Outback South Australia, SA
When it comes to quirky towns and things to do, the Outback is hard to beat. From Coober Pedy and Marree to William Creek and Mungerannie, you’ll love the things you find and the people you meet. Here we take a look at some must-see towns and their nearby attractions.
Andamooka is a great little outback mining town, famous for the quality opal that was first discovered in 1930. Andamooka opals are open-cut mined, unlike Coober Pedy where they are shaft mined, and this gives the town its own unique character. Town tours are available from Roxby Downs and highlights include working mines, semi-dugout homes, early underground shaft mines, historical cottages and “noodling” (fossicking) for opal.
Innamincka and Coongie Lakes
Located near the end of the Strzelecki Track, Innamincka was originally a customs post taxing the movement of stock between the colonies. The town now consists of a character-filled hotel, a trading post (they bake their own bread) and an auto shop that doubles as a camping spot, laundromat and cappuccino house. The ruins of the original Innamincka Pub, which closed in 1880, is a talking point for drinkers at the new hotel who enjoy a beer or two in the revamped beer garden, known as “Outamincka”.
Two of Australia’s greatest early explorers, Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, died near here on their return journey to Melbourne from the Gulf of Carpentaria. Their support team had given them up for dead and headed for home just eight hours earlier. A carved Coolibah tree stands as a monument to their expedition.
In the Innamincka Reserve, about 110 kilometres from Innamincka at the end of the Strzelecki Track, you’ll find the Coongie Lakes system. This stunning desert oasis is home to around 20,000 water fowl, more than 150 species of birds and many other plants and animals. Due to its isolation, careful planning is required before you visit.
Mount Dare and Dalhousie Springs
Mount Dare, north of Oodnadatta, is the western starting point for crossing the Simpson Desert and a great spot to replenish your supplies before taking off. You’ll find camping and homestead accommodation, a small store and a licensed pub.
Dalhousie Springs, further east into the Simpson, is the largest complex of artesian springs in Australia and a sanctuary for wildlife. Soaking in the thermal springs after a long hot drive is said to be one of life’s great pleasures. The springs are part of the Witjira National Park, which is jointly managed by the local Irrwanyere people and has upgraded visitor facilities and camping spots.
Marree marks the southern starting point for the legendary Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks and is part of the Old Ghan Heritage Trail. You can explore many relics of the town’s past, including a replica mosque (all that remains of Ghantown – once home to more than 60 Afghan cameleers, their families and 1500 camels) and the now abandoned Old Ghan railway line to Alice Springs. Visit in July to see the fabulous Marree Camel Cup.
The Bubbler and Blanchcup Springs are among the best examples of mound springs on the rim of the Great Artesian Basin, and you’ll find these about 100 kilometres northwest of Marree.
Halfway up the famous Birdsville track, Mungerannie consists of a pub and a hot water spring that attracts 140 species of birds. Lying at the junction of four deserts (Sturt’s Stony, Tirari, Simpson and Strzelecki) the pub is a true oasis complete with sand dunes around a tree-lined water hole. The very affable John and Genevieve Hammond have owned the pub, set on eight acres of the 1.5million acre Mungerannie Station, since 1996.
Head straight to the Pink Roadhouse when you get to Oodnadatta – it’s a great source of information on everything to do with the Oodnadatta Track and the surrounding area. Also worth a visit is the heritage-listed railway station, which tells of the town’s history as a terminus for the Great Northern Railway.
Roxby Downs and Olympic Dam
Built in the 1980s to support the Olympic Dam Mine, Roxby Downs is a modern, well-equipped desert oasis. One of the city’s best attractions is the mine, which produces nine million tonnes of ore annually (consisting mainly of cooper, uranium, gold and silver). Two-hour bus tours of the mine run on Monday, Thursday and Saturday from Roxby Downs.
William Creek and Lake Eyre
Hundreds of kilometres from the ocean, Lake Eyre can harbour water nine times as salty as the sea. When it fills (as it has done only a handful of times in the past century) it becomes the biggest lake in Australia, teeming with wildlife. You can see Australian pelicans, silver gulls, ducks and waders. Lake Eyre National Park is also home to interesting reptiles such as the Lake Eyre Dragon and (after rain) tiny forms of aquatic life such as Brine and Shield Shrimp. The park can be accessed only by four-wheel-drive vehicles. Contact the Department for Environment and Heritage on + 61 8 8648 5300 for details on the Desert Parks Pass, which offers access to parks across the Outback and also features comprehensive maps and wildlife information.
William Creek is the closest town to Lake Eyre, with the shoreline just 53 kilometres away by road and only 15 minutes by air. Located on the legendary Oodnadatta Track, William Creek is home to the most isolated hotel in Australia and a population numbering just 16. The timber and corrugated iron pub is a sight to see – over the years its been wallpapered with business cards, hand-written notes, bras, underpants and just about everything else not nailed down.
Several local tour operators run sightseeing flights over Lake Eyre from Adelaide or Outback towns like William Creek, particularly when the lake is flooded. These flights are a great way to appreciate the vastness of the lake and surrounding terrain.
Just a few kilometres north of the Explorer’s Highway, this Outback town was established in 1947 as a site for the launching of experimental rockets. The most famous of these was the Europa, launched by the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) between 1964 and 1970. Access to the town was restricted until 1982, but you can now visit a range of attractions including the Woomera Heritage Centre and Missile Park (displaying rockets, aircraft and weapons associated with the testing range).
Opal mining magic
Coober Pedy is a deceptive town. On first impressions, it looks like a raw, dusty, hard-working mining town that makes few concessions to beauty. But invest a little time and you’ll find there’s far more to it than first meets the eye. The reason for Coober Pedy’s existence is the opal.
This town on the edge of South Australia’s Great Victoria Desert is the world’s major source of precious opal, and the town’s economy revolves around this shimmering, electrifying stone. Although Coober Pedy has a population of around 3,500, there is practically nothing that looks like a conventional house. The doors in the hillsides provide a clue. Most of the population lives underground, in comfortable dugout homes that remain pleasantly cool even when the mercury soars outside.
To get a feel for what opal mining was like in the early days, call in at the Old Timers Mine. In 1916 this was a working mine, yet it was forgotten until 1968, when an underground home extension broke through a tunnel wall, revealing the labyrinth that is now the museum. Visitors don a hard-hat and walk through the passageways, where the days of pick-and-shovel mining are brought vividly back to life, complete with seams of opal still in the walls.
With its warm and welcoming ways, Coober Pedy can be surprisingly addictive. Half the population will tell you that they pulled in one day with the intention of filling up with petrol and having a quiet beer, and five years later they still haven’t got around to leaving.
About Outback South Australia
- State: South Australia