Head west from Oodna for about 70km and you will come to The Arckaringas, or Painted Desert (you will hear both names used, you also will hear this described as ‘the Breakaway Country’). It doesn’t feature in most tourist itineraries, but surely would if it were better known. Mt Battersby is the most prominent feature near the road.
Here you have desert colours at their best. Dry riverbeds cut white lines across a landscape of ochres and browns; if there has been rain, there may be a flush of green grasses; white escarpments lead to flat-topped hills with reddish crowns. Find a suitable vantage point and look around: chances are that you see no other living thing, apart from possibly a hawk or eagle high in the sky. Have you ever wondered how it would feel being on Mars? This is about as close an approximation as you are likely to find. In a word – spectacular! If you wait till sunset, you may see intense reds and browns as the light changes – beware of wildlife on your return though, if you stay till dark.
Main photo: Mt Battersby, sunset
Second photo: Mt Battersby
Third photo: The Painted Desert.
Fourth photo: More of the Painted Desert.
If you’re making a visit now, the only access is by road or private aircraft. If you drive around for just a few minutes you’ll see the town.
When I was there, apart from being a railway station, Oodna was the administrative centre for the northern part of SA. The population was about 60, nearly all government workers in various callings: police, telephone technicians, airport and meteorological staff, teachers, railway workers, and the patrol officer. There was a hospital with two nursing Sisters, run by the Australian Inland Mission and set up in 1911 by the legendary ‘Flynn of the Inland’. Depending on the movements of the local tribal people, there also could be anything up to 300 aboriginal people in their camp at the edge of town. I gather the town now is run mainly by and for the aboriginal community. Oh, and I notice from "Google Earth" that the main streets in the town are now sealed.
The aerodrome is off about 2km to the south (no commercial services now operate) and most of the government functions have moved to settlements on the new railway line. Apart from the aerodrome, I understand that the main street retains the corrugated iron Community Hall , the ‘Transcontinental Hotel’, and the old general store. The “Pink Roadhouse’ is also to be found there, while it seems the hospital (now government run) still is in operation at the western end of town.
The latitude and longitude of Oodna, if you'd care to look it up on Google Earth is 27.5465S, 135.4468E .
This was something of an institution. It was run for many years by a Czechoslovakian by the name of Pecanec and provided nearly every conceivable service. It was the agency for the Post Office, for two airlines, for the Commonwealth Bank, had its own trucking service, and sold everything you would find in a supermarket or grocery, plus fuel. It also charged like an angry bull, but when quizzed about his prices, Peccie would say (in a heavy Czech accent) ’It is the freight, you know’. He was a friendly rogue, who fitted in perfectly.
While I was there he learned to fly and bought his own Cessna aircraft, with which he terrified everyone by his lack of competence. Which reminds me, he also was the local undertaker and had a range of coffins in storage!
It seems this general store now is owned and operated by the Aboriginal community.
The Pink Roadhouse (new since my time) supplies fuels, has a store, operates the post office, has caravan facilities and can assist with any mechanical work. It seems able to provide for most of the likely needs of travellers.
The Pink Roadhouse also has its own very different (and entertaining) website: I’d recommend you have a look! Apart from being a great example of bush humour, it contains a wealth of extremely good information on the area and on things you might care to do there. They are entirely right, this region deserves to be better known and enjoyed by more people: it really has not been discovered by the tourist trade.
About 60km from Oodna, you come to a wide area of river beds known as The Neales at a place called Algebuckina. Yes, occasionally there is rain and The Neales actually flows, though at other times it can be totally dry! To cross it, the railway engineers back in the 1890s built a large steel bridge which, at 600 metres, is the longest bridge in South Australia. When I was there, the Algebuckina waterholes had some water and were a very pleasant place for a day’s outing from Oodna. It would make a very pleasant camping spot, if that is your interest.
When I last was there the railway was still running, though the locomotives were diesel (I gather they now are rusting in Marree). Even then, following the change to diesel, many of the old sidings had fallen into disrepair because there was no longer a need to water the steam trains. I gather all the railway buildings on the old track are now nothing but ruins, waiting to be explored. There is plenty of history on this drive, if you have time to look around.
I should add that the condition of the Oodnadatta Track varies widely, depending on how recently it has rained, how many trucks or buses have been through, and when the road was last graded! When we went up in 1971 there was an area of mud near Lake Eyre with a choice of about four different tracks through it for some hundreds of metres! Before embarking on it from either end, it would be sensible to check the road conditions.
Main photo: Algebuckina bridge
Second photo: Algebuckina bridge
Third photo: Algebuckina waterhole
Does this come under ‘things to do’ or ‘off the beaten track’! Either way, it’s one of Australia’s more legendary drives, about 400km between Marree and Oodnadatta, and certainly takes you well ‘off the beaten track’. I’m sure it’s somewhat busier now than back when I was up there. Regardless, I would suggest visiting the police before you depart from either end to let them know of your intentions and to ask about road conditions: should you encounter problems, it could be important for your safety.
Starting from Marree, you skirt the edge of Lake Eyre on your right. It’s Australia’s largest inland lake – on the odd occasion when it actually has any water! Most times it is just salt flats, shimmering in the distance as they are in this photo taken in 1971. Near Lake Eyre are ‘mound springs’, subterranean water naturally bubbling to the surface, bringing sediments which create the ‘mounds’: unfortunately I do not have a photo of them.
About half way along the trip, you will come to the little settlement of William Creek (it’s South Australia’s smallest, with a population of about 12). I wish I had a photo of the pub, it was straight out of a ‘western’ movie, with bat wing doors and a dirt floor. Maybe it still is that way! I gather that you now also can get fuel here and that there now is a caravan park.