The Murray-Sunset National Park and its Pink Salt Lakes

A long time ago, the area that encompasses today's Murray-Sunset National Park was covered by the sea.
As the planet dried out under the influence of an Ice Age, the sea retreated but large areas of salt water remained trapped within a layer of porous sand.

Then millions of tons of sand were stirred up by the wind and dumped across the Mallee to build a vast field of sand dunes.
The underground water escaped into deep depressions between the dunes and over thousands of years, the water has evaporated under the hot, Mallee sun creating these lakes of pure salt.

Each winter the underground water rises and seeps out at the edge of the lakes covering them with more salt water.
The underground water which seeps into the lakes is 800 times more salty than sea water.
As summer begins, the water evaporates leaving salt crystals on the surface.

The salt from Pink Lakes has been tested as 99% pure.
This quality led to commercial salt harvesting from 1916 till 1979.

This one inch layer of fresh pure salt was mined between November and April - the hottest part of the year.
As much as 500 tons of salt could be scooped from the lakes in a day and during peak production from Lakes Crosbie, Becking and Kenyon a harvest could yield 10'000 tons... at 10mgs per day, that's enough salt for nearly 3 million people for a year!

Salt has been used extensively for hundreds of years by householders, farmers and industry.
Before refrigeration, salt was used to preserve meat and is still used today for pickling.
Stock licks were manufactured for cattle and sheep.
Salt is used in the manufacture of pesticides, fungicides and weedkillers and in the production of drugs and plastics.
Salt yields very pure caustic soda for soap products, chlorine and hydrochloric acid used in the metal and food industries.

The thirstiest job in the world
Imagine the constant taste of salt on your tongue ... and salt sticking to he sweat on your skin.
Imagine the glare blinding your eyes and holes in your boots where salt has worn them down.
Salt harvesting began at Pink Lakes in 1916 and was backbreaking work in temperatures of over 40 degrees.
The work was done by hand.
Workers shovelled the salt into wheelbarrows and carted it across planks to the shore.

Dry salt was broken up with picks and loaded into sacks.
The intensity of the Mallee sun left many itinerant workers from the city, sick with the heat.
But local farmers who took advantage of the seasonal work seemed to fare better.
Neville Kline described his father Jim ...
"He was as black as a dog's gut but never got the melanoma - probably because he had an inch of leather for skin.
He was strong too.
Salt is heavy stuff and goes hard when it's damp.
They had to blow the stockpiles up with gelignite and crush it to get it into bags."

Over the years, scarifiers and horse-drawn scrapers were used to scrape the salt surface and were pulled by horses.
Salt is very abrasive and a set of horse shoes would last only 7 - 8 days.
Later, tractors and conveyors made some improvement to conditions but salt harvesting would always be a tough job.

Beasts of Burden
Horses played an important role in salt harvesting for many years dragging back-scrapers across the rakes and providing transportation for the workers.
Both horse and bullock teams pulled wagons heavily loaded with bagged salt to the Linga and Underbool Railway sidings ... a two day journey.
Camel teams were introduced in 1922 and remained the fastest and most reliable transport until 1935, taking only a day from Lake Crosbie to the railway.

A tram line from Lake Becking to Linga was constructed in the 1920's but was plagued with difficulties.
The tram's engine caught fire on the first trip when salt bush blew onto the track and ignited.
The track was frequently buried under drifting sands and the engine had to be hauled over high ridges.
The line was abandoned within two years.
By the 1940's machines had replaced the horses and trucks became the most efficient means of carting the salt.

"I can still hear the tingle of bells on the camels in my ears ....
The idea was when turned loose on the reserves to water and feed and rest they often wandered away.
One could hear the tingle and that would guide the driver to where the camels were.
I think they used to make two trips to Linga station in three days.
A strong camel could carry four bags of salt roped to a pad on the animal's back and a weak or pregnant camel, two bags, and salt in bags weighed 12 bags to the ton.
Quite a sizeable load when a camel train could consist of from 12 to 20 beasts."
Frederick R. Butler, regular visitor

"The camels lived on the most natural grasses and vegetation they could reach.
Most of the trees in the area were trimmed up to the height the camels could reach, especially the Murray Pines. "
From F. R. Butler's notes.

History of the Pink Lakes

Doing time at the salt mines


The outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 increased the demand for salt.
Ebenezer Jones, the store keeper at Underbool, seized the opportunity to begin commercial salt harvesting at Pink Lakes.
The hard work was done with picks and shovels.


Scarifiers were introduced to break up the salt crust and dragged out by horse-drawn scrapers.


Afghan drivers and their teams of camels were brought in from Broken Hill to cart salt to the railways at Linga and Underbool.


The ill-fated tram line from Lake Becking to the Linga railway line opened.


The Great Depression began and the salt mines attracted itinerant workers from far and wide.
Many arrived on foot, others on pushbike or horseback.


The last of the camel teams departed having been replaced by trucks.
Other improvement included salt crushers and washers and a belt conveyor to load bags of salt onto the trucks.


An agreement was reached with Ebenezer Jones to supply salt to the eastern states under National Security Regulations during World War 2.


Italian internees were put to work at Pink Lakes and a large camp was built at Lake Crosbie to house them.


Imperial Chemical Industries took over all the leases of Pink Lakes and modern mechanisation was introduced.
Rubber-tyred tractors, graders, a specifically designed salt-harvesting machine and mechanical loader simplified operations and speed up the harvest.


Harvesting at Lake Becking ceased.
Mining continued at Lake Crosbie with the lease being granted on a year by year basis.


Pink Lakes declared a state park and salt harvesting ended.
The nearby stock-pile and assortment of rusting equipment was abandoned ... the only reminders of a once flourishing local industry.


Pink Lakes incorporated into Murray Sunset National Park.

Why are the Pink Lakes Flamingo Pink?
It was once thought that red Mallee dust coloured the lakes.
The land around them was reserved from sale to prevent them from filling with windblown soil.
But the colour doesn't come from dust - it comes from a microscopic animal-like plant, a single-celled alga called Dunaliella Salina.

The water in these lakes can be 800 times saltier than the sea.

One of the very few things that can live in these lakes is this tiny alga which survives in many extremely salt-laden lakes and ponds around the world such as the Dead Sea, Great Salt Lake of Utah and Lake Eyre in South Australia.

This alga secretes the red pigment beta-carotene, a red-colouring which occurs naturally in oranges, carrots, egg yolk and lobsters and gives flamingos their colour.

Each cup-shaped oval to elongate cell (alga) possesses two flagellae (antenna-like growths).
The red beta-carotene droplets protect the delicate creatures from the light rays.
At times the Beta-carotene accounts for as much as 40% of algae body weight.

Temperatures, salinity and light intensity affect the growth of these tiny Dunaliella.
It flourishes under warm conditions, the optimum growth temperature being around 26°C.

Reed pigment (beta-carotene) excreted from the Pink algae combines with the water salt to produce a pink colour - best seen in winter and spring following some rain - casting that special pink glow across the lakes.

Shrimp fee on this "algal soup" and then become food for birds of the wetlands across other parts of the world.
Red-necked Avocats use their special curved beak to stir up small shrimp and insects that feed on the pink algae.

What else survives under these conditions?

Grey Glasswort

This leafless plant stores water in fleshy, jointed stem and has a tough, insulating "skin" to limit moisture loss In hot weather.
As the plant absorbs water from the soil, salt is filtered out and pushed to the end of the stems.
The tips eventually die and fall off.

Salt Paperbarks

Among the most salt-tolerant plants at Pink Lakes, the Salt Paper-bark is the only tree.
An extensive root system filters water from the soil leaving toxic salts behind.
Many layers of papery bark and tough, leathery leaves help reduce moisture loss.

Salt Paperbark is another salt-tolerant indigenous plant that offers food and shelter to Mallee plants and animals.



No liability for timeliness, integrity and correctness of this document is accepted.
Last updated: Wednesday, 03.06.2009 5:38 PM