Day 7 : Monday 19th December : Erldunda Roadhouse to Williams Creek
It is safe to say I had no idea what to expect on this part of the trip. While I am well aware of the nature of the iconic Outback tracks, I am not one for studying them in detail and I certainly wouldn’t be able to name any beyond Birdsville. So when we decided to travel back via the Oodnadatta Track it didn’t mean a whole lot to me, other than dust. While today’s overall distance wasn’t as great as some others, the unsealed section was certainly going to slow us down and so an early start was needed.
First stop was Marla, a roadhouse on the edge of the Stuart Highway and the perfect place to grab some breakfast, a coffee and to contemplate the track to come. This was a 255km section of nice smooth tarmac, the last we would see for a couple of days.
From Marla we took a left turn and headed out into the unknown on the Oodnadatta Track.
What an experience; what amazing views; hard to contemplate just how remote we were; how far from any form of civilisation or even other human beings.
Even with lowered air pressures traction was often hard to find sending the car sliding or snaking. Breaking and corners were contemplated with extreme care; you are always on the lookout for a cattle grid, floodway or pothole which could cause damage if taken at speed. When this remote you really don’t want any damage.
While we have UHF radios in both cars so can scan the airwaves and call for help, these only have limited range. No mobile signal or satellite phone and so extra care was taken to avoid any need to make an emergency call.
210km of gravel track took us through to the small town of Oodnadatta. The town grew around a water hole as a stop over for the Afghan cameleers as they worked their way from the south up through to Alice Springs and beyond. In 1890 it became the terminus for the Great Northern Railway and remained a stopping point when the railway was extended in 1929.
After the railway was dismantled in the early 1980’s the town became a centre for the indigenous population.
Many remnants of the railway still exist as you drive the track. Stations, workers cottages, bridges and watering points, complete with desalination plants.
I love history and so was perhaps a little disappointed that time didn’t allow us to stop and explore all of the structures along the way. The heat was also a factor which simply emphasised the harsh, remote and extremely dangerous work the railway workers undertook.
Afghan Express : Having returned home I have read up a little about the railway which was originally called the Great Northern Railway but become known as the Afghan Express and later, and even to this this day, simply as The Ghan. The story goes that one of the cameleers was in a hurry to get through to Oodnadatta and so the name “Afghan Express” was born.
On YouTube I found the following program which was recorded back in 1980 as the original Ghan railway was coming to its end. While dated in their appearance they do provide a fascinating incite into a bygone age of the railways and how the towns we traveled through looked back in their day: The Ghan is Going, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.
I have read somewhere that Australia has the largest mob of wild camels anywhere in the world. These animals are not native to the continent but were imported from the middle east, along with their handlers, the cameleers, in order to move goods, assist with construction of the telegraph and then the railway. As mechanisation increased with the railways and then trucks the need for the camel reduced. With no work there was no money to feed them or to pay the licenses that government imposed. The Afghans named every camel as they were far more to them than simply an animal and so when they could no longer feed them they simply set them free to run wild and survive if nature allowed. It was from these beginnings that the wild camels of Australia grew.
At one point a long the track we thought it had begun to rain. You could hear the rain drops hitting the windscreen. Not rain but flies – millions of them pelting into the car as we drove!
We continued on the track to our overnight stop at Williams Creek. A remote roadhouse hotel and the permanent home, we were to discover that night in the bar, to just two people. The following day the owner was flying out on business and so the official population would be just 1! The town, settlement, hamlet – not really sure what to call it – is made up of the hotel, camp site, petrol station and air strip. They are very proud of the fact they have a sealed landing strip as well as a grass one and are part of the emergency search and rescue network. When an emergency beacon is triggered in this part of the world they would be dispatched to fly out and establish the nature of the incident.
While the food was interesting, we were warned by the cook that she wasn’t very good, the drinks were cold and the stories about the area and way of life fascinating to hear. A storm blew through as we were in the bar, the noise of the rain hitting the tin roof deafening, followed by the lose of the television picture and then failure of the generator. The owner reestablished the power within a few minutes but the isolation was compounded at that point.
Flooding : During the week after Christmas heavy rains affected both Uluru and the Williams Creek areas. Pictures of waterfalls on the rock were posted by every media service, particularly here in Australia, but also around the world. During our drive along the track we commented many times about the size of the riverbeds and the rocks that were littered within them. They were dry and dusty as we pasted through. It was impossible to contemplate the amount of water needed to fill them.
The following pictures were posted on the Williams Creek Hotel facebook page and show clearly what happens when the rains come. Without doubt we would have been cut off if this had happened while we were there.
Distance covered; 665 km.
Day 8 : Tuesday 20th December : Williams Creek to Peterborough
We packed and headed out of Williams Creek reasonably early. There was a lot more gravel to drive today and it is essential on these surfaces to drive to the conditions.
About 100km along the track from Williams Creek you get your first view of Lake Eyre, or the south lake to be more accurate.
The lake has a number of claims to fame – it is the lowest point in Australia at 15m below sea level (where we pulled over to have a better look we were 12m below sea level), when full, which doesn’t happen very often, it is the largest lack in Australia, and perhaps most interesting to an Englishman, it was the site of Donald Campbell’s 1964 land speed record,a YouTube video of which can be seen here. Note the series Land Rover doing its bit!
The view out over the lake was, like so many things we have seen, incredible. It simply went on as far as the eye could see. It is only when you look at a map you realise that what you can see at this point is only a small part of the lake as a whole.
We pushed on.
Our time on the Oodnadatta Track was coming to an end. After 547km we were about to turn right on to Borefield Road, the name doesn’t seem appropriate for a track in the middle of no where, and head for Olympic Dam, one of the largest mines in Australia.
We had thought this to be an open cast mine, but chatting to a conservation ranger we found out that it was all underground, with tunnels big enough to drive the huge dump trucks down into the center of the earth. After doing our right turn we had noticed a large pipe running alongside the track. At one point what appeared to be a huge pumping station had been constructed. The ranger told us this was for taking the waste water away from the mine where it was pumped deep under Lake Eyre. You have to hope that this is done with the best possible precautions as Olympic Dam Mine has the largest deposit of uranium in the world!
Now back on tarmac we pushed on for our overnight stop in Peterborough, skirting the Mount Remarkable National park.
Distance covered; 665 km. (Amazingly the same as yesterday!)