Oodnadatta Track

Thursday, Jul 15, 1999 at 00:00

ExplorOz - David & Michelle

Following the Oodnadatta Track is a journey back to the days of early European exploration and settlement. The most obvious historical relics are the last remaining sleepers and ruins of the original Ghan railway that run alongside the track from MAREE to WILLIAM CREEK.

The Oodnadatta Track is usually referred to as the stretch of good dirt road from Maree through to Oodnadatta which follows a major Aboriginal trade route, the original track taken by the explorer Stuart, the Overland Telegraph Line and the Old Ghan Railway Line. Along the route there are mound springs, Lake Eyre (Australia's largest lake), the biggest cattle station in the world (Anna Creek Station - owned by Kidman) and an everchanging countryside that is both harsh and beautiful.

As I mentioned previously on the Birdsville Track page, Maree is a good place to stock up your supplies. There are 2 supermarkets, 2 caravan parks, the pub and some interesting bits of local history that fill in the gaps you missed in history class. But as is our way, we avoided staying in town and opted for bush camping at LAKE EYRE. About 1km out of town heading west on the Oodnadatta Track you turn right at the sign to Muloorina Station and Lake Eyre. You pass through the station at 53km and continue on for another 46km until you reach the absolute end of the road at the southern bank of Lake Eyre North. This section is National Park so you need your SA Desert Parks Pass to camp. There are no facilities and it appears that it is not a popular spot to camp as there is no protection from either sun or wind. I was adamant about seeing both a sunset and sunrise over the lake so we stayed out there for the night.

There is another much better place to camp, also for free, on the Muloorina Station. They have an RFDS collection box for donations which pleases us. Backtracking the 46km to the station the following morning we found excellent camp sites along a shallow, narrow section of the Frome River which in this dry and barren environment is a welcome sight - unfortunately it is salty and stirred-up at accessible edges by cattle who use it as a watering hole. There are a few interesting tracks around the river and signs lead you to an attractive clearing that the station owners have setup for swimming and day use providing a small floating jetty and an enormous tyre tube. From here we followed a walking track along a flowing spring of warm water that we guessed was coming from a bore. Upstream we found it was waste from a bore used for the generation of electricity for the station.

From our camp at sunset we strolled along the bank of the river and watched the variety of birds and their fascinating afternoon antics. Finally, our patience was rewarded when a pair of huge brolgas swooped in on the river and danced playfully on the bank before settling under a tree. David has it all on video and the locals told us it was quite rare to see this display. I also managed to snap a few pictures from the opposite bank - and that night we decided we need a longer lens!

The following day we returned to Maree, purchased fuel and more supplies and headed out along the Oodnadatta Track with absolutely no idea how long it would take us. The track to the next "town", William Creek (just a pub), is 203km but the guide books I use showed 8 sidings, a repeater station, mound springs and various ruins that we estimated would take much more than a day to explore. In fact we only got as far as 169km after a very early start and late afternoon finish. This was certainly not due to road conditions as the road could easily be travelled by a 2WD during dry weather but because of the amount of relics that caught our eye we took our time. There is not a lot of information available at these sights and many of the best would be missed unless you used a good guide book and map. We used the Lonely Planet Outback Australia, Feb 98 edition and the Westprint Oodnadatta map and still felt they were inadequate in places. The historical information on the map is probably better written than in the book but the book gives track details (however they can be confusing and inaccurate). But, the point is we would not have got as much out of our trip along this track without some back up information.

David was fascinated by most of the remains of both telegraph and track and spent hours wandering along the remains attempting to find pieces of undamaged insulators. We were amazed to read that it is permissible to collect the sleepers from the Ghan for use as firewood but later read that most of the track was stripped and recycled for track in Qld after it was closed. Heaps of track remains, mostly sleepers scattered in piles amongst scrub and dust but there has been some attempt at restoration at a few of the sidings. Curdimurka is pleasingly restored but the rest have been left to ruin and vandalism by unthoughtful tourists. The worst are the sidings just out of Maree where graffiti left by squatters completely destroys the atmosphere of your historical journey.

Blanches Cup and The Bubbler are two live Mound Springs that are protected by a conservation park but can be visited for free. We enjoyed visiting these as the information displays gave us a much better idea of the land around us and suddenly we noticed just how prolific the springs are along the Oodnadatta Track.

Water for the Ghan was not extracted from the mound springs but from deep underground bores. Visiting the sidings you can see water softener tanks built to remove the harmful minerals from the bore water that caused heavy scaling on the boilers of the steam-trains. Unfortunately, there is no water softener available at the bore head at Beresford Siding where we chose to camp but we found the hot water coming from the bore irresistible after 5 days of bush camping without a shower. Someone has layed a few sleepers for a shower floor and if you don't mind the colour of the water (black) its a great refresher. We setup camp just over the hill overlooking the large dam that was built to supply water to the steam locomotives but now used as a watering hole for an incredible amount of wildlife including hundreds of cattle, corellas, galahs, ducks, top-not pigeons, eagles and crows. I'd been carrying washing in a bucket of water from the river at Muloorina and quickly hung that out to dry in the hot breeze of the late afternoon and by morning it was all dry, including cargo pants and thick socks.

One of the interesting things we've noticed is that literally 90% of all vehicles we've seen on this track are Troopys! Usually it would be a fair mix of 80 series, Troopy's, 75 trays, Patrols and Hiluxes but this time it is definitely the Terrific Troopcarrier. Not not there were many vehicles on the track at the one time, in fact we saw 3 heading east into Maree as we were heading out and then 3 more in convoy passed our camp at sunset and finally just on dark another Troopy setup camp at the Beresford siding not far from us. The last vehicle to pass our camp along the Oodnadatta track was a 3 trailer long road train full of fuel and the first vehicle to hit the track just on sunrise was another. These were the only trucks we saw the entire stretch of both the Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks.

Our second day on the Oodnadatta Track we found excellent ruins that weren't mentioned in the guide books but are well signposted. About 32km past Beresford Dam we came to Strangeways Siding on the right, with nothing much left, but to the left of the road a rough bulldusty track took us up a hill to an impressive ruined site that was once the Strangeways Telegraph Repeater Station. There are stone-walled stock pens, a huge stone-walled water tank that looks more like a church until you find it has no door, and other crumbling ruins. This site has also come under protection by a conservation group but for tourists all this means is steeping through a rabbit proof fence.

Before reaching William Creek we came across a dozen camels and 8 feral looking girls who were walking 1000km through the South Australian desert hoping to raise awareness about the national radioactive waste dump proposed to be open in Billa Kalina.Their mission was called Humps not Dumps www.green.net.au/humpsnotdumps

Just 7km before arriving at William Creek we turned right onto a 72km long track out to Lake Eyre North. This track is marked 4WD (mainly because of large potholes, soft sand, and claypans) and takes you 62km to a Y junction at the ugliest section of Lake Eyre you'll see. The terrain all around appears burnt out but on closer inspection you realise that it's not the holocaust that the ferals have predicted but strange natural colours of the landform. As soon as you turn left and begin the 10km out to Halligan Bay you leave the stark black scenery behind and suddenly you are surround in soft pastels and salmon coloured sand. The sand is soft but there was no need to deflate tyres thankfully.

Other than the information shelter and a small water tank there is absolutely nothing else here but salt. We were able to walk out along the softer, muddy brown coloured crust which crumbled beneath our weight for about a kilometre until we came to the edge of the starkest white.

We stayed a while and then backtracked to the Oodnadatta track - wondering what kind of person would be so stupid to consider walking this far in the December heat. In 1998 a couple of misfortunate travellers, who after 3 days of waiting for someone after they had car trouble, decided to walk back for help. The pair had an argument and the guy returned to his vehicle and was later rescued, but his partner was not so lucky and perished about 40km short of the Oodnadatta track. A cross beside the road marks the spot where she was found the next day. It's worth the drive out for the view and for a sharp reminder of how desolate this country is. It's all too easy from the comfort of your airconditioned 4WD to forget how reliant you are on the shelter it provides. The rule is never to leave your car.

When we finally got to WILLIAM CREEK it was lunchtime so we stopped at the pub to rub shoulders with the locals. We didn't leave there until 2 hours later but feeling refreshed we travelled another 70km to a bush camp on the road out to Coober Pedy at LAKE CADDI (Caddiwarrabirracanna) the longest place name in Australia. Having no idea what we'd find we were impressed with the apparent beach-front camp site we found and some firewood. Unfortunately the water was very salty and almost impossible to get close to without sinking beneath the deep crust of salt and mud.

The guidebooks all say that it's impossible to find firewood but we have had little trouble. We are currently travelling without our trailer and because of our pop-top have no roof-rack to carry firewood. We tend to choose camp sites in dry creekbeds or near lakes and have been lucky to find plenty of good dead wood to enjoy an open fire each night.

We lifted camp the next morning and headed towards COOBER PEDY. The track west from William Creek to Coober Pedy is marked on the maps as an "unmaintained" and rough road but we found it in much better condition than even the Oodnadatta Track mainly because of the lack of corrugations. The approach to Coober Pedy was incredibly dusty and the wind seemed to be unrelentless. We often thought we were catching up to traffic ahead but found it was only dust being blown off the tops of bulldust. As we neared town and saw the multi-coloured mounds of the opal mines we started to reconsider camping out in the elements and almost without discussing it headed towards the various motels to find a room. Those of you who know us will know that it would take quite a deal of bad weather to put us into a motel as we've bush camped almost continuously for 14months. We've already had a few sleepless nights due to wind and the novelty of the dust was wearing a bit thin.

We chose to stay at the local backpackers lodge Radekas, in a private room for $40 which we preferred to the cheap motels as it had excellent communal cooking facilities, TV rooms, pool table and free tea/coffee all day and gave us the opportunity to stay in an underground dwelling (the novelty of Coober Pedy). Since we arrived early in the day we were thankful for the ability to get into our room to escape the howling, dusty wind.

We did our bit of tourism and looked in half a dozen of the 30 opal shops. David bought me a beautiful white solid opal set in a stylish triangle on a plain band.
Following that purchase I was thoroughly spoilt even more by not having to cook dinner and ordered a takeaway in our room.

The next day was Sunday and is supposedly the locals' golf day. We passed the golf course on our way to the Underground Pottery and there was definitely no one out on the course in the strong wind. The potter was Peter Rowe but we were more taken by his photography and his wife's interesting method of framing using a sand technique she'd developed. We chatted about film and photography for a few hours and found he uses the same camera as we do. He's given us a few tips after looking at our photos - most of which were to have our better shots reprinted at a lab to improve the balance of light exposure. Unfortunately, we have to put up with the automatic machines at the one-hour type shops on this trip and feel lucky that we've even got that! Since Broken Hill, Coober Pedy is the only place we've been able to get film developed and the next stop will be Alice Springs. After stopping at a few more of the tourist sites we headed out of town for a bush camp back at Lake Caddi. The windy conditions continued and we had our second night of rain drops. Not enough yet to soften the track but the sky has been dark and threatening.

The return trip from Coober Pedy via William Creek was preferable than heading north and cutting east to Oodnadatta because we wanted to visit some of the more important historical sites along the last section of the Oodnadatta Track These included the ruins of Peake Telegraph Station, the Giles memorial and the Algebuckina Bridge which we are currently camped beneath as I write this. Tonight the sunset is brilliant, due to the streaky clouds across the sky. David has left with the camera to photograph it. We are suffering again from a strong easterly wind but are attempting to get some protection behind the huge mound of the line build-up at the southern end of the bridge.

The last stretch of 51km into Oodnadatta in the morning was a quick event. We fuelled up with diesel costing 87.6 c/L but didn't need anything else. Shopping in Coober Pedy was excellent and I'm glad I didn't need to rely on the basic range of supplies at Oodnadatta. This is one of the last places to dispose of rubbish into a bin but we forgot and had to take it with us to Mt Dare. Although diesel at Mt Dare was $1.15/L and 135km from Hamilton HS for us it was better to get the extra top-up as our capacity is 180L (the minimum suggested). Some people go from Oodnadatta direct to Dalhousie Springs and into the Simpson Desert and others make the 140km round trip from Dalhousie - Mt Dare before heading in. Having now driven these roads we realised we did the right thing as no one in their right mind would chose to drive the horribly corrugated and rutted track from Dalhousie - Mt Dare twice!

Other than fuel at Mt Dare you can buy frozen bread, phone home, camp, have a shower and get drinkable water. When you finally get to Dalhousie Springs you'll notice that the National Parks people have been upgrading and there is now marked off camping areas, fire pits, toilets and showers. But the drawcard here of course is the hot springs which no amount of crowds could hope to fill. It's a beautiful spot and underrated I think. Admittedly we didn't see it before the upgrade and I believe it was a bit of a dust bowl then. The dust is still here and the wind is relentless but where else can you run around in nothing but swimmers in August without fear of crocodiles?
David (DM) & Michelle (MM)
Always working not enough travelling!
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