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We didn't 'Planet'! One camper van. Two blokes. Four weeks. What could go wrong?

Following the Camel Toe Trail

AUSTRALIA | Thursday, 29 March 2007 | Views [4850] | Comments [1]

We opted for the slow drive through Flinders Ranges National Park, which would eventually reunite us with the road north. Much of the bumpy road is along dry creek-beds that, during floods, rise by two metres or more. For this reason, unless you have a wheeled submarine, it is best tackled during drier times.

What the Flinders lose in elevation is more than made up for by their rugged beauty; and after days of featureless outback, a few hills are a welcome sight. The road guided us through the Aroona Valley and steep sided Parachilna Gorge, their mixture of Quartzite and Iron Oxide rock glowing pink in the late afternoon sunshine. The 100km diversion is a worthwhile drive if you have time to spare. There are no services along the way, but plenty of opportunities for camping. We had earlier been recommended a great pub at nearby Parachilna, and had absolutely no intention of going any further than that tonight.

Rejoining the bitumen road, we had spectacular views of the northern reaches of Flinders Ranges, before pulling in at the Prairie Hotel. Minutes later, we had a cold schooner of Toohey’s each, and a barman eagerly manning the pumps. After the days driving and hiking, it went without saying that travel was over for another shift.

With further investigation, we discovered that the Prairie Hotel is actually part of the town, population five, that goes by the name of Parachilna. The dusty main drag, directly outside, separates the hotel from an enclosure that passes as a caravan park, two gas pumps and not a lot else. The town acts as a hub for deliveries to the various stations that occupy the surrounding outback; on this evening, a road train was offloading a new generator set and washing machine onto a farmers ute. Running alongside the highway now, and for our next few days of travel, is the old Ghan Railway. Commissioned in 1878, it linked Adelaide to the remote interior, terminating in Alice Springs. It is a story of a harsh land, of rail buckling heat, sand drifts and devastating floods. During WWII, weekly trains jumped from three to fifty six, as troops and supplies were sent north to counter the Japanese threat.

The majority of this route has now fallen into disrepair or been torn up for scrap, but a 500km section from Leigh Creek coalfield runs to Port Augusta power station, along which trundles daily the worlds longest coal train. Luckily for us, it passed through on this evening and we were able to stand right by the track. Pulled by three huge locomotives, the 2.4 km long train hauled its 14,218 Tonne load by at 70 kph. It went on for a very long time. Even the locals came out to watch; and they live here all the time!

The Prairie Hotel is not the sort of place you would expect to find out here. The high-class establishment is quite well known for its richly appointed rooms, which go for a solid price per night. The menu has a well deserved reputation, albeit well above the usual backpacker budget. Matt and I splurged out on Kangaroo and Emus steaks. The cosy little bar plays host to a mixed bunch of clientele most nights of the week. Tonight, we chatted with middle aged Canadians on a self-drive tour, a farmer and the barman himself who was born here, lived and travelled Europe before returning. We also met Simo, another farmer from SA/VIC border country, who had taken to driving a truck to help his brother complete a lucrative haulage contract. A huge character both vertically and the other, he reminded me of a truckie I met in Queensland a few years ago, who could balance a beer on his massive belly when behind the wheel! Simo was hauling double road-train trailers full of rock spoil from a mining operation to Adelaide for export. Six nights each week the hotel also picks up trade from passing tour operators on the Adelaide to Alice Springs run, and so there is usually a cosmopolitan bunch of backpackers thrown into the melting pot – a bonus for the lonely farmers I suspect!

The following morning, feeling more than a little shabby, we turned onto the road north for Lake Eyre. Notwithstanding any distractions along the way, it was only 150km to Marree and then a further 100km to the lake itself. So long as we behaved ourselves, conceivably today could be the day. At this stage, the landscape has become more barren than I had expected. The red stony surface bakes under a relentless sun, broken only by the very occasional brittle acacia bush and little else.

At Leigh Creek we came across the huge open cut coal mine that fills the train mentioned earlier. The spoil heaps that surround it were visible as far as the eye could see, and we drove for around 40km alongside them before finally turning off to the mine itself. It seemed worth a visit, many of these places have guided tours on offer. Unfortunately, they have a new man on the job that has yet to get his driving license, or so they said. I found it a little annoying that a large company can organise a big money making operation like this, but not spare one person for public relations. Still, we found a viewing area nearby, along with some old machines to play on, but they kept us well away from the action.

The Aussies call them towns, but I prefer settlement; and each one we have found so far gets smaller the further we go. Marree then is the smallest of the lot, with a population of just eighty. It sits on the southern end of the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks, and was a major centre for the Afghan camel trains that plied the outback from the 1870’s. It was also a stop on the old Ghan Railway, which still runs through the centre of the settlement. Much of the track has ghan (sorry), but the platform still loyally awaits the arrival of the next continental train. Outside are three of the old locomotives, iron Camels of the desert, stranded at the end of the line. There exists here a real “edge of the world” feel, and the settlement seems sad that this once great route now follows a different course. The last one rattled through on 31st December 1980, but the memory lives on to this day.

We had a beer in the Marree Hotel, a beautiful old building whose size betrays former busier times. The landlord shared valuable information on the state of the road to Lake Eyre, and suggested a nice camp along the way. He told us about an eccentric who sails his yacht on the salt lake whenever it floods. The rest of the time, well, the majority of the time actually, he stores it in a shed with a sign saying “Lake Eyre Yacht Club”. Typical Aussie irony when you consider our distance from the sea, and how rarely there is any water in the lake.

With a full tank of gas, water replenished and good information obtained, we headed up the Madigan track with the aim of reaching the Muloorina waterhole (not a pub). A sleep there would put us in a great position for an early morning assualt on our objective - Lake Eyre.

What on earth am I doing here? Check out my own website, following me as I tried to get from UK to NZ without flying over the last two years.

Tags: ambassador van, on the road



I've done a bit of trevelling in the outback and I still can't get over those flies. You guys must have hit the jackpot! ... or not showered in the last two weeks

  crustyadventures Apr 1, 2007 10:04 AM

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