Cinnamon-red mud splatters the windshield, and our van slides precariously sideways toward the ditch, righting just in time to keep us on the road. We don’t dare stop; the thick mud is as slick as ice, and deep enough that we would be stuck in seconds. Charles and I are driving the infamous Oodnadatta Track, which cuts through the heart of Australia’s Outback and traces the route of the old Ghan railway.
We decided to brave the track, sometimes notoriously rough and difficult, in our 14-year-old, 2-wheel-drive, Toyota HiAce van. We are prepared for the trip: the van carries enough water to float a small navy, food for a few weeks, spare tires and a jack. Still, I’m worried that our van, which we’ve owned for barely two weeks, won’t be up to the trip.
That morning, we watched, disappointed, as rain turned the start of the track into a muddy mess. Locals at the Oasis Cafe in the small Outback town of Marree warned us against heading out, muttering something about it being “suicide” to take the track in the rain. That was all that I need to hear, and we decided to wait it out. Three hours later, the rain stopped, and we were clear to go.
At first, the road was smooth, but the surface quickly turned to red ooze as we made our way from Marree towards the small town of William’s Creek. Now, we slip and slide in the red muck, past rusting hulks of abandoned railway sleepers from the Old Ghan Railway. Skeletons of unlucky road kill, bleached white by the relentless sun, line the roadsides. The scenery only gets more surreal as we travel past a bizarre collection of enormous metal sculptures by some unknown Outback artist. One sculpture is of an airplane suspended precariously on its tail.
After hours of slipping through the mud, Lake Eyre South appears to our right, an enormous salt-water flat that rarely floods. Today, the salt crust of the lake shimmers with heat, and the lake is bone dry, despite the earlier downpour.
As we pull a few hundred meters off the main road to get a closer look, we notice that our van is starting to puff out black smoke, and backfire ominously. This is not a place where you want to break down. Tourists die out here. All the time. We must be a hundred kilometers from the nearest town, and the sun beats down mercilessly, even in the middle of the Australian winter. Disturbingly, I start to recall tales of travellers who have broken down in the Outback and died of dehydration.
We pull back onto the track, and the van, now coated with about 100 kgs of brick-red mud, mercifully makes it to William Creek, population: ten hardy souls. The main street doubles as an airplane landing strip, and the gas station, pub, hotel, service station, and local restaurant are all housed in a building that looks about the same size as my parent’s garage back in Canada. William’s Creek is the hub for the Anna Creek Station, the biggest cattle station farms in Australia, with an area larger than Belgium.
The William Creek Hotel is everything that the Lonely Planet said it would be. The walls, ceiling, and bar are covered with business cards and driver’s licenses, and photos of spectacular 4-wheel-drive accidents. Gas is pricey this far from civilization.
As the van continues to cough and sputter, we decide to forgo the hundreds of kilometers remaining of the Oodnadatta Track, and make our way on the 164 km, relatively short, dirt road that leads to Coober Pedy. Leaving William Creek, the track quickly turns to corrugated washboard, and our poor van creaks and groans as we creep along at 50 km/hour. I am sure that pieces of our muffler and engine are being smashed off from the brutal impact of the ruts, but by some miracle our faithful van keeps moving forward.
I catch glimpses of the road, as I’m jolted up and down on my seat. Cattle from the Anna Creek Station appear suddenly around corners, forcing us to stop. There is nothing but red dust and corrugated road for miles, until we pass by a dusty and faded sign that points out the famous Great Dingo Fence. The fence is over 4,000 kilometers long, and built to keep dingos from preying on sheep in the Southern Australia.
I’m starting to feel like I can’t endure another second of the tooth-rattling impact when we first see the bitumen that leads the final few kilometers to Coober Pedy. We pull onto the smooth highway, and the desolate, surreal landscape of Coober Pedy, where Mad Max was filmed, seems like a lush, welcoming oasis.
This post is part of our flashback series, based on emails to friends and family from our first trip to Asia and Australia in 2003.
Check out this cool time lapse of the Oodnadatta track route:
The Oodnadatta Track, still unpaved, runs 671 km from the town of Marree to Marla in Southern Australia, passing through the outpost of William Creek. It was the original route of the legendary Ghan rialway. Before the Ghan, the track was an Aboriginal trading route. Today, it is much better maintained and traveled upon than when we were there however it is still considered an adventurous route.
If you’re planing to drive the Oodnadatta, you can find information on closures and warnings at the Department of South Australia. There’s some helpful information on driving the track at both Rita’s Outback Guide and Travel Outback Australia, and there’s a printable and mobile friendly guide on TripAdvisor.
While the Oodnadatta is said to be one of the easier off-road Outback routes, it’s still very remote, and the track is badly rutted in some sections and slippery when it rains. If your vehicle breaks down, you’re a long way from help, so make sure you have plenty of water and food and stay with your vehicle at all times.
Where to stay
How to get there
The nearest airport is in Adelaide, South Australia.