Tracing the Old Ghan Railway from Marree to Alice.
We climb aboard a pair of Fords and follow the route of the Old Ghan Railway from Marree to Alice Springs.
The Oodnadatta Track closely follows the route of the old railway, the many culverts and bridges a testament to those who built it
THE route the Oodnadatta Track follows through South Australia’s sparse north reveals an important chunk of modern Australian heritage, and it’s the ideal excuse for an outback trek. It’s a relatively easy one, too. In good weather it’s even capable of being driven in a Commodore or Kombi, so it’s not too ambitious for travellers new to remote-area travel.
Arriving from the south the O’ Track begins at Marree, but chances are your adventure would have begun near Port Augusta. From here it follows the southern section of the Old Ghan Railway Heritage Trail along the bitumen through Leigh Creek, Lyndhurst and Farina, a relic town that – surprise, surprise – has a pop-up bakery. The Birdsville Track branches out from Marree, too, as does the Strzelecki Track at Lyndhurst. The fantastic Flinders Ranges aren’t too far away, so doing the Oodnadatta can be spliced into a longer outback adventure.
The Great Northern Railway supplied cargo to Marree and its surrounds from the 1880s; the return journey took livestock bred in the area to market in Adelaide. Marree was the rail-head for a time, but eventually the railway was extended to William Creek, Oodnadatta, Alice Springs and beyond.
In use for around a century, the old (and now the new) railway is known as The Ghan, a colloquial nod to the Afghan cameleers who did so much to open up Australia’s interior in the 19th century.
Several old Commonwealth of Australia locomotives remain at Marree, reminders of the town’s railway era, which ended in the early 1980s. As is the case for many outback towns these days, tourism keeps the dollars coming in. There’s a railway museum, too (closed when we visited), and the pub has a display room dedicated to the legendary Tom Kruse, the Birdsville mailman. One of
It’s worth the trek to see this normally arid region burst into life when the rains come down
Tom’s old 4x4 Blitz trucks also stands in Marree.
You’ll find roadside sculptures made from junk – old aircraft, water tanks and car engine parts – about half an hours’ drive north of Marree. The Oodnadatta Track closely follows the route of the old railway, and the many culverts and bridges you’ll see beside the track during this trek are testament to the efforts of the workers who built and maintained the railway – keep in mind the lines were laid with major manpower and minimal mechanised equipment. Beside one of these bridges is an ideal campsite, as it was for us on our first night under the stars down the road from the Lake Eyre South lookout.
Hardly noticeable in the flat light under uncharacteristically grey skies, there was just a shimmer of water on the hard-baked salt when we stopped for a look the next morning. Kati Thanda-lake Eyre (and Lake Eyre South) fills once every decade or so within the lake’s catchment that stretches into NT and Western Queensland’s channel country – it’s worth the trek to see this normally arid region burst into life. Our time on the Oodnadatta Track came just days after it was re-opened to 4WD traffic following recent rains. A particularly wet and cool year meant there was plenty of water in the creeks to keep the wildlife happy.
Remnants of the Great Northern Railway’s century-long operation are scattered along The Old Ghan Heritage Trail. One of the larger historic sites is Curdimurka Siding, where the workers’ accommodation – a grand, old stone-and-timber building with a corrugated iron roof – remains in good condition. However, we were annoyed when we discovered a fire was still burning in one of the fireplaces; potentially devastating for this fragile, wooden-framed building.
Coward Springs is another railway siding site on this vast expanse of Australian outback. These days it’s a privately run campground with several tidy sites tucked between the trees. We happily paid the day entry fee ($2pp, or camping is $12.50) for a loll around in the springs’ warm, pump-boosted spa bath. There was once a pub here, but it was demolished in the 1960s. We couldn’t stay, but this great little spot is on the list for next time.
William Creek was an important stop for the train, and it remains so – fuel is out front, beer is in the fridge, and tucker is out back. Adjacent to the roadhouse
Old locos in Marree aren’t going anywhere, unlike our Ford convoy.
A rust bucket now, this loco was a huge leap on the horse and cart.
Famous, well-worn sign at William Creek has sent many a traveller in the right direction.
The comfort of a roaring fire beneath a star-splattered sky. The way to go: They came, they saw, they concurred.
Daytime oddities near Marree (above); campfire comforts (below).
Front-row seats to a magnificent sunset at day’s end. Another day done and dinner on the way at Edwards Creek. Expect dust, but don’t be surprised by rain and mud. It’s a long way between drinks, so hit the road prepared.