South Australia (Outback Region)
is one of the few remaining outback towns that hasn't lost its character
to the great god Progress. Its name stems from the Aborigine 'Utnadata'
meaning 'blossom of the mulga.' The long cattle
track that followed the trail of explorer John McDouall Stuart into
Australia's dead heart bears its name.
Unless you stay long enough to meet some locals, you’ll probably feel that, like Marree, OODNADATTA survived the Ghan’s closure with little to show for it. A few logically arranged but untidy streets lacking atmosphere or purpose, Oodnadatta was founded as a railhead in 1890, and mail and baggage for further north had to make do with camel trains from here until the line to Alice Springs was completed in 1928.
Now that has gone, the town has become a base for the Aranda community – utnadata (“mulga blossom”) is the Aranda name for a local waterway.
Oodnadatta is the starting point for trips into the Simpson Desert. The road from the town to the Stuart Highway and Cadney Homestead passes through the Painted Desert or the Arckaringa Hills. After rain you’ll even need a 4WD for the last slippery kilometre into town, past the racecourse. If your visit coincides with the race weekend in May, helicopters will be circling the track on the left, trying to dry it out, and the town will be deserted, so stop at the track, buy a pass and join in. With neat clothes and some sort of tie, you’ll even get into the “formal” ball afterwards.
Camp at the Pink Roadhouse, unless the relative luxury of a bed at the Oodnadatta Hotel appeals. The roadhouse acts as a store, bank, post office and café, and sells detailed sketch maps of the area. The hotel holds the key to the Railway Museum opposite, where you’ll find a strangely timeless photographic record of the town – scenes are hard to date because so little seems to have changed. Stock up with provisions and then check in at the police station (tel 08/8670 7805) for a report on the roads and next fuel supplies if you plan to head north towards Dalhousie Springs and the Simpson Desert (4WD only), or west to the Stuart Highway at Coober Pedy or Marla.
North of Oodnadatta
you don’t follow the track out to the Stuart Highway, the area north of
Oodnadatta is strictly for ambitious four-wheel driving, with Dalhousie
Springs in the Witjira National Park
a worthwhile destination, or the Simpson Desert
for the ultimate challenges. The route directly north, initially towards
Finke and the Northern Territory,
is fairly good for 4WDs as far as Hamilton Homestead (110km),
though Fogarty’s Claypan, over halfway, might present a sticky
From Hamilton the direct route east to Dalhousie Springs, shown on some maps, is now closed; take the longer route via Eringa ruins (160km) and Bloods Creek bore on the edge of Witjira National Park. From there you can detour 30km north to Mount Dare Homestead (fuel, accommodation, food and provisions). In winter the homestead is busy with groups of 4WDs arriving from or departing for the desert crossing; it’s at least 550km to the next fuel stop at Birdsville in Queensland. Mount Dare’s archetypally laconic owner Phil Hellyer sometimes has work for backpackers on the station. From the homestead it’s a rough and bleak drive to Dalhousie Springs. The explorer Giles crossed through in the 1870s, before the artesian basin had been extensively tapped by pastoralists, and described the scene:
The ground we had been traversing abruptly disappeared, and we found ourselves on the brink of limestone cliffs … From the foot of these stretched an almost illimitable expanse of – welcome sight – waving green reeds, with large pools of water at intervals, and dotted with island cones topped with reeds or acacia bushes.
Though reeds and water are less lavishly distributed today, Giles’ account still rings true. The collection of over one-hundred mound springs form Arabian-like oases, an impression enhanced by the green circle of date palms clustered around many of the pools. The largest spring, next to the campsite (which has a solar-powered phone), is cool enough to swim in and hot enough to unkink your back. What survives of the vegetation simmers with birdlife: budgerigars, galahs, and the eye-catching purple, blue and red fairy wren. As nothing flows into the springs, the presence of fish – some, like the Dalhousie hardyhead, unique to the system – has prompted a variety of improbable explanations. One theory is that fish eggs were swept up in dust storms and later fell with rain at Dalhousie, but it’s more likely that fish were brought in during an ancient deluge or that the population survives from when the area was an inland sea.
While the main springs area is flat and trampled by years of abuse from campers and cars, trudging out to other groups over the salt and samphire-bush flats armed with a packed lunch and camera gives you an idea of what Giles was describing, and a good overview of the region from the top of well-formed, overgrown mounds. More views can be had from the stony hills to the west, and from Dalhousie Homestead, 16km south of the springs along the Pedirka road. The homestead was abandoned after the Ghan line was laid down, and today the stone walls, undermined by rabbit burrows, are gradually falling apart in the extreme climate.