Oodnadatta Track…

The legendary Oodnadatta Track is an unsealed, 615-kilometre road between Marla on the Stuart Highway, and Marree in the northern Flinders Ranges and at the southern end of the Birdsville Track.

The track traces the route of the old Overland Telegraph Line and the Old Ghan Railway.

Along the way were remote settlements, lots of history, quirky desert sights and the enormous, Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.

There were some creek crossings, a few rutted and flooded sections from the recent rain, mud, dust, heat and millions of flies but the landscape was beautiful and camping under the night sky with millions of stars was amazing.

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This track crosses the traditional lands of 3 Aboriginal groups. In the south between Lake Torrens and Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre are the Kuyani people; most of the west Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre has been traditionally occupied by the Arabana people and to the north is the land of Arrernte people. Many Antikirinya people from further west live here too.

With tyres pressure lowered we set off along the corrugated track.

Flat gibber with the occasional tree-lined, flooded creek beds, a few serious muddy dips and the odd carpet of wildflowers surrounded us.

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The first section of the track we travelled to the town of Oodnadatta had no history and there were no railway sidings to explore, as this part of the track didn’t follow the route of the Ghan.

Quite a way back off road, to the left of us, Lambina Opals were marked on the map. Lambina has been an opal field for around 30-years and is known to produce some of the very finest and most stable opal.

Further along to the right was Wellbourne Hill, home to Wellbourne Hill Station. Only 40-kilometres east of Marla, Welbourne Hill Station is a pastoral lease, which operates as a cattle station and covers an area of 3,395 square kilometres.

Then came our first serious water crossings, Coongra Creek Crossings.

There might not be much to see along this part of the track, but further on Kathleen Creek was a lovely creek crossing.

We passed the turn off to Todmoden Station, a station that covers 7168.6 square kilometres of country and again runs beef cattle.

Further on Wooldridge Creek was a lovely little rest area among a few trees and a great place to pull off the track for a cuppa.

We hadn’t passed any traffic on the road all day, probably because the track had only just been opened to 4WDs because of the flooding rains.

A few kilometres outside of Oodnadatta we came to Angle Pole Memorial, which marks the point where the Old Telegraph Line and the old Ghan line turn north and commemorates all those involved in the building of the Overland Telegraph Line between Adelaide and Darwin.

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Oodnadatta, the namesake of this track was a little bigger than we thought with a significant aboriginal community who made up its population.

For such a small town there was quite a bit to see. There was a great museum housed in the old railway station, a pub, a grocery store, a small hospital, a police station and the famous Pink Roadhouse where we camped the night.

A walk around the town portrayed the history of the area with lots of signage and a couple of really old signs at the side of the Pink Roadhouse and the back of the pub. There was the Teamster’s Memorial to visit as well as the historic Afghan cemetery, the railway dam (the local swimming hole), and Hookey’s waterhole heading out on the track that goes to Coober Pedy on Neales Creek. Oodnadatta is also another starting point for a trip across the Simpson Desert.

The legendary ‘Pink Roadhouse‘, probably the most talked about roadhouse of the Outback that most people travel the track to see, was certainly an ‘eye catcher’ and yes, everything was pink. It even came with a pink canoe for hire, which had probably been used a lot over the last week given all the rain!

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We had heard so much about the Pink Roadhouse that it came with high expectations for us and certainly lived up to them.

It is a one stop place for food, fuel, groceries, car repairs, souvenirs, post office facilities, tourist information and basic accommodation and camping – and for those with Optus, there was coverage!

A wander around the store took me back to the corner store I remembered as a kid. A big cafeteria with pink check tablecloths spread over the tables and a store full of all sorts of bric a brac!

It was big, crowded (with mostly locals and only a few travellers), and very noisy. An old indigenous man sat at one of the pink tables playing his guitar and singing. He was so out of tune I was tempted to grab my Yukele from the car and join him! My musical talent isn’t that good either and we would have made a great duo!

We chatted with the young lady working behind the counter who had come all the way from Ireland. It was quite amusing how working in a remote outback pub is such a novelty for these backpackers from Europe. We had found them all the way across Australia but I am sure it’s a job many Australians wouldn’t even think of applying for! 

It was certainly and interesting place attracting all manner of clients and it seemed everybody and their dog frequented this roadhouse. 

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Oodnadatta’s claims to fame is it is ‘Australia’s hottest driest town!’ and I’m certainly glad they added ‘driest’ because we had already travelled through quite a few towns on our travels that claimed to be ‘the hottest’!

Unfortunately we couldn’t have a beer at the front bar of the old pub as a car had ploughed through its veranda a few days before taking out the support poles and causing it to crash to the ground.

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We had a great one-night stopover in this little town. We camped in red dirt behind the Pink Roadhouse, which had basic but adequate amenities and only 2 other couples had set up. It was windy, it was dusty and as a result of the recent heavy rains, it seemed every mosquito in Australia had moved to Oodnadatta!

Oodnadatta Track map

After grabbing a mud map of the track to help us find the best attractions and camping sites along the way we hit the road again.

The next section of road between Oodnadatta and Marree was the most interesting part of the track with lots history, rail sidings and of course Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre. It was also the worst section of the track so far with lots of water across the road, corrugations, mud ruts, bull-dust and really sharp bends having over time, claimed quite a few casualities! 

After leaving Oodnadatta our first stop was Mount Dutton Ruins where a lonely forgotten grave overlooked the gibber plains – a silent reminder of the Mount Dutton settlement. Many workers either died or were killed during the construction of the Ghan Railway and there are many old graves tucked away in the most unlikely places along this railway track… either forgotten or their existence unknown by family.

Then came Algebuckina Bridge the most photographed railway bridge in Australia and the longest in South Australia spanning 580-metres across the Neales River. A team of 350-men built it.

I wasn’t brave enough to walk the path onto the bridge even though it was strong enough to take the train 23-years ago! The rails were still in place but many of the sleepers were missing and it really didn’t look that safe!

Over the road we found the Algebuckina waterhole, which surprisingly was full of very green water with a few pelicans bobbing about in it. This waterhole never dries up but the nearby Algebuckina creek was bone dry. It was a great place to camp but too early in the day for us so we headed back on the main track.

Further on the ruins of the North Peake railway siding were 25-kilometres in off the main track along a slow going 4WD track. Peake was not only a telegraph repeater station, it was also a village and a mine and it was well worth the trip just to wander and explore the ruins and the nearby mound spring.

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Continuing on we negotiated quite a few more creek crossings, some with lots of water while others were only puddles.

Just north of William Creek we came to a cairn marking the ‘Elders Scientific Expedition’ and Edwards Creek village ruins. This marked the halfway point on the Oodnadatta Track.

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William Creek, famous for its pub, was our next stop so at the very least we had to stop and have a drink at the bar and browse the hundreds of business cards pinned to the ceiling.

This pub come roadhouse, hotel, shop, visitor information centre, internet cafe, fuel stop, work shop and campground (and they also have Optus cover), was a great place to chat to the locals and hear about the road conditions ahead! You can also book flights to fly over Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre here.

William Creek was certainly a 1-horse town with only a pub and the campground across the road and few monuments in the park area… and I almost forgot, 6 people live here and a dog.  It is the smallest town in South Australia!

Now it might be the smallest town in South Australia but it is surrounded by the largest cattle station in the world… Anna Creek Station. The residents here see nothing but empty horizon that stretches on and on and on! They live almost as near to the centre of this big red country as you can get! Whichever direction we looked there was nothing between us and the horizon – just dry country and a scorching sun!

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Further along the road was the turnoff to Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, the massive salt lake 144- kilometres long and 77-kilometres wide and the lowest point on the Australian mainland.

We were so looking forward to seeing this dry lake… and I say dry because it has only filled to capacity 3-times in the last 150-years.  We had heard so much about it on ‘Australia’s – Macca All Over‘ and we were finally going to see it for ourselves!

A few kilometres out of William Creek we turned off and followed a long dusty track of mostly good gravel and sand to Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre. Potholes, water and lots of dust were some of what we experienced along the track with the occasional bypass track off the main track that had been created where the surface was flooded and badly corrugated.

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Along the route we came across a sombre memorial to a German tourist who perished of thirst and heat exhaustion in 1998, a sad reminder of just how harsh and unforgiving the Australian desert can be!

Eventually we pulled in at a lookout overlooking the black gibber desert with Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre in the distance. A car we had followed in turned around at this point and headed back the way they had come. If you are this close, it surely must be worth the drive to the edge of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, even if the water was way off in the distance, or indeed not there at all.

At its peak, Lake Eyre was a small village with a number of buildings. The site was selected as it was next to a mound spring. This mound spring, unfortunately, is now dry and the station was closed down in 1896 and moved to William Creek. Now Lake Eyre is a National Park and formally known as Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre National Park.

Mound springs in arid Australia are some on the most interesting geological features in existence, where the Artesian (underground) waters meet the surface. They are important refuges for wildlife and birds and a number of unique and rare plants are found around them. 

For most of the time Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre is a dry expanse of salt, however, every 10-years or so it fills after rainfall in far away Queensland and the Northern Territory. When this happens the local yacht club that is based at Marree kicks into actions (with all of its 6 members), and this usually dry lake bursts into life becoming a major breeding ground for water birds from all over Australia.

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The closer we got to the lake the more desolate the landscape became and at one point there was just small black rocks for as far as the eye could see with absolutely no vegetation. It looked like a lunar landscape and it stayed this way all the way to ABC Bay where there was nothing much to see only more black rocks and a muddy lake with a few patches of white salt.

Halligan Bay Campground was a further 10-kilometres on and is the lowest point in Australia, at 15.2 metres below sea level. It was much nicer there as the lakes edge was made up of vegetation and low dunes that run down to the salt encrusted lake surface. There were composting toilets, shelter sheds, and a small camp area fenced off from the rest of the sand.

The salty expanse of the lake stretched for kilometres in front of us and we could just make out strange island like features and shimmering water on the horizon… obviously an optical illusion!

We walked out to the salt flats and the further we went out the wetter the ground became. It was still soft from all the rain and if we stopped we would sink into the salty, sandy mud. We could see the footprints of others who had also walked out and the salt had crusted over some of them making interesting patterns in the hardened salty sand.

Signs were everywhere warning not to drive on the lake. Even if it looks dry you are bound to get stuck and it’s not the busiest of places! We heard of one couple that foolishly tried earlier in the week. Their vehicle broke through the saline crust and became bogged in the mud and it was a long wait for them before someone came to their rescue. 

Our 50-kilometre side trip to see Australia’s largest lake was certainly one of the highlights of this trip and something that will remain with me for the rest of my life. If you are travelling the Oodnadatta it really is a sight not to be missed!

Back on the main road and heading on we traversed through more gibber plains this time covered with small saltbush. The road surface was stony but fairly good to travel, even though there had been quite a bit of rain. The grader had obviously been through as we had seen it parked back at William Creek.

Several mound springs and more ruins of railway sidings brought diversity to this flat and barren landscape with the Strangways Historic site next along the way.

Strangways, established in 1862, was the site of the first homestead on the pastoral property of the same name. It is now called ‘Anna Creek’ and is the biggest pastoral station in the world. Strangways was sold to the South Australian government in 1870, and became a repeater station on the Overland Telegraph Line.

Further on we came to Beresford Siding Ruins, a great spot to have a look around but be warned there were flies and lots of them!

The prominent tower here was used for the desalination of artesian water to prepare water for the steam locomotive. Water for the Ghan was not extracted from the mound springs but from deep underground bores. These water softener tanks were built to remove the harmful minerals from the bore water that caused heavy scaling on the boilers of the steam-trains.

There were also the ruins of the fettlers’ cottages to explore, a flowing bore and a tree-lined dam. There was a great camp site beside the dam with hot water coming from the bore and someone has laid a few sleepers for a shower floor.

Returning to the Oodnadatta Track we noticed a hill on the west side of the track. This historical site was a base for equipment used to guide and track rockets launched by the Woomera facility.

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Curdimurka was just a stone’s throw from Beresford and probably the most impressive siding along the Old Ghan Railway Line.

The local Aborigines believed that a giant snake named ‘Kuddimuckra’ lived at nearby Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre. They avoided travelling along the shores of the lake and when many viewed the approaching Ghan for the first time they fled.

Up until recently Curdimurka came alive every 2-years with some 1000 people in evening dress. It was home to ‘The Curdimurka Outback Ball’… a very big event where people would fly in from all over the country to dance the night away then camp in the dust.

Unfortunately it isn’t held anymore but hopefully it will be revived again one day… the thought of an ‘Outback Ball’ in the middle of nowhere sounds quite appealing.  It was held as a means of raising money for the Ghan Railway Preservation Society, the organisation that preserves what is left of the old railway line.

Curdimurka was pleasingly restored, obviously to cater for the many guest that up until recently frequented the sidling but without some tender loving care I am sure it will fall into disrepair like the others we had seen along the track.

One other couple in a van had decided to camp here so it was really very quite other than the galahs squawking in the few trees that grew on the boundary.

Deciding it was as good a place as any to camp for the night, we tucked ourselves away from the wind in behind the 4 walls of probably the only siding that was still in tact.

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We had thought of lighting a fire in one of the fireplaces inside the abandoned fettlers cottage but decided it probably wasn’t a good idea as a few creatures had already moved in since they had abandoned using it for the annual Ball. So with camp chairs and table set around our cooking pot beside the car, and with a glass of wine in hand, we sat back and enjoyed the stunning sunset.

There was an incredible amount of wildlife and birdlife on this track – cattle, kangaroos, lizards, corellas, galahs, ducks, pigeons would you believe, eagles and crows and even a few bush rats I should imagine, going by the chewed paper and holes in the walls!

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It was a silent and eerie campsite in the middle of nowhere. The wind whistled around the walls of the old cottage and apart from the couple on the other side of the building there wasn’t another sole for hundreds of kilometres.

We loved being alone in the middle of nowhere with nothing between us but the canvas walls of our rooftop tent but I am the first to admit that it is really easy to go from a calm state of mind to panicked in moments especially when answering the call of nature in the middle of the night and the light from my head torch cast spooky shadows on the walls of the deserted cottage… then in the distance came the most bone-chilling sound that reverberated through the night – high pitched cries and howls that took me a second to realise must have been dingoes. I was already jittery so it was all I could do to quickly climb back into the rooftop tent and hide away under my doona!

It had been almost on dusk when we arrived the night before so next morning we were up early, had breakfast and set off to explore the place before leaving.

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A flag pole and a large weather beaten Australian ‘Coat of Arms’ graced the dirt patch at the front of the fettlers cottage and exploring this site was like a never-ending line of scattered remains of both telegraph and railway track. Heaps of track remained, mostly sleepers, scattered in piles amongst the scrub and dust and further afield, after negotiating the very dry and rather large cracks in the earth we came to another water tower, this one on quite a lean and further on was the Stuart Creek rail bridge, still in reasonable condition.

Leaving Curdimurka we headed for Coward Springs further down the road.  A must stop just to have a bath in the spring fed hot tub.

Coward Springs is a popular campground nestled beneath a grove of massive Athel Pines. It is right next to, of all things in the desert, a natural wetland and it even had its very own Optus tower. There was also a small museum, a few walks and camel tours.

Back on the track and less than 10 minutes from Coward Springs we came the Wabma Kadarbu Mound Springs Conservation Park where we saw some pretty amazing mound springs – Blanche Cup and The Bubbler.

From the viewing areas it was possible to see the water swirling up from the depths in ‘The Bubbler’ which has been known to ‘erupt’ every so often and rise over a metre into the air! 

It’s not a very long drive from the main track to these springs and they are worth a look. They are a very important water source for the fragile ecosystem in this area and were used by Arabana people for thousands of years.

This conservation park has a system of springs fed by the Artesian Basin where water filters from the depths of the Artesian Basin to the surface then forms the mound springs and the water overflow has created an oasis for a variety of waterbirds.

Looking out over this treeless plain it was easy to understand what makes the artesian basin so great as without its precious water it is highly unlikely that Europeans would have ever bothered with this part of the world. Now pastoralism and mining are totally dependent on this ancient water supply.

Heading on we stopped at the rest area on the southern shore of the lake that had a great lookout out over Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre. There was an information board but no facilities and be warned, the stroll down to the salty crust was deceptively further than we thought.

Just 43-kilometres from Marree between Alberrie and Wangianna we passed the dog-proof fence, one of the longest human-made barriers in the world. Running for 5,400-kilometres from the South Australian to the Queensland coast it was constructed to protect the sheep in southeastern Australia from dingo attacks.

In every direction as we travelled on we seemed to follow sand, rocks, and a very desolate road then suddenly our eyes caught a glimpse of something unusual on the horizon… some quirky sculptures in what is known as ‘Mutonia Sculpture Park’… created over the years by artist Robin Cooke, a mechanic come artist.

You cannot miss these sculptures at Alberrie Creek… there was a Dingo constructed from an old water tank, a clock tree and 2 planes fixed upright into the ground along with many more unusual features that broke the monotony of this stretch of track.

It was good to stretch our legs and explore these sculptures as they are definitely a must stop and see! 

Wangianna ruins were only about 35-kimometres from Marree and all that was left were the remains of more cottages used by railway worker.

14-kilometres out of Marree we stopped at Callana railway siding and viewed the last of the many relics of the Old Ghan railway line. A rusty water tower and a pipe were all that was left.

Marree was once a major railhead for moving stock from the surrounding sheep and cattle stations and is now home to an aboriginal community and the descendants of the Afghan cameleers who moved freight around large areas of the outback.

There was a roadhouse with a shop, a hotel and 70 inhabitants and it originally started as a staging post for the Afghan camel trains that supplied the South Australian and Northern Territory outback. The Ghan railway later replaced the camel trains and as you may have guessed, the name of the railway is actually a result of those Afghan camel trains.

The railway line was in service from 1883 until 1980 and only a few buildings, some tracks and a few old locomotives are left as a reminder of the railways connection with Adelaide as is the old Afghan mosque just opposite the roadhouse and the Blitz Truck that belonged to the famous Tom Kruse, the original outback Birdsville Track mailman.

The historic Hergott Springs are just outside of the town – named after a German botanist… and of course we had to have a beer at the famous Marree Hotel!

Just down the road was the turn off to the Strzelecki Track that leads to Innamincka and Cameron Corner but this was the end of the track for us… the end of the Oodnadatta Track and the start of the Birdsville Track but a trip along the Strzelecki Track is definitely on our ‘bucket list’ for another trip!

The Oodnadatta Track was one of the easiest outback tracks to drive and for those wanting a bit of a change from following the white line along the highway it’s a great side trip for those travelling from Coober Pedy or vise versa. 

There was so much to see and do and we loved this legendary outback track!

Stayed tuned for more adventures as we head to the Birdsville Track.

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HEMA Maps Essential Information Guide

GradingHigh ground clearance required
TimeThree days minimum
Distance618km, Marla to Maree
Longest drive

 

without fuel

211km, Marla to Oodnadatta; 202km Oodnadatta to William Creek; 205km William Creek to Maree
FacilitiesMarla, Oodnadatta, Maree, William Creek
Best time of yearApril to October
WarningsThe Oodnadatta Track is renowned for being hard on tyres so take more than one spare. Driving on the lake surface is illegal and dangerous. Lake Eyre access tracks have no reliable water and are not recommended for towing caravans or camping trailers. The track to Halligan Bay is very sandy.
Permits and feesNone apply, except for camping fees at most campgrounds.
CampingMarla Roadhouse Campground

 

Arckaringa Homestead

Pink Roadhouse

Halligan Bay Campsite

William Creek Hotel

Coward Springs Campground

Muloorina Waterhole

Oasis Town Centre Caravan Park

Important contactsPink Roadhouse, Oodnadatta Ph (08) 8670 7822

 

Marla Police Ph (08) 8670 7020

Marlee Police Ph (08) 8675 8346

South Australia road conditions Ph 1300 361 033 www.dpti.sa.gov.au/OutbackRoads

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