Driving the Oodnadatta Way

The Oodnadatta track is one of Australia’s greatest outback routes and an epic adventure. Spanning 620kms from Marree to Marla in South Australia it follows the route of the old Ghan railway from Adelaide to Alice Springs and is a track of discovery, fuelling the imagination and offering a fascinating glimpse into the past.

Although those days of rail nostalgia are long gone there are remains of it along this track and it makes for an adventurous way to cross over and head north to Alice Springs, Uluru, and Darwin. That’s where we’re heading.

Our South Australian outback adventure continued after our stay in the Flinders Ranges. Leigh Creek was our next stop for refuelling and restocking but nearby Copley was the real winner with some of the best pies I’ve eaten at the Quandong Bakery, including their famous Quandong pie. The bakeries got even better as we continued towards Farina. It was July and we’d lucked it with their famous underground bakery, which operates for only eight weeks of the year, open during our visit. Run by enthusiastic and friendly volunteers, it’s one of the highlights of this historic town. However even in other months this tiny township is well worth a visit. Its history, ruins, spectacular sunsets, and peaceful camping ground makes it a worthy stopover.

The next morning, we farewelled Farina after breakfast at the bakery and our next stop is Marree, the legendary outback town at the junction of the Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks. This historic watering hole and railway town offers travellers the chance to refuel and prepare for the long journey ahead and the remote sign at the start of the track says it all.

As with any outback road trip common sense prevails with these fundamental tips: be prepared in every way, fuel, provisions, water, spares, mechanical supplies and let people know where you’re going, especially if travelling alone. Lower your tyre pressures and make those last phone calls as once you’re on the track your only connection will be with nature (until you hit the roadhouse fuel stops). For us Marree was a place to refuel and get the latest updates. We heard the road ahead was in relatively good condition, so we were hoping for an easy drive.

The first stop is the “Mutonia Sculpture Park” at Alberrie Creek, a whacky yet ingenious sculpture park in the middle of nowhere, filled with larger-than-life displays created from recycled industrial materials by former mechanic Robin Cooke. From the two light planes standing on their ends to the spinning car and the big dog this art collection is truly “recycladelic” and a fun place to explore.

Next stop is the lookout for Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre, one of the most famous features along the Oodnadatta track. There are two viewing points, and both offer amazing opportunities to set a drone up for overhead shots. For us it was a lunch stop, after our walk out to the dazzling salt lake. To fully appreciate the vastness of Lake Eyre a scenic flight can be enjoyed from Coober Pedy, William Creek or Marree.

Back in the car the corrugations got worse about 15kms before Coward Springs, and we were relieved to pull in to check out this well-known stop. Here we discovered that a drawer had fallen out, the range hood had come apart and the shower door had fallen off. Fortunately, the other half is a fitter and turner, aka a fixer by trade, and had every tool imaginable on board. We realised that our tyres hadn’t been reduced enough and when Doug lowered them once again to 27psi we had no further problems.

Coward Springs is an oasis close to the highway, a popular campground set next to a natural wetland and boasting its own artesian spa. We’d contemplated staying the night but opted to move on to nearby Beresford Siding, another of the old Ghan railway stops. There’s a prominent tower here which was used for the desalination of artesian water for the steam trains. Together with the ruins of the cottages, a flowing bore and a tree lined dam it’s a fantastic place to stay and photograph, especially in the late afternoon glow. The bird life was prolific and that night we enjoyed a fire and another magical outback sunset.

There’s so much to see along the Oodnadatta track. There’s old Ghan railway tracks and bridges, distant hills, and scattered ruins of railway buildings from the Ghan days. The Overland Telegraph repeater stations along the way are reminders of early pioneering days.

The track alternates between long straight stretches to dips and flood plains where clumps of trees have grown providing pockets of green. This is a good place to find firewood for an evening fire once the sun goes down and that outback chill invariably sets in. There are plenty of signs along the road which give warning of what’s ahead. One was funny, like the “crests, dips and curves” sign that some cheeky bugger changed to read “brests, hips and curves”.

William Creek was a great spot to stop for lunch, a chance to have a drink at the pub and check out all the quirky items that these outback pubs are renowned for. We struck up a conversation with friendly barman Simon who’d arrived from New Zealand barely two months earlier. He loved his job, loved the open spaces and meeting travellers like us. He was in his element here, enjoying life away from the city.

When I told him I was a travel writer he suggested I leave my mark so together with the name of this illustrious magazine, we’re now on the wall behind the jukebox and underneath the map leading to the dining room in the pub. Anyone can leave a message. Simply chuck in a donation at the bar which goes to the great cause of the Royal Flying Doctors.

Just up the road is Anna Creek Station, a Kidman property and the biggest cattle station in the world. Further from William Creek the track continues with a turn off to Coober Pedy possible. That’s the beauty of this track, it can be experienced for a short or long journey with several roads diverting to the Oodnadatta Track from the Stuart Highway, such as this one to Coober Pedy, to Cadney Homestead via the Painted Desert and to Marla.

For us, after leaving William Creek our second night on the track was at Algebuckina Bridge, arguably South Australia’s longest and most photographed railway bridge in South Australia. From our campsite we could see this spectacular rail bridge which spans almost 600m. It was built in 1892, an impressive feat of engineering.

Although you can’t walk across the bridge there’s a set of steps that leads up to the bridge where you can walk to the start of the railing. There you can look down at the river, at the campsites and marvel at all the rivets and workmanship of this mighty bridge.

A faded sign tells of its history. “This imposing bridge highlights the engineering skills required to build the Great Northern Railway from 1878-1891, when the line reached Oodnadatta. The Algebuckina Bridge, which cost 60,000 pounds crosses the Neales River and was officially opened for traffic from January 1892. Up to 352 men were employed to build this railway”.

We move on the next morning to the star attraction on this dirt highway, the iconic pink roadhouse at Oodnadatta. This pub is a “one stop shop” and a lot of work has gone into making it the pink quirky outback stop it is. The diesel isn’t cheap at $2.10 litre but that’s hardly surprising when you consider where it is. Inside the reception is friendly and you’ll find whatever provisions you need as well as being able to enjoy a drink, meal or catch up with the outside world on the 4G network. It’s also a great place to meet and chat with fellow caravanners on the same journey.

While buying our supplies I noticed a vacant position sign. “Housekeeping/roadhouse all-rounders required”. Had Doug and I been looking to stick around it could have been fun to join the roadhouse crew for a while. I think I could handle being a pink chick. If you’re staying the night there’s a camp behind the pub and you can visit the Old Ghan Railway Station Museum and the old station master’s residence. When we visited in July, the Oodnadatta Bronco branding and campo draft was in full swing, a huge event in the area.

Our last night on the track was spent at Kathleen Springs, about 85kms past Oodnadatta, a shady campsite right by the water. That night hubby cooked a Thai curry for dinner, a fire was lit and all was peaceful until the huge rumble of a passing road train shook the ground. Seeing this beast of the road pass by made me mighty glad we’d pulled over early. This is one vast yet well-travelled road.

Driving the Oodnadatta track is one of the most accessible outback drives in Australia. It’s surprisingly full of variety for its 620kms, epic, long and one heck of an adventure. It’s a track that’s constantly maintained but whenever you plan to drive it, the rule of thumb is to always check conditions before you go. Ring the toll-free pink roadhouse number on 1800 802 074 or 1300 361 033.

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