When many people think of the remote Australian outback, they think of the Northern Territory or Central Australia. South Australia, however, offers stunning outback scenery and unique experiences as I found out on an organised small group ‘safari’ in 4 Wheel Drive Oka with seven other people, plus our driver/guide.
Hubby and I chose a small tour as driving outback South Australia can be pretty tough and for the person behind the steering wheel, there’s not a lot of opportunity to take in the scenery with eyes riveted to the road ahead. It was a good move to have someone else, who knew the area, taking care of the driving.
The tour company we went with was ‘Sacred Earth Safaris’, a small family owned operator that also runs outback tours in the Northern Territory and Tasmania. We’d already travelled with them in a 4WD Toyota Landcruiser trip from Broome to Darwin, so we knew they were a good mob.
We set out from Adelaide in April – a good month to travel in South Australia as the weather can get very hot in the outback. Our main objective was to reach Birdsville, a famous little Australian town on the edge of the Simpson Desert and just over the South Australian border in Queensland.
We pushed through quickly to Coober Pedy on the Stuart Highway on our first day – it’s about 848 kilometres from Adelaide. I found it a boring drive, with the occasional exciting moment when I spotted majestic eagles flying quite close to the highway, usually swooping down on road kill – kangaroos and other wild animals hit by passing traffic. My sister used to live in Coober Pedy, and captured some great eagle photos along this road.
The journey to Coober Pedy seemed to end on the moon! Well, at least a moon-like landscape.
Coober Pedy is famous for its opal mines – it bills itself the opal capital of the world. It’s also famous for its underground homes, tunnelled into hills. Even churches are underground! A lot of the local residents live underground to escape the heat and chill of the desert. The whole area seems to be full of dug outs and mining holes! There’s hardly any natural vegetation because of the heat, poor rainfall, sandstone and scant topsoil.
A lot of the hotels here also have underground rooms, literally dug out of the earth. Walls are as they are when the rooms are dug out. The most that might be done to them is a clear coating to help keep down dust. It’s like sleeping in a cave!
The unique Coober Pedy landscape has attracted many movies shoots, including Mad Max beyond the Thunderdome.
The town doesn’t have a movie theatre. But it does have a Drive-in theatre – one of the few remaining in Australia where you rock up in your car and watch the big screen from your vehicle!
Coober Pedy also has an 18 hole golf course, without a blade of real grass!
Not far north of Coober Pedy, we visited the Kanku-Breakaway reserve, with striking arid scenery and a wealth of geological interests.
The Mad Max film was also shot in the nearby “Painted Desert” – an area covered by a massive inland sea 120 million years ago. Evidence can still be found there today with numerous fossil deposits.
From Coober Pedy we moved on 200 km north east for a brief stop at one of the most famous roadhouses in Australia – the pink Oodnadatta roadhouse and the gateway to the Simpson Desert. Oodnadatta once was the northern terminus for the Central Australian railway. But the Ghan stopped coming in 1980, and there were fears the tiny town would die. Initially, a 1969 Dodge Phoenix vehicle, painted bright pink, was parked outside the roadhouse, and eventually the whole building was painted pink – ensuring its popularity and place in the Australian landscape!
When you follow the 615 kilometres of the unsealed Oodnadatta track, you are following the old Ghan Railway line. The track is still there. The Ghan, however, takes a different route these days up through central Australia between Adelaide and Darwin.
En route along the Oodnadatta track is the remote William Creek hotel, where we stayed a night. It takes only a few minutes to explore the town on foot! William Creek is the smallest settlement in South Australia, though it is on the largest cattle station in the world. It too was also once a stop for the Ghan train.
We were fortunate to see debris at William Creek from the first stage of the Black Arrow Rocket, Britain’s only successful independent space launch in Australia. The debris was recovered from the surrounding Anna Creek Station and put into a memorial park across the road from the hotel. I’ve heard that since our visit it has been recently returned to the UK by a technology firm. It’s a pity because attractions in William Creek are a little light on.
William Creek is a quirky little town – not much to it other than the hotel that’s a genuine character outback pub, and an airstrip. There is a camping ground, pub accommodation, and some self-contained accommodation. We stayed in the accommodation – typical Aussie ‘donga’ transportable en suite rooms. Very basic, but clean and adequate.
You never know who you are going to meet in the Australian outback. We missed by only a day or so British actor Robson Green – he of Grandchester and Wire in the Blood fame. Apparently he was there filming a television programme. Apart from his TV shows, Robson Green is also famous for his fishing programmes. So my hubby would have loved to have swapped fishing stories with him at the William Creek pub bar! And I wouldn’t have minded meeting him too!
You can take a scenic flight at William Creek to see Australia’s largest saltwater lake – now known as Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre. It covers more than nine thousand square kilometres, and is more often than not dry. When it rains, the Lake fills with water, attracting hundreds of species of birds including pelicans, gulls, avocets and other waterbirds that come to breed. It’s said that Lake Eyre has a small flood every three years, a large flood every ten years, and fills only about four times each century!
We decided to take this trip when we heard the Lake was filling up – a rare opportunity. However, the rain also flooded outback roads. And it was at William Creek that our trip began to come undone.
We heard the track ahead might be closed the next day because of floods. There are huge fines if you go onto these outback roads when they’ve been closed down. So we were away at the crack of dawn before any closure notice, heading for Marree – about 200 kilometres away on the unsealed dirt road.
I’m really glad we had a driver experienced on the Oodnadatta track, as it was a tough and muddy journey. Normally this is apparently well graded, but it wasn’t in good shape when we did it. Finally, the Oka made it into Marree before dark, another old railway town where trains no longer visit. The remains of the railway platform are stand lonely in the centre of town, testament to past railway glories and times when freight trains were full of cattle from pastoral stations.
Marree is on the edge of the vast desert of Central Australia, and you can see the local humour is alive and well when you note that Marree has a yacht club! This is a place where rainfall is erratic and rare. They do get to set sail on the rare occasions when there’s water in Lake Eyre!
To the north of Marree is the Simpson Desert and Sturt’s Stony Desert and to the north-east is the Strzelecki Desert. The town is the southern end of the famous Australian Birdsville track.
The Birdsville track is an unforgiving 519 kilometres of dirt track developed as a stock route in the 1880’s. You need to be very well prepared with water and emergency supplies to drive it.
For us on this trip, Birdsville was not to be. The track was closed at Lyndhurst, 80 kilometres from Maree at the crossroads of the Strzelecki and Oodnadatta tracks. Road trains were lined up in the streets of Lyndhurst, waiting for it to open. But there was no telling when that would be, so we headed back south with a change of itinerary that included a stop at a ghost town, Farina, 55 kilometres south of Marree.
Farina was proclaimed a town in 1878 when it was thought wheat could be grown there. It became a rail head from Port Augusta in the late 1880’s, with the line closing in the 1980’s. Today many of its beautiful old buildings lie derelict, but life is coming back to the town. The buildings are gradually being restored and opened up for visitors by more than 100 volunteers with the Farina Restoration group. Since we visited, a cafe, visitor centre and bakery have been opened.
In June this year, Farina plans to hold its annual cricket match – Farina versus the whole world! It might not quite match the Olympics or the thrill of Test Cricket, but you can be sure you will find plenty of great outback spirit and determination at the match.
Eventually we reached the beautiful South Australian Flinders Ranges, where we felt we’d returned to civilisation – the outback was behind us. There was a little more exploring and climbing, and then we headed back to Adelaide. A great trip, which we will do again someday and hopefully make it to Birdsville!