This Adventurous Age

Adventures travelling and working around Australia.

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2007 Travels May 20


After breakfast, we walked around to view the developments since we were last here, eight years ago. The Engine Drivers’ Cottage was now fully restored and open as a museum, with some really interesting exhibits about the railway, and about this place.

The Engine Driver’s Cottage

The Station Master’s House was the other restored building, and where the owners lived, so it was off limits for viewing, except from a little distance. They certainly have been doing a wonderful preservation job here.

We went for a wander around a section of the old rail route, where there were still some sleeper remains left. A lot of these had been utilized in the building of the camp facilities at Coward Springs; probably more had been utilized as firewood.

Some remnant sleepers on the rail bed

On our first trip this way, John acquired some red gum sleeper from the old route, near here. It had now been made into a pepper grinder that was in regular use at home. I like, when using it, to think about its history…….and feel privileged to have it.

And so onward. The old rail alignment crossed and recrossed the track a few times on this section.

The old Ghan rail bed – and surface water

There was some surface water in places today.

Warriners Creek

Warriners Creek was flowing shallowly across the track. There was a depth measurement sign; it was hard to beleive that water could get to 2 metres deep in this country………However, there was plenty of water under the old bridge there. Clearly, there had been a heap of rain up this way, not too long ago.

Old railway bridge at Warriners Creek

Today’s stage was short, because we wanted to stay at William Creek, so some of us could take a sight seeing flight over Lake Eyre, where we knew water was entering the north-east lake from the Warburton Groove; the flight would also go over the Painted Hills, an area not accessible to travellers in any other way.

As we drove into William Creek, an unexpected sight was the Channel 7 (TV) Sunrise Bus. It had come to the hamlet to cover the start of the Great Australian Cattle Drive.  This was the first that we had become aware that this was happening – and thus there would be a lot of extra people around.

The first of these Cattle Drives – to commemorate the feats of the old time drovers – was held in 2002, the brainchild of boss drover Eric Oldfield, and used the Birdsville Track. Tourists could join the droving expedition for a few days at a time – for a fee. It was so successful that it was repeated in 2005. This third one had moved away from the Birdsville Track, and would drove the cattle from William Creek to Oodnadatta.

By sheer fluke, not knowing about the imminent event, with its associated crowds, we had managed to get in here just before the start – lucky. A few days later and we would have been mixing it with the drove up along the track!

William Creek, with a usual population I could count on my fingers, was SA’s smallest town, surrounded by Australia’s largest cattle station – Anna Creek. Today, this tiny place of one hotel was humming!

We booked into the very new Dingo’s Caravan Park – $20 for our powered site. We thought this place would be removed from the rowdiness of the camping area right by the pub. It looked to have a lot of promise, with a lovely new amenities block. There were no formally marked out sites, only power poles to mark places, so as we were the only occupants of the place, we pulled in each side of one such pole.

After a very quick basic set up, we walked over to the airstrip.

Wrights Air was the operation offering sightseeing flights from here. A wee bit of negotiating saw M and John offered what we thought was a good deal on flights – $150 for an hour, usual price $180. After they had booked, their flights were upgraded to two hours – for an extra $30 – in order to fill up planes.

All three planes based here went out for the afternoon flight. M and John were put onto different planes. They were very little planes……

Organising to go flying…….

They both got to see Lake Eyre and the Painted Hills (on Anna Creek Station and not open to the public), from the air, but John’s flight went even further – up to the Warburton Groove, in the NE corner of Lake Eyre. He was away for nearly three hours! So, it was a really good deal – and John was given a CD that covered the flight area, too.

William Creek from the air. Caravan Park central, hotel in trees just beyond it

John took along “my” still unfamiliar DSLR Pentax camera to take photos from the plane. Unfortunately, he somehow managed to get the focus all wrong. Results were very blurry.

Water filling into Lake Eyre
A cattle watering point, with cattle tracks

The Warburton Groove, bringing water to Lake Eyre
The Painted Hills and creek channel – reminiscent of aboriginal art depiction.

For several reasons, I do not enjoy being shut up in a small motorized box that leaves the apparent security of terra firma. In other words, I do not usually “do” small plane flights. So, after I’d watched the planes disappear into the distance, I wandered around to the institution that was the William Creek Hotel. This was one of those establishments featuring memorabilia from previous visitors – all over the walls and ceiling. I bought myself a polo shirt – a somewhat cheaper “treat” than the others were having.

I received a big surprise when I walked back to the camp ground. Our formerly isolated van and Troopy were surrounded – by Trakmaster caravans! Ten of them had somehow managed to sneak into Dodge whilst I was otherwise occupied. It was like we had suddenly been cloned! It was the annual Trakmaster Trek – across the desert to Marble Bar in WA.

Ummm…….mine is in there somewhere!

The fliers arrived back, one at a time, both equally taken aback by the way our van had multiplied in their absence. Both were really exuberant after their flights, and there was much comparing of the experiences. I think M was rather envious of John’s extended flight.

We found out that, when you have eleven Trakmasters all in a row, and very little lighting in the camp ground, it ain’t easy to find “home” in the dark!

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2007 Travels May 19


Today, we meandered up the first part of the Oodnadatta Track, otherwise known as the Old Ghan Track.

This route followed, broadly, that of some of the early explorers through this way, and was dictated by the availability of water in a series of naturally occurring springs. Because of available water, the Overland Telegraph line to Darwin and thence the rest of the world, was built along this route, in 1872.

Not long after, work began on a railway that was intended to link Adelaide with parts north, and eventually Darwin. Because the steam engines of the time needed supplies of water for their boilers, the railway route followed that of the Telegraph. Railway building began from Port Augusta in 1878, reached Marree in 1884, Oodnadatta in 1891.

From Oodnadatta, northbound passengers had to travel by camel to Alice Springs, until that section of the railway was finished in 1929. It is hard to find much in the way of description about what that was like, but a person must have been really motivated to get to Alice Springs, to undertake that camel ride section!

Railway sidings and fettlers’ accommodation were built at the watering points along the railway. Eventually, water towers were constructed at some sidings, to de-mineralize the bore water.

The railway was prone to floods and track wash aways and hence considerable delays at times. Ghan rail travel could be an unpredictable adventure, with extended periods of passenger strandings  not uncommon.

Ghan train in flooded creek (ABC Site)

Because of the importance of camel transport in the region, and the railway’s early associations with same, the railway became known as The Ghan, for the pioneering Afghan cameleers of the inland.

With the coming of diesel powered railway engines, the days of the Old Ghan route were numbered. A road, of sorts, had been constructed from Port Augusta to Darwin during WW2, following higher ground well to the west of the train route. That was to become the Stuart Highway. In 1980, a new rail line was opened that roughly paralleled the highway, and avoided the flood prone sections of the old railway. The Old Ghan line and its associated infrastructure, fell into disrepair; the townships that had serviced the railway, shrank to either ghost towns or small, mostly indigenous, settlements.

The modern track that follows the route of the Old Ghan Railway is, mostly, a good gravel road.

There tend to be the ruins of a former rail siding every 20kms or so. We stopped at a number of these, wandered about, took photos.

We did the same at some places where creeks (mostly dry) crossed the track – and where there were bridges left from the old railway.

In possession of one of the few trees…….wedge tailed eagle

Although the siding buildings were in various degrees of ruin, they were interesting. Life out here – particularly in the heat of summer – must have been so hard.

What was left of each siding’s buildings had been vandalized and grafittied – this had to have been done by travellers. What is it about some people, who can’t leave a piece of our heritage standing , be it natural or man made, without decorating same with their initials? We really don’t give a damn that Ignorant Joe was here, whenever! Given the good condition of this track, it was not really an achievement to boast about either, by tagging places.  It was probably harder driving in suburban Melbourne!

The first of the sidings we stopped at was Wangianna, about 35kms north of Marree. Here, the old fettlers’ accommodation was still in good enough repair for us to be able to see what it would have been like. It was a pity, though, that other structures associated with that siding , had gone.

So desolate….
..….yet some trees survived

It was perfectly possible, wherever we stopped by some feature of the former railway, for us to see the railbed of the line. In most of the accessible parts of the line, the red gum sleepers had been removed, as had the rails.

Old rail alignment at Wangianna; our road in the distance

Another 16kms on brought us to one of the most unusual – and most recent – landmarks along the Old Ghan Track:  “Plane Henge”, or the Mutonia Sculpture Park.

This was the work of a former mechanic, Robin Cooke, apparently inspired by “mad Max”. Here, all sorts of weird and wonderful installations have been created out of waste or unwanted materials.  

Down on his luck…..

The most striking of these installations, especially so because of the flatness of the land and hence it being visible for a long way, was the pair of old planes, standing on their tails, wingtip to wingtip. This was the sort of sight that made one doubt their eyesight. As in, “I’ve gotta be seeing things!”

Also strikingly visible was a huge dog/dingo (visible in the background of the photos above).

Some of the pieces were interactive.

Making music – of a sort…..

We wandered about, marvelling at the creativity.

I guess, if one has a vision, the urge must be scratched…….

Further along, the old rail line – and hence our current road – passed right by the shore of Lake Eyre South, so we were able to view that from this point. Now we were travelling with the old rail bed to our right; it had been on the left since Marree, but crossed the road track here.

Lake Eyre South beside the Oodnadatta Track

Curdimurka Siding was the only one where much of the siding as it was, has remained intact. It is owned by the Ghan Preservation Society. A fund raising event, the Curdimurka Outback Ball, is held – somewhat informally – every two years, and reportedly attended by several thousand people.

Curdimurka – restored

Curdimurka was an evocative place to wander about. The flat plain stretched in all directions, almost totally devoid of vegetation.

The old water tower stood stark against the sky, with an associated water tank collapsed at its foot.

The rails of the siding were intact, as was the fettlers’ cottage. Here, despite the surrounding aridity, a pair of swallows had made their home under the veranda.

Another 15 or so kms and we were into the Wabna Kadarbu Conservation Park. I can’t say some of these names flow smoothly off the tongue!  The point of this Park is to protect two mound springs – the Blanche Cup and the Bubbler.

Mounds springs occur where minerals in the naturally occurring springs have, over time, been precipitated out by evaporation to create a mound, with the spring in the centre of the “cup” thus created. Hamilton Hill, in the distance from the two currently active springs, is an extinct one, and shows the size the mounds can reach.

Hamilton Hill

These springs, like the Dalhousie Springs much further north, are fed by the Great Artesian Basin. In past times, before widespread tapping into this for water supplies, and the consequent reduction of its levels and pressure, there would have been a chain of such springs through this country.

We took the 5km side track into the springs, parked in the designated area and walked to look at the two features. Because of the permanent water provided by the springs here, the surrounding area was patchily vegetated and green – a real contrast to the surrounding country. The line of the short outflow channel from the springs was similarly marked by a line of green.

The Bubbler was aptly named. Through the totally clear water in the spring, we could see the bubbling effect in the sandy bottom, where the underground water was welling up. We’d seen a similar effect in the Bubbling Sands springs at Pungalina, a couple of years  ago. There was a viewing platform so visitors could watch this, without trampling the greenery at the edge.

The Bubbler and Hamilton Hill
Water erupting in the Bubbler Spring

Blanche Cup was more deeply enclosed within its green nest, and did not have the same frequent bubbling happening.

Blanche Cup

After a good wander around here, it was onwards – only a few kms – to tonight’s destination of Coward Springs, which we reached in the early afternoon.

Coward Springs was another of the former sidings. It has been saved from the decaying fate of the other sidings along the rail route. In 1991 it was  privately acquired. Then, there was an extensive wetland area here, arising from the uncontrolled outflow of a broken bore, and the ruins of only two of the original buildings – the Station Master’s house and the engine drivers’ cottage. The bore was rectified and capped, leaving only a regulated outflow to sustain a smaller  wetland. The two buildings were restored and heritage listed. The campground was set up.

The campground is a wonderful oasis in the dry surrounds. Trees have been planted and bush style amenities built, including  hot showers – sustained by a wood burning “donkey”. I suspected that it was the former wooden sleepers of the old railway that were providing me with the luxury of a hot shower!

Our night at Coward Springs cost $16. There are no powered sites, of course.  The camping is in informal areas, amongst stands of tamarisk trees and date palms. It was very pleasant – the sort of place I would have enjoyed just relaxing at, were it not for a Driver who was determined to get out of SA.

The campground had, obviously, been quite wet recently.

When the old bore was rectified, the owners here built a “spa” pool – the bore outflow runs through this pool and on out to the wetland.

After doing a minimal one night only set up, the three of us spent about half an hour in the warm artesian water of the pool. The water flow felt very strong and seemed very therapeutic. It felt damned cold when we got out, though!

We had a little wander about the campground. It was good that we had arrived early – had the pool to ourselves, and the campground got pretty full by the late afternoon. We’d had our pick of a number of great sites by being early.

We had a little campfire and sat by it, after tea, watching the new-ish moon and listening to the breeze rustling the trees by our site. Life felt pretty good!

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1999 Travels May 27


I got up at 7.15, not sure why I was wide awake at that hour! John slept until 9.30.

I went walking in the cool but pleasant early morning. Watched the lady proprietor water their camels – about seven of them. They get water every second day, otherwise they fill their stomachs too much. They were amusing to watch – and they have beautiful eyes.

I walked to the wetland area/bore overflow and looked at birds. Saw a spotless crake flitting about.

05-27-1999 01 Coward Springs bore outflow.jpg

The wetland created by the bore outflow at Coward Springs

It did not take long for the flies to descend in droves.

The sky looked like it could turn to rain, for a while in the morning, but it lightened off during the day.

After breakfast, John and I went walking along the wetlands and channel. We saw two more new birds – white fronted chat and black-eared cuckoo. This is a wonderful area in the otherwise dry country.

We wandered about and looked at the historical railway remnants here. There are two buildings, one of which appears to be the home of the owners.

05-27-1999 02 Coward Springs engineers cottage.jpg

The old engineer’s cottage – with new roof

After an hour or so of walking, we’d had enough of the flies, so retreated to the van for a while.

For lunch, made ourselves spam and cheese sandwiches, toasted on the open fire. Yum.

After lunch, went driving because John decided that he wanted to find some sleeper remains that he could cut and take home to make woodwork items. We found some lovely old red woods – two different kinds it seemed. Two varieties of red gum? Or red gum and something else? John cut a couple of pieces – obviously, we can’t take much, though. I have in mind a pepper grinder – would be great to have as a memento of the Track.

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John cutting up old sleeper for woodwork material

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The old railway alignment, with the road to the left

A couple who came into the campground during the afternoon, and camped near us, had problems. They’d had three flat tyres between Marree and here! That seemed most strange to us but we did not like to quiz them about it. But we wondered: poor driving as in too fast? Too heavily loaded? Or just a really dud brand of tyre. They will have to leave their camper trailer here and go to William Creek tomorrow for repairs. We certainly had no tyre trouble on that stretch and it really did not seem the sort of surface, to me, that should cause issues.

I used the fire to make curried potato and tomato soup, for these cold nights. But I must use less curry next time!

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Making soup

Late in the afternoon, John went for a dip in the artesian spa, and enjoyed it greatly. I just had a shower, which was also great – nice warm water from the donkey heater.

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John in the artesian spa

The sunsets here are truly spectacular.

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Coward Springs sunset

We cooked sausages on the BBQ grill over the fire, for tea, with potatoes baked in foil in the coals. Followed that with yoghurt and bananas.

We sat round the fire again, after tea. There was a breeze, which was pleasant and it kept the mozzies away. The moon was bright, amongst a lot of small clouds.

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1999 Travels May 26


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.

05-26-1999 01 rig and big bird.jpg

Big Bird was an interested onlooker as we refuelled

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?

05-26-1999 02 Gregory Creek old Ghan bridge 0m asl

The old railway bridge over Gregory Creek

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!

05-26-1999 03 Lake Eyre sth

Lake Eyre South, seen from the Ghan Track

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.

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The fettlers’ accommodation at Curdimurka railway siding

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There are still rail lines at Curdimurka. The water purification tower

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.

05-26-1999 07 J at Curdimurka siding.jpg

Distances in miles!

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.

05-26-1999 06 Curdimurka ruins water softener tower

The water purification tower at Curdimurka

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.

05-26-1999 08 Curdimurka and our rig

The buildings remaining at Curdimurka

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.

05-26-1999 10 mound springs info.jpg

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.

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The Bubbler mound spring

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.

05-26-1999 11 blanches cup and mt hamilton

Blanche’s Cup mound spring and Hamilton Hill , an extinct mound spring

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.

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The dry country around the mound springs

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.

05-26-1999 09 camp at coward springs

Our camp at Coward Springs

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.

05-26-1999 to coward springs

From Marree at the far right, to Coward Springs. Lake Eyre South.