Heading Bush, Day 3 - The Oddnadatta Track, Talc Alf and Lake Eyre

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November 27th 2009
Published: December 15th 2009
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Waking up somewhere as beautiful as Parachilna Gorge is never a hardship. The morning had a chill so we huddled around the fire toasting bread and heating water for coffee on the fire before rolling up our swags and packing up camp. Before we left we decided we should have a quick bushwalk around the area because even Ian had never been there before. One thing I that love about the Heading Bush company and it's attitude is that each tour is different and the itinerary is never set in stone. Obviously there is an outline but if something comes up that causes the route to change, or the group is more interestied in something that is not usually covered, the bruck heads offroad and goes somewhere different. On our first day Ian said to us that he doesn't consider each trip to be a tour like a lot of the other companies offer, with a driver sitting up front reading off a script over the microphone and stopping at the same places every day. Instead he views each trip as an adventure, as much for him as for his passengers. It was this that made Ian the perfect guide and the trip something special. I have to confess I have forgotten what caused us to camp in the gorge instead of where the bruck usually stops on day two (I think it might have been simply that we were a little behind schedule) but it was clearly a very lucky set of circumstances because the bushwalk that morning turned out to be one of our most beautiful.

We climbed the nearest steep slope that had towered over us while we slept and protected us from some of the surprisingly powerful winds to find out what we could see from the top. The answer was spectacular. From our vantage point we saw the various peaks of the Flinders Ranges with the sun low in the sky over them. It was a beautiful way to start the morning. We climbed down the opposite side of the hill and walked back to camp along a dry river bed, marvelling at the enormous exposed roots of the huge gnarled trees that have to survive in the harsh conditions of the outback. We loaded up the bruck and set off.

Our first stop of the day was a couple of hours down the line at Leigh Creek, a small mining town. We stopped at an old coal mine site outside of town and had a look at the deep gouges in the earth that have been cut out over the years. We also got to have a look around various old bits of machinery that are no longer in use.

Just down the road is Copley where we stopped for a mid morning snack and coffee. The tiny town is famous for its quandong cafe and we decided that we had to sample the quandong crumble pies that they had which turned out to be fabulous. We did ask for the recipe Jayne but they were tight lipped - sorry!

We stopped at a town called Lyndhurst for a couple of reasons. First off was to have lunch but perhaps more importantly we needed to check weather conditions. Ian had heard from various locals that he'd spoken to at service stations that there had actually been quite a lot of rain on some of the tracks ahead and on the dry dusty roads of the outback this can cause quite a problem. Roads quickly become boggy or even swept away and they are so remote that being stranded is a big problem. The road out of Lyndhurst had a big warning sign stating "Warning, remote areas ahead" and strongly advising us on a number of precautions that we should take. Ian explained that if the road is declared closed it is actually a crime to drive down it and you simply have to wait until conditions have improved. When we got there the road was closed. There was already a huge tailback of road trains (huge freight trucks with three or more large trailers) waiting to get the nod to carry on ferrying their cargoes across the country. The drivers were just sitting at a cafe playing cards and looked quite amused when a bunch of tourists clambered out of the bizarre looking bruck to start taking pictures of the huge road trains parked along the side of the road. Luckily for us we only had to wait around half an hour before the call came through that the road was officially opened and we could drive on. We waited for the road trains to roll on out first and then took off after them.

On the way out of Lyndhurst we took a trip out to see an outback legend called Talc Alf. There is something about the solitude of the outback that inspires creative minds, art, a sense of humour and being profoundly bonkers, all qualities that Talc Alf has in abundance. Originally Dutch, Cornelius Johan Alferink, now Talc Alf, moved to Australia at a young age. He worked as a geologist's assistant in the outback where he first encountered the soft rock talc, from which baby powder is made, and discovered that it was perfect for his hobby of sculpture. Alf's home is just outside Lyndhurst and is a treasure trove of surreal art, surprisingly beautiful sculptures, random bits of discarded machinery, cars and assorted oddities. As well as being an accomplished scuptor Alf is also a poet, bush philosopher and ardent supporter of the new Australian flag in which the Union Jack in the top left corner is replaced by the Aboriginal flag. We pulled onto the dirt road that leads to his ramshackle but brilliant house and jumped out to meet Alf. Ian had warned us that he might not be in but we were luckily met by the great man himself, dressed in filthy overalls with a patch of the new flag stitched onto one arm, a beard full of powdered talc and thick glasses. He ushered us in to have a look around the yard where many of his sculptures sit and started lecturing us on some of his more bizarre theories, particularly around the English language. I have to confess, Alf speaks at such a furious pace that I could not hope to remember any of his marvellous ramblings but I did manage to find a quote of his on a website that sounds exactly like the kind of philosophies that he was "teaching" us:

“Now take capital A for example. It’s pointed at the top and sticks straight up so it obviously stands for the erect male penis and “A” for Adam and Adult.

Now if you get capital B and turn it on its side it looks like a pair of breasts hanging down so where you get the words, Breasts, Bosom, Beautiful.

Now C is not quite a full circle so it’s half a circle. So you add A and B together you obviously get C and if a circle is a full person then C is a half person and that’s where you get the words Child and Children.

Now D, if you lay it on its back, is obviously the shape of a dead animal lying on its back after a week in the desert,with its bloated swollen putrescent belly sticking up, and that’s where you get the words Death, Doom and Destruction.

E has three equal strokes on it and that’s obviously where you get the words Equal and Equivalent.

In the Letter F the top stroke is a bit further forward and that’s where you obviously get Fast and Faster"

We listened to Talc Alf for ages, partly because once he starts talking to you it's hard to stop him and partly because it's fascinating watching his quick but very unusual mind take it's own rambling path through dozens of subjects in less time that it takes to make a cup of tea. You can have a look at more of Alf's art and ideas here - http://www.southaustralianhistory.com.au/talcalf.htm

Back on the road again we stopped briefly to have a look at some ochre pits that the Aboriginals had dug to extract the fine powder used for the rock paintings from the earth. Ian explained that good ochre was a rare commodity for the Aboriginals and that tribes would travel hundreds of miles across the outback to trade with each other using it as a powerful bargaining tool.

As we pulled in to explore the ghost town of Farina Ian spotted a bearded dragon on the side of the road. Bearded dragons are really cool lizards that live in the arid rocky bushland and desert areas of Australia and have long been a favourite of mine. The cool little guy seemed very unbothered by our presence as we peered at him basking in the sun despite Cyril kindly trying to give the lizard a drink from his water bottle. He eventually shuffled off in search of some insects to eat, leaving us to explore Farina on our own. The town was another of the early settlements in the outback and a group of farmers set up there in 1878 hoping to eek a living out of the barren land and the old Ghan railway that ran alongside the town. The farming was largely unsuccessful and the town is now uninhabited. The final straw was the post office closing in 1960 but the town had more or less been abandoned long before that. We walked among the ruined building looking at the curious detritus of people long gone. In a house that had almost completely collapsed was a bath in surprisingly decent condition, standing alone on the sand with rainwater providing a home for a few bugs and, we assumed, a good hunting ground for our friend the bearded dragon.

Our next stop was the small town of Marree where the famous Oodnadatta track begins. The Oodnadatta track is an unsealed road that follows a traditional Aboriginal trading route through the country and was part of the reason that we were warned about having "remote areas ahead" when we passed through Lyndhurst. The track also passes by Lake Eyre which is part of the reason that the Aboriginals forged the path. Marree is best known as being at the start of this famous road, as well as being home to the first mosque in Australia, a tiny mud brick building that was erected by the cameleers who helped build and maintain the old Ghan railway. There is also an old Ghan locomotive on display in the town which was quite cool.

About 40km past Marree we stopped at the very peculiar Mutonia Sculpture Park. After only a short stop in Broken Hill and three days on the heading bush tour we have quickly come to find that that outback inspires quirky but excellent art, tinged with a sharp sense of humour. My favourite kind. The centrepiece of the sculpture park is Planehenge, two small fighter jets that have been driven into the ground tail first with their wings touching and their noses pointing towards the sky. We arrived at around 6pm as the sun was setting and the fuselages of the aircrafts did provide a very unusual frame to watch it through. Spread over a couple of square kilometres at the side of the road are various other strange sculptures and installations including a huge percussion instrument made out of hubcaps and an old ladder, a huge set of wind chimes made from rusted old scraps of metal (brief video here -
), a metal tree and various robots made from old pieces of junk. I think that the message is that you can do great things with the mechanical rubbish that people often leave at the side of the road in places like this and you shouldn't just leave it to rot or rust.

After a long day we decided to check out Lake Eyre South before attempting to find a spot to camp. Lake Eyre is the lowest point in Australia at 15 metres below sea level and, on the rare occasions that it fills, it is the largest lake in Australia. Being, as it is, in the heart of the outback the lake is often bone dry, leaving only a crust of salt from when the water evaporates. The main part of the lake usually has at least some water, even if it is just a few puddles but Lake Eyre South, the smaller section that we were planning on visiting rarely has any water. When we started to get near the lake Ian simply turned off the Oodnadatta track and started bouncing across the sand towards the lake. We drove for a few minutes before attempting to mount one last sand dune that would have taken us to the edge of the lake. However, the rain from the previous day had softened the sand and, just as we were starting to climb the dune, we got bogged down in the ground. We all piled out of the bruck and helped to push Ian out of the thick, damp sand. Rather than stop to let us in and risk getting stuck again, Ian drove to the top of the dune and parked. We all started trudging up to meet him when he came running excitedly back down the dune shouting that there was water in the lake. Seeing water in Lake Eyre South is apparantely very rare and Ian was delighted to have happened across it. When we got to the top of the dune we saw the magnificent lake stretching out all the way to the horizon. At the edge was the crusty white salt that I had seen in pictures but in the middle was a huge body of perfectly still water. We stood for a while taking in the view and snapping pictures that, yet again, failed to really capture the scene before setting up a fire and finding good spots for our swags. Being, as we were, in the desert, we had assumed that we would be setting up camp without any trees nearby for firewood and had stopped at the side of the road shortly after leaving the sculpture park to pry some of the sleepers from the old Ghan track out of the ground. It seemed rather sacrilegious to be burning wood from such an historic human endeavour but seeing as they were simply rotting in the ground next to the road we thought we weren't exactly taking them from a museum and stuck a dozen or so on top of the trailer. Despite being at least 30 years old, and probably much more, they burned really well!

Spaghetti bolognese is one of my specialities back home so when Ian said that he had bought all the ingredients to make a kangaroo mince version I decided that I really should be the one to cook it and stepped up. However, making spag bol for two people in a nice convenient kitchen is a world away from making it for 15 people, in the dark, on an open fire in the middle of the outback. Luckily we had bought some beer during our brief stop in Hawker the day before and this certainly helped the creative process! Sitting by the side of a full Lake Eyre in the surprisingly bright moonlight with food, a beer and swags set up for the night nearby was definitely one of my favourite moments of the trip. Camping by Lake Eyre is something that I can't imagine many people get to do, especially tourists who book onto other tours and have to get to official campsites every night. I don't think even Ian had planned on staying there that evening but seeing water in the dry bed and the fact that we were a little behind schedule had swayed him and I'm glad it did.

Just before we turned in for the night we decided to see if we could walk to the water's edge over the salt but after only a few metres it suddenly became like quicksand so we turned and headed back to the safety of our camp. Everyone went to bed and it suddenly seemed very eerie. The only sound was the wind whipping over the dunes and with the most barren landscape we had seen yet it really felt like we were very alone a long way from home. The white sand and utter emptiness of the surroundings make it feel like we were camping on the moon. No matter how far you looked in any direction all you could see was mostly flat white sand with the occasional small dune or perfectly still water, all the way up to the horizon. It was a very strange atmosphere to be going to sleep in but as ever, looking up at the sky and watching the stars always helps.

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