As I wanted to take photos in the late afternoon light of Alyce and her family, we opted to stay two nights at Merna Mora, giving us a day to explore one of the station’s 4WD tracks available to visitors. On our Flinders Ranges trip a few years ago I had wanted to stay at Merna Mora (I’m assuming on the recommendation/connection of Alyce!) but we were staying in at Wilpena Pound. Now we had the chance to explore the western Flinders. We meandered over the Bunbinyunna Range, towards the western face of Wilpena Pound, and looking out towards the Elder Range and Lake Torrens.
There were a few short walks to lookouts along the way which tested out little legs, getting them match fit for the walks ahead in the coming months. Through pretty dry creeks beds and crawling up some steep gullies, the country of the Flinders Ranges is beautiful in how it changes rapidly and is quite diverse when you stop to soak it in. We had lunch at the recommended stop, at some yards/goat trap, before making our way back down to the homestead in time for a late afternoon photo session.
Unfortunately, Alyce’s mum Kaye had to let us know that Alyce and her little fam-bam had had to head back to Port Augusta whilst we were out – Alyce had a terrible tooth ache and had to get to a doctor, the poor thing! These things can’t be helped though, a case of bad timing and bad luck on both our behalves. I am definitely hoping to get back to either Merna Mora or Port Augusta to catch up for some photos…eventually!
The change in plans meant that we had time for another 4WD right on the beautiful golden hour of dusk though, so set off on the Heritage trail, into neighbouring Mern Merna Station and to the site of an old school building and along the old Ghan line. The girls explored the old culvert tunnels and bridges, built in the 1880’s, quite amazing how well they have stood the ravages of the harsh environment out here.
That night we had our first fire after Matt and the girls walked up the creek bed we were camped on to scrounge some wood. It was still cold, with the girls rugged up in their thermals in Tilly, but not freezing. Kaye had said to us how unseasonably warm it was – lucky us not having to get out the hot water bottles stashed under the bed in Tilly! The next morning we tried to get a move on fairly early, as there were hot showers available so Matt took Eleanor and I took Harriet for a quick scrub and hair wash before we hit the road north – who knew when we’d next have a hot shower!
First stop was always going to be the Parachilna pub – a true outback icon. The girls were excited to have hot chips and a special treat of lemonade! I think they’ve had lemonade maybe a handful of times for Eleanor, maybe once or twice for Harriet?! And of course, Harriet didn’t even touch hers and didn’t seem to like it – ha! Onwards north…
Our rough plan was to hopefully get up to Marree and possibly out to the edges of Lake Eyre South to camp for the night (just to tick it off the list, been there! There would be no water to be seen). But after a late start and stop at the pub, it became pretty clear we wouldn’t be making it that far, a quick pull into the old Farina historic township found a great big campsite. Home for the night.
In the morning we explored the old town of Farina (would you believe named the Italian for ‘flour’ because early thoughts were this would be a grain growing region?!) Life in this place I couldn’t quite fathom, let alone over a hundred years ago. Farina would have to be one of the most desolate places I’ve ever been…there was quite simply nothing out there. The conditions of the morning didn’t help, a freezing howling wind was blowing a gale, making it inhospitable to say the least.
Further north we traveled, through Leigh Creek, which as soon as I drove past the airstrip I realised I had definitely been to before. As a kid my Dad would fly my sister, mum and I around Australia on holidays. I remember vividly, more so now being back in Leigh Creek, that we had spent a night or two here unexpectedly after Dad had to await a part for the plane. Matt had phone service in Leigh Creek so I gave Dad a quick call to confirm, yep, we had definitely spent a few days in Leigh Creek as kids, waiting for a fuel tank issue to be sorted (kind of important!) On we went to Marree and another pub! More chips and beer (and coffee for Mummy!) here, we weren’t making a regular feature of pub meals but so far we thought we couldn’t pass up a pub meal in some of these iconic outback hotels! The Canadian bartender even rustled up some babycinos for the girls, I’m not sure he’d made any before as I had to give some instruction – probably not a regular feature of the Marree pub’s front bar. From Marree we started the real deal Oodnadatta track, an Aussie icon…and the nothingness and barren, isolation is really quite something. If there is such a place as the middle of nowhere…I believe we found it somewhere between Marree and Oodnadatta. So. Much. Nothingness.
We passed by the lower edge of Lake Eyre South, getting a glimpse of the water edges of the famous ‘inland sea’. Onto some outback art sculptures (the Australian sense of humour definitely is alive and well on the Oodnadatta track) and lots of stops for Daddy to look at random railway sidings of the old Ghan line and minute little detail which the girls slept through mostly. We were headed for Coward Springs, a little campground by one of the hot springs of the Great Artesian Basin, which my best friend’s brother had recommended to us to stay at. Low and behold, the Coward Springs campground didn’t disappoint. As (another Insta-friend!) Caroline said: “The prettiest outback dunnies in Australia!”
Just before Coward Springs we pulled in to two other springs nearby, quite simply amazing how this water bubbles up out of the Earth to such a barren landscape – and breathes life instantly. I tried my best to explain all this to Eleanor, of course not much sinks into a four year old’s head…but maybe it did? She was just pretty impressed with the ramps to run up and down! In the howling wind, mind you. Gosh, this landscape and environment is a harsh, harsh mistress.
At Coward Springs we camped next a friendly couple who were headed south, unlike us headed north. The usual campsite banter, where are you from? “Oh, Gippsland!”…they were from Tyers (near Traralgon, not far from us in Thorpdale). Of course, in the middle of nowhere, Gippslanders! The spring itself had been built into a ‘natural spa’ – pretty cool for a desolate place with weary travellers looking for a relaxing spot to pull up! We’d gotten to camp pretty late though, so decided to go for a dip in the morning…
Well, that night Tilly rocked and rolled and shook with the howling winds only possible across those Gibber plains. Holy moly! In the morning it was decided we had to eat breakfast inside Tilly, poor Harriet couldn’t even stand up outside, she kept being blown away! So a swim sounded pretty unappetising, getting in and out of wet bathers in a dust storm. The whole scenario was a bit unappetising to be honest, unfortunate as usually I could see Coward Springs being a beaut little camp spot along an otherwise mundane stretch of…nothingness.
Oodnadatta was our next port of call, after a lunch stop at a big ol’ bridge built for the Ghan to cross – so amazing, 500m span, built 140 years ago in the middle of The Nothingness I was still wrapping my head around. We stopped at Oodnadatta to get some fuel ($2— /litre, ouch) and get the obligatory photo out the front of the pink roadhouse. It was actually spitting rain, a light sprinkling which may as well have been monsoonal out here in this environment! I don’t think many people can say they’ve driven past the pink roadhouse with their windscreen wipers on – the average rainfall for Oodnadatta is about 100mm (at home ours is 800-1000mm!)
More driving. More gibber plains. More nothingness. The sheer enormity of the nothingness was a beauty to behold in itself. Until you come out here and experience the vastness, it’s quite hard to describe or articulate. It’s big. And barren. Just this big, gaping, void in the centre of our country.
But then, the country started to change, ever so slightly. The smattering of rain probably helped things a little too. We started to see a few more cattle, horses, even our first dingoes, as we inched closer to our destination for the day: Dalhousie Springs, on the very edge of the Simpson Desert…