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Tracing the transcontinental railway line, outback NSW

By Russ Ryan, 09 Mar 2015 NSW

Tracing the transcontinental railway line, outback NSW

It’s such a unique experience driving along a peaceful track that runs beside a railway line in the middle of nowhere.

Being overtaken by a huge iron horse as it shakes the ground beneath you, while negotiating a narrow dusty track that runs parallel to the railway line, is an experience you won’t forget in a hurry. This section of track in outback New South Wales follows the continental-crossing, man-made, coast-to-coast Transcontinental Railway.

In just a couple of days you’ll also be treated to the amazing colours of the canola and lavender fields near Parkes, the relatively undiscovered outback oasis that is Lake Cargelligo and spectacular camping spots at Lake Mungo and the Kinchega National Parks. If you have the time and want to extend this adventure, you can roughly follow the railway line all the way to Perth.

Departing from Sydney, our route will pass the remote towns of Ivanhoe and Hillston in central New South Wales, then on to Lake Mungo via Darnick before arriving at the spectacular and culturally rich Kinchega and Menindee National Parks. The adventure ends at Broken Hill.

A highly recommended first camp along this route is Frogs Hollow bush campsite on the banks of Lake Cargelligo, just 400km from Sydney. Lake Cargelligo is an old gold mining settlement. There are no facilities at this campsite, but it’s perfect all the same due to the incredibly calm lake – you can even hear fish jumping as you sleep.

After a great night’s sleep it’s back on the road again toward Merri Merrigal along a large section of, what is now known as, the dusty Cobb Highway. This road was originally used in the 1840s for moving stock from NSW and Queensland to Victoria as part of the ‘Long Paddock’.

Continue north-west and take the track signposted for Roto, and then on to Ivanhoe. This is where the fun starts and where you’ll get your first real taste of what you came for: to kick up the red dust. Next stop Hillston.

The driving conditions on these unsealed tracks are highly dependent on the weather – if it rains, expect road closures. Thankfully for us it was sunny and dry and the Land Rover’s Td5 diesel engine was purring as we left behind a trail of dust. We were now progressing alongside the trans-continental railway line.

Here, there are two tracks to choose from; both running parallel to the world famous railway. The first is the main dirt road and the second is the narrower and more challenging track that runs closer to the railway. The narrower track is mostly used for railway maintenance vehicles and in many places these maintenance tracks run on both sides of the line; the idea being to stop service trucks from crossing the tracks.

When tackling the smaller track, make sure you lower your tyre pressure as there’s sure to be plenty of bulldust. This track can also be pretty rough and uneven in spots with unexpected depressions, so best advice is to keep speed down.

If you’ve ever had the privilege of being a passenger on the Indian Pacific train, you’ll be aware it’s marketed as the longest and one of the greatest rail journeys on the planet. It’s an ocean-to-ocean adventure over three days covering a whopping 4352km.

The railway line also boasts a single stretch of straight railway track covering a staggering 487km that crosses the Nullarbor Plain from outback South Australia into Western Australia. While it sounds incredible, I’d still prefer to tackle the narrow dusty railway line track in my hot, creaky, bouncy, air condition-less Land Rover Defender as opposed to looking out the window of a luxurious carriage, sipping champagne. Sure, our chosen mode of transport is a bit slower, bouncier and a bit lower to the ground in comparison to the luxury of the elevated first class soundproof train carriage, but exploring this stretch of land on four wheels will guarantee you a sense of adventure and the opportunity to be consumed by the surrounding environment.

As you drive alongside the railway line toward the distant horizon, you cannot help but think how harsh conditions must have been for the men who came from distant lands to build it, using the most basic tools including picks, shovels, carthorses and camels. You can almost sense the sweat and tears that went into this fantastic man-made piece of infrastructure that took five years to build.

As we progressed along the track en route to Ivanhoe we unfortunately didn’t get a chance to see the Indian Pacific train, but we were overtaken by a Pacific National train – one of Australia’s largest private rail freight businesses, connecting freight between the western and eastern seaboards.

Seeing one of these trains thunder past you is a bit like being in an action packed scene from a Mad Max movie as the noise of the huge diesel engine overpowers your immediate space, shaking the ground beneath you. The train driver certainly made his presence felt, sounding the train’s horn as he passed by.

An abundance of wildlife will cross the line as they go about their business – this is something travellers could never tire of. With emus, kangaroos and white-tailed eagles, it was a bit like driving through an open safari as you leisurely make your ways towards Ivanhoe.

Ivanhoe is a quiet town that was founded in the early 1870s and has a current population of 265 people. In its early days, the area was served by travelling Chinese and Indian hawkers, as well as camel trains, making the town a multicultural centre. It’s an opportunity to refuel and get a bite to eat at the local garage but don’t expect to do a big shop for supplies here as only the basics are available in this sleepy town.

About an hour west from Ivanhoe is Darnick, the next stop before veering away from the railway toward Pan Ban. This will lead you to the ancient lakes of Garnpung and Leaghur perched in the heart of the Mungo National Park. Despite the name, vast expanses of water are unlikely; the lakes are as dry as a camel’s back. The track takes you right through the middle of the ancient lakes and it truly is a surreal experience considering these lakes once played a key role as a source of water for the nomadic indigenous populations and the local wildlife.

Mungo National Park is part of the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area, a chain of lakes that dried up around 14,000 years ago. The National Park is also one of the most important archaeological sites in Australia and it’s believed Lake Mungo has been occupied by Aborigines for the past 50,000 years, making it one of the most important early Aboriginal sites in Australia. It’s fascinating to imagine that the dry landscapes of Lake Leaghur, Garnpung and Mungo were once filled with water and were rich and vibrant places where kangaroos (three times the size of modern ’roos), giant wombats, Tasmanian devils and the friendly hippo-like Zygomaturus once called home.

As you drive closer to Lake Garnpung a very straight-looking track that cuts right through the lake comes into view. The lake-bed track looked fine from a distance, but wheels on dirt is a different story. After sliding uncontrollably a couple of times, we ended up getting bogged. After three attempts, lowered tyre pressures and a few prayers we were out of the hole. Never be complacent driving solo here as the track conditions can quickly change.

Relieved to be back on our way, we tackled the next ancient lake: Lake Leaghur. From here you’ll catch a glimpse over the horizon at the spectacular “Great Walls of China”. The crescent-shaped dune covers 22km of sand and clay that the weather has shaped into amazing formations over time and is best viewed at sunset or sunrise.

After a very educational Mungo National Park experience, it was off to our final destination: Kinchega National Park. From Mungo it’s 53km to Reaka and a further 25km to Pooncarie. Approximately 127km of more unsealed track will take you from Pooncarie to Menindee. Kinchega National Park is located a few clicks from Menindee via a dry-weather dirt road.

There are plenty of camping choices here; we chose to camp along the Darling River, not far from where Burke and Wills set up camp in 1860. Menindee would be the last white settlement that Burke and Wills would encounter on their doomed journey across the continent. This perfect riverside campground will reward with great views of the majestic, meandering river and beautiful sounds of the river’s bird life. It’s places like this, camped alongside the Darling River, that makes Australia great for those who like to get away from it all. Without a doubt, this country offers some of the best camping locations in the world!

As you drive through the park, toward Lake Menindee’s edge, you’ll be drawn by the ghostly lifeless black wood gum trees that idly protrude from the lake bed. The strange appearance of these trees is due to extensive flooding over time that eventually led to the death of the trees. They are now a key feature that distinguishes this lake district from others in Australia. We pulled over on the lake’s edge on a number of occasions to embrace this unusual sight.

Australia offers some incredible and very reachable outback destinations with a standard 4WD. The far west of outback NSW is one such destination.

What you will enjoy most about this trip is not just the diverse landscape but rather the unique opportunity to travel on a section of the 4352km dusty narrow tracks that runs parallel to a railway line that tracks all the way to Perth via Broken Hill.

This adventure will provide decent 4WD tracks, remoteness and an ability to set up camp anywhere along the railway line alongside outback wildlife.

In the six days it took to complete this outback adventure we got bogged, lost, experienced prehistoric landforms and enjoyed a taste of outback driving that left the Land Rover with a nice red glow as we reluctantly drove back into Sydney.

We might have to take the train next time.