Imagine. Your own private beach and views from your porch to water as far as you can see – all for $5,000.
That is not a misprint. It was the price Don Murphy, 76, recently paid for a waterfront house on the shores of Menindee Lake in the hamlet of Sunset Strip, more than 100km east of Broken Hill in the
New South Wales outback.
The house came with a car, furniture and utensils, but there are a few catches.
“It’s a very old house,” Murphy says. “A big tree fell down and wrecked half the roof.”
After the previous owner died, their family was happy to get rid of it, Murphy says. He’s had to take five trailer loads to the tip. The car in the garage went to the tip too. Now he’s wondering how to get 10-metre-long roofing materials from Broken Hill.
Also, the lake is not always there.
The Menindee lakes, which are an important sacred site for the Baaka people who have lived there for over 40,000 years, hold three and a half times the volume of Sydney Harbour when full, and cover 475 sq km. But the lakes are ephemeral and
depend on flows down the Baaka-Darling river from hundreds of kilometres away.
Menindee, population 551, is a seven-hour drive from the nearest capital city, Adelaide, much of it along outback dirt roads. The nearest airport is 110km away at Broken Hill.
It’s a one-pub town that depends on the Flying Doctor service, one nurse and the Rural Fire Service to deliver healthcare.
Sunset Strip, 20km out of town on the edge of the largest lake, feels a bit like Palm Springs meets a shanty town, though unlike Palm Springs, famous for its mid-century buildings, no architect ever set foot there.
Developed in the 1950s and 60s as the playground for the mine managers and executives from BHP’s mines at Broken Hill, it sprang up along the lake shore as a respite from the dust and heat of the famous mining town.
But it was in those years that the lakes were converted to a water storage, a decision that now has profound implications for the town – and for Murphy’s waterfront idyll.
They were linked to the river and each other by building gates and channels.
In 2015 and 2017 the NSW government and the
Murray-Darling Basin Authority decided to empty the lakes and send the water to South Australia, ahead of forecast dry seasons, to avoid losing water to evaporation in the hot, dry climate of Menindee.
That meant the Menindee lakes were empty through one of the worst droughts NSW has seen.
And it left Menindee without the tourist dollars that streams of grey nomads bring when they travel to see the miraculous lakes.
Now 60% full after recent rain, the lakes are again drawing the visitors. Migratory birds are returning, eagles fly overhead and golden perch, which spend their infancy in the lakes, are spawning.
But Menindee’s place on the tourist trail is fragile, just as Murphy’s waterfront view is.
A plan to shrink the lake system as a more permanent water saving arrangement is
now under review. Alternative plans include building up the northern lakes and leaving the southern Menindee and Cawndilla lakes empty more often.
That would leave Sunset Strip and its waterfront high and dry.
Sunset Strip property prices have crashed as a result of the management of the lake in recent years.
“It won’t last long. They are already starting to drain it,” Murphy says, referring to moves this week to send about 30m litres of water, about 4% of the lake volume, south.
“They will drain them for sure, there’s no risk of that.”
His plan is to renovate “a little bit at a time” and enjoy the lake view while it lasts.