A circuit beneath the Strath Taieri sky

The mineral accumulation of Sutton Salt Lake makes for an interesting water feature around which...
The mineral accumulation of Sutton Salt Lake makes for an interesting water feature around which to walk. PHOTO: CLARE FRASER
Inland from Otago’s coast is a whole other world of rocks and barrenness. New Zealand’s only inland salt lake adds to the bizarre landscape. A walking track around it’s shores takes about an hour.

Sutton Salt Lake is high up on the Strath Taieri Plain near Middlemarch. Even though the landscape is flat for miles there is something in the air that lets you know you are high above the sea. Big skies, distant mountain ranges, landscapes reminiscent of moonscapes and high-altitude peace.

The lake sits in its own small basin, hence its existence. As rain trickles down through the surrounding schisty soils, water gathers natural salts and collects in this shallow dip.

There is not much rainfall, only half what the coast gets, but tiny particles in rainwater add to the saltiness.

A hardy kowhai braves the saline soil, while a scatter of red spinach colonizes 
the shore.
A hardy kowhai braves the saline soil, while a scatter of red spinach colonizes the shore.
With no lake outlet, the water has nowhere to go. Strong winds mean there is a high evaporation rate but the salts stay behind, stranded.

Visibly salt-encrusted "high tide" marks encircle the lake. Depending on how full it is, the lake is only about half as salty as the sea. Taste and see. It is so shallow that on a hot day it is warmer than a child’s paddling pool.

Native broom
Native broom
Native broom, tussock, speargrass and NZ spinach — an unusual red colour — grow lakeside. Presumably the spinach’s colour is due to the salts. It is still edible but more bitter than normal.

The track itself is so good that a barefoot runner was giving it a go the day I visited. Lizards scuttle across the path, crickets shimmer in the distance and day-flying moths flit relaxedly around.

A hitchhiker
A hitchhiker
Even the flies seem particularly happy in the safety of this scenic reserve. One alighted on my bare shoulder and had the confidence to hitchhike a good hundred metres. Alone in nature, I was charmed by my wild pet.

Later though, the ODT’s Anthony Harris informed me my travelling companion was probably a striped dung fly (Hybopygia varia) that breeds in rotting vegetation and cattle droppings. They are attracted to perspiring human skin.

 

 - Clare Fraser

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