The salt lake is an expanse of sparkling crystals that are too white to look at without glasses. It’s still terribly hot when we arrive. I go out onto the lake reluctantly. The flies are relentless. By the end of a strong dry summer, they get desperate to breed. They try to crawl into your eyes and mouth to lay maggot eggs. Your back is thickly covered with them.
It must have rained a couple of weeks ago. There is a narrow path of deep footprints preserved in the baked earth near the lake’s edge. The red mud underlying the salt gave way, took people in thick-soled shoes for a skid and the engraved earth preserves the moment.
There are startling islands on the vast salt lake. The landscape is fantastic and awful. Each island is steep and colourfully vegetated with small gnarly trees and big tumbling rocks in tones of orange and ochre. Each island has a mirage blending its shore into the salty sand. You expect to see a seagull, but we are more than five hundred kilometres from the sea.
The white expanse of the lake is sparsely populated by rusted steel sculptures. The figures are distant and, at our first scorching visit, distorted by mirage. Hobbit-sized but wiry, they have narrow heads, as if carved into arrow shapes by the wind and salt. They have firmly planted L-shaped feet and small paddle hands, which I hold -- smooth, hot. It is like touching an alien, but earthy. No eyes.
The female figures have breasts on stalks: soft fruits have strangely become metal, shaped like weapons. The breasts are more expressive than the hands, as if a woman’s breasts were more forceful than her hands. Each of the male figures has a penis – one like a little tail, another a powerful bird’s head. But none of these figures is about force or dominance at all. Nature is overwhelming. The ethereal black steel shapes rest, small and stoic in the landscape, not so different to the bare summer branches of the mulga tree.
You have to tramp across the baking salt to visit the figures. Cracked footprints show that some of them are rarely visited, at least at the time when we were there. I feel sad for them, as if they could be lonely. We visited at the time of year when sensible people stay inside with an air-conditioner. Claudia stalks a large lizard with her camera, but when she gets very close we see that it has been freeze-dried in its pose, waiting for food, long dead.
The beauty of the lake and the occasional blessed breeze blowing the flies away— these make it bearable. The swirling mirages reflect the hard bright blue of the sky, forming pools of liquid blue around the islands. I feel that the mirage, rather than being an illusion, is a path to a truer picture of the lake. The noise of the wind, rushing over untold miles of sand dunes, through trees with wood as hard as iron, becomes the pounding of waves. It is as if the light and the wind reveal the essence of the lake, its oceanic energy. The sky and the wind know this place was an ocean not so long ago, in their scale of time, and they try to express their knowledge. Do you understand?
Any place has voices that strain to be heard. The voices are of ancestors, of the geology, of trees and animals. They are easier to hear in the wilderness.
When I was studying medicine I walked daily to a hospital near a mangrove-forested waterway. As I rushed to my student appointments, the cool breeze with its smell of the brackish water and mud comforted me. On the way home I sometimes went to the water’s edge to watch red and blue crabs jump in and out of their tiny mud tunnels. I listened to the wind. “You’re on the right path,” the wind would say, rushing past my ears. “All will be well.” I was conscious of being self-centred, knew the wind had more to say. Learning to listen is a challenge.
At the salt lakes, even the ghosts of the ancestors are sparsely distributed. Wondrous, mysterious places, their crystals were known as a poison to the people who lived around here in arid times. Perhaps, rarely, an almost-desperate healer searched the clan’s memory and gave a pinch of salt to save the life of someone suffering from too little salt, someone who would die anyway. No one else would touch it.
The sculptures at Lake Ballard mean that you always have a companion there -- always someone in the corner of your eye. I was afraid that the sculptures would dominate and detract from the environment. Instead they are a tangible representation of the feeling one often has in the wilderness, that you are in solitude but never alone if you allow your mind to listen.