum is a collection of rusty harvesting machines in a crescent of crusted and cracked mounds of harvested salt. A noticeboard relates that a surveyor first reported “some salt lakes” here in 1851 but it was another 65 years before mining began. Annual harvests of the 99%-pure mineral over the following six decades reached 10,000 tonnes, enough to supply three million people for the year.
Earlier visitors have thoughtlessly climbed the salt mounds but we stroll around them, looking at the salt- crystal tubes they have sprouted. Then we follow the road for about 100m to where the walking track resumes.
Now on the last leg of our walk (the track is indistinct in places but the shrubbery is low and we can see the car dead ahead), we step on kangaroo prints left by the animals as they tucked into the saltbushes that help prevent these salty and surprisingly beautiful lake flats blowing away.
Pioneer Drive in Murray-Sunset National Park has story-boards describing timber clearing, wildlife corridors and how ants perform the role of worms in deserts. Other roads in the park are 4WD only.
Pack a picnic lunch and cycle Pioneer Drive (other tracks are too sandy). Watch out for emus and western grey kangaroos in the woodlands and on the lake flats.