Days 341-343: Experiencing the Australian Outback on the Oodnadatta Track

It was time to leave Alice Springs, so Brittany and I said our goodbyes to the homeowner of the Airbnb that we were staying. Before leaving town, we stopped at a bakery to grab some baked goods, mini pies, and quiche. We were heading south to drive the Oodnadatta track. One of my tires looked very low on air, so I looked for a gas station. After driving to three places, I finally found one that had air. My tire was down to 17 psi, and I hoped I didn’t have a slow leak. 

The drive was mountainous at the beginning. When we drove into Alice Springs, it was dark outside, and we couldn’t see the scenery. This time, we could admire it. We made good timing because the speed limit was 130 KPH (80 MPH) in the Northern Territory.

Eventually, we made it back to South Australia. We pulled over to take a picture of the sign and take a break. The drive had become flat and less appealing, so we listened to the book on tape about a woman who trekked through the outback with camels. 

When we arrived at Marla, we stopped for gas and to use the bathrooms. The Oodnadatta track starts there, and the sign listed road conditions. I was so excited to drive on an outback road that was gravel and remote. 

As soon as we started, we realized that the road was extremely bumpy and corrugated. I was only driving 20 KPH because I didn’t want to ruin my car. As I got more comfortable, I got up to 60 KPH. We were the only people around for the most part. The gravel was white at first and then turned bright red. 

After two hours bouncing around in the car, we stopped at Coongra Creek. The creek bed was dry, and some flat areas were “campsites.” The camping in the outback is mostly free, but the “sites” are just an empty space. There aren’t facilities of any kind. We weren’t sure that we were in the right spot, but the app we used (WikiCamps Australia) showed that we were there. I drove over a small hump and found some flat spots near a few trees. 

We walked around, checking out the area while searching for a decent tree to hide behind to relieve our bladders. The red dust was all over the back bumper. We pulled out our supplies, like a picnic blanket and some folding chairs. 

It was 4:45 pm, and we knew the sun would set soon. Brittany cooked fajitas and a quesadilla while I set our beds up in the back of the Subaru Outback. We mixed some ginger beer with rum and relaxed in the emptiness. It was chilly outside, and as the sun disappeared, it quickly turned frigid. 

We were so remote that only two vehicles drove by on the nearby road. When they did, dust followed them as they raced away. Other than those cars, nobody was around. I was happy to have Brittany with me. 

We watched the stars glisten far into the night sky. It was getting chilly outside, so we climbed into the back of the car and got into our sleeping bags. It wasn’t late, and we weren’t tired, so we talked about our experiences. We couldn’t stop laughing about the crazy candy lady who thought we were nurses. And the kangaroo who french-kissed me. We laughed until we cried. Our giggles were like school girls who couldn’t control it. We had so many crazy times so far; it was fun reminiscing about it. 

I had a hard time sleeping that night because I was afraid that someone was watching me through the car window. I didn’t have my contacts in, and something terrified me about not being able to see. In order to see the stars I put my glasses on and peered through the window. But once I took my glasses off, I felt exposed. Maybe it was all of the reading that I did about outback serial killers, but I had a bad feeling that someone could come up to the car and watch me sleep. Not being able to see without my glasses made me extremely paranoid. 

In the middle of the night, the wind kicked up so much that we heard some of our stuff moving around. We grabbed our headlamps and climbed outside. We moved the plastic cover (that usually goes in the trunk) under the car, and put the heavy water on it. My chair was starting to blow away, even though it was folded up. I moved it closer to the car and near the tire. We both took the opportunity to go pee, which is super creepy in the dark desert where the animals are nocturnal. 

The next morning, it was too cold for us to cook breakfast, so we ate the danishes we had bought the day before and started driving. We headed toward William Creek, and the drive continued to be extremely corrugated, flat, and dry. 

After a few hours, we arrived at the only thing around for hundreds of kilometers – the Pink Roadhouse in Oodnadatta. It was a tiny town, and the pink roadhouse is famous because it is painted in a bright pink color. It was pretty much the only thing there. It was a gas station, shop, and restaurant all in one.

The place was fairly run down, and we didn’t feel it was worth spending much time there. We browsed the visitor log and walked around a bit. Then we grabbed a coffee, gas, and continued driving. The rule in the outback is to get gas anytime you see a station, or at the very least, when your tank is only half full. 

According to Wikipedia, “The track follows a traditional Australian Aboriginal trading route. Along the Track are numerous springs feeding water from the Great Artesian Basin, the most accessible examples being the mound springs near Coward Springs (now in Wabma Kadarbu Mound Springs Conservation Park). Later, because of the availability of water, the route was chosen for the steam-train powered Central Australia Railway, the original route of The Ghan.”

It continues, “It was also the route taken by the explorer John McDouall Stuart on his third expedition in 1859. Remnants of the many railway sidings and bridges, the ruins of railway buildings, and Overland Telegraph Line repeater stations are located along the track – some of the best preserved are the Coward Springs Campground – complete with natural artesian spa and the abandoned Curdimurka railway siding.”

As we continued our drive, we saw ruins just off the road. We made several stops and walked around. Some were in better shape than others. Many buildings had all four walls, but no roof. They were like the other abandoned places that I’ve seen – torn apart

At the Mount Dutton Ruins, there was a small wooden fence guarding a grave with a cross headstone. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like there before it was abandoned. 

At another stop, we saw old railroad tracks and empty ditches. One of the tracks had a few people around taking pictures. We climbed up a hill and took photos near a fence blocking the bridge section of the track. There was even an abandoned, burned-out car. 

After the train track, we continued driving until we saw more ruins. We had a blast exploring the area because that’s what the outback is all about – exploring. 

Occasionally, a car or a group of cars who were caravaning zoomed past us. They were going very fast, creating a dust storm. I slowed down because I couldn’t see beyond a few feet when that happened. It made me feel like I was going too slow, so I sped up a bit. Unfortunately, a deep pothole appeared out of nowhere, and we felt the car hit down hard. I prayed nothing was broken in my car and took it as a lesson to slow down. I was in a Subaru Outback, not a complete off-road vehicle. I found out later that many backpackers drive way too fast in the outback, causing them to damage their cars. 

Brittany and I listened to music that we had on our phones and talked about all sorts of things. There was a sense of peace being so far away from everything and everybody. At 4:45 pm, we came to a campsite on the map. It was sand dunes, so I was nervous about driving my car through it. I had heard of people getting stuck in the sand. Subaru Outback’s have all-wheel drive, so I thought I’d be ok. 

We were the only people around as I drove down a narrow path to find a good spot. The sand was getting softer and deeper, so I parked the car. That campsite would have to do. 

Before it got dark outside, Brittany and I walked around to see what was around our site. There was a bridge close to us, so we climbed onto it to watch the sun slowly setting. The flies weren’t too bad, which was a relief. 

Brittany cooked up Pad Thai while I made our beds. We had wine with dinner and sat in our chairs, enjoying the quiet surroundings. The air got frigid that night. The stars were beautiful, but we got into the car to warm up. I could still see the stars through the side window. 

I was so cold that I put my pants on (found out later that I put them on inside out) and kept my long-sleeve shirt on. I couldn’t get warm, so I put my warm Patagonia coat on. It wasn’t working, so I added socks to my feet. Brittany told me that if I couldn’t get warm, she could boil some water and put it in a water bottle that helps to spread the warmth. I didn’t want her to have to get all of the equipment out, and it was windy outside. 

I kept thinking I would get warmer, but the cold penetrated my bones. I shivered most of the night, and my teeth chattered. I couldn’t sleep and wasn’t sure what was wrong with me. Maybe my sleeping bag and clothes were not as good as keeping in the warmth as Brittany. She was sleeping just fine. Most of the early morning, I just laid there, unable to sleep because of the cold. 

When Brittany woke up, she asked me, “Were you shivering all night?” I answered, “Yes.” She told me that I could have asked her to boil water, but I explained it would have been too much work. She pointed out that we could have started the car for a bit and turned the heat on. I didn’t think about that, but it would have been a helpful solution. 

In the morning, we drank some coffee and skipped breakfast so we could turn on the car and get the heat. We listened to the audiobook while enjoying the barren drive. We stopped at Lake Eyre, but the vast majority of it was dry. The water was far off into the distance. There was a lookout point, and it was the first time that we saw other people in awhile.

Brittany and I stretched our legs while reading some of the large signs that were posted. One sign read, “Lake Eyre South can be one of Australia’s most productive wetlands, or it’s one of the world’s most inhospitable environments. It all depends on when you visit.”

Another sign read, “The Lake Eyre Basin is one of the world’s largest internally draining systems – It covers 22% of the Australian continent.” It continued, “The Lake Eyre Basin overlies an iconic underground aquifer – the Great Australian Basin. This aquifer holds water that is two million years old.” 

We arrived at Marree at 11:30 am. It’s a tiny town but was the largest we had seen since leaving Alice Springs. It marks the end of the Oodnadatta Track. We went into the bar, which we read was the place to stop and enjoy a beer. We ordered beers and lunch, and sat at the counter. 

There was just one other person there, a guy sitting at the bar. The bartender was American. He had a working holiday visa and was spending a year working and traveling around the country. He had been at that bar/restaurant for three weeks, and his girlfriend was joining him soon. He said he signed a six-week contract to work there. It’s common for businesses in the outback to use backpackers and have them stay for four to eight weeks because it’s challenging to find workers in the middle of nowhere. 

Backpackers can get a working holiday visa if they are 30-years-old or younger. If they are from France, Ireland, or Canada, the age limit is 35-years-old. I asked the bartender what he did around there because it was so remote. Most of his time was spent working at the bar or the hotel. His employer provided accommodation and food, so all of the money that he earned was saved. Once he worked for two months, he would travel for several months before finding another job. Like the one he was working for, many places offer bonuses at the end of their contract if they stayed the whole time.

Brittany and I talked about our options. We planned to camp at a large lake just north of us, but it was a couple of hours out of the way. From the lake that we already saw, it was dry. We didn’t want to drive out of the way for a dry lakebed. I was also afraid it would be freezing again and was looking forward to a bed. 

We decided to drive to Clare, closer to Adelaide, and get a hotel there. It was cold, and as we drove south, it would get even colder. I wanted a warm hotel that night and a shower. A day exploring wineries sounded like the perfect way to end our “red center” trip. 

It would take almost six hours to get to Clare, so we hit the road. We drove through the Flinders Ranges and marveled at the mountains. We stopped a few times to take pictures and absorb the scenery. As we continued south, the landscape became greener and greener with signs of life. 

We passed farms and rolling hills. Unfortunately, we also saw a ton of dead kangaroos on the side of the road. As dusk set in, living kangaroos slowly made their way to the shoulder. They are most active at dawn and dusk. Several people told me that kangaroos get disoriented with car lights and often will hop towards the light. I did not want to hit a kangaroo, so I slowed down and stayed as alert as possible. 

We didn’t arrive in Clare until 7:00 pm. We picked up a pizza and brought it back to our motel. We stayed at the same motel that I stayed at ten days prior (where the lamas were). I hadn’t showered in three days. It felt so refreshing to get all of the dirt off and grease out of my hair. I was thrilled to have a bed and looked forward to the next day of wine tasting. 

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Published by Christy

I quit my corporate job and sold my house in Los Angeles so I can travel and write. I grew up in St. Louis, MO and moved to the Los Angeles area after college. I worked in the business world for 15 years. Follow along to see pictures and hear stories of people I've met along my journey so far - driving to Alaska.

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