Heading North …

From Waikerie it was a northward trip through the picturesque town of Burra, passing south of the Flinders Ranges then north with the hills on our right. We were traveling in the footsteps of the explorers Eyre and Stuart.

Eyre had been thwarted to the east by the mud of the salt lake, Lake Torrens. He ascended a peak at the top of the range and could see more salt lake to the west and the north. He was out of water. He turned back with the belief a horseshoe shaped salt lake blocked travel to the north.

It was John McDouall Stuart from 1858 onwards that found a way between the lakes culminating after six attempts in the first return trip north south across the continent. He could always find a drink, unfortunately when in town that was alcoholic.

At Lyndhurst you have a choice of adventures, the Strzelecki Track runs off to the right Marree and Farina, our next waypoint, are straight ahead. We pulled into the Farina camp site as the light faded. Its a ghost town presently getting a face lift. One of the old bakeries is up and running and the bread is beautiful.

I have written about Farina previously <HERE>.

A run out in the surrounding country the next day produced the first casualty of the trip. The aerial for the CB radio snapped about 100m into the first corrugations we had encountered. Bugger.

Day one …

Central Goldfields, Victoria to Wakerie, South Australia – 615km.

A long day to get a good step over the familiar. Travelling north west through the sheep-wheat-painted silo country of Victoria, pausing at Patchewollock to admire the art work and allow Fifi McGee to stretch her legs.

Next step the border, quarantine and new time zone. The quarantine station was unmanned which made for a speedy transition.

Onto Waikerie and the newly minted silo art, a double sided affair …

Three silos together make for a wavy canvas that is hard for the artist to get a great result from.

The campsite we chose is at Holder Bend on the banks of the mighty Murray. Quite picturesque but very close to the Sturt Highway. The dawn chorus was a competition between a Darter and a choir of Mac trucks.

 

Desert fringe …

At Oodnadatta we filled our fuel tanks.  Just as they reached the point where they could take no more we crept up behind the vehicles with a brick in each hand and clapped them together on the differentials …

We needed to travel about 650 km to the next fuel, we also wanted the option of taking any detour that might be necessary or desirable. Both the FJ Cruiser and the Landcruiser will do about 1200 km of country road on full tanks but we anticipated higher consumption in the days ahead. We took an extra 40 litres for each vehicle in Jerry cans.

We also topped up our water supply which we carried in a number of containers, we had already had one rub through because of corrugated roads – beer cans, too, needed careful scrutiny and emergency consumption at the first sign of deterioration. We travelled on with five days regular supplies plus a week’s reserve.

Just north of Oodnadatta we parted with the main road which goes on to Marla. Instead we headed to Hamilton Station where they have a very fine campsite about a kilometre off the road. We had up to this point been putting in big days of driving now it was time to smell the roses …

Sturt's Desert Pea
Sturt’s Desert Pea
Acacia sp.
Acacia sp. (?murrayana)

The dunes surrounding the camp were alive with wild flowers and the birding along the Hamilton River, on this occasion a series of pools, was excellent.

Zebra Finch
Zebra Finch
Crested Pigeon
Crested Pigeon

The Ghan …

From Farina we headed north to Marree and then up the Oodnadatta Track through the tiny town of William Creek to the world-renowned Pink Roadhouse in Oodnadatta itself.

The sky is huge, the vegetation is sparse, the road is not sealed. The scene is occasionally punctuated by  a mound spring thrown up like acne by the underlying artesian basin. The road follows the same line as the telegraph and the railway, evidence of both is still present although the rails and wires are gone. This is part of the route pioneered by John McDouall Stuart but people lived here for thousands of years before he passed through.

The Australian Overland Telegraph line was completed in 1872. It stretched 3200 km from the south coast to the north. The poles were 80 metres apart, there were relay stations every 250 km. At Darwin it joined a submarine cable that went via Java to the outside world. It was the thinnest thread of 19th century high tech stretching through hostile country, usually dry but flood, paradoxically, a major hazard, and occupied by occasionally hostile people. The colonies of Victoria and South Australia were in competition to gain the commercial benefit of building the line. Part of the motivation behind Victoria’s Burke and Wills expedition was to find a suitable route. Stuart was largely financed by James Chambers who hoped to have a large stake in the resulting enterprise.

The railway followed. Construction went in fits and starts. Construction began in 1880 and the railhead moved slowly north to Hawker, Farina, Marree, reaching Oodnadatta in 1891. Here it took a pause until 1926  before pressing on to Alice Springs three years later. This was a narrow gauge line constructed for steam locomotives. The route needed to follow a line of artesian springs supplemented later with bores. The service ran at a loss and was notorious for washouts of the track and other delays. A flat car immediately behind the locomotive carried spare sleepers and railway tools, so that if need be the passengers and crew could work as a railway gang to repair the line.

It wasn’t until 2004 that the track reached Darwin. By this time diesel had replaced steam making it possible to reroute the southern section westwards to less flood prone ground. The railway still runs on the new route. It is now called the Ghan to commemorate the Afghan cameleers that it largely replaced (this seems to have started as a pejorative nick name). It’s in the non-urgent section of my bucket list – please give it a go to keep it running until I get around to it. Read all about it <HERE>.

Marree

As I said, the sky is huge and the veg is scarce, this is the Oodnadatta track …

Oodnadatta Track

It passes ruins that would have housed telegraph and railway workers and the occasional mound spring. This spring is producing the merest trickle of water but it shows you the form …

Mound Spring

Now imagine yourself on a bigger and more productive example …

 

Mound Spring

 

At Lake Eyre South the road, railway and telegraph are all very close to the lake edge. It is the ideal place to meditate on the way it was. Imagine yourself piling off the train and being put to work repairing the track, or simply stranded here for a week or so (click to enlarge) …

Lake Eyre South

The water that issues from these spring comes from the Great Artesian Basin that lies beneath 23% of Australia’s surface area, that’s the 1.7 million square kilometres shown in blue on this map.

220px-Great_Artesian_Basin

Water enters at the margins, mostly the eastern margin and is trapped in a layer of sandstone. It travels at a rate of one to five metres a year. Water coming to the surface in the south-west of the basin has been underground for about two million years. It comes out pretty warm and mineral rich but has sustained life in the desert where local rainfall is scant.

We overnighted at Coward Springs where the water flows freely enough to form a wetland. It is a commercial camp site but thoughtfully laid out. You can take a spa in the spring water but rather than do that I found a quiet spot in the reeds to look for the local inhabitants …

Ausstralian Spotted Crake
Australian Spotted Crake

Goyder was right …

I posted this episode on September 2nd but somehow it disappeared into the void, how embarrassing. Funnily enough it fits between day one, en route at last, and day three, Farina, which you may have read.

***

Day two of the Great Inland Expedition of 2016 would entail driving along the Goyder Highway.

Whilst this might sound like something that could be fixed by putting iodine in the salt, the name commemorates the surveyor George Goyder. The colony of South Australia was founded in 1836 as a free settlement, no convicts transported here! It was to be the very best of British, no unemployment and no crime. The new colony started without police force or jail. Nowadays most South Australians live in Adelaide, are extremely cultured, have double barelled surnames and an intense urge to save the planet with renewable energy. The remaining few are unemployed drug addicts who keep friends and relatives in barrels whilst collecting their unemployment benefits.

The settlers had big ambitions but soon realised that whilst they had a huge area to play with not much of it was fertile.

Explorer Edward Eyre was commissioned to find out what lay to the interior, and ambitious settlers moved out hoping that rain would follow the plough. All too often it didn’t. In 1865 Mr Goyder, the then Surveyor-General of the colony, was asked to map the boundary between those areas that received good rainfall and those that did not. After riding an estimated 3200 km on horseback he submitted his report and map to the state government. The map showed a line of demarcation, the areas north of which being those Goyder judged “liable to drought”, with the areas to the south deemed arable. He discouraged farmers from planting crops north of his line, declaring this land suitable only for light grazing.

The line is essentially the 250mm(10 inches) isohyet. It can be determined on the ground by inspection of the vegetation, north of the line there is mainly salt bush, south of the line is mallee scrub (mallee trees being slender multi-stemmed eucalypts).

Years with good rains led settlers to move north, subsequent droughts broke their hearts and brought them back. The ruins of abandoned farm houses dot the South Australian countryside.

Goyder's Line
Goyder’s Line

We stopped at Burra, a very picturesque town that started out as a single company mining town exploiting a large copper deposit. The mine began operations in 1848 and was largely worked out by 1877 although it operated occasionally until 1981. This was our chance to buy fresh food. Whilst the lovely Gayle shopped I ran around with the camera …

Burra SA

Burra SA

Burra SA

Here we parted from Goyder’s highway which runs northwest from to Crystal Brook. We would head pretty much due north into the arid zone our destination a classic example of drought versus dreams … Farina.

Farina …

After leaving Burra our route took us through Peterborough and Hawker and then north along the corridor between the Flinders Ranges and Lake Torrens.

Edward Eyre came this way on his first South Australian expedition in 1839 and then explored the region more thoroughly in 1840. Lake Torrens is an enormous salt lake stretching 250 km north south with an average width of 30 km. Eyre tried to cross it with horses but found it impossible. From the height of the Flinders Ranges he saw more of the same shiny white mud to the east and indistinctly to the north. Forced to retreat by lack of water he took with him the erroneous belief that Lake Torrens was horse-shoe shaped blocking passage to the north.

John McDouall Stuart from 1858 onward led six expeditions that culminated in the first return crossing of the continent. Stuart’s track runs west of Lake Torrens, we were taking a short cut and would intersect it in due course.

At Lyndhurst we made a brief side trip up the Strzelecki Track to search for the Chestnut-breasted Whiteface. One of our party had not seen this elusive little bird despite several past attempts so we took him to a spot where Gayle and I had had success on previous occasions. We searched on foot until the afternoon wore on. And he didn’t see it once again.

We arrived at Farina as the sun neared the horizon.

A number of things had conspired to draw people north from Adelaide. As dry as it is, cattle and sheep can be grazed in the hinterland, a railway is a good means to transport them to market. The route chosen for the new fangled telegraph that would connect South east Australia to the outside world was Mr Stuart’s route from Adelaide to the north coast. And of course, the science was settled, plough the earth, plant your crops and the rain would come, a theory promoted by scientists of the day such as the noted American climatologist Cyrus Thomas. The settlement here was founded in 1878 as Government Gums. Its name was changed to Farina to reflect the intention to grow wheat. It grew to reach a peak population of approximately 600 in the late 1800s. It was the rail head for a time. In its heyday, the town had two hotels (the Transcontinental and the Exchange) and an underground bakery, a bank, two breweries, a general store, an Anglican church, five blacksmiths, a school and a brothel. No wheat was grown. All that remains today are the ruins and the cemetery.

We pulled into the camp site. The first thing to catch my attention was a magnificent Black-breasted Buzzard. Life can impose some cruel choices upon us. With just minutes of the photographer’s golden hour remaining … the ruins or the bird?

BBBu

As it happened there would be a gibbous moon …

Farina

Farina

and another golden hour in the morning

Farina by day

but I actually prefer the night shots.

I thoroughly recommend the Farina camp ground, showers, clean toilets, scenic and just $5 per person per night.

 

En route at last …

It has been a very wet winter. We had been watching the weather closely for a month or so. Rain had closed the roads to the Simpson Desert repeatedly. We had gone so far as to make alternate plans – the Nullarbor surely would be dry.

Plan A would take us across the French Line to Poeppel’s Corner and then south via the Warburton Track to the Birdsville Track near Mungerannie. The Warburton River was not in the mood to cooperate. Plan B was to head to Birdsville instead. But before you can cross the desert you have to get there.

The party assembled in the Victorian Goldfields on the 12th of August. The quartet was Mark and Will, both professional biologists thrilled to get into the field without the burden of their jobs to consider, the lovely Gayle and myself. After last minute packing we set off the next morning.

During the day we crossed the South Australian border into the Riverland. Quarantine restrictions are in force to protect the region’s agriculture. Honey, fresh fruit and vegetables are forbidden. Canned, processed and freeze-dried foods are OK as are meat, eggs, dairy products, nuts, mushrooms and seeds. Potatoes are forbidden, sweet potatoes are permitted, the rules are somewhat convoluted. If arriving from Tasmania (presumably by plane) you may take date palms but coming from Victoria we must leave our date palms behind. Soil is forbidden no matter what … how do Tasmanian date palms get on in hydroponics?

A little over 600 km later we camped for the night in the South Australian Mallee.

 

SAMallee

Not far from our camp we found the excavations of the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat. This is a creature that mines on a grand scale. Their burrows are interconnected into warrens that are shared by as many as ten wombats. We staked out a burrow and hoped that as night fell one would choose this particular exit. Despite considerable patience (two beers at least) we were not rewarded. However, a return visit later in the night surprised one above ground. It didn’t stay long.

It was one very cold night.