After Arkaroola, we headed over to the Oodnadatta Track! The Oodnadatta Track is basically a long dirt road on which the little town of Oodnadatta lies, and is considered to be one of the quintessential Outback tracks.
Leigh Creek is not technically on the Oodnadatta Track, but we had a brief stopover for supplies. It was exciting mainly because it was the first cell reception we’d had in quite a few days, and less exciting when we realized nothing was open because it happened to be the day the Melbourne Cup was on.
Farina Town is actually now just historic ruins. There was once a hotel there where drovers used to spend all their money on drinks. Being so dry, their water was triple used – drunk, then if any was left people could wash, then the water was used for any gardens. We drove by and stopped to eat some sandwiches.
There’s not much to see in Marree, but it’s the starting point of both the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks. The entire town was at the pub celebrating the Melbourne Cup when we arrived so we made ourselves at home in one of the caravan parks, where we were the sole visitors. Eventually this funny old guy showed up to welcome us. He seemed to have wandered into town a few months ago, been offered a job watching over the park, and never left. He said he’s not sure why anyone lives here or has a caravan park, but he’s hanging around, so.
Later we were sitting in the sheltered BBQ area making beans and toast when a lightning storm started up. It was pretty crazy to watch, what with there being 360 degrees views of flat Outback in all directions (sadly our lightning photography is not up to par, so no pictures). While eating it started to rain quite heavily, so we thought maybe we would wait it out under this tin roofed area. A gust of wind came along and blew the can of beans off the table. Chris go up to get it, and another gust of wind blew his chair and a couple others over. While we were thinking, “Huh, it’s pretty windy now”, a GALE FORCE WIND appeared and blew the entire table away, throwing our bowls, pot, kettle etc. across the yard and bringing the rain pouring into the shelter. At this point we ran screaming (me) and swearing (Chris) back along a fence to the women’s washroom, where we took cover. Chris was worried that the car might be leaking because he had our mosquito net closed into the doors as a makeshift screen. While I cowered, he ran out into the rain and blowing grit and also had his glasses blown off his face. I followed shortly after. Chris dragged our tent out of the half foot of water it was sitting in to higher ground. Funny caravan park guy came to check that we were still alive (as he could see our tent had capsized a bit, but Chris had righted it and moved it behind our car), and we assured him all was well since we had a bed in the back of the vehicle. We then settled in to drink tea and eat candies in the back of the car for the rest of the night.
We woke up to clear skies (and dry ground, the perks of the desert). An old caravan in the park had capsized and about half the plastic chairs had gotten their legs snapped off, but otherwise everything was still standing. Our tent was surprisingly dry inside, and our kitchen utensils had mostly blown in the direction of the old guy’s cabin so he had collected and brought them back to us. We left missing only a single pot lid, pretty good!
Chris had been worried we would be trapped in Marree after the rain, but when we checked the road sign it indicated the next section of the Oodnadatta was open to 4WDs only. So off we went! It was preeeetty wet and muddy. There were a ton of creek crossings, and after dousing our car a few times Chris figured out the correct speed (slow!) to take them at. We were going at a pretty leisurely pace because of the slipperiness and stopped at Lake Eyre South on the way (the lowest point in Australia), so it was mid-afternoon when we arrive at William Creek, the next town on the Oodnadatta Track. Unfortunately, Chris missed slowing down for the very last mud slick on the way into town, so we went from having a mostly clean car to one that looked like we had basically swam there.
When we drove into town, various people came of out the pub to greet us, seeming surprised. It turned out the road had been marked as closed on their end all day. The barkeep called the road condition people, who confirmed that the road was indeed closed and the sign in Marree must be faulty (I think they are satellite controlled or something). We felt slightly guilty about breaking the law (it’s a fine of $1000 a wheel if you’re caught driving on a closed road) but another couple arrived on the road shortly after us with a picture of the sign, corroborating our story.
Anyways, now we were all stranded in William Creek (there were a few other campervans of people, mainly Germans it seemed, that had been there since the night before). William Creek holds the distinction of being the smallest town in Australia, with a population of around 12 (depending on the season), though hilariously it also resides on the world’s largest cattle station. It has one combined pub/restaurant/shop/gas station/hotel and a campground run by the people in the hotel. So, we got ourselves a campsite and settled in to wait.
We hung around in the pub a bit, hand washed our car and did laundry, and thankfully by late the next afternoon the road to Coober Pedy had opened up for 4WDs. A good thing too, since the prices in the pub were CRAZY…Obviously due to location, but still, $6 for a can of pop and $2 a litre for gas was a killer.
Anyways, as soon as the sign switched we hit the road and headed to Coober Pedy! The road going to Marree was still closed, so we never knew how long our German friends had to wait.
Honesty, the most exciting thing about Coober Pedy was that it was civilization (somewhat). Since we had been camping for quite a while, we splurged and got ourselves an underground apartment for a few days. Coober Pedy is an opal mining town and many of the houses are built underground (or more accurately, into the hillside) because a) it’s super hot, b) there’s a lack of building materials in the area (i.e. trees), and c) they already had a lot of big hole making equipment around for mining.
After doing some necessary errands (getting our car washed and serviced), we stopped by what is one of the top five pizza places in Australia, John’s Pizza Bar, where we got some delicious kangaroo and emu pizza. We then decided to do something touristy and went on one of the many opal mine tours. We chose Umoona Opal Mine as it was recommended to us by the owners of the apartments we were staying at. You used to be able to mine anywhere, so it is in the middle of town. The miner’s house was also attached to the mine for convenience, as well as to stop other people from stealing the opals.
Once there were too many people around, the government stepped in and added regulations (a.k.a. stopping mining inside town), because people were dynamiting new mine shafts too near others, accidentally ending up in their neighbour’s living room when digging an extension to their house, etc. Now you can only mine outside of town. The city council also has an extensive map of underground Coober Pedy so that they can consult it when people who want to expand their house come to get approvals. There are rules stopping you from digging closer than 6m or so from other people’s houses. The homes are built with ventilation shafts (one per room as per regulations) to keep airflow.
Washrooms and kitchens are usually at the front of the house. This is because it would be super costly to put plumbing way back into the hill. Plus if something broke, you’d have to dig up the whole floor again. So instead, they just keep the plumbing-intensive rooms at the front. Electricity is easier to add to rooms, as you can just hide it with small mud patches on the walls. Of course one major problem is that cell reception is basically nil inside the house. Also, (good or bad?) because the bedroom is underground, you can sleep in until whenever as it is totally dark.
Because opal mining is such a lottery, no big companies do it. Only random crazy men who think they will strike it rich seem to do it. They lease a bit of land (or an old mine no longer used) and keep digging, following the lines of the sediment layers. There usually needs to be a partnership between two people: One with a lot of time, and one with a lot of money. There are also people that just sort through all the debris sucked out of the mine while digging and find small opals as well (known as noodling).
The next day we went to Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage, which (let’s be honest) I wanted to see for the kangaroos and not so much the art. It’s owned by a couple who take in orphaned joeys (usually a result of the mother being hit by a car) and raise them until they can be re-released or moved to another home or sanctuary. They have also kept a few around as pets, which you can feed wasabi peas and banana chips to (kangaroos like wasabi because it is similar is taste to certain spicy bush plants apparently). The pet roos are SO CUTE, like big dogs, you can pet them (but not on the ears, they don’t like that because they need their ears to hear predators) and snuggle with them and they lick you and everything. They will even sleep in your bed. I guess you can own them in Australia as long as you have the appropriate permits and stuff, so there is a new dream for me.
After feeding the big roos, we got to see some little ones. The joeys are super adorable and spend most of the day curled up in fabric bags to mimic a mother’s pouch. Depending on their age they need to be fed as much as once every hour, so you don’t get a lot of sleep if you’re taking care of a baby roo!
We saw a very little one getting fed from a baby bottle, and a slightly larger (toddler aged?) one take a few experimental hops around the yard. Little kangaroos are pretty awkward and hilarious when they haven’t figured out how strong their legs are yet.
We finished off our time in Coober Pedy by going for a drive to see the Breakaways and the Dog Fence. The Breakaways are some cool rock formations outside of town, named so because they look like they have broken away from the nearby ranges. The Dog Fence is a really really long fence (twice the length of the Great Wall of China) that was built to keep dingoes out of the southern sheep stations.
After Coober Pedy, we were off to the Red Centre!