Tracking History to Oodnadatta

The vast Australian landscape is strewn with four-wheel-drive adventure opportunities. The majority offer truly wilderness experiences where you and your modern motor can vanish into the scenery and leave the metropolitan crush behind.

Beresford BoreThe Oodnadatta Track is an accessible and engaging 850 kilometre drive through the vast desert plains some 600 kilometres north of Adelaide. The generally well-maintained road is accessible in most modern vehicles, although you probably wouldn't want to take your sparkling new BMW. Any modern 4WD makes the journey effortless and trouble free.

One of the most notable features of the Oodna' Track is that it follows the path of the old Ghan Railway, making the journey one of continual discovery as you explore the old rail sidings, ruins and townships that once thrived on the railway but now, if they're still there, depend mainly on you, the passer-thru.

Work on the original Ghan Railway began in 1878, following the then-existing Overland Telegraph line. The plan, of course, was to build a railway to Darwin. In its first funding crunch, the railway stalled at Oodnadatta and it wasn't until 1929 that the line to Alice Springs was completed - and there it stalled again until now.

Road SignThe track also passes along the uppermost edge of the Woomera rocket range (prohibited area) and the lowermost border of the Lake Eyre National Park, the latter making an interesting diversion, especially on the rare occasions when the lake is filled.

Travelling north, the Track begins at the old railhead of Maree, which also marks the beginning of the Birdsville Track… but that's another story!

Once home to the famous Afghan cameleers, Maree bears all the hallmarks of a town that was. Formerly a bustling centre of outback commerce located at the crossroad of major overland trade routes, Maree has been reduced to a quaint outpost for passing travellers and cattle trucks. All around lays the evidence of past times.

Interior William Creek HotelJourney west along the wide, graded track and you pass the noteworthy points of Curdimurka Siding, Coward Springs, Blanches Cup (mound spring) and Beresford Bore, complete with adjacent rocket tracking emplacements, before lobbing at the smallest town in Australia - William Creek. Campers can overnight at Coward Springs, or if you hanker for a bed, hang on 'till William Creek.

Just like most every other hamlet along the Track, William Creek tells the familiar story of a railway town turned to zilch. 200 kms west of Maree, the famous pub is now its only current claim to fame. Sitting at the bar, you'd think every outback traveller that ever was had been here for a beer or two. And parked outside you're more likely to see several Cessnas than a string of road trains.

William Creek is also the popular and logical base camp for those wanting to spend more time exploring the vast expanses of the Lake Eyre region. You can even charter a joy flight from the bar.

William Creek Hotel

The next 200 km leg will take you to the namesake town of Oodnadatta which served as a railhead from 1891 until 1929. With a population of just over 200, it is still a proper town with most services. You won't miss the Pink Roadhouse which serves as a busy focal point for travellers, offering food, accommodation and advice. The town is the springboard for visitors to the Simpson Desert and Witjira National Park and you can buy the required Parks Pass from the roadhouse.

The current Track finishes at Marla, another 200 kms further west, and out on the Stuart Highway proper. Diehard enthusiasts used to prefer the 'old' track out via Granite Downs. This section is no longer maintained and passes through a former pastoral lease where access is actively discouraged [read their note]. If your offroad bug is still itching, you can head north past the Simpson Desert, via Dalhousie and Mount Dare, to Alice Springs. Although it is possible to make Oodna' to Alice in one hectic day, campers can relax at Dalhousie Springs while bunkers can stretch out at Mount Dare.

See Map of Oodnadatta Track

Since the author's journey along the Oodnadatta Track, The Old Ghan Railway Heritage Trail was completed in a joint SA Government tourism initiative. Beginning at Port Augusta, the trail stretches 1330 kilometres to Alice Springs and includes some 600 kilometres of the Oodnadatta Track itself. The new trail incorporates 20 interpretive signs built onto replica railway trolleys. Call 1300 655 276 for details.

Outback Driving:

Track SignDon't take safety for granted when driving in the Outback. Always carry spares and enough food and water for a week in case of breakdown. A CB radio is a must. A GPS is useful.

Always check road conditions with locals and fellow travellers to get best information. But beware, some hoteliers have been known to exaggerate travelling times and road perils in order to fill empty beds. The author's experience is that National Parks staff are best informed, especially when it comes to alternative routes, although the owner of Oodnadatta's Pink Roadhouse, Adam Plate, maintains a 1800 number expressly to inform intending travellers about how to arrive in one piece.

Most enjoyable time to travel is during winter when days are cool, but rain can make outback travel a real ordeal. Summer gets really hot with temperatures up to 45oC possible.

Must See:

Curdimuka Siding and Lake Eyre South
Mound Springs
Beresford Bore Rail Siding Ruins
William Creek Pub
Giles Memorial and Old Peake Telegraph Station
Pink Roadhouse (Oodnadatta)

Recommended Reading:

Gregory's 4WD Escapes. Detailed Route Instructions
NRMA's South Australia Holiday Guide. Brief, but to-the-point.
SA Tourism's 'Secrets -The Unwinding Roads'. Colourful.

Web Links: search: Oodnadatta search: Oodnadatta

Originally Published 1999. This Update: December 2006

More travel stories by Rod Eime

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