Blog #11 – The Oodnadatta Track Pt 1 – Days 58 to 66 of 180
Some history first before I get into our trip. The road from Marree to Oodnadatta follows a line of mound springs known for thousands of years by the Aborigines until they were ‘discovered’ in the late 1850s by the explorers. The Oodnadatta track follows almost the same route as that taken by John McDouall Stuart when he successfully crossed Australia in 1862.
Stuart also had the proposed Overland Telegraph Line in mind as he travelled across the desert and eventually the 3178 klm telegraph line was completed in 1872 following much of his route.
Because of the availability of water, Stuart’s route was also chosen for the steam-train powered Central Australian Railway – the original route of the Ghan and work commenced in 1878. Oodnadatta, Aboriginal for ‘Blossom of the Mulga’ was proclaimed a government town in October 1890 in readiness for the coming railway. By 1891 the line from Port Augusta had reached all the way out to Oodnadatta which remained the rail head for the next 40 years. The town became an important centre and soon had a population of 150 people. The Ghan line was finally extended to Alice Springs in 1929.
From Oodnadatta, northbound passengers had to travel by camel to Alice Springs, until that section of the railway was finished in 1929. It is hard to find any tales about what that was like, but a person must have been really motivated to get to Alice Springs, to undertake that camel ride section!
Finally, the rail was extended to Darwin in 1942 to move troops and supplies north during the Second World War. However, when The Ghan stopped coming through in 1980, the population of Oodnadatta (and the other towns along this route) declined rapidly.
Some of the visible remains of the Ghan railway are the many bridges and Fettler Cottages. Some can still be seen at Marree, Wangianna, Curdimurka, Margaret, Coward Springs, Beresford, Anna Creek, Boorthanna, Edwards Creek, Warrina, Peake Creek, Algebuckina and Mount Dutton.
Lake Eyre was named in honour of Edward John Eyre, who was the first European to see it in 1840. The lake’s official name was changed in December 2012 to combine the name “Lake Eyre” with the indigenous name, Kati Thanda. Native title over the lake and surrounding region is held by the Arabana people.
With the coming of diesel-powered railway engines, the days of the Old Ghan route were numbered. A road, of sorts, had been constructed from Port Augusta to Darwin during WW2, following higher ground well to the west of the train route. That was to become the Stuart Highway. In 1980, a new rail line was opened that roughly paralleled the highway, and avoided the flood prone sections of the old railway. The Old Ghan line and its associated infrastructure, fell into disrepair; the townships that had serviced the railway, shrank to either ghost towns or small, mostly indigenous, settlements.
The track now is on the iconic list of must dos for 4WD enthusiasts but in truth can be done by 2WD although it is not advisable as the road has lots of stones that will damage the underbody of the vehicles. In many sections, driving well equipped 4WDs, we were down to 40 klm/hr due to heavy corrugations.
Our trip along The Oodnadatta Track
Rolled into Marree in the early afternoon and first order of business was to go into the pub and organize a one-night stay in their backyard. Most outback pubs will let you camp and provide toilets and showers for a nominal fee if you will eat dinner and have a few drinks. In this case the hot showers where a $2 donation to the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). Setup camp, had a shower, threw on some fresh clothes and into the pub to book a timeslot for dinner. Surprisingly we have found these bush pubs very, very busy and this one was no different – our dinner slot was to be 7.30 that night as they had a coach load of tourists coming in for dinner.
Marree was one of the main rail hubs for the old Ghan line. Here the rail gauge scaled down from standard gauge to narrow gauge. All passengers alighted and went to the pub whilst the railway gangers lifted each coach off its standard gauge dollys and placed them onto a narrow gauge dollys then hooked the train up to a new engine ready for departure. I ran into an old aboriginal who worked the line back in the 1970s who told me it was ‘bloody hard yakka young bloke’ and I truly believe him! It would have been very hard on the workers during the summertime.
This small town is where the Birdsville Track ends (begins?) and also where the legendary mail man ran his business. Esmond Gerald (Tom) Kruse is legendary for running the mail and supplies up the Birdsville Track from the early 1950s. To most older Australians he became legendary after a docudrama titled “The Back of Beyond” was released in 1954 (the year I was born!). It is hard to imagine how hard it would have been travelling the roads back in those days in very primitive trucks compared to today’s models. His 1936 Leyland Badger was later restored for a documentary in 1999 called The Last Mail to Birdsville when Tom was 85yo. There is a museum in the pub to his exploits plus an old Blitz truck near the railway station.
The Marree Hotel was built in 1883 and is a lovely heritage listed building with 12 original rooms plus 28 ensuite cabins out in the yard plus room for us grey nomads and our vans and trailers. The food was good and fresh and beer was icy cold – a good recommendation for any outback pub.
Next morning bright and early it was back into the pub for a typical aussie breakfast of bacon & eggs on toast washed down with strong tea. And surprise, surprise my 86yo mother rings me to find out where I am!!! I loved the shock in her voice when I said I was in the pub – I promised I wasn’t drinking beer at that hour of the day although I am sure the publican would have obliged if I had asked.
Time to hit the road the next nights stop would be Coward Springs so only a short drive of 140 klm and time to explore. As we were following the old Ghan railway line there are numerous sidings, now lying-in ruins, every 20 to 30 klms. Many of these sidings had a huge water tank on stilts, plus a desalination plant if the bore water was too harsh, plus a fettler’s cottage and maybe a large coal bunker. It is hard to imagine these days of the labor intensity required to run these old-style railways.
Callanna Siding was the first stop, just 14 km out of Marree, and is the first of many relics of the Old Ghan railway line. A rusty water tower and pipe is all that is left. These railway sidings were watering & coaling places for the steam locomotives of the old Ghan railway. Fettlers lived in small cottages at the sidings and maintained the site as well as the railway line between the sidings. Some of the sidings were in better condition than others. All of the rail line was either re-purposed or taken away for smelting in the 1980s. The large water tanks and distillers are now rusting away and the buildings slowly crumbling into the dust.
What was left of each siding’s buildings had been vandalized and graffitied – this had to have been done by travelers. What is it about some people, who can’t leave a piece of our heritage standing, be it natural or manmade, without decorating same with their initials? Personally, I do not give a tinker’s damn that some muppet was here, whenever! Given the good condition of this track, it was not really an achievement to boast about either, by tagging places.
In my research on what there was to see out along the Oodnadatta track I had read about the Mutoid Waste Company’s post-apocalyptic Sculpture Park. A fellow traveller had this to say about this park (Max Anderson) on a traveller website: “To say it is a park is an over exaggeration basically it is a few acres of scrub, but it’s famous for “Plane Henge”, two Cessnas standing Christ-like on their tails touching wingtip to wingtip. They’re fabulous when viewed on the biblical horizons of the Oodnadatta Track, but just as good up close. ‘Conceived and raised by Mutoid Waste Company to mark the passage of the Earth Dream Journey 28 May 2000’ reads an inscription. The fuselages are painted with quasi-indigenous earth spirits – quite serene against the acid blue of the sky. Galahs have nested in the nose of one of the aircraft, small, noisy splashes of pink.
Mechanic Robin “Mutoid” Cooke added a new sculpture to his park each year, transforming materials that would not rot away. Today, gleeful giants fashioned from steel rails and engine blocks dance under the sun. There’s a steel tree of knowledge and a xylophone fashioned from hub caps invites travellers to make desert music.
All of it has been dubbed – rather brilliantly – “recycladelic”. “ I could not have said it better myself. It truly was an epic site in the desert emptiness of the Oodnadatta Track.
The next highlight along the road is the lookout at Kati Thandi – Lake Eyre South. There is a viewing point (with interpretive signs about geology, history, flora etc) about halfway between Marree and William Creek. Lake Eyre is probably the most famous feature along the Oodnadatta Track. The usually dry salt lake covers an area of 9700 km² and is up to 15m below sea level. You can’t truly appreciate the dimensions of Lake Eyre from this viewing point, so it is recommended to take a scenic flight from Marree or William Creek.
Warning! Don’t even think about driving out on the lake, even if it looks dry. Your car will break through the saline crust, and you will get bogged in the mud. When we stopped here, we could see 4WD tracks heading down to the edge but no tracks on the salt lake itself.
Curdimurka Siding was the next stop. This siding was in the best condition of all the sidings we stopped at. We took the obligatory photos and kept on travelling. Up until the 1990s a yearly event called the Curdimurka Ball was held with up to 1800 attendees to raise fund for the historic Ghan.
During our travels we had seen many abandoned farmhouses and I felt rather sad seeing these ruins as I drive up through central South Australia as many of them represent the broken dreams of many people who came out here to farm and make a living in this rather inhospitable country.
Coward Springs was to be our camping spot and was an oasis in the middle of a terribly corrugated section of road 15klms either side of this old siding. The station now serves as a tourist spot to camp and relax in the mineral springs (a lovely 29.5 degC year-round). The 2021 cost is $15 a night per vehicle or $2 each if you just want to stop for a quick swim. We opted for 3 days of relaxation with no communications except if you had an Optus service then it was full on (very weird). The second night we were relaxing in our rock star location hidden from the other campers (it pays to get to these places early!!) and we had seen Scott, the manager, put out a sign saying that another area was reserved for a group of campers across from us but had already put another couple in that area. Late that afternoon the other tour group showed up and this extremely obnoxious women from that group stalked over to this couple and said that this area was reserved for her and her friends only and they should pack up and move immediately. We had front row seats to this display and to say I was disgusted by her attitude would be an understatement!!! I thought the aggrieved couple showed great charm in not responding violently to this verbal assault – I would have told her to eff off in no uncertain terms as they were setup before the reservation sign was put up. I was so affronted by the behaviour that I wend my way through the shrubs over to the couple and told them that I had witnessed the abuse which was not of their doing and that they were welcome to come over and have a couple of beers with us and relax.
They did pop over and introduce themselves, Jim & Susan, they were on their way back to work at the William Creek Hotel, we had a lovely chat and a couple of beers. They thanked us for our concern for their welfare which was not required – in my opinion bullying behaviour should be stamped on at every opportunity.
As fate would have it, they were packing up the next day and their car wouldn’t start. Could we help – blood oath we could! So first up leant them my jump starter kit but that was no go so drove my car around to do an old-fashioned jump start. Finally got them started and on their way before they would have been late for their shifts starting at 11am that morning. We were leaving the next day and had not intended stopping at William Creek but modified our plan to stay there for three days and catch up with our new friends.
We had missed the turnoff to the mound springs known as The Chalice & The Bubbler just south of Coward Springs so went down to have a look. The road in was very corrugated and rough and to our surprise the first mound spring had about 40 tourists there so we continued onto the second one called The Bubbler. These are quite unique and have been around for thousands of years.
I had been hoping to photograph the three resident brolgas living in the wetlands near Coward Springs but the closest I came was to hear them fly by one way at dawn then again on dusk giving me the equivalent brolga bronx cheer as the light was too low for flying birds – cheeky sods!! We were however entertained at night by numerous small field mice playing hide and seek around our campers. This was fun to watch in the firelight until the little buggers raided our pantry and sampled 5 packets of noodles and a pack of biscuits. We learned to close the lid on the dry food pantry (a 73 litre AluBox) that night and broke up the noodle packets and biscuits and fed the little vermin rather than just throw the food into the tip. Lessons learned for the future.
The next day we packed and headed for William Creek just a short 75klms away. About 20 klms further on we saw the signs for the next siding – Beresford Siding. Compared to other railway ruins this one was still standing but rusting away in the sunlight. To tell you the truth if we had known about this good camping spot, I would have just had a soak in Coward Springs for $2 each and kept going and stayed there. This siding was the best campsite we had seen so far on the track, and it is free camping, with plenty of firewood available.
William Creek is another lonely little outpost on the track offering food and shelter to travelers during the cooler months. This is the smallest town in South Australia with a current population of 12. It virtually shuts down in the summer due to the extreme temperatures and a lack of travelers. The place is left to the flies and the hardy residents. We booked in for 3 days as I knew I may not get a chance to do the aerial photography I wanted to do (still kicking myself for not taking a flight around Wilpena Pound). The company that provides flights around both places is called Wrightsair and is staffed by some of the youngest bush pilots you will ever meet. Average age is around 21. When I checked in there was nothing available that catered for aerial photography but if they could get enough starters, they would let me know.
The caravan park was quite well laid out with good amenities so we setup in the unpowered sites up the back around 400 metres from the pub. It is appreciably cheaper if you can stay off grid when camping especially when you are on the road like us for six months. Powered sites generally cost double to triple the cost of an unpowered site. Most places charge between $10 to $17.50 a night – National Parks are the most expensive we have stayed at plus having to pay entry fees as well.
We opted not to cook at night for our stay here and eat out at the pub. Unfortunately, a lot of the original graffiti on the ceilings and walls has gone when it is was refurbished some years ago but there still is a lot there. The characters we ran into in this pub were no exception. The first night we made friends with a young bloke called Ajay who was there working at the hotel but hoping to get a chance at becoming a Wrightsair pilot flying around the lakes and hills but working as a barman to keep him going – he has graduated with a mechanical engineering degree plus a twin engine aircraft rating so he is a very clever lad. Fingers crossed he will get that opportunity before the season closes in September. Our new friends Jim & Susan were both working that first night so we agreed to have dinner together on the second night. Full of good cheer (spiced rum & coke for me) and a good meal we returned to the bar where I met a group of young pilots. They told me the best way to get what I want was to hire the aircraft myself. Not sure what that price would be (thinking it would be well over my budget) had a few more drinks then it was off back to our campsite as I might have an early flight the next morning. No such luck so stayed in camp typing the blog and selecting photos from the Peterborough & Wilpena Pound blog. Again, no Telstra service out here but if you’re with Optus you are fine. How bizarre that Australia’s largest telco is not available in the bush where it is needed the most. Wandered down to the flight office to enquire what was available and was offered a flight that afternoon and would I require the door off the aircraft. Hmmm, caution said that the windows open would be sufficient and it was organised for 4pm that afternoon. The rate would be $400 per hour or part thereof which, to me, was cheap as all other offerings started at $300 per person without an option to open the window so I could take photos.
Charged up the batteries for the cameras and cleared off the CF & SD cards I would need for the afternoon. I had been told that it would be chilly at 1500 feet altitude so wore long johns for the first time this trip plus carried my thickest jacket. Rocked up at 1545 for the flight and was met by a lovely young lady pilot called Hannah. She told me she had 70 hours of experience flying the Cessna 172 we would be using. Never having been a pilot 70 hours did not seem much but away we went. These small aircraft are not very spacious and it was a bit of a struggle for me to squeeze into the backseat without standing on anything breakable in the aircraft. Once inside and strapped in it was quite comfortable. Because of the lateness of the day, we could not do both Lake Eyre & the Painted Hills as the aircraft had to be back on the ground no later than 6pm (sunset) as it was a company requirement.
The Anna Creek Painted Hills is a spectacular and recently discovered section of the pristine Breakaways country in the far north of South Australia. Breakaway country appears around Coober Pedy, Oodnadatta, Copper Hills, Arckaringa Hills, William Creek and Evelyn Downs.
The Anna Creek Painted Hills offers an amazing sight by air. It is a rocky outcrop of large and small hills, which emerge suddenly out of a flat, desert landscape. The area can only be accessed by air, due to its fragility and natural beauty.
I opted for the Painted Hills given that there was less than 20% of water in Lake Eyre plus the Painted Hills were in a remote part of Anna Station where there were no roads or public access. The flight was thoroughly enjoyable although I don’t know whether my photographic skills were up to the task as I had not done any aerial photography before. Hannah was an excellent pilot and fun to talk too about how she ended up out here as a bush pilot. You will have to come here yourself and ask her. The other major reason we had to be back in town that evening was that the ringers from the surrounding stations were coming to town (and one of them from Anna Station was her boyfriend) before mustering started. I thoroughly enjoyed the flight and hopefully some of the shots turned out. We were out 1.2 hours which came to the princely sum of $473.50 (including the usual credit card charge) which I thought was quite cheap as I had seen a quote for $580 each to do the same but it needed six people.
That night in the pub we had dinner with Susan & Jim and shared a couple of bottles of red. It was a lovely night. It is always good to make new friends especially when you are a long way from home. Also bought Hannah a couple of drinks for being my excellent pilot that day and met her boyfriend. Another young bloke we met that night was Rudy who had driven over 100 klm from Peake Station to come in for that one night. All the ringers could get together before mustering which would take up the next three weeks without any days off. He was like a cutout from a western with a very droll voice and extremely matter of fact. We were asking about what it was like being a ringer on these vast properties and I was amazed what a life they lead now that horses are no longer used and everything is done by ute (Toyota 79 series no less) and motorbikes. Nor did I know that they have quite a lot of feral animals out there which the owners require them to shoot onsite. A truly fascinating character and thoroughly nice young man to meet. These properties are also adjacent to the Dingo fence. This is the longest fence in Australia (some 2100 klms) that keeps dingoes out of the sheep and cattle grazing properties to protect them from high stock losses from this apex predator. Each section has to be maintained by the properties adjacent to the nominated fenceline. Needless to say, all the ringers were there for a good time and drank until 2am before piling into their utes and driving 20 klms to Anna Creek station to sleep it off before going to their own stations. I left at 11pm when they started doing shooters and arranged for Ajay to come and visit us the next day so he could go for a run on the UBCO 2×2 bike. The ringers closed the bar out at 2am – I was glad to be in bed long before then.
In the morning I travelled back to Strangways as it is another historic site about two kilometres west of the Oodnadatta Track. It is about 39 klm from William Creek and I had missed the turnoff on the drive up. This site was one of many repeater stations along the Overland Telegraph Line. A fence protects the historic site. There’s a low stile to climb over. The walk to the ruins over stony terrain up a small hummock was not too bad with my arthritic knees, however, the outlook is worth the effort. Some stone-walled sheep pens and a large stone tank, which actually looks like the ruin of a house without doors, is all what remained of the former station.
Ajay came around after his shift that afternoon and had a beer before taking the bike for a ride around town. He was very impressed and had a ball. I was glad to make him the offer as there is not much else to do out in William Creek as it is in the middle of somewhere and nowhere.
Next morning, we packed up, hooked up and drove down to the pub. Had an early breakfast there and said farewell to our new friends before hitting the road to our planned next night’s stop at Algeburkina Bridge. This section was around 170 klm and whilst there were other sidings we could have visited the roads in were extremely corrugated and would rattle your fillings out. After the second track we opted to stay on the main gravel road and get to Algeburkina Bridge and a campsite on the far side of the bridge that I had read about.
Unfortunately, when we got there, we found that the track to the campsite we wanted to use was blocked off by large boulders. The weather that day had turned and we had a freezing 30 knot breeze blowing into the other campsites so opted not to stay here. Could not even launch the drone to take a photo of this old ½ kilometer long steel bridge. So took some images and also chatted to some other travelers who had shown up about their plans. They also opted to push on to Oodnadatta as it is was freezing in the open camping spaces there.
It was well after lunch as we pushed on the road through the gibber plains. These blackened stones gleam like they are wet when the sun strikes them. It is hard to get over that nothing grows out here except saltbush and rocks. Even paddy melons don’t grow here. We saw no wildlife and no stock along this section of the track. We did however see many hand painted pink signs welcoming us to the joys of Oodnadatta at the Pink Roadhouse for the last 20 klm into town.
It was early afternoon by the time we arrived and we made a decision that late lunch first before booking in here for two nights. Both vehicles had suffered some damage with Greg losing his electrical connection to his van having pulled out and then shredded on the road plus I had a racket from my underbelly bash plate losing a couple of bolts so was making a racket banging under the car. This track can be tough on vehicles, trailers & caravans. Luckily, I had the correct 7 pin plug fitting needed so all the mechanic/auto electrician had to do was splice that into the shredded wires. Cost $20 cash. For me it was finding the correct size bolts to fit into the plate and tighten them in. You guessed it price $20 cash. Whilst the work was being done, we had an Oodnaburger with chips for our late lunch – a huge meal.
The caravan park was in the street behind the roadhouse so lunch finished and both vehicles repaired we went to setup camp. A very reasonable fee of $12.50 a night for each of us in the unpowered section but the very chirpy lady said we could hook up to the power if we wanted too. We declined as we could see a lot more travelers starting to roll in and wanted to get setup and have a hot shower before the place became over run. The facilities are very, very old and did not impress Greg very much. I was just happy that the shower was hot and the toilet was clean. Apart from the roadhouse there is not much to see in this small town. For travelers this little outpost was the place to have a beer and swap stories then continue on. The very cheerful lady running the place was full of interesting little tidbits of things to see and do in the surrounding countryside. I was telling her about the Painted Hills on Anna Creek Station and she said there were better examples on Arckaringa Station some 75 klm away on the road to Coober Pedy.
Luckily Oodnadatta has Telstra 4G so did some research and found a contact number for the station. Spoke to a lovely lady called Katy who said they had plenty of room and the cost was only $10 a night. They had hot showers & toilets next to the camping ground. That sounded good to me so our next stage was booked even though it was deviating from our plans. That night we ran into another group of travelers who had just come down the track from Dalhousie Springs and said it was a fantastic place to stay.
Greg and I started to modify our travel arrangements and planned some deviations from our original plan. As we were running out of supplies, we now planned to push on from Arckaringa down to Coober Pedy as we were told they had a very good supermarket there. It was a bit of a deviation from the plan but neither of us had been there so it was worth the effort. We had also planned to be at Finke for the annual desert race from Alice Springs, held on the long weekend in June, so we had to fill in a number of days so we were not stuck in Finke for too long.
Also did another favour for a fellow traveler who had broken a grey Anderson plug on his wiring hitch. The roadhouse wanted $30 for a replacement and as I had a box full of them (I had bought 20 on eBay months ago very cheaply) I made his day by giving him one of my spares for free – hopefully I won’t break that many on this trip! Maybe somewhere along the roads I may need a similar favour.
Had a relaxing second day and did a load of washing plus topped off the water tanks (whenever I get a chance, I make sure the two water tanks are full as this is a very dry country out here). Dinner again that night at the roadhouse and two lovely bottles of red to wash it down then off to bed as we had a relatively early start the next day.
Left Oodnadatta at 9am after a final hearty breakfast at the roadhouse. Greg opted to fill up before we left – diesel price here was 198.9 cents per litre – so you need deep pockets to fill up. I still had ¾ tank so opted to fill up in Coober Pedy some 180 klm away where the diesel price was only 150.9 cents per litre.
Next time it will be The Painted Desert & Coober Pedy.