Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Real desert country: Oodnadatta, Coober Pedy and Lake Eyre (plus rain!)

South Australia is the driest State in Australia, which in turn is the driest continent (excluding Antarctica). And a little town called Oodnadatta happens to be the driest town in SA. It also now holds the record for Australia’s highest ever recorded daytime maximum temp, 52 degrees (in the shade, that is), earlier this year. This was the same heatwave that delivered Coober Pedy nine straight days of 49 degrees C or higher. Little wonder they favour living underground in these parts.

Oodnadatta was once a relatively important railway town, sitting strategically on the north-south railway line from Port Augusta to Darwin (known now as the ‘Old Ghan’). But this route was plagued by washouts, and the line was moved further west in (I think) the 1970s, where it now more-or-less follows the Stuart Highway. So Oodnadatta almost went the way of lots of other settlements on the old line and ‘died a natural’, except tourism plus the entrepreneurship of Adam and Lynnie Plate at the Pink Roadhouse has kept it alive. The Oodnadatta Track from Marla to Marree (about 620 km) is now one of the most popular ‘off the beaten track’ journeys in Australia, and the road have been positively busy as we have beetled our way south.

We spent a couple of nights in Coober Pedy, which is a place everyone should really visit. It’s so different – as you’d expect in such a harsh climate. Opal mining is the go here, has been since 1915, and people continue to work good claims today. The ‘big M’ miners are not here – this is small business mining, and there are some pretty colourful characters here (not just because they are layered in dust). Most people live underground, and many of the town businesses are underground too, occupying old mine shafts. ‘Underground’ means built into a hill side – see photo. Temps inside sit at a nice even 23 degrees year round – a safe haven from 50 degrees and wind storms outside. This place must be fearsome in the height of summer.

Prior to Coober Pedy we bush-camped at Arckaringa Station, in the Painted Desert, after walking the stunning Arckaringa Hills – a little-known but very striking attraction. From Arckaringa to Coober Pedy the road passes through Moon Plain, aptly named (see photo). Amazingly, this place is host to a lot of wildlife, including the inland taipan, the world’s most venomous snake, which hunts plains rats that find suitable habitat in some of the lower-lying parts of the plain. The road also crosses the dog fence, 5600 km long, running from Queensland to the southern Western Australia, to keep dingoes out of the south-eastern parts where sheep are farmed.

A big highlight was flying over Lake Eyre, from William Creek. L Eyre is the 6th largest lake in the world (nearly 10,000 square km, or 1 million hectares), but has been full on only 3 occasions since the mid 1800’s, and usually sees water only one year in every 8. It gets drainage water from about 1/3rd of the Australian continent, from the Barkly Tablelands in the northwest, to the western edge of the Great Dividing Range in far north Queensland. Some of these areas took a hammering from rain earlier this year, and much of this water is now filling L. Eyre. Currently, Cooper Creek is brining water from Queensland that fell as rain in February/March, and is expected to keep flowing for at least another three months. Yep, that’s right, it takes 6 months or so for the water to ooze > 1000 km into the Lake – because the terrain is so flat, and the distances are so huge. We got a great view of the Cooper Creek flowing into L Eyre north – a rare sight, so we feel pretty good about that. L Eyre North is about 10% full – that is, about 1000 square kilometres has a good depth of water over it, and birds are flocking to breed as the fish populations bloom.

William Creek township (population roughly 30 in the ‘peak’ season and roughly 4 in the height of summer) is on Anna Creek Station, which is 27,000 square kilometres in area (2.7 million hectares - about the size of Belgium). That sounds BIG – but the country is so dry it supports only one cattle beast per 1500 hectares (and sometimes zero cattle at all in droughts such as 2000 – 2007). Compare this to the West Kimberley at one beast per 60 hectares and you start to get a sense of how little feed there is for livestock around here.

To complete this little blog, and to show that not all goes swimmingly for the would-be intrepid traveller, consider this saga:
- Drove 140 km up the Birdsville track to the site where a ferry is taking vehicles across Cooper Creek, because the road is now under floodplain. All well and good, a special thing to do, but …
- Another flat tyre (number 4 on the journey – and this one brand new at Coober Pedy) – Birdsville Track is rocky-as
- Shattered windscreen – yep, rocks break glass as well as tyres
- Our camera died, sigh …
- Our camp site at Farina, where we met up with Geoff and Sue Saul and Tom and Kim Bege, heading north, was inundated by rain overnight, all campers wet, and …
- … the rain means the road in either direction has turned to muddy, porridge-like brown mess. We made a run for it, south, onto bitumen, asap this morning. Ned is now brown (not white) and the roads in the area are all now closed.

We are holed up in Port Augusta, re-grouping, and hoping to head back into Finders Ranges tomorrow or the day after.

Hope all is well for you.


The Chappies

Satellite image of Lake Eyre, Saturday 1oth. Dark blue areas have water, light blue is wet sand. Cooper Creek enters near top right - its the dark blue patch, and is being fed by the floodplains to the east (toward bottom right corner of image). Birdsville Track route runs through those floodplains, ferry is operating further east.

Name says it all

Arckaringa Hills, in the Painted Desert

Moon plain

Coober Pedy - mini dust storm

Coober Pedy undergroud house. Note vents and satellite dish on the 'roof'

William Creek - miles from elsewhere

Lake Eyre

A rare sight: Cooper Creek flowing into Lake Eyre

Strangways ruins - one of several towns and outposts on the early overland telegraph route, and the first 'Ghan' railway route which subsequently died away

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