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Published: September 17th 2020
Blanche Cup Mound Spring
Wabma Kadarbu Conservation Park, South Australia
After three days in Uluru with barely a cloud in the sky, Sunday morning was a surprise. It was cool and cloudy, and the clouds were dark enough to suggest rain. I was going to be driving on dirt roads and camping for the next few days, so I didn’t want that. As I drove east on the Lasseter Highway, I seemed to outrun it at first. But I turned south on the Stuart Highway so by the time I reached Kulgera Roadhouse it was cloudy again. Eventually I did get enough rain to use the wiper blades twice, but that was it.
Even though I had fuelled up when leaving Uluru and didn’t need more just yet, I was about to head to remote roads and wasn’t sure when I would be able to fill up again, nor what my usage would be like. I checked with the guys at the roadhouse about the state of the roads to Mount Dare and to my relief they were all open and in good condition. So it was off the bitumen and onto the gravel.
I headed towards Finke, although I would not be able to visit the community there
due to Covid restrictions. Thankfully that wasn’t in my plans. The only destination I had in mind before Mount Dare was Lambert’s Geographical Centre of Australia. I turned off the Finke Road onto a heavily corrugated 4-wheel-drive only track and after a dozen kilometres I reached a replica of the flagpole that sits above Parliament House in Canberra. There wasn’t much else there though, so I signed the visitors’ book and took some photos and headed back to the Finke Road.
The road was in excellent condition until the Finke turnoff, and gradually deteriorated as I approached Mount Dare. The final 10km was covered in sharp gibber rocks so I had to take it pretty easy. The last thing I wanted out there was a puncture.
I reached the Mount Dare Hotel without incident but as I parked out the front, I saw no sign of life. I wondered if it was closed. It was only 5:30 but I couldn’t see any vehicles or people until someone popped their head around the side. I decided to head in.
There was a lady behind the bar and two people, one with a video camera, at one of the
Oodnadatta Track, South Australia
tables. I could see around the side was the guy who I had seen earlier. I organised my camping fees and was told to order dinner early as the kitchen wouldn’t be staying open late for so few people.
Driving around to the campground behind the hotel, I saw a couple more vehicles parked up at campsites. However, I never saw the people in the hotel, so they were only there for camping it seemed. I was keen to spend some time at the hotel because it is an iconic outback pub that marks the end (or beginning) of the Simpson Desert crossing that I hope to do some day.
I returned to hotel and ordered dinner and a glass of wine and headed round the side where some people were talking. They were the owners and a couple of the workers at the property and hotel. As the people inside were on the satellite phone organising repairs for their vehicle, I joined the conversation outside.
Apparently one of the owners had celebrated her 80th
birthday the night before so I think they were all a bit tired. The owners retired pretty early. After I had eaten,
Old Mount Nor'West Gorge
Witchelena Nature Reserve, South Australia
I ended up having a few more glasses of red than I originally planned, sitting and chatting with one of the workers and the daughter of the man who was organising the car repairs. They were heading north to Alice Springs when they broke down and were still not sure what they were going to do. I retired to my swag a little drunk. For the first time on the trip the night was warm enough to sleep in the swag with just the insect netting over me and I fell asleep looking up at the Milky Way.
I was up early on Monday morning and had breakfast in the hotel. I could have cooked my own breakfast, but as their business had been hit pretty hard by the pandemic, I thought I should support them as much as I could. I also bought a t-shirt and was on my way shortly after 9.
The road south was similarly covered with sharp rocks for the first 10km, so when I came across a ute parked on the side of the track I stopped to see if he needed any help. Thankfully, he was fine. He had just stopped
to take a photo of a dingo eating a dead cow. The carcass was a long way away, so I didn’t see the dingo and I continued on.
A short time later, I crossed through a fence at a cattle grid and saw a dingo running across the field to my right. I knew I had my wide-angle lens on the camera and wouldn’t be able to change it in time, so I resigned myself to miss the photo. But to my surprise there was a second dingo on the road ahead of me. And he was heading straight for me. I stopped the car and grabbed the camera. I stayed in the car and, to my delight, he kept coming straight for me. He was even considerate enough to pass on the driver’s side! He didn’t seem at all phased by me and I managed to get a few photos as he jogged past.
The road improved a bit from there. It’s very easy to think that the outback is all the same, but as you travel through you find it changing constantly. Not drastically – it doesn’t become forest or jungle or anything like that –
but it does change subtly. I stopped quite a few times to take photos of the landscape as the road crested over hills and dropped into valleys with different colour soil or new types of flora.
I soon reached Dalhousie Springs, another place that’s well known by people who cross the Simpson. In the middle of the dry, arid outback it is a large body of water that apparently is great swimming. I didn’t bring anything to swim in, so I made do with going on the nature walk around the spring. There were a handful of birds, but even the birder I talked to in the carpark afterwards was disappointed by the lack of birds. I had seen many more in the trees around Mount Dare.
I headed on to the Dalhousie Homestead ruins. There must be another spring there because amidst the fallen down houses were a couple of palm trees. I walked around and took some photos but didn’t stay long as it was very hot and the sun was threatening to burn me. I continued on.
As I had left Mount Dare quite early, when I reached Oodnadatta it was mid-afternoon and I
figured I had enough time to take a detour from the Oodnadatta Track and visit the Painted Desert. The Mount Batterbee lookout was about 70km away and at first the road was easy going. But as I turned off to the road that took me to the Ackaringa Hills, my progress slowed. The road was not great so I was surprised to see a large truck heading towards me at one point. I stopped to let him past, but he was not slowing down and I thought he was going to lose it in front of me where there was a patch of muddy ground. He held on, thankfully.
I reached the lookout and the view was pretty good. I’m not sure that it was any better than the Breakaways, which are the same type of geological feature. I headed onto another lookout but the Mount Batterbee was the better one. I had a chat with a couple that were there and they said they were going to head to Oodnadatta via a longer route because the road was better. I decided to do likewise.
The road was better, but it was a much longer route and I
returned to Oodnadatta after the sun had set. I stopped at the Pink Roadhouse to get some fuel. By my calculations I would just have enough to get to Marree, but I didn’t want to risk it. As I pulled up the Open sign was on in the roadhouse so I attempted to fill up. Nothing happened with the pump and I saw a man turn off the sign. I went and knocked on the door and when I said I just wanted to fill up, the lady said she would turn the pumps on. When I went inside to pay, I apologised for arriving late and the man said he was happy to unlock the doors for a sale like that. So I did not feel as bad.
I had another 75km to go until I reached my planned campsite and for the first time this trip I had to drive in the dark. It was moments like this that good driving lights pay for themselves. The Oodnadatta Track has many floodways that dip out of sight and you need to slow down for. At one point, I saw a bunch of legs up ahead, and my first
thought was why were there a group of people standing on the road? I quickly realised they were cows – a hazard on these roads as many properties are unfenced. My driving lights gave me plenty of warning so I slowed down with ample time and passed them without incident.
I arrived at Algebuckina bridge at about 7:30 and went looking for a campsite. It was hard to see where was good and I nearly drove straight into the river at one point. As I reversed back, I nearly got stuck in the mud and that was when I realised that I hadn’t engaged 4wd when I left the sealed road of Oodnadatta. Even though I don’t need 4wd on gravel roads, I like to use it anyway because the car is more stable. I soon found a campsite, set up and cooked dinner before going to sleep beneath the stars again.
In the morning I packed up my swag but before breakfast I decided to have a look around and get some photos of the bridge. The bridge is the largest single bridge in South Australia, but it is not in used anymore as the Ghan Railway
now runs much further west. But the Algebuckina bridge is an impressive sight as it crosses the Neales River. I ate breakfast and returned to the Oodnadatta Track.
About 30km down the road, I turned off onto a 4wd-only track and drove to the Old Peake Telegraph Repeater Station. In the 19th
century, the Overland Telegraph ran from Port Augusta to Darwin and there were repeater stations every 150-200km. The Peake station was also a pastoral homestead and at one stage, a copper mine and smelter. I walked around the ruins and then up into the hills along the track that visits the mine, taking plenty of photos. It was a warm day, but the breeze up on the hills kept it reasonable.
I continued on to William Creek and stopped at the hotel for some lunch. There’s not a lot there, but I could have bought fuel there if I hadn’t in Oodnadatta. While in the hotel, I heard talk of rain later in the week so I checked the forecasts and sure enough, it was forecasted to be a possible thunderstorm on Friday – the day I was planning to do part of the Strzelecki Track
and camping. While I had phone service, I changed my plans to start my stay at Arkaroola a night earlier, as I would be staying at the motel there.
Heading off, I was looking forward to the next section. I had purchased a camping permit in the Kati Thanda Lake Eyre National Park, at a place called Halligan Bay, on the shore of Lake Eyre. It can only be reached via a 4wd track so I was looking forward to some 4-wheel-driving and hopefully a campsite to myself. I got the latter, but not so much the former. The track specifies 4wd-only, and maybe that is warranted when it has been raining. But I found the road to be every bit as good as the Oodnadatta Track, much to my disappointment.
The campsite has toilet facilities and some undercover picnic tables, but I had it all to myself. Before setting up camp, I decided to down to the lake. The campsite wasn’t as close as I camped besides Goog’s Lake, but it wasn’t far. After setting up camp, I headed back down again to get some sunset photos and wasn’t disappointed.
I was also looking forward to
the sun setting because the flies were horrendous! They had been fairly constant since I left Ceduna ten days ago, but just that morning I thought maybe I was getting used to them because I hadn’t used the fly net for a few days. I shouldn’t have said anything because at Halligan Bay they were there in force. But, with the sun going down I looked forward to some respite.
It was not to be. The flies did go away eventually, but they were replaced with more flying bugs than I have ever seen in one place. At first, they went crazy for my laptop as I downloaded some photos from the camera. But when I turned on my LED camp light to start cooking they went absolutely mental. At least flies know what they’re about. But these bugs just went crazy and were throwing themselves onto the gas barbecue. I ended up cooking and eating in the dark, but I’m sure I still ate some that kamikazed onto the hotplate. Between the flies and the suicidal bugs, they really ruined what would otherwise have been a nice campsite.
On Wednesday morning I suffered more flies as I
cooked and ate breakfast and left as soon as I could. I drove back to the Oodnadatta Track and continued towards Marree. First stop was the Strangways Ruins and Springs. Again, I walked around the ruins and took some photos and then headed out to check out the mound springs. As the spring water comes up to the surface, it is full of minerals and they are left behind in mounds when the water evaporates. So you can find water in the dry landscape by looking for small, green-topped mounds.
I then stopped at another ruin, this one the Beresford siding. This was a vital water source for the steam trains heading on the old Ghan Railway. I took some photos before heading onto the Wabma Kadarbu Conservation Park to check out some more impressive Mound Springs. These ones, known as “The Bubbler” and “Blanche Cup” still have water pooled at the top, although the flow is no longer what it used to be. The Bubbler is worth spending some time at because the bubbles change constantly and as I was about to leave there started an impressive bubbling that continued for a couple of minutes before stopping.
I continued towards Marree. There was a lookout for Lake Eyre South, but I didn’t stay long. There was also a sculpture park just outside Marree with warning signs telling you not to climb or stand underneath the sculptures and to enter at your own risk. I wandered around and took a few photos, but to be honest, I was keen to get to Marree and have a shower.
I arrived at the Marree Hotel and as I checked in, I talked about what to do on Thursday. My original plan was to head up a 4wd track to see Lake Eyre, but the track had been closed since June and I think the flies and bugs and Halligan Bay kind of ruined Lake Eyre for me. The lady suggested a 4wd track in Witchelina Nature Reserve, which I had already earmarked as a possibility so I decided that would be it. The pass and key were organised at the hotel, so with a shower and a good pub meal, I went to bed.
I had breakfast at the hotel and filled out the paperwork for Witchelina and was on my way at 9:30. The turnoff is 37km
south of Marree and marked with a windmill blade sign. As I was driving along I thought I had missed it, so I went to turn around and as I did, I saw a windmill blade sign right at the point that I was turning around. It wasn’t the entrance, however. I read the sign and it was clear that this was the exit and I was 4km short of the entrance. I couldn’t believe that I had decided to turn around at that exact point, however. An amazing coincidence.
I found the entrance, unlocked the gate and started the drive. It was easy going at first, with the first point of interest being a piece of the old, old Ghan Railway. I continued on and the next place of note was a bridge for the new, old Ghan Railway – the standard gauge line that went through Beresford Siding and over Algebuckina bridge.
As the track continued into hilly terrain, it began criss-crossing a creek and became a proper 4wd track. It wasn’t difficult, but you needed to drive slowly and have decent clearance beneath your car. I had no problems, thankfully.
I parked the car
and took a short walk into Spring Gully, but that was the only time I left the car for any length of time. Not because there was nothing to see, but because it was a very windy day and the wind carried a lot of dust. It was just not a pleasant day to be outside. The wind did mean less flies, however. So that was something.
I soon reached the highlight of the track – Old Mount Nor’West Gorge. Here I had to engage low range (once again discovering I’d forgotten to engage 4wd in the first place!). Low range was not needed due to steep climbs or descents, but because the track went along the rocky creek bed and had to be done very slowly. It was a great drive, however. Normally you find yourself driving to places like this and then having to get out and walk to see the gorge. But driving along the creek bed through the gorge was awesome and worth the visit just for that.
From there, the track headed back towards the main road and the exit I had found before. There were some homestead ruins that I declined to
explore because of the wind and dust, plus it was 36 degrees. The only other highlight was a hilltop with a cairn. You could drive to the top and there were great 360-degree views. It was then back to the exit and the main road and on to the Marree Hotel. A great way to end my trip along the Oodnadatta Track.
So now I begin the final phase of the holiday – the Flinders Ranges. Witchelina gave me a nice little taste of the 4-wheel-driving I expect to do over the final couple of weeks. It’s been a great trip so far and I hope it continues to be so!
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