WEDNESDAY 26 MAY MARREE TO COWARD SPRINGS 150kms
We had a leisurely pack up and departure from Marree, on a chilly morning. Before we left, got talking with Bev and Eric Oldfield – about tourism, caravan parks, the Internet, computers. Quite wide-ranging! Bev is trying to design a brochure; she said it was a pity she hadn’t chatted to John about it a day or two ago, as he could have helped her.
Refuelled – 85cpl.
It was 11am when we left, seen off by Big Bird.
Our plan is to follow the Oodnadatta Track – also known as the Ghan Track – north to Oodnadatta. This track broadly parallels what was the route of the original railway from Adelaide to Alice Springs. We plan to leave this at Oodnadatta and head west to the main highway, as we want to visit Ayers Rock and Kings Canyon, before going to Alice Springs.
We took our time and had several stops along the way to look at interesting features. The road was quite good – some corrugations in places but mild ones, a few patches of shallow dust, some stony sections.
The line of the old railway paralleled the track, just to the west. There are no rails anymore, but in places there are sleeper remains, and bridges over creeks and washaways. Initially, the railway alignment was to our left, but just before the Lake Eyre lookout, it crossed the track and ran to the right.
Passed the Borefield Road that goes to Roxby Downs and the huge Olympic Dam mine project. The borefield is a set of bores which tap into the Great Artesian Basin for water that is piped to the mine. It uses a great deal of water. one wonders at the ultimate effect of this on the Basin supply?
We pulled off the track at the Gregory Creek and went down a side track closer to the old railway bridge that is not far above the dry creek bed. It is exactly at sea level here. Had our packed lunch while we wandered about looking for birds and just enjoying the scenery. Wondered if this low bridge was one of the ones where floods used to periodically strand the old Ghan train?
John wanted me to drive for the next stage, to get some experience in such conditions. Fine by me, but I do not go as fast as he does!
It was not long until we reached the lookout over Lake Eyre South. This is the one point where the Oodnadatta Track comes close to the lake. It was not as scenic or interesting as at level Post Bay. At this point, we were 12 metres below sea level!
John took over the driving again and we continued to the old Curdimurka rail siding. This is fairly intact, compared to the remains of some other sidings we’d passed, where there were just some stone ruins. At Curdimurka, there was the building that housed the fettlers who kept up the line; a couple of sheds; and the spectacular water tower and softener, which dominates the flat landscape. There are still rail lines too.
We spent some time wandering about, looking at Curdimurka. What a wonderful place. It contains so much history – I hope it can be preserved into the future.
The Overland Telegraph Line from Adelaide to Darwin was built in the 1870’s, along a route explored by John McDouall Stuart, which linked places where water could be found – often from mound springs related to the Great Artesian Basin. When the northern railway was constructed, starting in the 1870’s and reaching Oodnadatta in the 1890’s, it followed this same route. The steam trains of the time needed regular refills of water, so sidings were established where this was available. The bore and spring water usually needed the minerals removed to be suitable for the train, so water softening towers, like the one at Curdimurka, did this.
Although the route supplied the necessary watering points, it was in places subject to flooding and wash aways when there were heavy rains in this usually arid environment. One time, the Ghan was a whole three months late reaching Alice Springs! Sand drifts over the line were another problem. The train had a flat bed carriage at the back that carried spare sleepers and railway tools – passengers were known to work on the necessary repairs too.
It was not until 1929 that the extension of the line from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs was completed. Until that time, train passengers finished their journey north by camel.
When diesel engines replaced steam, the need for watering points ended. Eventually a new wider gauge railway was built further to the west, away from flood country. The last train on the old Ghan line ran in 1980. So it is actually less than 20 years since the last train – diesel of course – came this way.
John continued to drive, from Curdimurka. The Stuart Creek dry floodway was rougher than expected and the van did some bouncing over big bumps.
We got to Coward Springs about 3pm. So it took us four hours to explore the distractions over just 150kms! Booked into the unpowered campground here, for $10 a night. There were a number of gravelled camping bays to choose from and we picked a spacious area backed by some lovely big tamarisk trees. Our site had a fire pit and rustic seat by this. The campground has toilet and shower facilities – the latter with a strange kind of donkey water heater.
Took the van off Truck. The contents seemed to have travelled alright, despite the jolts back at Stuart Creek. There was very little dust inside – the vent that opens on the roof seems to have worked quite well to prevent it. This is, of course, our first real off bitumen venture with the van. Did a minimal set up – roof up, chairs out.
Drove back to visit the nearby mound springs. We had decided not to do so with the van on, in case the track in was really rough, or wet. We needn’t have worried, but it is nice to know that we do have a really pleasant camp site to return to – not that there is a great deal of tourist traffic competing for places.
It was about 11kms to get to the Bubbler and Blanche Cup Mound Springs. Here, water from the Great Artesian Basin comes to the surface, of its own accord. The springs are fascinating. Through the clear water, one could see the sandy/silty floor of the Bubbler shifting and “boiling”, with small bubbles coming out.
The emerging water in these springs carries some sediments and salts, and these, over time, form a mound around the spring. The nearby Hamilton Hill is an extinct mound spring from a different climatic time that allowed it to grow much bigger than the current mounds.
The springs are surrounded by little green oases of growth. The outflow forms a little creek that seems to dissipate into the sands before very far.
On the way back to camp, stopped where we could drive close to the old rail alignment, and picked up some firewood from sleeper remains of the Old Ghan railway.
Back at camp, we walked around the camp area, to explore it properly, and had a look at their artesian spa. Although there was a natural mound spring in the area, for the railway a government bore was sunk. This had a huge flow and a little wetland became established. The bore deteriorated with time and the warm water just bubbled up from the ground. Railway workers and train passengers used to enjoy the bubbling “spa”. The bore was repaired and capped a few years ago and some flow allowed to go into and through the wooden lined “tub” that the owners here built, and still feed water into the wetland. By this time, the wetland here was well established as a bird and other wildlife habitat and so this decision to sustain it was sensible.
Our new solar panel seems to be working fine to keep our battery charged – the fridge is running from this, of course. We shall use the lights in the van as little as possible.
Tea was kumara soup, scotch fillet steak done on the BBQ grill over our open fire, potatoes cooked in foil in the fire and zucchini done on the BBQ too. It was very nice.
We sat round the fire till about 9pm, talking and drinking wine. The annoying hordes of flies of the daytime had departed when the sun went down. There were a few mozzies, though. Only to be expected, with the wetland nearby. There was lots of lovely silence, despite the presence of other campers about the place.
The nearly full moon was mixed up with clouds and we got glimpses of various sized pieces of it.
We decided it was so pleasant and peaceful here that we would stay another night.