Powered by
  • WheelsWheels
  • 4X4 Australia4X4 Australia
  • Street MachineStreet Machine
  • Trade Unique CarsTrade Unique Cars

4x4 trip through the Copper Track, SA

By Robert Norman, 22 Jan 2019 SA

4x4 trip through the Copper Track SA feature

Near Blinman in South Australia’s far north the ruins of three historic copper mining ventures were linked by a coach road in the mid-1800s. Disused for decades, in recent times the Copper Track has been reopened to tourists.

On Warraweena Private Conservation Park, east of Leigh Creek, you can find the ruins of the Sliding Rock copper mine.

In the 1870s, the mine supported more than 200 workers and a small town, but after a promising start the mine closed in 1901 due to falling copper prices, transport issues as a result of its isolated location and, surprisingly for such an arid area, flooding from underground water. Numerous ruins of substantial stone buildings are scattered around the mine site which you pass a couple of kilometres before reaching the Warraweena homestead.

Wandering through the ruins it is hard to imagine this harsh and desolate landscape was home to a thriving community at the mine’s peak. This was and still is a challenging environment, and with summer temperatures of 40-50˚C, working underground as a miner might have been a preferable occupation to that of the blacksmith’s apprentice above ground.

Warraweena is a 355km² functioning sheep station that has opened its doors to tourists wishing to experience its unspoiled landscape. The property attracts mountain bikers and bushwalkers, as well as the 4x4 fraternity who come to pit their vehicles and driving skills against some of the station’s more demanding tracks.

Grey nomads exploring roads less travelled also frequent Warraweena, attracted by the history, solitude and rugged beauty of the northern Flinders Ranges.

Warraweena offers a range of accommodation from bush camping with some basic amenities along an extensive section of dry river bed, to the relative luxury of converted shearers’ quarters. An old homestead, no longer used as such, has a large kitchen, several bedrooms and communal areas ideal for use by groups planning to explore the property and other nearby attractions.

The road to Warraweena leaves the bitumen at the Beltana Roadhouse 30km south of Leigh Creek. A rough gravel road, which can be quite corrugated and rocky in places, snakes eastward, passing the all but deserted township of Beltana along the way.

Founded in the 1870s to service nearby mining activity, it fell on hard times when the mines closed. The arrival of the Overland Telegraph and Ghan railway kept the town alive, but once the railway was realigned farther west, Beltana’s fate was sealed and it’s now almost a ghost town.

4x4 explore: The Old Ghan railway

The town is worth a stop to see some of the old buildings and soak up the local history which includes reminders of the Afghan cameleers who plied their trade throughout the SA outback.

The Flinders comes alive with colourful wildflowers after heavy rain and one of the more prolific wildflowers is an enduring legacy of those early Afghan cameleers. The Afghans used wild hop plants as padding in their camels’ saddlebags and as a result hop seeds were scattered wherever they travelled.

To this day, when conditions are right, wild hop plants burst forth to paint otherwise barren hillsides throughout the length and breadth of the Flinders Ranges with their vibrant red flowers.

From Beltana the road to Warraweena winds across the flat dusty plain, regularly crossing dry, rocky riverbeds scoured over eons by floodwaters pouring out of the ranges after heavy rain. In places, the road surface comprised roughly graded, fist-sized rubble and finding that the manager of Warraweena was called Rocky, I had to ask if they named the road into the Station after him or vice versa!

Most of Warraweena’s station tracks are rough going and best negotiated by high clearance 4x4s. The better known destinations are perhaps Mt Gill Track and the Copper Track, both of which offer 4x4 drivers something different and perhaps a little challenging.

We were there to tackle the Copper Track and, as this drive is one-way only and not trailer friendly, we had left our camper on Moolooloo Station, 95km by road to the south. Our return journey by way of the Copper Track followed a more direct 40km route skirting the foothills of the range.

The Copper Track was originally constructed in the early 1890s to connect the copper mines of Sliding Rock, Nuccaleena (30km to the south on present day Moolooloo Station) and another near the small town of Blinman farther to the south-east.

Today, access to the track requires payment of a modest fee at Warraweena in exchange for a comprehensive set of track notes and the combination for a locked gate at the start of the track near the Sliding Rock mine ruins.

The northern Flinders are the eroded remnants of an ancient mountain range and steep red cliffs of shattered sandstone look out over the flat desert plains that stretch westward as far as the eye can see.

The track initially winds through an undulating landscape of low hills that parallel higher jagged peaks farther to the east. At the time of our visit it had been six months since any rain and the countryside was dusty and burnt dry, but it was easy to imagine that after good rain, with wildflowers and new growth, the Copper track would be particularly scenic.

It is slow, given the track is unmaintained and cut by numerous small washaways and watercourses. A few of the waterway crossings display steep entry and exits and some care is advisable to avoid your front bar unintentionally doubling as a grader blade. This is also terrain where reduced tyre pressure can both help protect your rubber from the ever present sharp, slaty rocks and make for a more comfortable ride.

Old stonework from the original coach road can still be seen in some places where the track was built up to cross the deeper washaways. The dry sandy beds of large watercourses were regularly used by the early settlers as roadways because they often cut through otherwise steep and challenging terrain, making for easier travel.

The Copper Track is no exception and about halfway into the drive it drops into and follows Warrioota Creek. Numerous sawn stumps of large river red gums can be seen here where timber was cut 100 years ago to be used as sleepers on the mighty Ghan railway from Adelaide to the town of Oodnadatta.

Eventually leaving the creek, the track climbs steadily to a ridgeline which is the highest point of the drive. Here, a couple of hundred metres down a sidetrack, is Sladies Lookout, a bare hill with commanding views to the west as far as Lake Torrens. While undoubtedly a stunning place to watch the sunset with a bottle of bubbly, it’s still a long drive to anywhere on a track that is challenging enough in daylight.

Descending from the ridge, the track enters Moolooloo Station and a landscape increasingly punctuated with picturesque native cypress. From here it is only a short distance on better quality tracks to the remarkably well preserved Nuccaleena Mine ruins which also date from the mid-1800s.

In its heyday Nuccaleena supported a small township with a hotel (a prerequisite in this dry and dusty environment), substantial stone stables, a goods store, blacksmiths workshop, general store, doctor’s surgery and numerous miners’ huts.

The mine operators spent £57,000 but produced only £13,000 of copper and, after losing what would have been a small fortune in the 1860s, Nuccaleena was abandoned after only six years.

From Nuccaleena the Copper Track follows station tracks until reaching the road to nearby Blinman via Glass Gorge – today a popular tourist drive. At Blinman, tourists can take underground tours of the workings, stock-up on supplies and take advantage of a range of accommodation from the local pub to various farm-stay options.

Whether you stay at Warraweena or one of the station properties near Blinman (such as Alpana and Moolooloo) this is an area that offers many unique and challenging 4x4 activities in a virtually unspoiled natural environment. But, whatever you do, make sure you put the 150-year-old Copper Track on your itinerary.

Life is a journey, go on an adventure with 4x4 Explore

Travel Planner

Warraweena Private Conservation Park is located 500km north of Adelaide in South Australia’s Northern Flinders Ranges.

April to September offers pleasant conditions with daytime temps in the mid-20s, with single digits overnight. Summers are harsh and hot with temps often above 40ºC. In spring, after rain, the country is resplendent in wildflowers and fresh growth.

Properties such as Warraweena, Moolooloo and Alpana offer accom from campsites to cabins and shearers quarters.

Campers need to be self-sufficient as to food and water. Some basic foodstuffs such as frozen meat and bread are available at Blinman and Angorichina (the latter also supplies fuel).

Rough and rocky is the order of the day, and anything other than major roads should be considered suitable for 4x4s only. The Copper Track is unsuitable for trailers but in dry conditions an experienced driver would not face any major challenges towing an off-road heavy-duty camper on other major tracks in the area.

Moolooloo Station
Phone: (08) 8648 4861

Warraweena Conservation Park
Ph: (08) 8675 2771