The Oodnadatta Track is an iconic road made so and famous by the Afghan cameleers of the Nineteenth Century when they transported their goods on camels imported from Afghanistan to missions in the north of South Australia and to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.
The Oodnadatta Tack and one of Adam Plate’s famous desert signs
We had been up and down the Oodnadatta a few times before but not all of us had seen the same sights so this time around we were going to visit Farina, Muloorina Billabong, Level Post Bay and Peake Telegraph Station, as ‘new’ places. Travelling north from where we live in the Southern Flinders Ranges we made it to historic Beltana Township for the first night and stayed over at a friends place there. The next day saw us go out to Warraweena Conservation Park just 26km east of there to spend some time our friends who are the managers of the the Park. Then it was back on the road on the third day and after helping out with an art project along the way we finally made it to Farina by the late afternoon.
Strange Maze at Beltana
Unbeknownst to us the Farina Volunteer Preservation Group were there doing some restoration work to the old buildings of Farina and were gathered in a great camp at the Farina Station Woolshed. The overflow of visitors were at the Farina Campground and some had gathered to take part in the leisure activities organised for the following day, Saturday. We had a nice campsite but after dark the generator noise of the surrounding camps made us move away and camp in the scrub for some peace and quiet.
Saturday saw us reach Marree with a fair stretch of the road between Lyndhurst and Maree now bituminised. Air traffic was busy with flights over Lake Eyre and we spied no less than seven planes parked on the runway and two taking off. Having been to Maree before we made for Hergott Springs, which lies four kilometres outside of Maree. This is where the township was first started when water used to be drawn for the Camel Trains. Later when the Railway line passed by the town of Maree was built. Then we made for Muloorina Station Campground which is situated on a man made billabong in the run of Frome Creek. The road to Muloorina was in good condition and we passed through the famous Dog Fence along the way.
Dog Fence on way to Muloorina
Many years ago artesian water was drilled for and a water driven turbine to power the station was installed near Muloorina Homestead. The overflow of the water accumulated in Muloorina Billabong, after some earthworks were installed. The result has been a build up of a wetlands area with a foreshore for camping on. A small fee is charged for overnight camping via an honesty box system. We found a likely camp site, dropped the van off and drove out to Level Post Bay on Lake Eyre for a look. The last 15km is notoriously badly corrugated as this part of the track is not maintained by Muloorina Station.
The vast expanse of Lake Eyre
At Level Post Bay one can see a small part of the great expanse of Lake Eyre. Edward John Eyre proclaimed the fabled inland sea the greatest disappointment of his life when, instead of an inland sea with lush vegetation and green pastures all around, he found a dead dry salt lake instead. Back at Muloorina we decided to move the van to the other side of the billabong so as to have a view of the wetland and to be protected from the cold easterly wind which was blowing. We scoured around and found enough dry wood to have a fire to warm us up.
Sunset at Muloorina Billabong
The following morning it was overcast and the wind had picked up and we decided that we would push on despite some predictions of rain. We saw dark clouds building up in the west as we started back on the Oodnadatta Track. At first it looked as if the rain would miss our path but drops started appearing on the windscreen at Alberrie Creek Station where the wonderful roadside art is on display.
In the mean time we had been over taken by some bike riders, a 4×4 and a fuel truck. Within the space of a short distance the rain came pelting down and the Oodnadatta Track turned into quagmire. The biker riders had stopped, the 4×4 was on the side of the road with a flat tyre and the fuel truck came back at us over a hill, sideways. I asked the driver over the radio whether he was giving up and he replied that he would be destined for a certain bogging if he had continued on his journey. By now the caravan was difficult to control. I was in 4×4 High Range, 2nd gear and crawling along at 20kmh. As my road tyres stick out beyond the width of the mudguards (the flares have been removed) clumps of mud were being thrown onto the van and the wagon. The windscreen wipers bore the brunt of the mud and soon failed so I left it at that and waited for the rain to wash the mud away. We managed to reach the crest of a hill where I parked close to the side of the road while we ducked into the van for a spot of lunch. A couple of vehicles passed and then it was quiet. About an hour later the rain eased and we continued along our muddy trail. The same journey continued with the caravan making it difficult to control forward movement with ease. Water lay on the adjacent pans and I was looking for a place to pull up for the night. Eventually I saw what looked like an old railway yard with a loading ramp and walked in to test how firm the track in was. It seemed good enough and we made it in and were able to turn the rig around to shelter us from the wind. We found some fire wood, doused it in diesel and started a fire for warmth and comfort.
Mud on the van
The road was quiet but a single 4×4 passed with a rooftopper tinny and towing a Kimberley Karavan. The driver waved and sped on. We were to meet again along our journey in extraordinary circumstances. Some showers fell during the night but the next day we woke to almost clear skies.
Our next port of call was Lake Eyre South and we were delighted to find that the southern half of this lake had a cover of water which shimmered in the morning sunlight.
Lake Eyre South shimmering in the sunlight
It was a sight to see. Further along the track and at Margaret Creek we were surprised to see clear water flowing under the culvert and into the lake. Even more surprisingly we found schools of Inland Perch fish, about 20mm in length, trying to swim upstream. We were told later, by the publican of the William Creek Hotel, that at times, Dingoes gather at the culvert to have a feed of fish.
We drove in to the mound springs made even more famous by naturalist David Attenborough’s account of them. There is Bubbler and the Blanche Cup. In the old days one could climb in to the Bubbler when every now and then a large gas bubble would come up from somewhere down below and push you upwards and out of the water depending on your weight, ofcourse. New management practices do not allow this any more. Many more mound springs are found within this part of the Great Artesian Basin. Amazing little water slaters live within the mound springs. The surrounding countryside which is virtually clear of vegetation, has a stark beauty about it.
Lush green compared to starkness of the desert
By the time we arrived at Beresford Ruins we were ready to set up camp for the day on the shores of the billabong. We found enough firewood to boil the billy. I got under the van to scrape off some of the resident mud left there from the previous day and Judith did a painting of the old Station Masters House. The day was quite warm as was the night but by the following morning things had cooled down a bit.
Beresford Lagoon like you seldom see it
The local Dingoes gave us an early morning chorus. At William Creek we had a hot chocolate as a treat and a chat to the publican and checked out road conditions further north. At first the road seem good but the progressively became worse with some horrendous stretches of corrugations. We took it very easy and slowed the pace down to a crawl. Then the road improved again and when I saw a sign stating Peake I drove down that track only to find that I had taken the track to the station. Back on the Oodnadatta again we took the old track to Peake OTRS (Overland Telegraph Repeater Station). The sign stated that it was 21km to Peake and Judith wasn’t happy about taking the van there but relented in the end. By the time we returned to the road again she was very happy that the van could manage such a rough road. Peake OTRS was built around mound springs and judging by the many buildings there, the place must have been a hive of activity in the late nineteenth century. There was also an old copper mine nearby. The 21km in turned out to be 16km and not so arduous but at times the old Millard poptop was travelling at acute sideways angles.
Peake OTRS: A busy place in its heyday
We moved on to Algebuckina Bridge. About 20 years ago we had camped at Algebuckina Waterhole and were keen to do that again. On arrival at the turn off I saw that there had been substantially more rain in the area with puddles of water lying about. After we had passed through the gate we came to a stretch of ponded water on the track and I had seen where other before me had made a detour through the bush. I got out of the truck and tested the firmness and then decided that it would be OK to drive. It was soft however but we got through and then more water confronted us and I thought that it was best to quit while ahead. Some delicate forward and back maneouvers were necessary to get the van turned around. On the way back out I saw that my tracks had made deep indents in the ground and keeping that in mind I decided to drive to the right of the ponded water. Just as well I was in 4×4 as the GQ sank down into an ooze resting beneath the surface. I kicked the old truck in the guts and we clawed our way out of the potential boghole to the great relief of all. I did not envisage spending a night digging my way out of the mud. The Neales River was running over the causeway below Algebuckina Bridge and so we decided to drive through it to wash some of the mud off and also as a precaution to a potential rise in the waters from the rain showers in the distance. We found a good camp site. I gathered some wood but it would not fire to make the evening a social occasion and after tea we had an early night, worn out from all the excitement of the day.
The following morning we pressed on for Oodnadatta wading through a kilometre stretch of water near the intersection with the Coober Pedy Road. We had another hot chocolate and left a message from to friend to the owners of the Pink Roadhouse who were away at the time.
The rest of the trip was quiet with the road improving as we made for Marla. We stopped at Junction Waterhole and chatted to some other travellers towing a largish van who were making for Oodnadatta that evening. Once on the bitumen and with tyre pressures up to 35psi we made it to a gravel pit about 50km short of the Northern Territory Border where we camped for the night. We were about 300 metres from the highway and out of sight and the road noise was minimal for the night. We drove in to Alice Springs just after lunch the following day.