A slippery run up the Oodnadatta Track
Is the famous Oodnadatta Track really a boring dirt road to nowhere? It depends how deep into history you’re willing to dig. Oh, and how much rain there’s been!
What does the Oodnadatta Track make you think of? A rich outback experience, or about as interesting as a dirt road to nowhere? This wasn’t your average run up the track, which has probably been done by countless intrepid (or broke) souls in the family Falcon. Unexpected weather made for extra adventure as we slipped and slid our way north and then west toward Oodnadatta.
A comfortable blacktop drive from Adelaide took us through Woomera. The town’s history is relatively short, going back to 1947 when Len Beadell surveyed the site as a base for the British Military’s testing of long-range weapons over Western Australia. It’s worth exploring the outdoor ‘rocket graveyard’, containing missiles, satellites and other pieces of equipment that were retrieved from the desert after falling back to earth – and you can get right up close to them. If you’re even remotely interested in such things, the Woomera Heritage Centre also has an excellent exhibition, open seven days.
We joined the Oodnadatta Track via Roxby Downs and the Borefield Road, an alternative to starting from Maree. It had rained heavily overnight, but thankfully all the roads were still open. The Borefield Road was as smooth as silk until the boundary of the BHP lease, where it is no longer maintained by the mining company … or anybody else, judging by the potholes! Soon the vehicles were caked in mud and low-range had to be engaged to get through all the innocent-looking puddles. More rain came down and made the track very slippery, so 4WD was certainly required on the way to Coward Springs. The folk driving toward us were a scary sight, with huge Taj-Mahal caravans sliding all over the road. We saw more than one resting up in the ditch on the side of the track.
Having come through mostly open plains it was a relief to see Coward Springs Campground, a veritable ‘oasis in the desert’. The place is surrounded by lush wetlands which exist because of water that flows from a nearby Artesian bore, the cap having been accidently eroded in the 1900s by salty water. We planned to camp the following night at Lake Eyre, but after hearing it described as “the bleakest campsite ever” and claims of “hurricane winds” by some fellow travellers, the decision was made to stay put for two nights in comfort at Coward Springs. Sitting around the crackling Mallee fire, eating steak pies and toasties from the jaffle maker, we wondered about staying there for the rest of the trip as well!
Halfway between Coward Springs and William Creek is a Public Access Route (PAR) turnoff to Halligan Bay on Lake Eyre. The 60km track was arduous due to the wet conditions, requiring frequent slowing for cattle, dingoes and big puddles waiting to fill your alternator with mud. Through moonscape vistas and exclamations of “surely we’re there now?”, we arrived at Lake Eyre, the lowest point in Australia at 16m below sea level, but completely dry most of the time. It gives you one hell of a perspective to stand on the edge, look out as far as you can see, and imagine being lost without a compass in the white expanse.
At William Creek you can camp or rent cabins for the night and enjoy a schnitty in the charming front bar at the pub, which is one of the only features of the town apart from the airstrip. The toolbox came out in the evening to nip up the Everest’s factory bash plate, when someone noticed a front fog light had rattled loose and lost all four bolts. Oops!
Duff Creek rail bridge was our next stop, one of several surviving bridges from the old Ghan Railway which ran between Port Augusta and Alice Springs. Homer Simpson didn’t appear with his beer, so it was onwards to the Old Peake Telegraph Station PAR. The ruins at the end of the PAR were in remarkable condition for being abandoned 90 years ago, and the interpretive walk to mine shafts around the site was worth doing. Apart from one other group on their way out, it felt very remote indeed. Finding a place to free camp shouldn’t be a problem along most of the Oodnadatta Track, but be aware that camping is no longer permitted along the Peake Station PAR.
It must have bucketed down in Oodnadatta, judging by the amount of water on the track as we drove in the next day. The famous Pink Roadhouse was a compulsory stop, where we filled up on fuel and tried the fish burgers (delicious). Every Simpson Desert conqueror and their 4WD seemed to be there too, so the line-up for fuel took a while.
Talking vehicles, there’s no doubt the GQ Patrol imparted the character of the Oodnadatta Track on its occupants: dust, flies and a corrugated imprint on your rear. Understandably, this isn’t the outback experience everyone wants, and the 30-years-newer Everest was more comfortable and better in almost every other regard. The Patrol was 10 times cheaper to buy though and remains a great choice for touring on a budget.
From Oodnadatta we did something different, turning off the track and heading west to the spectacular Painted Hills. There are several informal walks amongst the Hills (access via PAR 11), and a drive to the scenic lookout at sunset is a must. Arckaringa Station is a short 10km away, providing comfortable facilities and bush camping. You can even wash up the dishes at the open-air ‘scenic sink’ (have a go at that tongue-twister) and look out over the scrubby red plains. To get to Coober Pedy from here, we crossed Moon Plain which is as desolate as it sounds. Despite having no defining features whatsoever, you still might recognise this area which has featured in films like Mad Max and The Red Planet. And the Lollipop Road was interesting – you can discover that one for yourself! If you’re thinking about having a go at outback touring, the Oodnadatta track and surrounding areas provide an excellent, safe introduction with plenty of interesting history to see along the way.
Route: The Oodnadatta track is an easy dirt road, with plenty of corrugations. However, it can turn to sticky mud with a few drops of rain.
When: Autumn to spring, avoiding the heat of summer. Winter can get cold at night; we had some sub-zero nights camping in July.
Vehicle preparation: Despite the popularity of the Oodnadatta Track and surrounding areas, it still pays to be well prepared mechanically. This meant fresh oils all-round, a clean air filter and service for the Patrol. The Everest, picked up from the dealer only a month before, was fitted out with the usual touring accessories, plus an all-important second spare tire.
Stats from the track: We conducted a survey of all the vehicles seen between Coward Springs and Oodnadatta. HiLux Utes were by far the most common (40+), followed by LandCruiser 100 Series (15) and Ford Rangers (10). All the other models only totalled 15 between them!