Lovely Lake Eyre and William Creek

Trip Start Apr 05, 2011
Trip End Nov 15, 2012

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Flag of Australia  , South Australia,
Saturday, May 12, 2012

It wasn't long before the Flinders Ranges had well and truly faded from our rear view mirror and we were yet again on the Stuart Highway heading north cutting through the centre of Australia. A family of emus here and there along with sheep, cattle and a fox who gingerly crossed the road in front of us, oh how we love this stretch of the highway.

After spending a night camped at the stunning Lake Hart we couldn’t resist taking a stroll out across the salt bed, the early morning sun bouncing brightly off the stark white salt was almost blinding in its brilliance.  As we continued our journey north to Coober Pedy we were surrounded by red soil scattered with low growing vegetation. 

We spent a night at Riba’s on the outskirts of Coober Pedy, a unique little spot where you can actually set up your tent underground for a novel experience. The following morning we stored our van, packed our tent and headed out to the Lake Eyre National Park.  We were pleasantly surprised to find the gravel road was in really good condition with just the odd area of corrugation or deep sand.  For the most part we floated across the undulating road admiring the pretty, yet arid landscape.  We delighted in seeing cattle, emus, dingoes and kites; 170kms later we hit a short stretch of bitumen which ran the length of the William Creek Township; about the length of a road train!

The track out to Lake Eyre North left the Oodnadatta Track just south of William Creek.  The term track is generous, corrugations, dips, ruts and broken surfaces were just a few of the distractions.  It was a teeth shattering, jaw jarring ride across 65kms of rarely maintained road across a pastoral lease.  The changes in vegetation, soil and formation of the surrounding lands held us captivated throughout the drive along with the odd dingo and hawk.  We were both in awe when we caught our first glimpse of the lake, a mass of white filling the vista for as far as the eye could see, so brilliantly white it was akin to fresh snow.  We pulled over to get out and really soak up this amazing sight, our immediate surroundings also had us intrigued with the ground now covered in glistening black rock fragments.  As we continued on we rose over and swung around sand dunes, green willowy grasses fluttering in the breeze and then here we were driving along the edge of Halligan Bay, Lake Eyre.

We were just so taken with this massive body of lake before us.  We walked out onto the lake continuing for as far as we could, the salt was getting softer and there was a thick black oily mud under the now shallow salt layer.  As we got closer to the water’s edge the salt got soggier and we sank further. 

It is hard to describe the actual feeling of being at Lake Eyre, it is just such a phenomenon to see and walking (though just a short way) out onto it added another dimension to the experience and made the drive so worthwhile. 

We had just had the most fantastic day and were both mesmerized by the arid landscape that had surrounded us all day both appreciating the beauty of these stark and often baron lands.  The terracotta coloured soils, the low growing flora of greens and blondes topped off with a vast vibrant blue sky, a random puff of cloud occasionally floating by, it was just breathtaking. 

It was amazing how smooth the Oodnadatta Track felt having come off the track out to Halligan Bay!  In no time we found ourselves at the William Creek Hotel.  On entering this iconic timber and corrugated iron pub we were immediately taken with its warmth and character, with its walls and ceiling adorned with all sorts of memorabilia from business cards, t-shirts, ball caps and stubby holders to personal notes and currency, it is just one layer over the other of built up history.  The rear dining room walls have been lined with sleepers from the old Ghan rail line, the walls displaying skins and spoils from some hunting trips.  Taking seats at the bar it wasn’t long before Noel (he and partner Ngaire took over the lease in February) had us engaged in conversation.  It was through this conversation with Noel that we were invited to stay for a while in order to really get an understanding of what it is like to live in the South Australian outback and so began an interesting journey of discovery.

Sitting along the Oodnadatta Track half way between Oodnadatta and Marree, the population of William Creek fluctuates between 3 and 15 or so (depending on how many pilots and hotel workers are needed over the tourist season).  Consisting of the Hotel, Wrightsair office, gymkana grounds, an all weather airstrip, a caravan/camp ground, a couple of sheds and about 4 houses, it doesn’t take long to explore the town. (Despite this we had to laugh when one of the locals held a barbeque and everyone had to ask directions to his house!)

Set on a small section of freehold land on Anna Creek Station; the largest working cattle station in the world, William Creek is indeed a unique and resilient settlement steeped in history.  We will endeavor to describe as best we can just how different it is to spend time out along the track. 

The water supply is from the great artesian basin, courtesy of a nearby bore so whilst there is certainly no shortage of water, it is extremely salty and comes with an orange tinge.  Needless to say all drinking water has to be shipped in.  Power is all supplied through diesel generators which run 24/7.  The only phone or internet service is via satellite, an expensive exercise…  Telstra installed the world’s first solar powered public phone opposite the pub, unfortunately it only accepts Telstra Phone Cards and there are no shops in William Creek!  The nearest town is Coober Pedy a mere 170kms along the William Creek Road, or for marginally better retail therapy Roxby Downs is 260kms, taking the Oodnadatta Track south and then veering off down the Bloomfield Track.  It was to either of these towns that we would have to travel if we wanted to check our phone messages or emails, just hoping that the graders had recently been through!  The mailman (delightful Pete) drops by on Mondays and Thursdays, and the supply truck comes every second Thursday. 

Also worthy of mention are the flies, yes pesky little bush flies by the millions from sun up to sun down step outside and you are just covered in them, dare open your mouth without an attractive fly net and you won’t be needing dinner.  Now who wouldn’t want to spend time here…?!

And so having limped our van out along the gravel road from Coober Pedy we set up house on the Oodnadatta Track keen to get on with our research.  Living with the constant low drone of the generator and the daily buzz of small aircraft became the norm, only outdone by the massive flocks of corellas which would sweep in, perch atop the trees then squawk at the top of their lungs.  Road trains laden with cattle rattled through town, stopping to drop their bulldust out the front of the hotel.  An occasional dust storm rolled through leaving a decent layer of red powder over everything, the odd drop of rain settling the dust but any more and the roads would become impassable.  We just loved it!

It was here that we were treated to the warmest and friendliest of welcomes from all the locals and regular visitors, got to meet some amazing people just travelling through (a combination of those driving and those flying) and heard some of the best yarns of our trip.  Whilst we would have to write a book to cover the tales we have from our short time in town we will give you a brief overview and do a follow up blog with a summary of our travels around the area along and branching off the Oodnadatta Track.

There is so much pioneering history around the route of the old Ghan Rail line and it is that and Lake Eyre that bring so many people to the area.  With the lake having been filled for the past few years the interest has been immense as has the influx of visitors wanting to see the lake and the abundance of bird life migrating there.

A yarn we loved when we heard it was of the old Ghan Train from when the Ghan Rail line ran through William Creek.  As the train stopped at the siding passengers would head over to the hotel and quench their thirst, as the years went on the powers that be at the railways decided that passengers were drinking too much and so shortened their stops from 10 minutes then to 2… eventually they ruled out stopping at William Creek at all due to too much alcohol consumption and so in true Aussie spirit, not to be beaten the train would slow, the passengers would jump off, run to the pub and then run back and climb back onto the slow moving train… classic!

We were both lucky enough to have scenic flights over the lake, Rhyan from Wrightsair was kind enough to take me up and Greg, a private pilot took Rod up on a later occasion.

The flight was simply breathtaking (and I’m not referring to the altitude!) and whilst the surrounding landscape was spectacular it was Lake Eyre that stole the show.  Even at 35% full it delighted us on so many levels.  From the stark white salt to the perfect reflection of the clouds in the lake creating a mirror image, the sections of vibrant pink created by millions of tiny shrimp, it was all simply awe inspiring.  It really was an amazing experience and we both feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to take to the skies (despite me saying I would not go on a small aircraft again!).

We also had the privilege of meeting Chris Brown (aka Bondi vet) and the delightful crew along with him for the filming of 'The Living Room’.  Poor Chris faced some challenges in filming his segment, as we mentioned previously there is a little fly problem at the creek and as Chris was standing out the front of the hotel giving an introduction every time he opened his mouth to speak the flies took advantage heading straight for his mouth!  Inside the hotel Chris sat at the corner barrel sampling the newly introduced Stockyard platter whilst Maggie (the pub dog) swathed around licking her lips!  Later Chris joined our group at the bar and asked what had brought us to William Creek asking Rod specifically to tell his story.

A week or so later when Bill Chambers, his daughter Kasey and husband Shane dropped through we were really thrilled.  Having enjoyed listening to Bill play at Tamworth in January we were delighted to be able to tell him so in person.  Both Bill and Kasey were so relaxed, casual and lovely to talk to. 

Rod got involved in assisting people in ways he never imagined… On one such occasion a plane had flown in from Hawker and whilst it had landed okay it had a flat tyre which needed to be repaired in order for the plane and pilot to get the passengers back to Hawker.  Getting a tyre off a plane is not straightforward and this wheel was connected to brakes etc…  Working together a couple of the pilots managed to remove the wheel then Rod and Noel repaired it and left the pilots to reconnect all the essential bits!  In the meantime another private plane had landed and complained about having to use the dirt strip ‘because there was a plane in the middle of the airstrip’!  That particular pilot had then proceeded to drive the plane across the road (Oodnadatta Track) with the propellers still in motion to the all weather strip to get fuel…  A couple of Wrightsair pilots flagged him down just before he would have smashed his wings into a fence; they then were left to push the plane along the road with its pilot just trailing along behind it…  Another sight you don’t see every day!

Then there was the oddest of visits…  A chap flew in to William Creek with his dog and cat, unprepared he enquired about a supermarket as he didn’t have any pet food for them… (Ngaire was kind enough to provide some kangaroo off cuts).  The following day we heard a commotion… he had flown off for a few hours leaving the dog tied to a tree and the cat in a cage beside the airstrip.  The cat had escaped from the cage and was up the tree stressed to the max, and so here were Renee and Manou trying to get this petrified cat out of the tree!

We had a fabulous night out when an electrical company held its annual conference at the Anna Creek Siding.  This was a logistical achievement on so many levels with the most amazing set up in the middle of nowhere.  A massive marquee, stage, commercial kitchen, showers and toilets, tent city all of which had to be shipped in and catering organized for close to 300 people over several days.  Had anything been forgotten it was a long way to town!

Here we were along the Oodnadatta Track, out under the massive star lit sky, fire pits ablaze, a band playing our favourite tunes, hundreds of people bopping away as they sipped on their drinks, it was simply amazing and again we were so lucky to have the opportunity to experience it.

As we mentioned we could go on and on about the things we experienced over our short period in William Creek however that will have to wait for another time.  We would really like to thank Noel and Ngaire (for inviting us to stay a while), Lizzie and Scott (very talented cooks who had us eating goat, buffalo and kangaroo), Jarrod (brilliant barista and dancing partner), Manou (a delightful lady on a working holiday from Holland) and Renee (always cheery) from the hotel.  Oh, nearly forgot Maggie, the gorgeous german shepherd (who had a very similar temperament to our late Samoyed Miko).  Then there was the Wrightsair crew, Trevor, Tay, Ty, Rhyan, Kim, Liam and Michael.  The Anna Creek Station crew; Norm and Steph, Margy and Gordon, Kane, Sophie, Joel, Todd, Aaron and Jo.  Whether they were in for a Saturday night out or calling through town exhausted after a week or so out mustering the ringers were always so friendly, entertaining and great company.  Phil and Eddy who spend so much of their time out in the middle of nowhere auditing the outback bores.  Greg and Prue from Coward Springs who have such an interesting story, we could listen for hours and are so inspired.  Tom from Lake Eyre Tours, Pete the Postie, Wayne from Arid tours (also back up postie) and the bush pilots whom fly people into the pub for lunch a few times a week like Chris, Scott and Daniel to name but a few.  Everyone made us so welcome and shared a little of their experience there with us and for that we will always be grateful.  We had some fantastic laughs and William Creek will always hold a special place in our hearts.

In true William Creek style on our last evening in town I looked over to see our Navara alongside a plane, a few lads had flown in and needed a little more air in their tyres and so Rod was out there with our compressor helping out.  Classic!!!

We said our farewells and drove off having thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Creek and so much wiser about the area and history, however it was time to continue our journey north and on to our next adventure.
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Val S on

the real life experiences and stories are awesome, you certainly are living the Aussie dream. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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