Lots of interesting military rockety stuff here. Woomera began because at the end of World War II Britain had been attacked by V2 long range ballistic missiles and needed to develop similar capability so were looking for a testing facility. More than 4000 missiles were tested at Woomera between 1947 and 1980. In the late 60s Woomera moved onto supporting the United States Defence Nurranger project, for intelligence regarding missile launches and nuclear explosions .. ending when the Cold War was over. In 1967 Australia’s first satellite was launched from Woomera using an American rocket. The launch site was at Lake Hart (yesterday’s post) because water is needed for cooling. In the 1990s Woomera became the site of joint Japanese/Australian project for a gamma ray observations. Today it does work for various defence and civilian activities and calls itself as the largest test and evaluation range in the world. A huge chunk of land is still a restricted zone.
We are on the road back from Coober Pedy. Lots more flat country and this is one of the interesting things along the way. I’m told this lake is usually much drier than this. The sky is getting dark and growly … more rain to come.
We end this strange day with another Australian oddity, the Dog Fence which is 15 kms outside of Coober Pedy. The sign nearby says “This 5,600 km fence runs from Surfers Paridise in Queensland to the Bight near Western Australia. Dingos [Australian native dogs] are found to the north in cattle country. Protected sheep country is to the south.” The fence was erected in the 1880s and is still operational today.
Opal mining is done by 2-3 person operations rather than big companies because opals don't run in seams like gold, they are quite random so you just have to strike it lucky. The miners peg their claim and start digging through the sandstone, albeit using more sophisticated equipment today. Beware wandering about there is deep uncovered hole beside nearly every one of those dirt piles.
To me Coober Pedy is a cross between the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland and a strange town in the desert like Las Vegas, not quite real. Does this look like a thriving town with 3500 residents? The odd landscape is because many of the people live underground in dugouts to escape the fierce summer heat. Pipes sticking out of the ground indicate there is a surprisingly normal home below. We even visited an underground church. The main street comprises tacky Opal sales outlets and basic necessities like supermarkets, a bank and petrol stations. On the edge of the town they have a golf course that doesn’t have a single blade of grass, just stones with the greens marked with sump oil.
We have driven past the Flinders Ranges through greener country, arriving at Port Augusta as the day was closing in. Port Augusta is a city so we are in small sky country but it was so surprising to be beside the sea I had to use this shot. If you look at the map you will see the Spencer Gulf reaches right up into the centre of the state.
Royal Victoria Hotel, Beltana now a private residence South Australia doesn’t seem to have Royal Hotels like those found in nearly every town in New South Wales so I didn’t add many to my collection. This was one of just two Royalish hotels I found.
The town of Beltana was an interesting example of a town going the same way as Farina but it has refused to die despite having no reason to exist. It started in the 1870s as a post on the Overland Telegraph line and expanded with the discovery of copper nearby. It thrived with the arrival of the railway until that was extended further up the track to Farina and Marree. The town settled into serious decline when the railway was redirected to Leigh Creek in the 1950s and worse still when the road was also realigned away from it in the 1980s when the last of the businesses closed. It is now a State Heritage area. Today some of the old buildings are occupied with ruins for neighbours. There also appear to be newer dwellings built in modern heritage style. The population sunk to 9 people in the 1980s but has 100 today. Another interesting facet of the history of the town is that John Flynn worked as a clergyman in the Smith of Dunesk Mission here before eventually establishing the
Even though large scale mining has been at Leigh Creek since the 1950s the town today is a modern one built in the 1980s when it was decided to move so the mine could be expanded. As such the town looks like one of those modern mining towns with lots of similar quickly erected houses but with plenty of trees planted to soften the landscape and heat. Current population is around 600. The house here is of course a remnant old building not one of the new ones. Each day a 2.8 km long coal train leaves for the 520km round trip to power stations in Port Augusta. And for good measure, some more wildflowers below. I love the way the colour matches the mountains.
The caravans that once plied these routes were not those of today’s ‘grey nomads’ but rather camel trains driven by Afghans. The hot sandy terrain didn’t suit bullock or horse teams so camels played an important role bringing goods to the railway for transportation. In the 1920s motor vehicles meant they were no longer required and they were left to wander the desert and go wild. Despite culling they can still be seen today. The railway is known as the Ghan in honour of the camel drivers that helped open up this inhospitable land.
I am always wondering what makes a town live, die or thrive. Today Farina is nothing but ruins. It was another railway service town on the old Ghan railway. In the 1890s population grew to 300 when it was the railhead for those moving wool and stock from the north but the railway eventually got extended to Marree and beyond . By the 1920s when road transport became more viable the population had dropped back to less than 200. From thence it steadily declined with the police station and school closing in the 1950s and Bell’s store in 1967. The town was finally deserted in the 1980s. Today there is a camp ground. Now to me the final decline doesn’t seem so long ago for such complete desolation to occur.
Marree was once a thriving railway town of about 600 residents. It was a key station on the Great Northern Railway reaching into the remote outback … the sign as the railway station says it was “a story of outback dreams and heartbreak, rail buckling heat and devastating floods in a harsh land.” The last train ran in 1980. Today at the junction of the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks Marree has around 100 residents and is the service centre of the region with police, hospital, hotel, general store, two caravan Parks and home to the Lake Eyre Yacht Club (quirky given that the lake is usually dry for 9 years out of every 10)At this time of year (winter and especially when Lake Eyre is in flood) there are plenty of travellers passing through. The end of the rail and the end of an exciting day. Tomorrow we are on our way back towards the Flinders Ranges and picking up a few places we missed on the way up the road.
Lake Eyre is big all right! It’s quite shallow so the water body moves depending on the wind. Fresh water coming in has a different colour from the salt water and apparently the pink colouring in the shot below is small shrimp things. Fresh water fish washed in with the rivers can't survive the extremely salty water. Water birds (seagulls and pelicans in the middle of the Australian desert) somehow know this is all happening and arrive to feed on the feast where the fresh water joins the salt. However, the expected big influx of birds was not here … there is so much water and greenery elsewhere they don’t need to come to the lake . We saw just a few pelicans on Cooper Creek. The bottom shot is of Lake Eyre south. It is not getting overflow from the North but had quite a lot of water in it nonetheless because of local rainfall.
The flight starts over dune country. They don't look like much from up here but some are very high and run for hundreds of kilometers. The we found the water. The flood water comes down from Queensland through what we call the channel country. It doesn’t flow neatly down a river bed but rather fans out all over the place giving the desert which might have had no rain at all a refreshing drink. It takes months to get down this far and is an amazing sight. Below is an image of the punt where Cooper Creek crosses the Birdsville Track. This punt was put into operation in the 1960s and this is only the fourth time is has had to be used (showing how infrequent these big water events are). It is 20 years since the punt was last needed and it is expected to be in use for at least 6 months.
It's dawn which is not my time of day but today we are excited. The purpose of this long journey was for this day … to see Lake Eyre in flood. Lake Eyre (which is actually two lakes Lake Eyre North and Lake Eyre South) is a huge salt lake (around 10,000 square kilometers) in the middle of the desert … it’s Australia’s lowest point 15m below sea level. The Lake is usually a dry crusted salt pan but every 10 years or so big rains up in Queensland flow some 1000 kms through the desert and enter the Lake. It’s a rare and wonderful event. We had originally planned to drive the extra couple of hundred of kilometres to the lake's edge but the constant rain left us a little wary of being marooned due to road closures. So this flight was our big opportunity
Yes it is desert but it’s been raining again! Dry creeks begin to run and cross the road – in fact after rain the dirt roads are closed until they have a chance to dry because the type of soil here has the capacity to turn into a very slippery bog. Not far after this puddle we found ourselves with a flat tyre. So it was out with the jack and exercising our tyre changing prowess. Before setting out on this trip we had invested in an extra spare and a more solid jack so it wasn't a problem.