Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Day 7 — Wed 21/8/2019


I am sitting in a tiny bedroom at the Marree Hotel, an historic two story stone building that dates from 1883.  That’s when the railway reached here from Port Augusta to service both the Birdsville Track into southwest Queensland and the Oodnadatta Track north past Lake Eyre to Alice Springs.  I think the bed is the only new item in the room!  One climbs a grand staircase of 25 steps to reach the 14 bedrooms and shared shower/toilet area.  The floorboards all creak.  The downstairs bar is a noisy and very busy place.  There are several dining areas, the smartest set aside for travellers doing the Outback Spirit adventure tour.  I settled for the $25 buffet which served up excellent tucker as much as you want.

I departed William Creek at 9 am after fortifying myself with their buffet breakfast.  Just over 200 km of gravel ahead, and after yesterday’s experience, not quite so relaxing a drive.  Only made four stops along the way (there was no reason to do any more).

1.  Strangways ruins.  Off the Track a bit and a short walk brings one to a group of building ruins.  Originally a pastoral station here, with its own smithy and woodshed, it was taken over in. 1872 to become a repeater station for the Overland Telegraph (Port Augusta to Darwin).  The only complete building left is a buttressed water tank that looks like a small chapel, and in this arid area it was probably every bit as sacred.  A small cemetery has two marked graves and half a dozen outlined by rocks.  The area is home too a number of mound springs.  It sits on the edge of the Great Artesian Basin, and over centuries cracks in the earth’s surface allowed water to percolate to the surface as springs.  The heavy mineral content dried out around the spring, forming a solid mound that identifies the spring.  The Ghan rail eventually passed near the telegraph station, bringing supplies and staff.

2.  Coward Springs.  This was another stop along the Ghan rail.  Today it features a natural spa bath, 1.3 metres deep fed by a bubbling spring.  Nearby are a couple of restored rail buildings - the Station Master’s home and one to accommodate engine drivers waiting between shifts.  A good little museum has been set up in the old rail siding shed.  Back in the day a bore was sunk here and produced a geyser which they couldn’t cap.  Soon millions of gallons of water had flowed across the flat landscape to form a swampy wetlands.  Later the bore was sealed and capped and just a controlled flow feeds the area now.

3.  Lake Eyre South.  The Track touches the edge of Lake Eyre South further along.  There is a good sized parking area on a slight rise that is fine for photography.  A shelter shed has plenty of information on display.  I discovered that we were 12 metres below sea level there, A ustralia’s lowest point.  The view is not spectacular - just a salt pan as far as the eye can see which merges into a mirage in the distance.  The north lake is half full, but no water has made its way into the south lake.

4.  Alberrie Creek.  Someone has created a number of metal sculptures in a paddock here from junk engine parts and other sundry left overs.  No signage so one has to guess what they are about.  A momentary diversion as Marree draws nearer.

People find ways to enjoy themselves even in remote places.  A number of DIP warning signs along the Track today have had graffiti editing, quite clever.  “Slippery DIP”, “DIPtheria”, “Big DIPper”, “Check your DIP stick”, “Cheese DIP” etc...

Originally known as Hergott Springs, Marree is another small outback town that has seen better days.  Now with a population of 180 (mostly aborigines) it is the junction of the Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks.  The local airport provides scenic flights but I have struck it unlucky.  Near end of season, only 2 planes flying and these are booked out while I am here.  Si I am not going to get to  see the famous Marree Man, huge  figure graded in a large field near here by unknown artist.  The town has relics of the Ghan railway, and a memorial to the Afghan cameleers who provided transport from the railhead here.  One of the huge tasks was supplying poles and wire for the overland telegraph.  Through this desert area no suitable timber grew, so they had to be brought from the south, one every 100 metres.  The repeater stations were about 250km apart and had to be staffed 24 hours a day.  Morse code messages were received from one direction, written down, and then resent further along the line.  Between Adelaide and London one can imagine the scope for mistakes doing it this way.

I now have completed my journey along the Oodnadatta Track.  Tomorrow I return to sealed roads and head for the middle of the Flinders Ranges, passing through several small towns on the way.  As I check out the historical markers I meet on this trip I am in awe of the men ( all men) who passed this way in years gone by, venturing into the  unknown in search of a great inland sea, or a path to Darwin, or finding new pastoral country.  John McDouall Stuart, John Eyre and Charles Sturt are much more than names in a history book to me now.  And there are the modern nation builders too.  Today much of my drive was across a corner of the world’s largest cattle station, Anna Creek, part of the Kidman empire until recently.

If you are looking for photos,  Go here.

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