The Oodnadatta Track

At home we used to have a collection of National Geographic magazines going way back to the 70s; the earliest issue I remember was from 1979, and the cover feature was “Walk Across America”, about a man who had walked coast to coast across the US. The picture showed him wearing a backpack, baseball cap and brown flares, dating the image immediately, as he headed along some road across the Prairie. Inside, the adverts were equally historic: black and white photographs of microwaves with dials instead of buttons; enormous television sets with a tiny screen surrounded by acres of oak panelling; gigantic American cars pictured in a variety of US beauty spots: Lincoln, Cadillac, Buick. America was huge, I decided, and so was everything in it. Somewhere in that issue was a feature on Australian Aborigines, with many pictures of rock art and dancers attired in the white body paint of ceremonies. I remember one picture in particular – it was of a lizard, shot from a lizard’s eye viewpoint with the camera on the ground. Just behind it an Aborigine woman charged towards it with a large stick held aloft. The caption, with the characteristically folksy style that dominated the magazine at that time, stated: “One lizard’s lucky day. The goanna got away, so this Aborigine woman of Oodnadatta, South Australia, settled for a store-bought meal instead”.

Oodnadatta. It held the record high temperature for Australia, 50.7 degrees C (123.3 F), and wryly proclaimed itself “The driest town in the driest state on the driest continent”. I wondered where exactly it was, and found it on the accompanying map – a small black dot in an expanse of beige, connected to another distant black dot marked Marree by a dashed red line, under which were the words “Oodnadatta Track”. What kind of track? A road through the desert? An ancient walking path from the Dreamtime that followed an Aborigine songline? The magazine failed to say. But my curiosity was piqued by this strange world where women clubbed lizards to death for dinner in preference to the convenience of “a store-bought meal”, then chucked them whole on a fire (assuming of course that the goanna hadn’t got away).

The Oodnadatta Track is one of the three great Outback tracks through South Australia, the others being the Birdsville Track, which heads to the tiny hamlet of Birdsville in Queensland that comes alive once a year for the surreal Birdsville Races, and the Strzelecki Track, named after Polish explorer Pawel Strzelecki who had himself named Australia’s highest mountain Mt Kosciuszko, after a Polish national hero. The Strzelecki was described in the guidebook as “the least interesting of the Outback tracks… stretching from Lyndhurst to Innamincka… rough as guts, heavily corrugated and treacherous after rain.” It was also 4WD only, as was the Birdsville Track. But there on the map, snaking down from the Stuart Highway at Marla to Marree, just north of Flinders Ranges National Park, was the Oodnadatta Track, described as being in good condition, motorable in a 2WD car, and heading in exactly the direction that we wanted to go. We decided to give it a shot.

According to Google Maps, it was a ten-and-a-half hour drive from Uluru, where we were, to Oodnadatta. This seemed ambitious, but do-able. Neither of us were particularly keen on heading back down the Stuart Highway for three days, via Coober Pedy again, and then heading back up from Adelaide on another road to get to Flinders Ranges. We filled the water container in the boot, checked tyre pressures, fuelled up in Yulara, and hit the road once more, heading for Erldunda, a small roadhouse on the Stuart Highway just before the border with South Australia. The driving was monotonous – set the cruise control to 130 (80mph) and just point the car south. The occasional road train heading south provided the only break in the tedium – cruise control off, move out to the other side of the road, speed past and then settle back into the rhythm. Eventually Erldunda appeared, and we pulled in, fuelled up yet again, and had a look round the attached cafe. Everything on the menu appeared to be fried. They even had fish and chips, which, given that we were about as far from the sea as it was possible to get in Australia, lacked a certain appeal. In the event we ended up having a picnic out of the boot of the car – sandwiches with “Tasty” cheese (I’ve often wondered just how bland the other kind is), smeared on with a Swiss Army Knife that was becoming oleaginous with margarine. South once more, heading out of the Territory, and we began to encounter signs saying “Welcome to South Australia”. There were several, so it was quite difficult to know exactly where the border was; one sign was a kind of billboard montage of Adelaide by night, the gleaming skyscrapers and artist-impression cityscape providing a strange contrast to the howling wilderness we were actually in. Another sign warned of quarantine ahead – the usual bins for contraband fruit and vegetables which were prohibited from being transported across state borders. We had some illicit strawberries, bought in Yulara, as well as a contraband orange, but, while we had been conscientious enough to deposit some bananas in the bin on our way up, we were now hardened offenders, and blithely drove past the quarantine while I kept an eye on the mirror for some fruit and veg Highway Patrol car pursuing us.

By now it was late afternoon, and after a quick turn around the car park at Marla and coffee out of a machine, we turned off the main road at a gigantic signpost proclaiming the start of the Oodnadatta Track. Adjacent to it was another road departments sign with sliding notifications about the condition of the road – all of them read “Open” in green. We were good to go. We bumped over a cattle grid and hit the dirt. The surface was pretty good at first, and we cruised along at 90kmh, throwing up a long plume of red dust behind us. Cows watched bemused from the scrubland that stretched away all around us. Another cattle grid was signposted, and we had to slow right down for it as there was a sharp concrete lip several inches high before it. The landscape was vast, and I was reminded of an account I had seen by a German soldier describing what it felt like to cross Russia during the second world war. He said that he was from a small village in the south of Germany, hemmed in by mountains, and this was the first time he had seen land that just went on like a sea, the slight undulation meaning that you never saw the horizon. Weeks and weeks they went on, in an unchanging landscape, and the other troops became melancholic, a kind of depression setting in that they would never get anywhere, the scale of the land pressing down on them like a weight under the dome of the sky, diminishing their presence to that of an ant walking up a beach. It felt similar. That sense of space which can seem like freedom to visitors from more crowded countries like the UK can begin to weigh upon you, as if you’ll never escape from it – the land will just go on and on forever, and you’ll never make any progress across it.

We could, though, measure our progress in the passage of time. The glare of mid-afternoon had subsided, and the shadows were lengthening. The sky was changing, darkening and becoming softer at the edges, and the colours had shifted from the bold burnt umber and ultramarine of noon to a subtler, flat wash of watercolour in gunmetal grey and blue. The landscape changed subtly too, almost too imperceptibly to notice until it had already happened, and you realised that the gum trees were beginning to clump more closely together, or that the endless rise of the distant horizon was in fact beginning to descend and your view was extended. We came, abruptly, to a bend in the road with a few buildings around it, and stopped, shocked by signs of habitation. Creeping forward again we saw a battered sign by the road, which read, simply: Oodnadatta.

Coming down the main street we inspected the dilapidated houses with some misgiving. Three wrecked cars lay in various stages of dismemberment outside a low clap-board house. On the porch was a sofa from whose carcass springs erupted. There was a small general store which appeared to be shut, and a lone petrol pump which wasn’t connected to anything. The outline of an old traction engine lay off to the left; was it really possible that it had been abandoned at a time when such things ran, and was still here, preserved by the desert climate? We passed a pub which looked like a shack; four Aborigines sat outside, all wearing beanie hats pulled low against the gathering chill of evening. It looked like a shebeen in some South African township. Towards the other end of town we saw a sign for The Pink Roadhouse – the focal point of Oodnadatta – and headed down an alley to the caravan park where we had booked a cabin for the night.

A series of small portakabins stood around a dusty courtyard. There were a few other 4WD vehicles here and there – one, in the very centre of the courtyard looking equipped to handle almost anything. It was an old Toyota Land Cruiser with sand ladders on the side, a heavy duty winch, and what looked to be a tent on the roof. A couple of Australian guys in their 50s were sitting in camping chairs next to it and gave us a wave as we drove in. There was a kitchen area nearby which essentially resembled a looted shack; it was open to the elements on three sides, and contained a microwave oven, toaster and a kettle. That was it – no pots and pans, no cutlery, no stove. A foul-smelling sink dripped in the corner. We had tins of food in the back of the car, but nothing to cook them in. Even the standby of instant noodles was going to be a problem with no bowl. I contemplated sticking them directly into the kettle and boiling it, and perhaps fashioning a fork out of an old stick (wouldn’t be the first time). Fortunately at that point the Australian guys wandered over. “How ya goin’?” They saw our dilemma, and offered to lend us plates, forks and so on. This was a lifesaver, so dinner that night was nasi goreng flavour noodles, a cheese sandwich, and some toast and Tasmanian honey. I remembered the Tim Tams and offered them round by way of thanks.

Bob and Rob (or similar) were both in their 50s and had driven down from the Queensland coast via the Birdsville Track. One was a surveyor, the other an artist, and they drove around the outback in search of projects to survey and draw. They were admirably self-sufficient, but expressed mild disappointment at Oodnadatta. “We stopped off for a beer at the pub on the way into town,” Rob said. “It was alright.” The way he said alright spoke volumes. “Mostly Aborigines here,” he went on. “And by the look of it,” – he nodded round the kitchen – “they’ve pretty much stripped the place.” It was the usual problem of travel in the developing world: an impoverished local population, and a bunch of (relatively) wealthy tourists camping right in the middle. There was an atmosphere that night of somehow circling the wagons, watching out for each other, which may or may not have been entirely in our imaginations. As night fell there were strange sounds just over the wall, from the broken-down shacks that lay adjacent to the caravan park. An eerie whistling, like someone calling a dog, that went on and on, and then several loud crashes like things being smashed. Perhaps it was kids throwing stones onto an old corrugated iron roof. Either way it seemed like a rather ominous soundtrack given the circumstances. The portakabin rooms were clean and had towels and soap provided, but we made sure we locked the door that night and took everything out of the car.

In the morning we headed in to The Pink Roadhouse to check out. It was quite a surprise. An English girl was behind the counter, and there were rows on cakes on display, a coffee menu, all manner of outback souvenirs for sale, and several homemade maps of the track with tips on outback driving. A lone Aborigine man sat at a table as we came in, sipping from a bottle of Coke, so we greeted him. After a pause of about five seconds, he nodded in acknowledgement, then shuffled off outside. We got ourselves a couple of coffees, and the English girl showed us the town on the map. She’d moved there from Staffordshire – from rolling green hills to this flat, sun-blasted wilderness – and seemed determined to make the best of it. Back in the car once more we drove around the empty streets, the small houses shuttered against the glare. A lone figure was visible heading north along the road: it was the Aborigine man from the roadhouse, on a tricycle with a trailer, slowly pedalling along. We gave him a wave as we went by, and again five seconds passed before he raised a hand. I wondered what his story was. A former employee who had retired? Either way he was the only living soul we saw in Oodnadatta that morning, a small figure slowly riding away into the glare.

On the roadhouse map there was a circle just next to the dam on the road into town and the legend “Afghan Graves”. We must have driven straight past it the night before. The Afghans came as camel handlers in the 19th century, running long baggage trains of the animals to supply the growing settlements of the outback. Some accounts describe them as Indians, but in fact most were indeed Afghans from the south of that country – Helmand and Kandahar in particular – as well as Balochistan, which lies in present-day Pakistan. These men were used to harsh desert conditions, and lived in their own little neighbourhoods adjacent to the small settlements, building mosques and keeping largely to themselves. The camel trains continued until well into the 20th century, when increasingly they were replaced by the railway – still called the Ghan line today in honour of the Afghans. As Muslims, Afghans would not normally have been buried in the Christian cemeteries, but had a small area nearby marking their graves. The Afghan graves at Oodnadatta were set on high ground overlooking the dam, in a little fenced off area. There were no headstones visible – just mounds of broken rocks in the scorched earth – but it was possible to see that they were all in alignment and pointed towards Mecca. It was a melancholic spot. The hot desert wind fluted and moaned, throwing up small dust devils which whirled away like tornadoes. The ground was covered in dark stones with a shiny mineral patina from the heat of the sun. Nearby lay the mummified carcass of a horse, one leg stiffly held outward. Later, in the town of Marree, another Afghan settlement, we met an old railway worker who remembered the Afghans coming through town: the jingle of the camels’ harnesses, the men with turbans above wind-darkened faces speaking Pashto or Farsi, the slop of their sandalled feet through the sand. All gone now, only these few broken rocks as evidence that they were ever here.