Here’s a missing post that was written on our second day in the Simpson Desert. It didn’t make it up on to the blog, so it’s a bonus for you today.
Refreshed from a night of deep sleep in the warm, dry desert air, we breakfast quickly and make an early start on the road again.
Once again we are making our way over and across the parallel waves of sand. The dunes rise and fall in front of us, creating a rhythm of their own. The rhythm is hypnotic, up and down, up and down. We become part of the song of the desert as we climb to the crest of each dune and then drop away to the trough. The note of the engine rises and falls as gears change. The drivers are focused, selecting the right gear, choosing the best track to make their way over the dunes. They cannot help but move to the beat of the desert’s song.
It is a beautiful song. Red sienna dunes rise from grey sandy troughs. Clawed tree branches clutch at the pastel blue sky. The colours change in time with the rhythm created by the shape of the land. Up and down, up and down. As we drive deeper into the desert, the colours grow more intense. The channels between the dunes are dotted with squat bonsai-like trees, yellow flowers in silvery grey foliage. The desert is beautiful but hers is a harsh environment. To survive here, plants must live in an arid sandy soil under the fierce glare of the sun. They defend themselves from dehydyration by growing a silvery armour on their leaves and holding on tightly to any water that falls, storing it within. Life in the desert is always on her terms.
We cross paths with a group of fellow travellers in Land Rovers. They have decided to ignore some of the desert park rules and are not pleased to be reminded of them. Live and let live, but safety must come first in the desert. You can lose your life here, or cause others to lose theirs.
As the the sun rises into the sky, the colours around us deepen. The sand blushes in pastel red and orange hues, complimented by the milky blue sky. And still the rhythm of the dunes beats on, up and down, up and down.
We lunch quickly, keen to make progress on our journey, impatient to rejoin the hypnotic rhythm. We drive on. In the early afternoon we come to the first of many salt lakes, empty estuaries that are part of the great inland water system that runs into Lake Eyre. Lake Eyre is fed by a network of channels and waterways that stretches all the way to the East coast of Australia and far to the North and South. It may be the last truly unregulated lake catchment system in the world. Water flows as nature intended, as it has for millions of years. For now, the salt lakes are dry and wait patiently for water to come. Salt has crystallised on the exposed surface of the lakes, forming a crisp white crust that is strangely reminiscent of an early fall of snow in colder climates.
The lakes break the rhythm of the dunes. They are flat and even. We drive across them with ease. The pure white of the salt contrasts with the red sand and sparkles in the bright sun light. Here and there the pristine salt surface of the lakes has been disturbed by the tyre tracks of errant drivers. Man leaves his mark.
The coloured sand flags on our vehicles wave to and fro as we drive around Lake Poeppel to Poeppel’s Corner where three state lines meet. We find the marker post and prove that it is possible to have your photo taken with one arm in Queensland, one arm in the Northern Territory and your legs in South Australia. This is most impressive when it is achieved by lying stomach down on the marker pole, legs and arms stretched out like a starfish. Those who attempted this will take home an unexpected souvenir, an imprint of three state names on the sensitive skin of their stomachs. But it had to be done!
At Poeppel corner we leave the QAA Line for the French Line. “Ooh la la!” Time for a little French over the radio. We are soon put in our place by the support truck for a group of motorbikers crossing the Simpson from West to East. “You’re not the only ones using this channel you know.” “Quelle dommage…”
As the afternoon draws on, the sky fills with hundreds of flat bottomed clouds, brilliant white on top and a dusky pink grey below. Is it going to rain? We rejoin the rhythm of the dunes, up and down, up and down, rock and roll, rock and roll. Red sands blush more deeply and clumps of bright yellow flowers add another colour to the desert mix.
It is time to call it a day and we pull in to a perfect camp spot. The fire is soon alight and we end the day with a camp oven roast, much laughter and Malcolm’s memorable impersonation of Elvis Presley. The evening is cut short by a shower of unexpected desert rain. We take to the shelter of our tents and lie in bed listening to the sound of raindrops as the subliminal background rhythm of the desert beats on.
It’s busy in the Pink Roadhouse. Two tourists search for the perfect Tshirt. An indigenous mum and baby girl stand and wait. We are getting our takeaway cups filled with coffee, it’s early and we are the first customers at the coffee machine.
Richard is keen to get on the road today. He’s looking forward to seeing the remains of the Old Ghan railway that runs beside the Oodnadatta track. You could call the track an open air museum, there is so much history here.
The Ghan railway has a mystique about it. It was a pioneer railway with a long and protracted history. It was originally named the Afghan Express after the camel trains that served the inland routes in the nineteenth century.
The old route was discontinued in 1980 because it was frequently washed out by floods and the timber sleepers had to be replaced often because of termite damage. In its heyday it carried passengers and supplies from the ports of Adelaide to the outlying townships in the remote inland territory, all the way to Alice Springs. If the train got into trouble, the passengers had to get out and help rebuild or clear the track.
It was a steam railway and needed water. It followed the same route taken by the Overland Telegraph Line, by the Afghan cameleers, by early explorers and before that by Aboriginal ochre traders. They all followed the water. The track follows a string of mound springs where water bubbles up to the surface from the depths of the Great Artesian Basin. Follow the water. Not a bad adage for Australian life.
The flat, red gibber plains of this country are familiar to us now. They run unimpeded to the far horizon, reflecting the light from the morning sun. The old railway track follows the curves of the road and we are soon deep in industrial archaeology. We stop for bridges, embankments and to wander through old ruined railway buildings.
Richard walks along the old line looking for treasure, like an exploring schoolboy. He holds up an iron nail used to drive in the timber sleepers, “Look at this.”
The Oodnadatta Pink Roadhouse publishes a hand-drawn track map, given out for free, and has set out homemade road signs pointing out the sights to see on the rail trail. It is uniquely quirky. This feels more and more like a treasure hunt.
The ruined buildings so isolated even in their day evoke a wistful sadness. The age of steam, once at the leading edge of technology, is now a romantic memory. How long will the bridges and buildings stand before they disappear into the featureless flat plains?
On the recommendation of the pink mud map, we take a 15 km detour off the main route, up a long winding sandy track. Heading into the remote area off the already remote track feels like an adventure. We are making for Peake Creek, settled around the telegraph line in the 1860s. After a slow drive along the poorly maintained track, we are disappointed to see a lonely pile of bricks ahead of us with a sign next to it.
Fortunately, there is more. This is the eating house, or what is left of it. The settlement lies just around the corner. The sound of squawking cockatoos swirling around an unexpected group of Palm trees tells we have arrived. The settlement was built on a spring. It’s an eerie, deserted place. The telegraph station’s grandeur can still be seen in its ruined state. The inhabitants even built a copper smelter, such was their optimism about the future of the settlement. But it all came to nothing and eventually, when the telegraph ceased to be essential, the copper failed to be economic and the droughts came, the pioneers walked away.
We turn off the Oodnadatta track at William Creek, a tiny town, apparently all owned by one man. The pub sells everything. Bush humour is alive and well. A parking meter has been installed outside the pub for tourists.
We do not have time this trip to follow the track all the way to Marree, so we head off across the Woomera Prohibited Area, the rocket testing range for the Australian army. We only see one other vehicle along the track, an old truck that has seen better days. Two hundred kilometres of the loneliest, most remote driving we have done. No emus. No dingos. No camels. Just two old bulls who stare at the ute and look prepared to send us on our way.
The opal mines of Coober Pedy are a welcome sight on the horizon, although they signal the end of our outback trip. Tomorrow we head down South on the highway.
We have come to the end of our outback adventure and what a grand adventure it has been.
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Martin Buber
On my bedside table I have three books. The three book covers hint at a common theme. Colour? Red, red and red.
I am preparing myself mentally for a journey into the “Big Red Bit” in the centre of Australia. I will not be alone, unlike the intrepid Robyn Davidson in “Tracks”, the book on the top of the pile. Robyn travelled across 1700 miles of Australian outback with only three camels and a dog for company. I admire her. Being somewhat less intrepid myself, I will have my husband Richard with me, and for most of the trip we will be with a group of friends and neighbours from in and around Deans Marsh in the West of Victoria. Robyn’s book has helped me with a few tips on how to break in a camel (could come in handy) and has conjured up something of what it is like to be in the red centre of Australia. It’s not possible to sum up this landscape in a few easy words, says Robyn. “It is difficult to describe Australian desert ranges as their beauty is not just visual. They have an awesome grandeur that can fill you with exaltation or dread, and usually a combination of both.” Wow! Awesome in the truest sense of that much maligned word.
The second book is Vic Widman’s “Travelling the Outback – the complete guide to planning and preparing for your outback adventure”. It’s a very practical source of information on anything and everything you need to do to prepare for a trip. The chapters on Camping Gear, Food & Water and Personal Needs have been particularly enlightening for me. “There is really no need to do without anything on your camping holiday”, says Vic before covering showering and toilet facilities when travelling. Important stuff indeed! Richard has spent somewhat more time leafing through the Preparing The Vehicle section. More about that in future posts.
The Simpson Desert is the most remote area we plan to visit and warrants a book to itself. Mark Shephard’s “The Simpson Desert – Natural History and Human Endeavour” is a real gem. This is THE book on the Simpson desert. It is full of gorgeous, evocative photography and a wealth of detail on the history and nature of this unique part of Australia. The dedication at the front of the book took me aback, it reads “To my son Matthew, who was fortunate to be able to experience the desert before he was one year old”. That must have been quite a family holiday!
I can’t compete (and don’t intend to) with the illustrious writers of these books, but in a small way this blog will add to the literature describing travels into the Big Red Bit in the centre of Australia. I hope it informs and entertains anyone who stumbles across it and is interested enough to spend some time reading here.
I liked the quote by Martin Buber that I’ve used as the title for this post. I hope you do too. It reminds me that no matter how well we plan for the journey, it will take on a life of its own and who knows what its secret destination may be.