IF YOU haven’t had a chance to travel along the Strzelecki Track that takes you through the heart of Strzelecki Desert, you should probably get it ticked off the to-do list fairly soon, as the South Australian government is considering sealing this dusty 498km track which runs from Lyndhurst to Innamincka.
The proposal to seal the existing track is mainly to improve the route for the road trains that service the Cooper Basin oil and gas fields at Gidgealpa and Moomba. However, for 4WD enthusiasts, this will change the landscape forever.
Some tourers who tackle this stretch of dusty track in a day will tell you it’s not the most scenic outback desert track in Australia, but this track and its surrounding environment has a lot more to offer should you take the time to camp along the route and explore the many interesting attractions and tracks that connect to this dusty desert highway.
If you are relatively new to remote-area driving, the Strzelecki Desert is the perfect place to take the family for a desert-crossing initiation. It’s also very accessible for those who are up for a mini adventure over a couple of days, particularly those who live close to the southern and eastern seaboard.
This is the perfect environment for the first timer who just wants to experience desert driving without the concern of a challenging and remote desert crossing, like the Simpson. This definitely doesn’t mean the Strzelecki deserves any less respect when exploring it, though.
The officially starts at Lyndhurst, but you can also access the track from Leigh Creek to the south. If you start from Leigh Creek you will pass through the Vulkathunha-Gammon National Park and parts of the Flinders Ranges. This option would be our route of choice, before eventually joining the Strzelecki Track near Mount Hopeless. We would give ourselves three days on this little adventure, exploring the Strzelecki Desert and the many interesting sights and tracks that dissect this iconic dusty route, before finally arriving at Innamincka.
Along the route from Leigh Creek you’ll pass by the Italowie Gorge before arriving at Balcanoona, which provides a good spot to camp and has a few interesting walks should you decide to work up a sweat. If you have time turn left towards Arkaroola Village, which is approximately 25km from Balcanoona and well-signposted. The area also has some challenging tracks to explore, including the Echo Camp Back Track and the guided Ridgetop Tour.
After a couple of hours of exploration, head back towards Balcanoona and set the compass for Moolawatana Station. From Balcanoona the first 20km is rough in parts with lots of washouts, so care should be taken. The 56km track from Moolawatana to Mount Hopeless is also challenging in parts, as the road becomes increasingly rockier as you approach Moolawatana Homestead. Keep an eye out for Mount Hopeless in the distance (due north) as you approach the Strzelecki Track.
On reaching the T junction you will meet the much wider and straighter Strzelecki Track that goes on for as far as the eye can see. Once on the Strzelecki Track you will be able to increase your speed because it’s well-maintained with long straight stretches, and as you accelerate along the track you’ll immediately be taken in by the surrounding desert, with the white sand and hardy vegetation spreading out towards the horizon.
In dry weather you’ll kick up a trail of white dust as you progress along this track, while in wet weather expect closures. So it pays to be well-informed before starting your adventure.
The desert’s topography is far from boring and it’s amazing to think you are driving over the Great Artesian Basin, which is one of the world’s largest underground water reservoirs. This ancient water source found under the desert floor also facilitates this arid desert environment to explode with wildlife in times of flood.
On this route you will also hit the outskirts of the Lake Eyre basin, which covers approximately one sixth of Australia. This basin contains one of the world’s last unregulated great river systems, with these rivers sometimes filling with water from monsoonal rains and then making their way across the country towards Lake Eyre. They say the best way to see this spectacle unfold in its enormity is from the air. Another day perhaps.
Another point of interest, approximately 30km from Mount Hopeless, is the Montecollina Bore, which was drilled to tap into the Great Artesian water supply beneath the desert in 1903. It’s also a popular spot for camping along the track.
From the Montecollina Bore you eventually cross the Strzelecki Crossing, and it’s interesting to note that the original Strzelecki Track used to follow this creek all the way into Innamincka before the existing and straighter route was created. This creek may look harmless in the dry weather, but when in full flood it can close this track for weeks.
We set up camp along the creek after finding a relatively sheltered spot among some trees away from the flies. We got the fire going, dusted ourselves down, cracked open a couple of cold beers and cooked a feast of kangaroo stew and damper. As the sun went down we braced ourselves for the spectacular view of the stars that came into their own as the light faded. It’s moments like these that make these little journeys so memorable, and what a great place to experience your first desert adventure.
After packing up early in the morning it was back in the dusty Land Rover to explore the remainder of the Strzelecki Track. The plan was to take a detour off the The Track to Cameron Corner and an awaiting cold beer at the famous outback stopover. The Merty Merty Track leads you all the way to The Corner and the Corner Store and its pub. You can get fuel and food at the store and there is a campground here, too.
A visit to the The Corner is a little bit of a detour off the Strz, but it’s well worth a look, particularly to see where the three states (South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales) meet. If you’re hoping to see the iconic yellow double decker bus en-route to The Corner you will be disappointed, as it’s no longer there.
The next area of interest once back on the Strzelecki Track is Moomba, and upon arrival you’ll be close to the off-limits processing plant. This area and what lies underground its sandy surface is the main reason why the Strzelecki Track may be sealed in the future by the South Australian government, as it incorporates the resource-rich Cooper Basin that boasts approximately 250 gas and oil fields.
The Moomba facility incorporates a massive underground storage facility for processed gas and ethane, where the natural resource is piped with crude oil all the way to Port Bonython near Whyalla. Ethane is sent to Qenos in Sydney via a dedicated pipeline, while sales gas is sent to Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane via pipeline. If only Mad Max knew this place existed.
After exploring this part of the track you’ll be on the home stretch, as the Strzelecki Track eventually leads to the Innamincka reserve and the small town of Innamincka. There are plenty of things to see and do in Innamincka, including visiting the famous Burke and Wills Dig Tree, Coongie Lakes and King’s Marker, as well as checking out other historic sites associated with the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition.
Driving the entire length of the Strzelecki Track in a day isn’t the most inspirational outback drive in Australia, but by giving yourself more time to explore the various attractions that run parallel to this 498km track you can easily turn an outback dusty drive into a mini outback adventure.
Spending more time camping along this route will give you a real feel for this desert, and by exploring some of the adjoining tracks and points of interest you will be treated to a variety of diverse attractions that will keep everyone happy.
With nine other deserts to get stuck into and explore, this arid adventure is only a small taste of what Australia has to offer 4WD enthusiasts.
CAMPING AND FEES
ALL tracks in the vicinity including Strzelecki Desert, Sturt National Park, Lake Eyre, Innamincka Regional Reserve and many others including the Flinders Ranges all require special-access permits. Camping in the Innamincka Reserve requires a Desert Parks Pass, which you can purchase at the reserve office in Innamincka. The desert passes are valid for 12 months and provide detailed information including maps of the area. Passes can also be purchased at RAA offices. A Desert Parks Pass costs $160, but discounts are available for renewals.
THE Strzelecki Track can often be impassable after heavy downpours. It’s also worth noting that winter nights can fall below freezing. Overall, the Strzelecki Track is maintained mainly for the large road trains that service the Gidgealpa and Moomba oil and natural gas fields.
THE track from Arkaroola to the Strzelecki Track is mostly loose surface with some challenging driving, particularly through the dry creeks. Infrequent rain not only makes the roads slippery and treacherous, but can also cause flash floods which could leave you stranded for weeks at a time. It’s always advisable to check local conditions before venturing onto outback roads.
FUEL & SUPPLIES
FUEL up at Lyndhurst, Leigh Creek or Innamincka. Fuel and basic supplies are available in Arkaroola and some supplies including fuel can be purchased at Cameron Corner. Take reasonable precautions when travelling in this region. Always have plenty of food, fuel, spare tyres and water on board with you. The weather is changeable out here and can go from extreme heat in the day to freezing at night, so make sure you have appropriate clothing to cope with conditions.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
THE cooler months are definitely the best time to visit, although always check local conditions as this area can be impassable especially after heavy rains. Maximum summer temperatures can reach 50°C, so you won’t find many people living in this harsh environment – only three per cent of the country’s population call it home.
Phone: 08 8204 1910
Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary - www.arkaroola.com.au
The Corner Store - Ph: 08 8091 3872
The Innamincka Hotel - PH: 08 – 8675 9901
IN 1845 the Strzelecki Track was discovered and named by after the famous Polish explorer, Edmund Strzelecki (pictured). The actual ‘track’ was originally blazed by the son of an Irishman, Harry Redford, a cattle thief who drove more than 1000 stolen cattle over untracked country from Central Queensland to Adelaide. Harry was eventually captured, but because of his brave efforts in establishing a new stock route through this harsh land, all criminal charges were dropped and he was let off the hook. Harry would go on to become one of the greatest cattle drovers in Australian history. Who says crime doesn’t pay?
IF you enjoy this desert experience, you’ll have plenty of choice to explore some of the other remote and more challenging deserts that Australia has to offer. Australia is home to many deserts including the Great Victorian, Sandy, Tanami, Simpson, Gibson, Little Sandy, Sturt, Stoney, Tirari, Pedirika, and Strzelecki. So it’s easy to see why 70 per cent of this big red rock is classified as semi-arid, arid or desert, with an annual rainfall of just 200mm or less. In comparison, the UK has an annual rainfall of close to 900mm.