About 60,000 people live scattered across the
vast area of the Lake Eyre Basin, in a unique mix of towns and settlements
ranging from the urban centre of Alice Springs (population approximately 25,200)
to isolated homesteads on huge grazing properties. In between these extremes
are small, vibrant regional towns, such as Winton and Longreach, huge mining
developments, such as the Moomba Gas Fields, and small Aboriginal communities
and outstations, such as Alpurrurulam and Nepabunna.
Mungarannie Hotel. Photo: V Norris
While many towns still fulfill their original purpose as service centres and hubs for transport and communications (Marree, Barcaldine), especially for the grazing industry (Blackall, Windorah), many have become popular tourist destinations (Birdsville, Oodnadatta), focal points for the mining industry (Innamincka) or research on fossils (Muttaburra, Aramac).
On a broader scale, the Basin is part of the arid rangelands, where, compared to the more urban centres of Australia, higher percentages of land are under leasehold, are owned by Aboriginal people or are under Native Title claim. People are widely dispersed, and may be involved in cooperative activities over huge areas of land e.g. work with a single natural resource management board which is responsible for a region covering thousands of square kilometres.
The many different kinds of people that make their home in the Basin - such as graziers, mine workers, Indigenous people, tourist operators, public servants and conservationists - bring a wide range of skills and differing opinions and beliefs to their communities. But all are tied together by the challenges and rewards of living in, and managing, an environment where resources are not only limited, but unreliable in time and space.
They also share, to some degree, a common approach to life in the Basin, encompassing beliefs and characteristics such as the importance of community, getting involved in decision making, the sustainable use of natural resources and conserving the special cultural and natural features of the Basin. The people living in this unpredictable environment all want vibrant communities, viable industries and environmental security, and they understand that there are connections between their environmental, economic and social needs.
Management of the Basin is complex, combining the challenges of a low, unevenly distributed population with local and regional issues that concern all levels of community and government. It is important to ensure that individual, regional and catchment needs (both upstream and downstream) don't ignore whole-of-basin issues. This process is aided by the
Lake Eyre Basin Intergovernmental Agreement, set up to ensure the sustainability of the Lake Eyre Basin river systems and avoid cross-border impacts. The Agreement is a joint undertaking of the Australian, Queensland, South Australian and Northern Territory Governments and involves close communication with the Basin community as well as incorporating world class scientific and technical advice.
The cultural heritage of the region is rich and varied. Seven sites within the Lake Eyre Basin are listed on the National Heritage List: Witjara – Dalhousie Springs; Elizabeth Springs; Burke, Wills and King and Yandruwandha National Heritage Place; Lark Quarry – Dinosaur Stampede National Monument; the Qantas Hangar (Longreach); Tree of Knowledge site (Barcaldine); and Hermannsburg Historic Precinct.
Indigenous sites within the Basin are also recognised and include caves, quarries, middens and grinding stones, and indicators of songlines, dreaming tracks and trade routes. Stories from Aboriginal people, and archaeological research, have revealed glimpses of thousands years of a complex culture, where customs are inseparably tied to the land, despite the challenging and unpredictable environment which demanded mobility. For example, in some areas, after summer rain, people used the dune fields near river corridors, moving back to permanent waterholes as the rivers dried up. After winter rains, people also went to the sandhills when the variety of plant species increased and animals became more abundant. After late summer floods, grass seeds were abundant, and in dry years, native millet and munyeroo were very important.
"These great rivers are our heritage, with their wonderful sudden changes from drought to plenty: Aboriginal people have looked after them for thousands of years", Don Rowlands, Wangkangurru Elder, Diamantina River, Birdsville, Qld.
Exploration and communications, the grazing industry and the pioneer days are all well represented by historic sites. The tracks of the explorers Eyre, Sturt, and Burke and Wills cross the Basin, as do those of the Afghan cameleers that opened up the desert country. Tom Kruse (the Birdsville mailman for 20 years) drove an old Leyland Badger truck from Marree to Birdsville every fortnight between 1930 and 1960 to deliver mail and supplies. The Stockman's Hall of Fame in Longreach celebrates the long history of grazing activities in the Basin, including those of the iconic Kidman and Durack families and the notorious Captain Starlight.
Several important Australian organisations originated in the Lake Eyre Basin, including QANTAS, the Australian Labor Party and the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and one of our most-loved national songs, 'Waltzing Matilda', was first performed in Winton.
Some events, such as the Birdsville Races and the Henley-on-Todd Regatta, bring together residents from across the Basin and tourists from across Australia, and reflect the unique nature of the people of the region.