OceaniaVirtual Travel Tales

Lake Hillier, Western Australia

The very pink Lake Hillier from the air

A little under the weather for the last few weeks, and with all the sleepless nights and coughing that entailed, it was difficult to find the energy to research the plethora of destinations on our virtual travellers’ wish list. I could have left it in Leroy’s hands, but that would have meant leaving myself open to the possibility of diving with sharks, or base jumping or something else involving high levels of danger and a corresponding amount of equipment.

Instead, I touted the idea of a day trip to Western Australia. The weather in WA, I argued, would have to be warmer and sunnier than the wintery variety Melbourne has been crankily displaying. And after we’d explored the particular destination I had in mind, we could sample wine from any or all of the Margaret River vineyards south of Perth. Another perk of virtual travel – no designated driver necessary. I also promised cheese, quince paste, grapes, finger limes, seafood, black truffles. Leroy was beginning to waver when I played my best card. The ‘moderate danger/calculated risk’ card.

Which is how we found ourselves 3000 km from home this morning, tandem-skydiving out of a small plane over the distinctive salt waters of Lake Hillier. Actually leaving the plane wasn’t my finest moment, but I did attempt to alter the tone of my screams to convey excitement rather than terror. And even I had to later admit that seeing the lake from above, fringed with green eucalypts and in startling contrast with the white beaches and blue-green ocean alongside, was the only way to do it. Most people choose to take a helicopter ride.

Discovered in 1802 by English navigator and cartographer Matthew Flinders during his circumnavigation of Australia, Lake Hillier has been a bit of a geological mystery. The super-salty lake – as saline as the Dead Sea – is located on an island in the Recherche Archipelago, around 70 nautical miles from the town of Esperance on Western Australia’s south coast. It’s not the only pink lake in the world and not even the only one in Australia, but scientists have only recently narrowed down the probable cause of its pinkness: various species of salt-loving bacteria, almost all of which are pinkish in colour. It was amazing to see.

After a quick swim in the ocean and a wander along the beach , we set off in search of caffeine in Esperance. While there has been continuous Indigenous habitation of the region for tens of thousands of years, the first Europeans to pass through were the Dutch in the early 1600s, followed much later by French explorers in 1792. The French named many of the landmarks of the region; the town itself being named after the French ship Espérance (or ‘Hope’). From whalers and shopkeepers to miners and pastoralists, all kinds of intrepid, fortune-seeking folk began to arrive. Throw in an 1890s gold rush and all bets were off. European settler history aside, I really wanted to see the town that sued NASA.

Sent into orbit in 1973, Skylab was the first US space station. With a solar observatory, workshops and set up for a three-person crew, it was a very big deal at the time and the research carried out made a huge difference to the sum of human knowledge about the Sun. It was an even bigger deal in 1979, though, when the space station broke up during re-entry into the atmosphere. There was huge media coverage and every school playground and backyard barbeque was filled with speculation about where the pieces would land. Most landed in and around Esperance and the local shire council subsequently (and with tongue planted firmly in cheek), sued NASA for littering. A fine NASA declined to pay.

Think of us this afternoon as we embark on a gruelling afternoon of eating and wine tasting through Margaret River, won’t you?