An outback trip can be as mild or as wild as you dare. From taking the path of least resistance to navigating the most remote outposts, there’s an adventure to be had for the willing.
This feature was originally published in 4x4 Australia’s April 2011 issue
Targeting somewhere between the two, this trip kicks off from Coober Pedy, the outback hub of South Australia and the opal capital of the world. The town offers a range of geological wonders and points of interest, that will easily absorb a couple of days before continuing on your adventure.
Points of interest include the Breakaways, Moon Plain, the Old Timers opal mine, the Serbian Orthodox underground church and a number of other commercial underground buildings.
Approaching Coober Pedy from the south, the distant opal fields – mullock heaps of discarded rock, like little sandcastles bunched together – give the first hint of civilisation. The area is tightly bound in fencing wire with warning signs to keep you out, a change from the barren, unfenced open plains of earlier on our journey.
Aussies like their sport and it’s evident the folks at Coober Pedy are no different. Signs welcoming you to town are pinned beneath an opal mining truck emblazoned in the AFL’s Port Adelaide colours.
The humble residential landscape takes an unusual form. Ventilation stacks poke from the ground, in lieu of bricks and mortar. With the intense summer heat of up to 45°C, and an average ground temperature of 65°C, subterranean accommodation is a great solution. No heating or cooling is required. The hot air rises and the ventilation stacks ensure a constant circulation of fresh air.
For a gold coin donation, you can inspect the palatial Serbian Orthodox church, on Flinders Street. It’s a masterful creation carved into a rock wall. The tunnelling machines leave a distinct pattern on the salmon-coloured sandstone walls, which are treated with a sealer to eliminate dust.
There are a number of caravan parks to choose from, including Riba’s Underground. The underground camping area is limited to tent accommodation, with campervans and caravans relegated to above-ground plots. In the township you will find a supermarket, a couple of big fuel stations, and a cross-section of other businesses. The visitor information centre has free internet, a booking service and plenty of tourist information.
The Old Timers mine on Crowders Gully Road provides a self-guided opal tour. Points of interest are marked along the diggings, with signs to describe each point. The tour includes a museum with a wide range of artefacts and a number of dugouts showing how miners built their homes into the mine walls.
Any opal mine worth its, er, opals will have stones for sale, from souvenirs right through to the rare and valuable black opal. You can try your hand at fossicking, known as ‘noodling’. Noodling is the process of searching through the discarded rock for pieces of opal missed in the mining process.
Located 33km out of town, the Breakaways are a geological wonder, named on the belief that they separated from the earth’s surface millions of years ago when the floods receded.
The combination of sandhills and flat-top mesas resembles a mix of rich desserts in chocolate, caramel and vanilla toppings. Films such as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome; Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Red Planet; Pitch Black; Salute of the Jugger and Ground Zero have been shot at this unusual location.
Coober Pedy has earned its tag as the adventure hub of South Australia, with a swag of adventure trails deviating in every direction. East is the Oodnadatta Track, which links to the Birdsville and Strzelecki desert tracks further south.
West is the lesser travelled Anne Beadell Highway (in name only), which traces the footsteps of Len Beadell far into WA. And north towards Alice Springs via Finke or Mt Dare, on the edge of the Simpson Desert. So many awesome destinations, so little time!
The unsealed road to Oodnadatta offers a fairly good run with varying surface conditions, although it doesn’t take much rain to make the road impassable, the surface quickly chopping up with passing traffic.
If you have access to the internet, click the maps link on the Pink Roadhouse website and print off the Oodnadatta Town Area guide. It lists the things to do around town, including the 6X4 Loop, the photographic museum at the Old Ghan Railway station (pick up a key from the store or pub), the Transcontinental Hotel, the Pink Roadhouse (hard to miss), the caravan park, police station, general store, hospital, lookout, Afghan graves and much more. The 6X4 Loop was designed to emulate desert driving and includes a steep drop, six sandhills and four claypans, hence the 6X4 designation.
The gem of Oodnadatta is the Pink Roadhouse, with friendly staff, good tucker, fuel, up-to-date road conditions, a range of clothing and tourist paraphernalia. Top up with fuel and grab your last milkshake for quite a while. Travellers camping at Dalhousie Springs can buy a Witjira National Park entry pass and camping permit here. Otherwise, you can grab these at the campsite’s self-registration station, but you will need the correct change.
The Oodnadatta Tourist (caravan) Park is located behind the roadhouse, with a swimming pool open in the warmer months. Alternatively, roadhouse staff will direct you to a bush camp out of town, with use of the showers at the park for a few bucks. The requirement is that you leave no trace of your stay.
Oodnadatta marks the original railhead of the Old Ghan Railway Line, opened in 1929 to link to Alice Springs. The track was later extended to Port Augusta, but was eventually closed in 1980, replaced by a flood-proof, standard-gauge line further west.
The next leg of our journey parallels the Old Ghan, at least for a short distance. About 18 klicks out of Oodnadatta, take the signed track north to Dalhousie Springs, via Hamilton station. The Old Ghan line lies to the east of the track and runs to Alice Springs. The road is reduced to track status from here, but generally represents easy travelling.
Past Hamilton station, take the signed track east to Pedirka, a former railway siding on the Old Ghan line. This section of track is usually particularly rough, something it has developed quite a reputation for. The landscape is littered with gibbers begging to stab a hole in the first overinflated tyre that dares to veer off the track, so pay close attention.
At Pedirka, cement-block cottages are still standing. Propped on an old rail cart is a picture of a train derailment caused by flooding. It describes how the floods of 1939 washed away a length of the railway track, requiring a significant rebuild – 30,000m3 of restorative earthworks.
The track has long since been pulled up, but the mound that originally supported it is still evident, littered with dog spikes used to mount the tracks to the sleepers.
After crossing the line, the route continues east until it enters Witjira NP, where it swings north towards Dalhousie Springs, an oasis in the desert. The track passes the ruins of Dalhousie homestead, a former pastoral station that’s now a historic waypoint in the national park, flanked by date palms and saltbush.
According to the info boards, the homestead was built in the late 1800s by Edward Meade Bagot, who constructed the first leg of the Overland Telegraph Line between Port Augusta and the Peak.
With the nearby mound springs tapping into the Artesian Basin, the area was a great find for the early settlers, being the only source of permanent water for around 150km. The ruins include the homestead, workmen’s quarters, blacksmith’s shop, a shed and the stockyards. Over the years the station has managed sheep, Angora goats, cattle, horses and camels.
The area also has Aboriginal significance as a ceremonial site, and is said to be crisscrossed with dreaming and song lines explaining the laws of the people.
Dalhousie Springs are about 12km further on, very popular as a start or end point for those crossing the Simpson. It therefore pays to arrive before early afternoon to secure a campsite. Modern facilities greet you, including a modern-looking block with cold showers, toilets and rain tanks. As a high-traffic area, the facilities get a thorough workout and can be a little on the nose.
Mosquitoes are currently at an all time high with the wetter weather and humid conditions, creating an increased risk of contracting serious diseases such as Ross River and Barmah Forest virus. As there is no vaccine for these diseases, SA Health has introduced a campaign to help prevent their spread.
Cover exposed flesh with light coloured, loose clothing; avoid exposure between dusk to sunrise; use insect repellent (such as DEET – adults only); and use insect screens on tents and campers wherever possible. Tea tree oil can be a soothing ointment for bites and can be found in most supermarkets in the health section.
You’ll see the occasional dingo skulking around camp at dusk, looking for a cheap feed. Anything left out to thaw while you soothe those aching bones down at the springs may not be there on your return. Be warned.
The hot springs at Dalhousie measure a soothing 36 degrees, which makes it a relaxing place to be at the start or end of the day. The springs are home to a number of tiny fish and other animal species that are tolerant to the warm temperatures. Save the mud masks, these little critters nibble your skin, providing the ultimate exfoliation treatment!
The Mt Dare Hotel is 71km further north, still in the national park and only 10km south of the NT border. Backtrack to the Dalhousie ruins track junction, veer right and follow the signs.
The hotel provides a comprehensive range of services from the usual pub fare of grog and food to a mini supermarket, a campground with hot showers and toilets, satphone hire, workshop and recovery service, fuel, souvenirs, information track conditions, and the sale of desert parks passes and camping permits.
Its website has a range of useful outback touring information, including a photo gallery of vehicle and trailer breakdowns, covering vehicle component failure, rollovers, recoveries and trailers that didn’t quite survive the adventure.
The main touring options from Mt Dare include an easterly bearing across the Simpson or north to Alice Springs via Binns Track (formerly Old Andado) or Finke, tracing the Old Ghan line via Chambers Pillar.
Prepare for the weekend on Explore
If you plan to travel any time after the Queens Birthday long weekend in June, the annual Finke Desert Race, which is held at this time, can severely chop up the Finke route, placing extra stress on you and your rig, so keep that in mind when planning.
For travellers not up to a Simpson crossing, this amazing outback touring gem offers a glimpse of the isolation and mesmerising beauty of the natural desert environment.
Beyond that, it’s just a great area to explore, with plenty of historic sites and interesting locations. Whatever you do, take your time and enjoy the experience because, like they say, it’s as much about the journey as it is the destination.
Coober Pedy is 850km north of Adelaide or 680km south of Alice Springs via the blacktop. The run to Mt Dare is around 450km via Oodnadatta and Dalhousie Springs on rough outback tracks.
Witjira National Park entry fee, $8.50.
There is plenty of camping en route, including in Coober Pedy, Oodnadatta, Mt Dare and Dalhousie Springs. Oodnadatta Tourist Park, $25/family (hot showers and toilets). Dalhousie Springs, $16/vehicle (cold showers). Mt Dare, $8/adult, $2/child or $18 (2 adults, 2 children)/night (hot showers and toilets).
MAPS AND GUIDES
Hema Central Australia.
Hema Simpson Desert.
CONTACTS & INFORMATION
Department for Environment and Heritage, Port Augusta, 1800 816 078.
Transport SA Road Conditions Hotline, 1300 361 033.
Pink Roadhouse, Oodnadatta, 1800 802 074, pinkroadhouse.com.au, UHF 7.
Mt Dare Hotel, 08 8670 7835, mtdare.com.au.
The Dalhousie Springs ranger station can be reached on UHF 10.
WHAT TO TAKE
Apart from the standard camping fare, bring plenty of drinking water, mosquito repellent (DEET), remote touring spares and tools, UHF and a satphone if travelling alone.
Coober Pedy and Alice Springs are the major destinations to stock up on supplies or organise repairs. The Pink Roadhouse and Mt Dare both provide mechanical services, tyre repairs, recovery services and basic supplies.
Recommended as 4X4 only. In general terms, this route is easy going, save for the fact the roads are rough and corrugated. It can get slippery after rains and the roads can close at short notice. Tyres should be light truck (LT) construction with reduced pressures suitable for your vehicle and load.