The rough stuff: Vanning the Oodnadatta Track

By: Michael Browning, Photography by: Michael Browning


Michael and Wendy Browning start their Kimberley Adventure by crossing SA's famed Oodnadatta Track.

The rough stuff: Vanning the Oodnadatta Track
The rough stuff: Vanning the Oodnadatta Track

GETTING TO THE outskirts of WA’s stunning Kimberley region from any major Australian city is an easy adventure for most caravanners, as long as they have some time to spare.

Contrary to some popular beliefs, you don’t need an expensive offroad setup and, apart from the odd set of roadworks, some caravan parks and a couple of roadside stops, your wheels will barely need to leave the bitumen.

But taking the bitumen is not really at the heart of the Kimberley and its vast and varied 423,000 sq km. To get there with a van, you do need something more that can handle some rough road conditions.

Our "something more" is a 2011 Jayco Expanda with Nissan’s diesel Pathfinder to haul it.


From our Melbourne starting point, there was really no need to take anything other than the sealed and straight Stuart Highway for the 1000km run from Port Augusta to Alice Springs. However, the enticing adventure alternative of SA’s famed Oodnadatta Track proved too much to resist.

Like all outback roads, this unsealed stretch from Lyndhurst to Marla is an inconsistent one. Depending on the weather, the season and the timing of the graders that ply its 684km during the dry season, it can be a highway or a goat track.

Fortunately, it was more of a highway for us. The late-May start of our trip had given the graders time to tidy up the track after recent heavy rains in northern SA.

These rains, incidentally, provided another perfect excuse to take the track: the opportunity to view Lake Eyre in all its glory, full of water, with abundant bird life and even some opportunistic water sportsmen.

Although the bitumen stops at Lyndhurst, it is Marree, 77km further north, that is the track’s official starting point. It its early days, Marree was frequented by the Afghan camel drivers who used it as a major stopover for the supplies they delivered from Adelaide to Alice Springs and beyond.

The Oodnadatta Track also runs very close to the Old Ghan railway line that closed in 1980, as well as the Overland Telegraph that connected the rest of Australia with England through a single wire from 1872, becoming one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 19th century.

While only remnants of these communication lines remain today, any trip along the track provides a fascinating insight into a time when travelling Australia was a true pioneering experience.

To think that the route today could be traversed by city folk with a comfortable caravan would have been far beyond the wildest dreams of our early pioneers.


Thanks to the graders that had preceded us over the previous weeks, the track was in excellent condition and we had to work hard to keep our cruising speed down to a sensible 85km/h.

About 30km from the Borefield Road turnoff to Roxby Downs, the well-preserved buildings of the Curdimurka Siding become visible. These beautiful buildings were restored some years ago by the Ghan Railway Preservation Society. Closing mid-winter darkness meant we were unable to explore the site in detail, but as a form of compensation we found our way into the delightful Coward Springs campground shortly after sunset.

Coward Springs is home to the famous mound springs, formed when water from the Great Artesian Basin rises to the surface from deep in the earth. In days gone by, there was a pub, hospital and railway siding at Coward Springs, but little of anything remains today. However, there is a camping area (with limited facilities) which can get very busy in peak season.


Early the following morning we motored the final 88km into William Creek. Being so close to Lake Eyre, and especially after reports of flooding rains, we had to have a look at this rare sight. We decided to unhitch the van for the 63km access road off the Oodnadatta Track and make the day trip in the 4WD alone.

It turned out to be a good call. The road in was so rough in parts that it caused our first equipment failure, when the spring steel mast for our CB radio snapped at the base from the constant whipping on the corrugations.

Once at the nearby Halligans Bay, there was really not too much to see, except a vast expanse of muddy grey water that stretched all the way to the horizon. However, some fish bones and other fossils at the water’s edge provided some interesting fossicking.

But the trip was worth it. Even when muddy and grey, this inland sea is a wondrous phenomenon. And seeing a lone kite boarder skimming across the shallow surface is quite a sight.

Much like the lake itself, the camp area is exposed and often windy, and has only basic facilities. You could get an offroad van in there if you wanted to, although the road is not recommended for caravans and could cause damage.

From William Creek, the track makes its way a further 199km north-east to the outpost town of Oodnadatta, passing a number of relics of the Old Ghan and Telegraph Line along the way.

About 85km north of William Creek we passed the remains of the Edward Creek Siding on the Old Ghan line. We managed a good look at the water softening tanks that used to be necessary because the bore water was too hard to be used in the locomotives.

Further along the track you’ll find the monument erected in memory of famous outback explorer Ernest Giles. The track to this memorial also leads on to the Peake Telegraph Station ruins, made up of several old stone buildings. Back on the track, the ruins of the Peake Creek Siding can be seen as you cross Peake Creek.

A little further upstream is the Algebuckina Bridge which, at 578m long, is the largest bridge ever constructed in SA. Officially opened in 1892, the bridge was originally
built to carry the Ghan rail track. A small site at the northern end marks the graves of the handful of workers who died during its construction.

To the east of the bridge is a track to the Algebuckina Waterhole, where there is a designated camping area. Then, after passing the Mount Dutton Ruins and several campsites along the Neales River, you arrive at Oodnadatta, which has a population of about 200.

Once situated on the Ghan line, Oodnadatta is best known today for its famous, garish Pink Roadhouse, established in 1983 by local characters Adam and Lynnie Plate.

Both Adam and Lynnie are legendary authorities on the region, its various tracks and local history. The couple’s Pink Roadhouse is a place you can really spend some time, but since it was only just after lunchtime, we decided to press on.


The track’s final 192km run to Marla proved much rougher and stonier than the preceding sections. The constant tinkle of stones hitting the Expanda’s gas bottles and lightly-protected face told us our mud flaps were working overtime – even at conservative speeds.

We arrived in Marla at close to sunset and spent the night at the excellent Marla campground behind the roadhouse. The following morning, we built up the courage to survey the damage to our rig. The pool of water below the van’s rear water tank confirmed our worst fears.

Sharp stones had smashed off the exposed plastic drainage pipes that lead from the shower and sink to behind the driver’s side rear wheel. Worse still, two of the rubber hoses from the tank had split and needed replacing. There was also evidence of stone chipping on the lower front section of the van and the A-frame and external water tap had taken a rock pounding.

Given we were now looking at heading north towards potentially rougher roads in the NT and WA on just one water tank, repairs were required. So after making Alice Springs our next base, we visited the aptly-named Caravan Repairs, where the proprietor took one look at the damage and gave us a knowing "seen it all before" smile.

"Happens all the time," he informed us. So, after paying our $220 repair bill, we were on our way north again, bound for the Kimberley via the often notorious, and also iconic, Tanami Toad.

But that’s another story.

WORDS AND PICS Michael Browning
Source: Caravan World Aug 2011

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