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.

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents - WORDS GLENN TOR­RENS PICS ELLEN DE­WAR

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.

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