8 must sees on the Oodnadatta Track

Thursday, 23rd Jan 2014 by John Pedler

Painted Hills

Before the Oodnadatta Track existed - in fact, well before Europeans were on the scene at all - this was a trading route for Aborigines, who followed a series of springs fed by the Great Artesian Basin.

To cut an extremely long story short, rain falling on the Great Dividing Range takes a million or so years to travel half way across the country via an underground aquifer – porous rock sandwiched between layers of non-porous rock. Where the aquifer bends up to meet the earth’s surface, the water is released as springs. Water means life, because you can’t survive in the desert on lizards alone.

These springs proved vital for early explorers and settlers, and this became the main route north. Then came the overland telegraph - ”Hello, is that England?” - followed by the Great Northern Railway - later the Ghan - and finally the Oodnadatta Track as we know it today. 

Even with its springs and delicious lizards this is still a considerably hostile place. The outback heat can be brutal and many months - sometimes years - can pass without significant rain. Yet, ironically, it was flash flooding of the waterways draining into Lake Eyre that often brought the train to a halt.

The rail service became so unreliable that by 1980 the whole shebang had been relocated further west where there was less likelihood of weather related disruptions.

Although regularly damaged by bushfires, floods and termites, the overland telegraph line continued to be used until the 1970s when a string of microwave towers rendered the line redundant.

Given the relentless determination of the elements to destroy everything we make, it’s surprising how much of the rail and telegraph infrastructure remains. But in the end nature will win out, so now - or maybe when it’s a bit cooler - is the best time to get out there and see this unique part of the country.  

Here are eight things that shouldn’t be missed on a trip along the Oodnadatta Track.

Lake Eyre.
Lake Eyre from the air

More often dry than not, Lake Eyre is Australia’s largest lake. In fact it’s so big that it’s difficult to truly comprehend its size from ground level.  

Just off the Oodnadatta Track there are a couple of places that look out over the smaller Lake Eyre South, but to view the main lake you’ll need to travel from Marree to Level Post Bay (96km) or from William Creek to Halligan Bay (64km).  These tracks head into extremely remote areas, so self sufficiency is crucial.

Halligan Bay is particularly remote and is only accessible in a high clearance 4wd vehiclce.

To really appreciate the magnitude of this ‘inland sea’ you’ll need to take to the skies. Wrightsair fly out of Marree and William Creek, and if you have the time and the money it’s worth including the Painted Hills (photo top) on your flight. Located on Anna Creek cattle station, the hills are so fragile that no vehicle access is permitted.

Remnants of an ancient seafloor these brittle mesas reveal vivid scars of colour as they crumble to the desert plain. 

Curdimurka Rail siding.

Curdimurka fettlers cottages

The Curdimurka site was restored by the Ghan Preservation Society, who in the mid-1980s organised a biennial outback ball to help fund ongoing restoration. Sadly the ball is no longer held but the Fettlers cottages and the water treatment plant remain largely intact.

Wabma Kadarbu Mound Springs

Wabma Kadarbu mound springs
Poking up from a particularly bleak part of the desert are what appear to be tiny hillocks. On closer inspection you’ll find they’re actually mound springs, formed when artesian water gurgling up to the surface carried sediment that built up on the flat plain. Wind swept debris also contributes to their ongoing formation.

There are two main springs,Bubbler and Blanche Cup, and from the viewing areas it’s possible to see the water swirling up from the depths. The larger mesa-like structure is known as Hamilton Hill, and in an earlier life it too was a mound spring.

Looking out at the treeless plain it’s easy to understand what makes the artesian basin so great. Without its precious water it’s highly unlikely that Europeans would have ever bothered with this part of the world. 

In fact, the two main activities that keep us busy in the outback - pastoralism and mining - are totally dependent on this ancient water supply.

Coward Springs.

Coward SpringsCoward Springs spa
Complete with date palms, Coward Springs is a classic oasis in the desert. Once a siding on the Great Northern Railway, the site was considerably rundown before Greg Emmett and Prue Coulls began restoration work in 1991.

The Engine Drivers Cabin is now a museum while the fully restored Station Masters House has become Greg and Prue’s residence.

A camping ground has been established with shade provided by historic date palms and the many native trees that have since been planted.

There’s also a small spa pool and a bird-friendly wetland.

Visit the Coward Springs website for information on camel safaris.

William Creek Hotel

William Creek Hotel
204 kilometres north of Marree and 202 kilometres south of Oodnadatta, the famous William Creek pub has long been a welcome sight on the Oodnadatta track. The pub is one of only two businesses in town – the other is Wrightsair - and depending on staffing levels the population rarely reaches double figures.

Built in the late 1880s out of timber and iron, the hotel has since been extended to improve the dining facilities. Inside there’s all sorts of paraphernalia collected from visitors over the years.

Peake Telegraph Station.

Peake ruins
This was the most remote of the overland telegraph stations in northern SA, and it’s still no easy feat to get here. The ruins are at the end of a rough sixteen-kilometre long 4wd track, and because of their isolation they remain in reasonable nick. 

The station closed in 1891 and the equipment was relocated to Oodnadatta, which by then had been connected by rail to Adelaide.

In a gully just up from the ruins you can see the workings of a failed copper mining venture that briefly brought Peake back to life in the early 1900s.

One of the information signs features an evocative, albeit oddly posed, photo of Peake and its residents in the station’s heyday.

Algebuckina Rail Bridge.

Alongside the track you’ll see a number of iron bridges spanning creeks and rivers, but none come close to the magnificence of Algebuckina rail bridge.  Stretching 578 metres across the mighty Neales River, it was the longest rail bridge in South Australia until the two ends of the new Onkaparinga Valley Bridge met in 2012.

The waterhole across the road is a popular spot for camping.

Oodnadatta museum

Oodnadatta rail station
Housed in several rooms of the old railway station, the museum contains historic photos, Aboriginal artefacts and displays covering Oodnadatta’s role as an inland mission and rail town. Together with information on the region’s geography and geology, the museum’s exhibits tell a thorough story of the Oodnadatta region.

Keys to the museum are available from the Pink Roadhouse.

Nuts and Bolts

  • Officially the Oodnadatta Track runs from Marree to Marla.
  • Weather permitting, the Oodnadatta Track can be travelled in a conventional vehicle with good ground clearance.
  • It’s best to travel in the cooler months to beat the outback heat.
  • Unleaded and diesel are available at Marree, William Creek, Oodnadatta and Marla.
  • The longest distance between fuel stops is 207km – Oodnadatta to Marla.

Useful Links
Outback SA road conditions - DPTI
Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre National Park
Wabma Kadarbu Mound Springs Conservation Park
Coward Springs

Gary Rutherford
replied 207 days ago 
Thanks for such a great site. Very informative. Gary R.
John Pedler
replied 203 days ago 
Thanks Gary, hope you found some useful information. Cheers, John
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