This Adventurous Age

Adventures travelling and working around Australia.

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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1999 Travels May 24


We took a gamble that the insurance paperwork we have been waiting for, will be at Leigh Creek today. So packed up and left the caravan park at 9.30.

The insurance documents were at the Post Office, so we filled them in on the spot, and sent them straight back Express Post. Whew!

Topped up the fresh food stocks at the supermarket, then headed north again. Stopped at Copley to top up the fuel – at 81cpl, we had been cross that we paid more in Leigh Creek, yesterday.

The hills became fewer, quite soon, apart from one low range in the western distance. There was a growing sense of vastness and openness. The vegetation became more sparse. North of the hamlet of Lyndhurst the sealed road gave way to gravel, and roadside fences ceased.

We could see the line of the old Ghan railway track, quite often, to the west of the road. The way was fairly featureless, apart from regular floodways – just very shallow depressions, if that, in the road.

Reached Marree about midday. Booked into the Marree Town Caravan Park which, despite its name is on the southern edge of town, about a km from the township proper. Cost $14 a night for a powered site. It seems a pleasant enough little park. No grass, of course, but some nice shade trees. Amenities in an Atco type building – adequate. The park is certainly not crowded!

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The outlook from the back of the Marree Caravan Park – Drover’s Rest

There is a rainwater tank for guests to obtain drinking water from. We had read a warning in a guide book that the Marree bore water has a strong laxative effect! John had made sure the van water tanks were filled at Copley.

The park owner is Eric Oldfield – renowned former boss drover on the Birdsville Track, and former owner of stations along the Track. We had quite a chat with him.

They have a pet brolga, found some seven years ago as a chick tangled in the wire of the Dog Fence. Called Big Bird, it dances with trees, cars, petrol pumps. Knows when it is being photographed too!

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John getting to know Big Bird

After basic set up and lunch, we walked the km or so into town and wandered about. It seems a sad little place. Much of it is becoming decrepit. There appears to clearly be two sides of “the tracks”. The other caravan park is opposite the aboriginal centre. There were no travellers in there. We saw several aborigines sitting drinking, in the central park area.

There are two stores. The Oasis appears to be the fast food outlet serving the indigenous population. The Oldfields have the Post Office and Store, over beside the main road – it seems to be the “upmarket” one.

There were some old former Ghan diesel engines on the old tracks – the basis for an historical display that needs a lot of work doing on it. There was also a wooden camel “statue” commemorating the role of the Afghans and their camels in the opening up of the interior.

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The forlorn engine that once hauled the Ghan train north

Marree was originally called Hergott Springs, but the German name was dropped in World War 1, for the current name.  In the days of the old Ghan railway and the Overland Telegraph, and regular cattle drives down the Birdsville Track, Marree was a real hub of activity. There were two mosques.

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The Afghan cameleers gave the Ghan train its name. Memorial to the Afghans at Marree.

I bought a postcard that depicted the “Marree Man”. This has been the subject of much mystery and debate. It was first “discovered” about a year ago, to the north west of Marree, a few kms north of the Oodnadatta Track.

It is a geoglyph – a man-made drawing carved into the earth. In this case, the carving appears to have been done by a bulldozer, presumably GPS guided. It is the world’s largest geoglyph. He “stands” about 4km tall and is 28kms in circumference.

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Marree Man – as depicted on a postcard I purchased

Obviously, this was not something that was created really quickly and some of the debate centres around whether any locals knew it was happening? Theories abound: made by the American Military (it is not far from the Woomera Prohibited Area); done by locals to be a tourist gimmick; done by aboriginals for an unknown reason – the figure appears to be an aboriginal man with a throwing stick; done by people from space!

Marree Man had been one of our topics of conversation with Eric Oldfield, but he had professed ignorance of its origins.

It can only properly be seen from the air – one needs to be at least 1100 metres up to get the full picture. It was discovered by a local pilot, flying between Marree and Coober Pedy.

Apart from the mystery of its origins, there is speculation over how long he will last – whether the seasons, weathering by the elements,  and vegetation growth will eventually obliterate him.

Our town walk was a pleasant enough one. There was a chill edge to the wind, though.

Marree is where two of the adventure drives of the outback diverge – the Birdsville Track heads north and the Oodnadatta Track ( the Old Ghan Track ) trends north west. That is the way we are going, to Central Australia.

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We will be taking the Oodnadatta Track, this time

Back at the van, I got out the fan heater again, from storage under the bed.

Tea was kumara soup; curried steak and onions with rice;  banana and yoghurt.

I knew that our home water rates were due about now, so we phoned K on the Radphone and asked him to open the notice that was there. He gave us the total; I arranged to mail him a cheque and he would go pay them. That is all settled now, and I can relax for a while about overdue bills.

John gets some TV here.

It was a freezing night!

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