Discovering Lake Ballard

Discovering Lake Ballard


One of the world's most unique art installations, by Kerri McConnel

The mirage shimmers in the distance. Up close, the surface is a salty white and yet as I walk over it, my boots sink through the crunchy crust exposing rich red earth that obstinately adheres itself to their soles. Straining my eyes across the blinding reflection created by the salty exterior, I can see thin, black sticks protruding up from the ground. I am standing on Lake Ballard, one of Australia’s largest inter-connected salt lakes and these “sticks” casting long shadows over the ground are part of Australia’s largest outdoor art gallery.

It’s no easy feat to get here. From Kalgoorlie, the journey has covered about 200 kilometres including a quarter of them along a dusty unsealed road. I pass through the small mining town of Menzies, a town that boomed in the gold rush era of the 1890s. Gold was discovered here in 1891 and by 1896 the population had swelled to 10,000 people. The railway from Kalgoorlie to Menzies opened in 1898, further fuelling the prosperity of this town.

A decade later, the mining had declined and the population had dropped considerably to 1,000. The onset of World War Two hastened this decline. Today, only 100 or so people live here. They rely on water being delivered via trucks and generators provide their electricity. There’s a pub with a new owner, a cafe and a place for the Grey Nomads to park their vehicles overnight. Our tour guide tells us “The Royal Flying Doctor Service comes once a month”. “If you are going to be sick that’s the best day to do it”, she says with a smile on her face. 

Ever since I had heard about Lake Ballard, I wanted to visit. Not because I know anything about art, but the location fascinated me. Now that I was here, standing in the middle of the lake, I understood why. There’s something quintessentially Australian about this place. The fact that it feels as though it's in the middle of nowhere and that it’s taken quite some time to drive here further supports this. Its history is enveloped in Aboriginal culture. The site is sacred to the Wongi/Wangkatha people. Lake Ballard is an integral part of one of their Dreamtime stories, where the Seven Sisters stars came down to the lake to play but were chased by an evil man.

Lake Ballard Sculpture

Lake Ballard Sculpture

Pub, Menzies

Pub, Menzies

As the story unfolds, best told by Aboriginal elders, there are parts of the lake, like the islands, that became important to their story. Snake Island, the first one I encountered as I started my walk onto the lake’s surface, is said to be the eldest of the seven.

Spread across 10 square kilometres of salt lake are 51 sculptures designed by artist Antony Gormley, the result of a commission by the Perth International Arts Festival. This installation, known collectively as ‘Inside Australia’, is unique not only for the location but also the way in which they were created.

With a 3D body scanner imported from the USA, Gormley invited people from the community of Menzies to strip off all in the name of art. Set up in the City Hall, those who volunteered were scanned. Later these scans were manipulated further to create an abstract form of each body and finally cast into these sculptures using an alloy made from Western Australian metals.

Like the trip to get here, viewing them should be considered a journey in itself, with not all visible from one location. Spread out across the lake, it would take approximately two hours to view them all and will offer a different perspective depending on the time of day you visit. In the early hours of the morning, I imagine they would be quite eerie as they emerge from the darkness into the soft light. 
For a totally different perspective, I climbed Snake Island. The wind was howling around me, making everything about the climb challenging, but the view at the top my reward. From here, a 360-degree view of the lake is on offer as far as the eye can see and I can see many of the sculptures. The mirage in the distance seems closer from up here and I reflect on how early explorers would have found this effect incredibly confusing. 

The Inside Australia sculptures were gifted to the Perth International Arts Festival and were later handed over to the city of Menzies.

Lake Ballard is best visited between April and October. Discover Scenic's handcrafted Australia tours.


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