Overnight stays: Venushill B&B, Coober Pedy; Coward Springs Museum & Campground, Oodnadatta Track; Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, Arkaroola Village; Trezona Campground, Flinders Ranges National Park; Mambray Creek, Mount Remarkable National Park
When we first left Sydney, we had a rough mud-map of where we were going to visit on the Wombatical. The Red Centre was on the must-do list but we weren’t quite sure whether we were going to hit it from the top or bottom, towards the beginning, or end of the trip. I was initially leaning towards approaching from the bottom, as it meant we could pass through Coober Pedy, a place with such fond memories in one of Loz’s childhood holidays.
When we reached the 3-ways intersection way back in May or June (can’t remember) we decided that was the right time to hit Uluru etc. which inevitably meant Coober Pedy probably wasn’t going to happen on this trip. But I was fine with that: you can’t do everything, right?
Many balls in the Eyre
When we were finishing up in the Eyre Peninsula, we started discussing how we might attack The Flinders Ranges. We initially thought about looping across to Broken Hill, down to Mungo National Park, and back into Adelaide, but that fizzled quicker than a cheap bottle of sparkling water. And then, when we had a closer look at the map, we realised there was an opportunity to run a loop from Port Augusta, not only covering The Flinders, but also Lake Eyre. These combined brought Coober Pedy right back into the ‘in’ basket. Decision made – we would rest the WomBatmobile for a few days, pack a rented 4WD to the rafters, and go off-road for a while, the SA Outback was our Coffin Bay Oyster.
The bloke from the rental company, Pat from Port Augusta, was about the most relaxed, helpful and friendly person we’ve met on the trip. We called him to see what options were available, and just like that he made it happen. We never got an exact quote out of him, but the ballpark figures he was throwing around were about half what we expected to pay, so we were in the driver’s seat.
And when we started to map the trip out a little, we weren’t quite sure how long we’d need – but probably 4/5 nights. “No worries”, replied Pat, “Just bring it back whenever”. What a legend. But we reckon Pat is pretty typical of South Aussies – most definitely the friendliest people in Oz. Nothing is problematic, they are incredibly friendly, and will go out of their way to help others – champions.
The road to Coober Pedy
We have seen more emus in South Australia than anywhere else, and we love it. Prior to this trip we had barely seen wild emus, so the novelty of spotting them shaking their tail feather hasn’t waned. And on the road to Coober Pedy we spotted dozens alongside the road, in some of the most barren landscape we’ve experienced. It was also our favourite bird, Wedge-Tailed Eagle territory, and they were scavenging in abundance.
The land is flat, red, bare, and beautiful. This is exactly what we expected the NT to look like – we actually think SA is more NT than the NT.
Every now and then a salt lake would appear in the distance and create amazing mirage illusions of water and reflections, impossible to photograph. One could only imagine explorers’ frustrations trekking through this land, being constantly fed hope of water, only to again be disappointed by bare salt seas.
Coober Pedy is famed for its’ houses being underground, cleverly designed to manage the extreme heat that can sweep through this desert climate. I was therefore expecting a Flindstones type arrangement, where you wouldn’t be able to see the houses, just long flat dust plains where a trapdoor would open and person appear (possibly with some sort of primitive wooden Bam-Bam-esq baton) from underground.
Turns out I couldn’t have been further from the truth with my assumptions. It just looks like a kind of normal rundown, shitty town. There are shops, roads, people, and a few mounds where some houses are built into the side, therefore deeming the house ‘underground’. I must say I was pretty underwhelmed and disappointed that this town didn’t look anywhere near what I hoped – but like I always say, expectation is dangerous.
Spread among the houses and shops there seem to be opal mines all over the place. Not the mass mining operations of Kalgoorlie or Mount Isa, but tiny little operations on the surface that feed into rabbit warrens of underground prospecting tunnels.
We visited the Old Timers Mine which gave us an interesting insight into the old days of mining in Coober Pedy, and living underground.
We were also keen to visit an underground bar, something we thought could be a cool and unique experience. But unlike the class and vibrancy of something like The Baxter Inn in Sydney, we found the only underground bar a depressing mix of no vibe and poker machines, all tenanted by patrons there for the sole purpose of feeding their sad addiction. Not a good environment for Liv to be, so we hobbled out of there quick-smart.
When you visit a town like Coober Pedy we figured you have to try and experience it as authentically as possible. So rather than pulling the tent out at the BIG4 on the edge of town, we booked into an underground B&B to see what it would be like sleeping underground.
This was the absolute highlight of Coober Pedy. Walking into the side of a hill, through a long tunnel entrance down to our living room, was pretty surreal, and it just got better and better with the bedroom and bathroom deep in cave territory.
When all the lights were off it was as dark as a post-Brexit Britain, ideal for a good night’s sleep.
Beyond the almost greenless dust-bowl of a town we ventured out to The Breakaways for a BBQ dinner and sunset. Along the way we detoured via the Dingo Fence (a fence that runs basically from the top to bottom of Oz to keep the dingoes out) and Moonscape, which literally gives you the feel of being on the moon. The soil and rocks mould together on the flat and infinite horizon giving the feeling of another planet.
The Breakaways themselves were pretty nice, especially as dusk was approaching. We found a spot beside what we thought was the second lookout, kicked the footy around for a while and whipped out the barbie to cook a few snags with the sun setting behind the mountains.
Once we’d finished dinner we grabbed our chairs and climbed up the rocky side of a mound to watch the sun go down, sitting down with 10 minutes to go before disappearance, and then we spotted a few other cars up on the horizon, higher than us. Damn it, this wasn’t a lookout, we were in the wrong spot.
So racing against the sun, we packed the car at lightning speed and hammered our way to the lookout, just making it before the sun vanished in the distance and beautiful colours filled the sky.
Going off (road)
The working mine we had hoped to visit the following morning had some broken machinery, so rather than wait around we decided to hit the gravel, excited for some authentic outback experiences.
The 160km road to William Creek we were told by some Stroms at the Visitors Centre, would take a day. Given we’re not experienced off-readers we became a little concerned that if 160km on gravel is a good day, maybe we would need the rental car for 2 weeks, not 4 days. But we set off regardless, eager to see for ourselves how we’d go. We covered roughly 700km in just over 2 days on the Gibb River Road, so were reasonably confident we’d be okay.
I don’t think we have felt more isolated in our lives than we did on our 3 hour drive (not all day) to William Creek. Bar a few cows and 2 cars, we were amazed with how remote we were. This part of Australia is as outback as it gets – nothing but long, flat, dry, red plains. Simply magnificent, and exactly what we had hoped for.
Given we arrived at William Creek about half a day earlier than the Strom suggested, we were comfortable to keep on keepin’ on. We bought a Lake Eyre visitors permit from the friendliest publican in SA at the only business in ‘town’, shifting out of town, and taking the turnoff for the 65km goat track to the edge of the world, I mean Lake Eyre.
I reckon goats would probably even battle on this particular road – the corrugation was deeper than Loz’s love for dolphins, but nothing a rental with $0 excess couldn’t handle 😀.
Every now and then we would get a glimpse of the lake on the way in, with white reflections giving the misguided view of water and mountains, which was magnificently mystique.
It took us the best part of an hour to arrive at the lowest point in Australia which is 15m below sea-level, on the bed of Lake Eyre, filled only 3 times in the last 150 years. It’s a difficult place to describe – the lake is whiter than a new set of 700-thread-counts, and takes your eyes to the edge of the world, with nothing in the distance. It’s therefore difficult to get any concept of distance or direction. The warning signs as you wander onto the lake-bed advise you not to venture too far, as you may lose your bearings and never return – it’s truly surreal.
The lack of horizontal references also provides a great opportunity to create your own optical illusions. We had a crack at it, but you really need 3 adults to make it happen – trying to explain exactly what to do to a 4yo at the best of times is a tougher task than curing Polio, but when she’s not in a photo mood and just wants to play with her truck, it’s like trying to fly to the moon in a boat – just not going to happen.
We didn’t expect to make it anywhere near Coward Springs for our first camping night, but the Oodnadatta Track was in pretty good knick, so travelling around 80km/h was a piece of cake.
It was a great little place, again, totally isolated from the real world. Quite a few punters were starting to pull in for the night, for a dip in their luke-warm spring and nice campsites with fire pits. We hadn’t been in the tent since The Kimberley so were pretty pumped to get back into it, especially Liv. There’s nothing she treasures more than time with mum and dad; and being able to sleep 3-abreast in the 2-man tent is her happy place.
The road to Flinders
Not far east of Coward Springs, we discovered Mound Springs, which consists of a series of fresh water springs breaking the desert. They weren’t hard to spot, as you could see fresh green grass, shrubs and trees concentrated in small parts of the otherwise dry and barren desert – true Oasis’. The Bubbler and Blanche Cup were very pretty, especially in the context of their climate.
Mutonia Sculpture Park
When there isn’t much to see as far as sweeping dry plains, it seems people will make something out of nothing.
As was the case with Mutonia Sculpture Park, which is a paddock bordering the Oodnadatta Track, where someone has filled it with junk made into sculptures. It’s random and totally unnecessary, but a good backdrop mix-up for a travelling cuppa.
As we incorrectly spotted what I thought was the Flinders Ranges about a hundred times in the distance, we passed through some odd and unique tiny towns. Marree, where the Oodnadatta meets the Birdsville Track, was much larger than expected. It’s so weird when you pull into these tiny towns for overpriced fuel or fly-nets, about as Aussie as it gets, and are served by a German backpacker. Like seriously, what the hell sort of life are they living in a one-horse outback town in central Australia? Besides the roadhouse there is nothing, literally nothing there. And it’s quite common to see this – I lost count of the amount of foreigners working at remote roadhouses in WA – so strange 🤷🏼♂️.
Before venturing off through the North Flinders Ranges, we stopped in for a deliciously unique Quandong Pie at the Copley Bush Bakery & Quandong Cafe. Quandong are unique to the area do make a sensational sweet pie with the fruit just enough to wash down the mysterious yellow cotton-mouth dust covering the top layer on a deliciously soft, perfect pastry.
Our drive through Gammon National Park in the North Flinders was about as good as it gets. Completely surrounded by dust-capped mountains, we felt like we were back in Kings Canyon, or The Grand Canyon in the US. And the goats! We have never seen so many goats wandering absolutely everywhere, and it was Spring so their cute kids were in abundance, following their families and friends around this beautiful rugged landscape.
We had been told about the Gammon Ranges by our friend Alex in Freeo, and he couldn’t have been more on the money. This place was incredible, and the drive was one of our favourites.
Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary
Tucked into the north end of the long ranges that are the Flinders, I had read somewhere, about a wilderness sanctuary called Arkaroola. I had no idea what it was, but given our love for nature and wilderness, it seemed like our kind of cup of tea. Apart from that we had done no research, until I found a spot of phone reception and gave them a call.
We discovered that it was all about the tours they offer, which, although pricey, must be okay, we figured. So we went for the most popular tour, booked in for the following morning, and agreed we’d camp there the night.
It was about a thousand degrees when we arrived into this man-made oasis resort. “That’s okay”, we thought, “at least they have a pool we can cool off in”. Just our luck, the pool was closed, so after setting up camp on the river bed, we just drove around for a bit in the air-conditioning, and showered until the sun slipped behind the hills, and the mecury dropped to an acceptable level.
Another spectacular starry night by the campfire, where all you need to do is look up and realise your insignificance, we already loved this place, and we hadn’t really done anything yet.
4WD Ridgetop Tour
The three of us piled into the back of a safari-altered Land Cruiser with two other couples, ready for a real 4WD adventure. We didn’t know a lot about what to expect, except possibly some nice views of the dry north.
The roads were barely fit for a saddled-up desert camel, let alone an open-top Toyota with 7 passengers holding on for dear life. This was proper four-wheel driving, like we had never experienced before. In the first 15 minutes alone, on the ‘smooth’ part of the track, we lost count of the amount of times it felt like we were going to either fall out or drop off the edge of a cliff. So much fun!
Bob the driver seemed unfazed by it all, one arm out the window, a walk in the park when you’ve done this track hundreds of times. Not only that, with one hand on the wheel he was somehow managing to not only keep us alive, but give incredibly detailed commentary on Arkaroola’s history and geology.
On the way to the top we stopped in at two lookouts, both as breathtaking as the other, with 360′ views of the remarkable barren ranges we had already fallen for.
And the pinnacle was when we reached the summit of the final lookout, and Bob brought out the coffee, tea and lamingtons, for the what we thought was one of the best spots for morning tea in the world. To add to the perfection of this place we were joined by a friendly rock wallaby and lizard, who together, shared the amazing silence of this remote part of the world.
On the 2 hour return leg, still all holding on for dear life as we wound through the same terrain, Liv befriended the rest of the passengers, and at one point had the whole lot of us playing ‘I spy’, and at another point doing selfies with the lady next to her, which had everyone in hysterics.
The drive out of Arkaroola towards Parachilna was just as breathtaking as the road in from Leigh Creek. If only photos could do this place justice. We were high on adrenilin and soaking up this wonderful day as one of the best of the trip, stopping at every bend for an underjustified photo.
Tiny towns do treats terrifically. To this point we had seldom been disappointed with country caramel and vanilla slices offered to us, and the little cafe at Blinman was no exception, punching well above their weight for quality of slice, cookie and coffee. What amazed me was that the owner had only been there a year or so. That got me wondering what circumstances would bring someone to move to a blink of a town like Blinman and run a cafe/general store? Amazing stuff.
Up until we arrived at The Praire Hotel, famed for offering outback grub such as camel salami, emu pâté, roo schnitzel and goats cheese, we had planned to camp their the night. But we were pretty disappointed when no one else was there, the kitchen wasn’t open to offer us the game grub we were game to try, and the publican showed little interest in helping us in any way. Again, expectation is everything.
So we settled for a soda water and got out of there quicker than the numerous emus we had to stop suddenly for several times on our journey, and entered Flinders National Park for the home stretch of our outback adventure.
Flinders National Park
Dusk was starting as we entered the impressive Brichana Gorge, which was the most perfect time to crawl through the sensational scenery. We spotted scores of wallabies, Euros (Wallaroos) and what we reckon were Big Reds, emus, and came scarily close to squashing an echidna. Had Loz not screamed he would’ve had a bad day, and luckily we were able to stop with him between the front bumper and front tyre – close call. That gave the poor little bugger a good fright and he scampered off into the shrubbery to live another day.
The light was nothing short of perfect on this drive, which only enhanced the romance of it all. This brilliant day seemed to just keep getting better and better, as it did when we arrived at the awesome campsite shortly before sunset, where I obsessed over a couple of gums that just provided the ideal foreground for another ripping outback sunset. After being so excited for ocean sunsets in this trip, I must say that their country cousins tear them to shreds.
Another morning, another waking and almost colliding with Australia’s Coat of Arms, as we stopped in at a couple of lookouts en-route to the infamous Wilpena Pound.
This was another place we knew little of (I’m sensing a theme) when we arrived, but expected there would be a walk or two. We hadn’t done a decent hike since Cape Range National Park as after we had seen some of the best gorges in the NT and WA, we were pretty hard to impress. But the hiking juices somewhat flowed back after a sabbatical; and really, the only way to see Wilpena Pound was to walk it, unless we were willing to fork out for a flight, which we weren’t.
Regardless of the fact that we’ve seen some of the best gorges in the world, we thought the view at Wilpena Pound was simply meh. It was a nice and relatively simple 7km return trip, but the view was just average.
But, at least we got some exercise, and we left nothing to chance. If the worst thing we did that day was hike one of Australia’s most famous places, then we’ve had worse days!
The Flinders Ranges blew us away. We didn’t really have expectations, which is the best way to be. Wilpena Pound is the most famous and popular part of the range, but we don’t quite understand why…? Maybe it’s because it has sealed roads all the way to it? Whatever the case, it was the worst part of the best ranges.
After 3 three nights in a tent with an old school esky, eating delicious yet simple food, we decided to spoil ourselves for lunch in Hawker, on the way back through to Port Augusta.
Full, tired, and dirty, we transferred everything from the car to motorhome in horrid winds, returned the vehicle to our mate Pat, and got back to our normal, pulling in for the night at Mount Remarkable National Park for one final campfire before a state-wide fire-ban came into effect. It was another ripping campsite on a dry river bed, surrounded by our Coat of Arms and plenty more wildlife. Even though all we felt like was a good shower and a bit of space to sleep, this final night before real civilisation was just perfect.
The following morning, on our way through to the much anticipated wine regions of SA, we did hiked through Alligator Gorge in Mount Remarkable National Park. This walk was quite enjoyable, taking us down into a skinny winding gorge and back up around again. It was only short, but again, some good exercise to kick off the day – time to drink some wine 🍷 .