The weather in some parts of South Australia a couple of weeks ago was a little erratic (and unseasonal) to say the least. Severe storms, extreme high winds and temperatures in some parts, and in others a lot of rain. This was especially the case in central SA and to the north of the Flinders Ranges (Blinman, Marree etc) up to Queensland, all experiencing heavy falls (for these parts) at almost the worst possible time for our impending departure, when we were planning our route from Mt Remarkable.
In essence, the plan was to head up to Birdsville on the B’Track (Via Marree) as a “short cut” up to Lawn Hill National Park, then onto Burketown and Karumba in the Gulf country of Queensland.
Quite straightforward we thought, but here’s the kicker: Birdsville and surrounding areas in the last few weeks had just over 80mm of rain which had forced road closures still in place for our 3T+ setup. As we still wish to stay in the Lawn Hill area, then travel on to the gulf proper, we now needed to make a few decisions as to how best to get there as route options have become limited.
After much discussion and pouring over Maps, National Parks, Free camp sites, checking various websites (after Telstra’s Mobile Network disaster), checking temperature forecasts of a week and more out, we make the decision to head straight up the Stuart Highway from Mt Remarkable National Park (near Port Augusta) and take a 2/3 night detour out past Woomera and on to the mining townships of Roxby Downs and Andamooka, with the slim chance of accessing this part of the Oodnadatta track from Roxby Downs (via the Borefield Road) to reach Marree if the Birdsville track opens whilst we were in the area.
The plan had merit at the time, or so we thought but we quickly learn however that the central SA tracks are likely to remain closed with restricted access for a couple of more weeks until the roads dry out, then are ‘fixed’ on both the Birdsville & Strzlecki tracks before fully reopening. Okay, we thought …so this approach is no longer a viable option and we resign ourselves to the fact that the only real remaining route for us is to head further up the Stuart Hwy to Coober Pedy, Alice Springs, then on to Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory to access the Gulf via the 3-ways and the Barkly Highway. Not the most desired outcome for what we wanted to experience, but it will still get us to where we would like to end up, and beyond.
Before heading across to Coober Pedy, we spend a full-day in the opal mining town of Andamooka which had also experienced 53mm of rain in 4 days before we arrived that had resulted in flooding the main street of town for a couple of days. The area also had a further 5mm of rain the night before we arrived which made off-road excursions that little bit more exciting. These types of rain events happen only once every couple of years, and as Andamooka legend has it, is the sole reason why there were two pubs built in Andamooka on opposite sides of the main street. The rationale being that when your beloved town’s main street is a natural creekbed and susceptible to flood on the odd occasion in heavy rain, make sure the beer still flows for the hard working miners. Makes perfect sense to us. 🙂
Originally known as ‘Andemorka’, the name is Aboriginal, derived from a nearby salt lake. Another story about the origin of the name is a reference to a waterhole pointed out by John McDouall Stuart on 21st June 1858. Today of course, Andamooka is all about Opal and although Andamooka arguably falls under the shadows of the larger Opal mining towns of Coober Pedy SA and Lightning Ridge in northern NSW, some of the largest specimens of Opal ever found in Australia come from Andamooka with the world famous 203 carat “Queens Opal” found here in the mid-1950s.
So after brekkie, we head out of Roxby Downs just after 9am and arrive in Andamooka 30 mins later. It’s an unusual and civil 23Deg, a clear blue sky day and the afternoon storms of the previous day all but a distant memory. Celia put together a great little picnic lunch as she usually does and our first stop was the local post office to post a few items in relation to the other part of our life humming along in the background.
After the PO stop and a good yarn to some locals, we call into the Andamooka Yacht Club (AYC) which, thankfully, is nothing like the Royal Sydney Yacht club in Rose Bay, Sydney.
We were attracted to the AYC because we recently read in a magazine of a young inner-Sydney couple who, early last year (2015), visited Andamooka for the first time. They fell in love with the town and soon after sold their digs in Sydney and moved here to open up a cafe in the AYC that now prides itself on good coffee. We had a nice chat with them both, sampled the coffees of course (they were very nice I must say) and soon after with some new found local knowledge, head east out of town towards Lake Torrens, to where we run into the local grader operator repairing roads from the recent rains 9kms out from town.
We both stop and have a friendly chat for a few minutes and he describes the road ahead as he puts it; “rough as guts, mate” and warns we may want to give it a miss for a few days until the road has been repaired. He goes on; “There are large road-ruts and a few deep washouts from the heavy rain, some are over a foot deep”. We (reluctantly) heed the frank advice and decide to explore off the main road on an old gazetted pastoral track we noticed on our maps nearby, heading up to the top of some distant hills to see what we find. (So long as we don’t stray too far off the two-wheel tracks, we should be low risk to getting bogged, despite recent rain. However if we do bog it should not be much of a problem anyway as we have the means to self-rescue as we have before. But the thought of removing the incredibly thick, saline and sticky red mud afterwards was not something I wanted to deal with). So we proceed with caution and keep it simple.
Not long off the main road, and just after two stoney creek crossings, we see amongst the emerging greening landscape near some old opal tailings a large cluster of Andamooka Lilies, locally referred to as “Stink Lilies” sitting out all on their own. Some were in bloom, some not quite.
These striking arid plants we’d never seen before and after consulting our Wildflowers of Arid Australia book that we picked up recently, discover they only emerge after a deep soaking rain and can spring up overnight in the right conditions. They are known as Stink Lilies because they are a strong scented flower that emits an unpleasant fragrance (…we can definitively confirm this) which apparently becomes stronger as the evening goes on. Nevertheless, these flowers are beautiful to look at, just not in your living room, or on your Kitchen bench …and Aidan, dear boy, most certainly not in our van as you kindly suggested. 🙂
We continue exploring the small mounds of old tailings around the greening hills for a while – even having to use low-range to crawl up a soft steep incline to the top of a hill to see the broadening views around the area. Before long, we take our time to venture back into town to take a good look around the various Opal leases set in amongst many homes and streets scattered throughout.
Resembling rusted trophies, a wide range of vehicles of yesteryear are evident on almost every corner. It is fascinating to wander around and marvel at the various display’s – depicting mini-museums on every street with front yards proudly showing various mining equipment once used from past generations.
We also notice the surface on some of the gravel back-roads on the northern end of town, were top-dressed in opal tailings, perhaps used to somewhat harden the road gravel surface? We presume the tailings had been heavily mined by the original owner(s) however due the recent heavy rains and not many miners in town ATM, the boys and I easily find several pieces of colour by simply walking the roads only after a couple of minutes of random searching.
Moving further around town, we find a place with a high vantage point and pull off the road to have a bite to eat whilst once again we fossick (or ‘noodle’ as they say in these parts) along the side of the road for whatever glints back up at us.
The boys just loved it and they could have happily done this all day and not have eaten anything in the process. I clearly remember being the same at their age and Celia and I loved watching and hearing them announce the next exciting new rock discovery.
Whilst the boys happily searched for that “huge elusive find”, I grab the camera and walked a few of the back streets which appeared totally deserted as it was still early in the mining season and most miners have not yet turned up for the new season. A majority of the town disappears to escape the summer heat to return in Autumn.
As with the mining machinery in other parts of town, we also notice many original Land Rover Defender models and various parts to these classic 4x4s – late 1950s model(s) upwards, full hard/soft canopy models, Short/long-wheel based, to Defender Utes & Troop carriers and several custom models, all now disused and proudly on display as yard ornaments and thankfully, not a gnome or leprechaun in sight. Sadly though, most of these vehicles today have been replaced with “Toyota equivalents”.
We spend the afternoon looking on the outskirts of town and trying (poorly I might add) to avoid all the red mud left over from recent heavy rains. We relent to the boys continual asking, and venture over to take a look at the public designated “Opal noodling field” which was a laughable size of a suburban backyard swimming pool and as you could imagine, we find nothing, not even rubbish. The boys were displeased about the noodling site and as the shadows were lengthening we decide to call it a day and head towards home.
On the way back to our base in Roxby Downs, we take a detour to look at the condition of the Oodnadatta track adjacent to the BHP owned Olympic Dam Uranium Mine (world’s largest) which was just reopened to 4WD and towing under 3 tonne, which unfortunately precludes us. We saw a bit of traffic along the approx 20Kms we drove on the track and we were looking for a decent vantage point in which to better see the mine site from a distance and every vehicle we noticed thats drove past coming from the Marree direction, was entirely red in colour. We find one reasonable point up on top of a red sand dune that looked back over towards the mine site – still, not great, but was going to be the best we’d find without doing a mine tour or knowing some “local knowledge” in how to get closer on using public roads.
Later that evening whilst Celia and I were cooking dinner, we were discussing and asking ourselves, what was the real attraction to Andamooka.
In short, it is difficult to describe how the town made us both feel. There was an overall enjoyment and ease to the day, partly due to the wide open skies and coloured rocks, the emerging greenery from rains, and the silence and sense of space out there. Granted, we were lucky we had a rare low-temp day for this time of year which meant we could spend all day out in the sun enjoying the town and taking it all in without the risk of sunstroke. And there’s this strange but comfortable allure about the place (that in our mutual opinions Coober Pedy doesn’t have) that puts a genuine warm smile on your face. We picked this up when speaking with the Cafe owners and the nice lady who owns the Post Office who we spoke with earlier in the day. Even the town “grader-guy” in his trusty Caterpillar was more than happy to chat to us and with a genuine big smile.
So how does one best summarise this fascinating town in one sentence?
This is what we came up with: “A delightful town of stark contrasts, big dreams, cold beer available no matter how heavy it rains, edgy humour …and a good bunch of people from all walks of life that have come together to create a great sense of community that you just wished you see more often”.
The problem is, whatever the real ingredients are that make up Andamooka, we don’t think can be replicated anywhere else – that’s what makes the place so unique and why you have to visit some day. Put it on your bucket list …better still, put it on your near-term list and schedule it in and get out here.
The following day leaving Roxby for Coober Pedy, we stop through the Dept of Defence town of Woomera for a quick look around. A strange town we thought – many houses and uniform streets but it appeared almost devoid of life and we hardly saw another person in the 45mins or so we were there. We could see school was in, but could not hear the children. There were lots of modern vehicles parked around the place – but where were the people? Perhaps indoors carrying out rocket scientist stuff 🙂
We meander through the myriad of rockets, aircraft, missiles and other related dangerous looking stuff, all proudly on display. They were even showcasing some of the salvaged wrecked pieces from failed experiments and long-range rockets that have a 3-stage process which jettisons part of itself into the deserts.
Digressing for a moment; seeing these old beat up and mangled rockets on display in Woomera that had fallen kilometres out of the sky back to earth (most of which landed in the Simpson Desert) reminded me of the story we discovered when we were travelling the Nullarbor. It’s a story of when the American Space Station Skylab came crashing back to earth in 1979 with several pieces of it landing around Balladonia, a town on the WA Nullarbor and under the shire of Esperance. The Esperance council collected a few of the pieces and then sent NASA a “littering fine” of AUD$400 which NASA did not pay for 30 years. Good to see a bit of humorous banter amongst countries like this even if the Americans didn’t see the funny side of it.
Geoff & Celia
Feature Image – Background