Lake MacDonnell is arguably the most famous salt lake in South Australia. The stunning lake near Penong off the Eyre Highway is an incredible pink colour, making it a truly unique sight to see on the Far West Coast.
It’s become one of the must-see spots on the Eyre Highway, thanks to its popularity on social media and its very picturesque appearance. If you’re planning a trip to the Eyre Peninsula or a road trip across the Nullarbor Plain, then this article will help you plan a visit to Lake MacDonnell along the way.
Where is Lake MacDonnell?
Lake MacDonnell is just outside of Penong town off the Eyre Highway. Penong is a small town on the western edge of South Australia’s grain growing belt and on the eastern edge of the Nullarbor Plain. It is a small community, with the total population of the area being around 300.
How to reach Lake MacDonnell
To reach Lake MacDonnell, you should take Point Sinclair Road, which is a dirt road heading south from Penong. The road leads to Port Sinclair and Cactus Beach. However, before you reach the coast, about 15km down the road, you’ll come across Lake MacDonnell.
It’s significantly located on the eastern edge of the Nullarbor Plain, making it quite remote. However, for those who are crossing the Nullarbor Plain on the Eyre Highway, it’s an easy side trip from Penong.
You could also easily add the lake onto a trip to the Eyre Peninsula, if you wanted to complete a nice self-guided day trip. From Ceduna in the far north west corner of the peninsula, Penong is only 75km further west from where you can head down to the lake and further onto the surf beach before returning.
About Lake MacDonnell
Lake MacDonnell is the site of a former salt mine and the largest gypsum mine in Australia. It’s quite interestingly considered to be on the largest deposit of gypsum in the entire southern hemisphere. It’s estimated that the deposit may contain as much as 600 million tonnes over an area of 87 square kilometres.
Gypsum has been mined in the area since 1919 and is mostly taken to the port at Thevenard for loading onto ships for further processing elsewhere in Australia.
However, the lake has also become a major tourist attraction in recent years because of the unique colours of the water. The reason Lake MacDonnell stands out from other salt lakes in South Australia is that the two bodies of water next to each other are contrastingly different. One is a bright pink and the other is a bright blue colour, with a road between the two lakes.
This is a major reason why it has become such an Instagram-worthy picture. The unique photo of the coloured lakes next to each other can’t quite be replicated anywhere else. The colours of the water are due to the algae levels and high salinity of the water. The salt loving algae called dunaliella salina combined with the bacteria called halobacteria produces red pigments that makes the water appear bright pink.
When to visit Lake MacDonnell
Unfortunately, Lake MacDonnell isn’t always as pink as you might have seen on social media. The colour is heavily influenced by the seasons and amount of rain that the area has seen.
The lake is at its pinkest colour after rain, when there is plenty of water in the lake. It’s also brightest on a clear and sunny day, when the sun is shining on the water. When it’s cloudy, the colour can look quite dull.
If you visit in summer or after long periods of no rain, the lake may be dry and simply a white crust of salt instead. You will need at least a little water for the colours to come through.
Spring is an ideal time to visit as the weather is getting clearer, and the rainfall from the winter should mean that there is plenty of water. However, no matter what time you visit you’ll be bound to see it in a different light and colour every time.
Visiting Lake MacDonnell
While Lake MacDonnell has become a popular tourist stop, there are no visitor facilities available at the lake. You won’t find any public amenities or even an official rest stop or car park.
This means that you need to be aware of other vehicles and people while stopping to view the lake. Pullover only where and when it is safe to do so and not where you might be blocking the road. Port Sinclair Road is a local road that takes surfers and fishermen down to Cactus Beach and is commonly used, so be aware of any traffic.
You should also take all your rubbish with you and leave no trace after your visit. The environment in this coastal area is very fragile and you should leave the place exactly how you found it.
Staying near Lake MacDonnell
If you wish to stay nearby to Lake MacDonnell, there are a few options to choose from. There is accommodation available in Penong, the nearest town to the lake, including a caravan park and a hotel to suit a range of budgets.
There is also camping available at Point Sinclair near Cactus Beach. The campground has basic facilities but is popular amongst surfers while they wait for decent swell.
Things to see near Lake MacDonnell
If you’re heading to Lake MacDonnell on a day trip or staying overnight nearby, there are some great things to see around the area as well.
Located right in the middle of Penong town, this museum has become a major attraction on the Far West Coast. The Windmill Museum is dedicated to the agricultural history of the area and to the important role that windmills have played in supplying energy to the farming properties.
The open-air gallery has a unique collection of around 20 restored windmills from around the country, including Australia’s biggest windmill, named “Bruce”. It’s a must see when visiting Penong and is a attraction that the whole family will love.
Most keen surfers have heard of Cactus Beach. As one of Australia’s world-class surf beaches, it is a sought-after spot for experienced surfers to head for some killer waves. Located on the eastern side of the Great Australian Bight at Point Sinclair, the beach has been declared a National Surfing Reserve because of its contribution to the national surfing identity.
There are three breaks at the beach, including what are referred to as, Cactus (left), Castles (left) and Caves (right). It can be pretty wild depending on the weather, but the breaks are best reserved for experienced surfers only. The area around Point Sinclair is also quite notorious for Great White Shark sightings, so it’s best to be aware before venturing out into the water.
There is a jetty at Point Sinclair which is popular for fishing and swimming, with a safe swimming enclosure present during summer. It’s also a popular place to have a picnic with toilets and BBQ areas provided, as well as, a campground for those keen on staying the night.
The beach is accessed by Point Sinclair Road, which is the same road as Lake MacDonnell, making them easy places to combine for a little road trip south of Penong.
Be mindful that these locations are out of council areas, meaning that facilities are not put in place, funded or maintained by a government council but are infact the result of efforts by locals. They do these things so they can enjoy them as a community, so while you’re there just remember – be respectful!
If you are into surfing, Gravelle Surfboards calls Penong home. Famous worldwide within the surfing community, Paul Gravelle is a local legend. He has been hand-shaping surf boards for 50 years and is known for his custom styles. His factory is in Penong where he crafts unique boards made especially for his customers.
Nullarbor Link Golf Course
Penong is also an important stop on the Nullarbor Links Golf Course. What is considered the longest golf course in the world, the 18-hole par 72 course spans 1365km across the Nullarbor with one hole in each roadhouse along the Eyre Highway.
It’s a unique way to see the Nullarbor and the Far West Coast and begins in Ceduna continuing to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. Hole 3 is in Penong at the Penong Golf Course so you can have a hit for the day or attempt to finish the whole course over several days.