A perfect straight line of tarmac flanked by vast plains of sparse straw-like grass, burnt in patches in preparation for ploughing, runs to the horizon. In the distance streaks of dust cross the landscape, trails of a lonely tractor and nomadic flocks of sheep grazing on slim pickings, their wool as red as the dirt. This featureless landscape is broken only by man made structures- a weathervane, a water tank, the ruins of a small farm building.
Through the settlements of Orroroo and Hawker we pass as the afternoon wears on and the grey outline of the Flinders Ranges begin to form on the horizon, the serrated silhouette of Wilpena Pound at its head our destination. Dusk brings with it a marvellous display of colour in the wide desert sky as scores of wallabies emerge from their daytime slumber. The campsite at Wilpena is our base for the next few days and we pick a pitch on the wide expanse of red dust, it hasn’t rained here since March.
An early start as we set off through the loose woodland of scanty pine and native red gum heading towards the rocky outer slopes of the elevated basin that is Wilpena Pound, a huge arc of mountains resembling a massive crater. We’re accompanied only by striking green budgerigars as the track inclines steeply up towards the Tenderra Saddle leaving the cover of the bush below as it climbs across the carotine rocks. The view from the saddle sweeps down into the centre of the pound while outside the crater the vertebrae of the Flinders Ranges stretch to the hazy horizon like a huge fossilised spinal column. Above us is St Marys Peak (1171m) where the panorama is emphasised by the extra few hundred metres of altitude; the whole pound is revealed arcing out from our position in a perfect circle of peaks and across the vast plains below an expanse of striking white ground- the salt lake named Torrens.
After lunch at the peak we descend into the centre of the pound, once used by early settlers to contain their cattle (hence the name) a 12km loop that takes till late afternoon and returns via the Pound Gap where the red gums grow in abundance between its steep walls and shady watering holes. Speckled light sprays onto wallabies that graze in the undergrowth around the path.
A few kilometres out of Wilpena is the Solar Station Lookout, the perfect spot to enjoy the sunrise; walking out onto the exposed hill we watch as the cloud layer over the horizon gradually turns from flat grey to a beautiful soft pink, the first rays of the morning sun hitting the peaks turning them a deep glowing red like the coals of a fire, a great start to the day.
Lake Eyre and the Oodnadatta Track
A quick coffee at the visitor centre and we’re on our way back to Hawker where the road splits south back towards the main Stuart Highway or north to Leigh Creek. The highway route is a massive backtrack but the sensible option in a two wheel drive but we’ve been convinced by Trevor to go via Leigh Creek and follow the dirt track past Lake Eyre to William Creek and across to Coober Pedy. The route will take us into some real outback and give us the opportunity to experience Lake Eyre in a very special way but it’s a risky move all round and we’re a bit apprehensive.
The drive north to Leigh Creek is a breeze on the smooth tarmac, the ridge of the Flinders to our east. Dust devils spin across the road and huge wedge-tailed eagles rip at carrion lying by the wayside. Leigh Creek is an oasis in the dust and a great place to stock up on provisions before reaching Lyndhurst where the bitumen ends and the dirt takes over. The route follows the Old Ghan railway line, the only remnants a bank of earth and the occasional pile of dusty sleepers; ruined settlements long since abandoned crumble in the distance. Somewhere to the west the new line runs almost 3000kms to Darwin and the Indian Ocean.
A general store, a pair of dilapidated fuel pumps and a collection of rusting locomotives spread around the deserted platforms of the old railway station are the sights of Maree. Back in the day the town was an important link on the Ghan’s route north to Alice, the railway brought life to this part of the desert and took it away when its tracks were re-routed, these days it’s exists only as a stopover for weary off roaders tackling the famous cross country routes of the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks.
A warm morning sees us set off on day two in the dirt: we’re taking the Oodnadatta Track north-west to William Creek over 200kms away and we’re certainly the only campervan headed this way! The track is in relatively good condition, deteriorating in patches where the route crosses the vast network of dried creek beds, each dip in the road a mess of corrugation that threatens to shake the van apart. Traffic today is unusually heavy and we’re blasted by huge clouds of dust and shale as the 4WD’s thunder past at 100kms an hour causing the track and oncoming traffic to completely disappear. Thankfully the ‘traffic’ soon becomes spread out far and wide lowering the potential for collision and after 90kms we reach the southern banks of Lake Eyre South, its salt encrusted rim giving way to a glimmer of water in the distance. Surrounded by a swarm of flies we make our way down to its edge where we roam about on the sparkling white salt, the crunch under foot further adding to the impression of walking on snow.
Passing Coward Springs the track begins to deteriorate as the corrugations become more common. In addition the surface becomes incredibly stony and recent grading has left a deadly central reservation of sand and rock that has to be crossed on numerous occasions when searching for a smoother route, only to then be re-crossed in the face of oncoming traffic. The best way to deal with the corrugations is to drive on the opposite side of the track, one wheel in the desert but this poses serious risk at false horizons and banking turns.
By the time we reach William Creek (population 3) we’re shattered and a little broken.
‘where’ve you come from?’ asks a dusty looking woman outside the campsite. ‘Marree!’ I reply triumphantly.
‘In that? Must have been a hell of a ride!’ She’s not wrong!
After a drive like that we both decide we need a strong drink. The William Creek Hotel is as fine as example of an outback pub as you’ll find: the walls and ceiling are plastered with thousands of id cards, drivers licences and the like as well as a wide collection of pieces of clothing and bits of vehicles. After a large slug on a cold beer I add my own piece of memorabilia to the lot- my New South Wales RSA card!
We’re up early next day as we’ve booked a flight over Lake Eyre (north), big brother to its southern counterpart we strode across the day before. Eyre has been in the spotlight the past few years following successive annual flooding of an area approaching 8000 square kilometres in size that, until 2009, had been dry for decades. A change in weather patterns attributed to the La Niña phenomenon has seen water collected in a catchment area covering a sixth of the continent flow down creeks such as the Cooper and Warbuton into the lake. With water comes life and an extraordinary collection of birdlife has migrated inland to nest and breed.
We take off a little after sunrise in a small 6 seater Cessna, its fixed wing and tails casting long shadows across the dusty strip in the early morning light Climbing to 1200ft we soon leave the red scrubland behind as we cruise over the carpet of salt and approach the waters edge someway into the lake. The colours are beautiful from above: the water, a soft algal pink turns a dull grey as it seeps effortlessly into the chalk white salt. Descending to 500 feet we cruise over the Madigan Gulf, scene of Donald Campbell’s successful world land speed record in 1964 and then north over a vast network of arterial waterways, their brackish channels home to a profusion of birdlife. Looking down from above we spot squadrons of pelicans skimming across the water, silvery trails tracing their route; duck, swan and a scores of indistinguishable breeds gather together in their thousands along the branches of the swollen creeks, a quite incredible sight. Swooping back into the north of the lake we follow the Warbuton Groove, a deep channel that carries the main body of water into the lake, from here the water grows increasingly shallow turning from brown to electric green as the colour is diluted by the salt bed below. Returning to base its back to plain old salt for the remainder of the route, the lake’s only 30% full this year but the flight has been spectacular and who knows when water will reach this place again.
Breakfast amongst the flies: the damn things head straight for eyes, nostrils and mouths goading one into a fit of rage and uncontrollable swatting. The only way to keep them at bay is to continually keep walking and we must make a curious sight as we circle the van munching our cornflakes.
Spirits are high as we leave William Creek, the road ahead has been described as ‘a dream’ by the lady at the bar and its 160 km back to the Stuart highway and the smooth bitumen, but within ten minutes of leaving civilisation we’ve hit rock bottom- the track is far worse than the day before, heavily corrugated and coated in a thick layer of powdery red sand. Driving at snails pace I’m cursing the lady and Trevor Manning out loud as we begin to realise we may not reach the highway today. The track undulates over the long dunes that run across our path, an undeniably beautiful scene of deep red and bleached sage coloured scrub, difficult to relish in our worrying predicament, and then amidst the foliage an upturned 4WD, the last victim of bad advice?
After 70 agonising kilometres we witness a miracle- smooth hard-packed dirt as far as the eye can see, elation all round. By late afternoon we cross the ‘Dog Fence’ a barrier that runs for over 9000km to keep the dingoes away from the flocks down south and Conical heaps of pink ‘slag’ begin to sprout from the land- by-products of the extensive Opal mining in the area. A final flurry of dust and we rattle onto hard tarmac for the first time in four days and approach Coober Pedy, a real culture shock after the sparseness of the outback.
We’re both in agreement that it’s been an epic few days as we reminisce over a bottle of plonk and some greasy pizza in town, definitely worth the stress and a van full of dust! We may have taken his name in vain on numerous occasions but if it wasn’t for Trevor M we would never have experienced the marvels of this crazy detour and the beauty of Lake Eyre, a very strong contender for the highlight of the trip so far. An e-mail a few days later delivers Trevor’s congratulations and to quote ‘well you wouldn’t have done it if I told you what it was really like now would you?’ You’re absolutely right!