A bright yellow-flowering bush pea shimmers in the light breeze. Across the sand dunes are the zig-zagging tracks of a lizard. I stand looking at the dry salt-crusted lake bed that stretches into the distance and finally metamorphoses into a pale blue mirage. This is Level Post Bay on Lake Eyre.
The giant basin is Australia's largest lake, which apparently only fills with water about every eight years. Walking on the lake bed is like treading on virgin snow. Each step I take breaks through the salty surface and leaves my boot print in the mud below. The isolation and the stillness are breathtaking.
My husband Steve and I are travelling along the Oodnadatta Track, the 615km dirt road that runs from Marree, north to Marla, through the heart of the South Australian outback. We have started with a detour from Marree out to Lake Eyre. Steve negotiates the four-wheel-drive through the water and mud on the rough road until we come to a large metal gate. A tin cut-out of a dingo is fixed to it, and a large sign says: “Dog Fence. This gate is to be closed at all times”. The fence was put up to keep the dingoes out of south-eastern South Australia. It is 5400km long.
We camp beside a large waterhole teeming with water birds on Muloorina Station. A group of cormorants sits on the branches of a dead coolibah tree eyeing the coots and avocets scooting through the water, while red-kneed dotterels potter in the shallows. I am aware of Steve crawling in and out of the swag several times during the night, and discover in the morning he has been warding off a dingo.
The Oodnadatta Track follows a course of natural springs and was used for thousands of years by Aborigines to access the red interior. John McDouall Stuart took this track in 1862 when he completed the first south-north crossing of the country. In 1870 the overland telegraph line was built along the same route, followed 10 years later by the north-south railway known as the Ghan.
We drive back into Marree on a Sunday afternoon. An Aboriginal girl with two dogs ambles across the disused railway track that runs through the centre of the town. She stops beside a giant camel-shaped sundial made of railway sleepers. Nearby diesel engines stand rusting beside the empty station.
Outside a house on the main street, a man sits drinking a beer in the afternoon sun. On his baseball cap is written, “Not happy, Jan”. “When the railway closed the people went, ” he tells me. Now in his 70s, he came to Marree 41 years ago from Czechoslovakia and worked as a foreman on the railway until the last train came through here in 1980.
For us the Marree Hotel is a haven. The magnificent two-storey sandstone building was constructed in 1883, the year the railway reached the town, and its high ceilings, huge rooms and ornate stained-glass windows are evocative of its prime. Also, we discover that Denise Dolphin, who with her husband manages the hotel, is an excellent cook.
It is 200km from Marree to the next town, William Creek. The Oodnadatta Track runs through gibber plains. These are vast tracts of flat land covered in small polished stones, known as gibbers. The road runs alongside the old Ghan line, and although the metal tracks have been removed, the wooden sleepers still mark the route. Every 30km or so, a ruined sandstone building indicates the site of an old railway siding.
The Ghan Preservation Society has restored the Curdimurka Siding and here the railway line has been re-laid and a section of the old telegraph line resurrected. Every two years the Curdimurka Outback Ball is held here, and several thousand people in evening dress dance the night away under the stars.
There are also hundreds of springs beside the track, which are fed by the Great Artesian Basin. It was these natural water sources that enabled Aborigines in the region and pioneers to travel along this route to the interior of the country. We stop at Wabma Kadarbu conservation park to look at two mound springs: the Bubbler and the brilliant blue pool known as the Blanche Cup.
After a day of looking at sidings and springs, we reach William Creek and discover the hotel there is an outback icon. The walls are covered in business cards, and shirts, boxer shorts and bras hang from the ceiling. Neville, the manager, stands behind the bar wearing an Akubra and serving the room. Steve has a West End beer, and I order a cup of tea which, because it is made with artesian bore water, has a distinctly salty taste.
From William Creek, we take another detour: to Halligan Bay on the western side of Lake Eyre. It is 70km of corrugations and sharp stones. Beside the road is a memorial to an Austrian woman who died in December 1998 having decided to leave her bogged vehicle at Halligan Bay and walk back to William Creek. It is a stark reminder of the harshness of this region, especially in summer. We see one other vehicle, and the only other signs of life are two young dingoes and a Hereford steer circling each other in an otherwise empty cattle yard.
The track winds through black tarmac-like hills studded with large pieces of quartz glinting in the sunlight. The desolation is foreboding, but also awe-inspiring. I have discovered that Curdimurka Siding was named after the kadimakara which, according to Aboriginal lore, is a monster that lives under Lake Eyre and preys on anyone who walks on the lake. Not wanting to take any chances I stay at the lake’s edge.
We spend two nights at William Creek and during our stay meet all 10 inhabitants of the town, as well as quite a few travellers. Tony, an ex-Qantas baggage handler, has driven from Adelaide in a large old white bus. He has been broken down here for five days, and is waiting for a spare part to be trucked in. Trevor Wright, the local pilot, shows us some of the Aboriginal art he has collected from nearby communities. Philip Gee, who runs camel safaris, talks animatedly about camels, and how instead of these animals being seen as feral pests they could be utilised for land-clearing and also their meat. I am later told by someone who has just eaten one of the William Creek Hotel's camel steaks that it tastes very much like beef.
Also in William Creek is the Burtt Stone, which Gee discovered 10 years ago near Marree. The stone is recognised as the original route marker to the interior of Australia. On it is written a message to Major Warburton by Corporal Alfred Burtt. In November 1858, the latter went on to be the first European to plot the course around the bottom of Lake Eyre. This significant piece of Australian history sits in a glass cabinet underneath the television in the Dingo Cafe.
As we pull out of the tiny town I decide that the outback may be remote but it definitely isn’t always the place for anyone wanting to be alone, as it is full of wonderful characters, all of whom seem to be very talkative.
We stop at the 578m-long Algebuckina railway bridge, which spans the Neales River. We sit in silence watching the fairy martins dipping and diving around the maroon samphire bushes growing on the dry river bed, and I try to imagine torrents of water thundering under the bridge after heavy rain.
It is impossible to miss the Pink Roadhouse in Oodnadatta. It offers everything from travel advice to iced confectionery, so Steve pores over information on tyre pressures while I buy an ice cream.
The last 200km of the track from Oodnadatta to Marla no longer follow the old Ghan line and the overland telegraph line and there is far less to see.
We camp beside a dry creek surrounded by dead finish grass. This is the first time I have bush-camped, but soon adapt to heading off behind a clump of coolibahs with a spade and a roll of loo paper. I am not proficient, I discover, at washing in a bucket of water, but as the temperature drops to nearly zero just after sunset, I pile on three extra jumpers, and decide slightly lower standards of hygiene are not going to matter. We huddle around the fire and spend the evening gazing at the stars.
Marla is a modern town on the Stuart Highway. Here the dirt track ends and the bitumen brings coaches full of tourists and cars towing caravans on their way to Uluru and Alice Springs.
Our journey along South Australia's historic track is over. We could spend far more than four days visiting the numerous historic ruins and mound springs, and marvelling at the sheer enormity of Lake Eyre. We could have soaked up the history of Oodnadatta and Marree for a great deal longer, and spent many more hours listening to the locals' stories about living here.
ChecklistBest places to stay: Marree Hotel, doubles from $65; (08) 8675 8344.
William Creek Hotel, doubles from $75; (08) 8670 7880; www.williamcreekhotel.net.au
Pink Roadhouse Oodnadatta, self-contained cabins from $80 or double rooms from $48; 1800 802 074; www.biziworks.com.au/pink
Marla Travellers Rest, double rooms from $90; (08) 8670 7001.