By John Pedler
Published: Tuesday, June 7, 2022
Updated: June 11, 2022 at 7:00 am
Far from SA’s main cities and towns, a few South Australians have been drawn to the lifestyle of remote outback settlements.
We look at Oodnadatta, Andamooka and Innamincka – three tiny SA towns that have survived the hardships and isolation of their far-flung locations.
To reach Oodnadatta from Adelaide, follow the Stuart Hwy for 852km to Coober Pedy, then head north-east for 180km along the unsealed Kempe Rd. Alternatively, take the more adventurous route that passes to the west of the Flinders Ranges, and follow the richly historic – and mostly unsealed – Oodnadatta Track, a total distance of 1060km.
The town’s origins can be traced back to a geological wonder that has allowed life to thrive in an arid environment. Water falling on the Great Dividing Range travels west across the country via an underground aquifer known as the Great Artesian Basin. Where it bends up towards the surface, the water is released as springs.
The upturn of the aquifer in South Australia fortunately occurs in the middle of the desert. The result is a line of life-supporting springs that served as a trading route for First Nations peoples for thousands of years.
Later, explorer John McDouall Stuart and European settlers followed this same path into the remote northern reaches of the state. This paved the way for the Overland Telegraph between Adelaide and Darwin, and the Northern Railway, which later became The Ghan.
The town of Oodnadatta was established as the railhead in 1891 and was the end of the line for nearly 40 years. Rail services weren’t extended to Alice Springs until the 1920s.
The last outpost before the wilds of the far north, Oodnadatta’s population was a mix of Ngurabanna people, rail workers, business owners and Chinese market gardeners supplying fresh produce. There were also cameleers from Central Asia (collectively known as Afghans, hence the naming of The Ghan railway), and their 400-plus camels delivering freight and mail to surrounding properties.
When The Ghan was moved east in 1980 to its current route, there was concern it might signal the end of Oodnadatta. Fortunately, outback tourism was starting to boom and the town has since become an important hub for people heading north to Alice Springs or east across the Simpson Desert.
The town’s most noticeable and striking feature is the Pink Roadhouse. Established in 1983 by local legends Adam and Lynnie Plate, who operated it until 2013, visitors can pop in for supplies, fuel, tyre repairs, travel info, accommodation, and meals – including the famous Oodnaburger.
Travellers can also pick up the key to the town’s museum at the roadhouse. Located in the old railway station, the museum is a cornucopia of Aboriginal artefacts, historic photos, displays covering Oodnadatta’s role as an inland mission and rail town, and exhibits explaining the region’s geography and geology.
The town of Andamooka is on the traditional land of the Kokatha people. John McDouall Stuart passed through the area on his first expedition north in 1858 and was thrilled to find plenty of fresh water at what is now known as Andamooka Waterhole.
A few years later, one of Riverton’s founders, Charles Swinden, brought gold back from the Andamooka Ranges, but he died before he could show anyone where he’d found it. It remains a mystery to this day.
Andamooka cattle station was established in 1872, but it wasn’t until 1930 that two of the station’s boundary riders found opal on the property. Like many secrets, word got out quickly. Soon there was a rush to the site and an utterly ramshackle settlement sprang up. Miners lived in tents or semi-dugouts, burrowed into the sides of hills.
Living conditions were tough, not just because of the desert environment but also the Great Depression was starting to bite. Still, plenty of opal was found, and by the early 1960s there were about 800 miners in the area. A store, restaurant, school, church, police station and other services arrived but, ironically, it wasn’t until 1974 – when the population was declining – that Andamooka was officially proclaimed a town.
The rough track to the settlement was often challenging, but the discovery of uranium, gold, silver and copper at Olympic Dam – 30km to the west – changed that. A better road was constructed to access the new mine, and the service town of Roxby Downs was built. By the 1990s the road to Andamooka was completely sealed.
Andamooka’s population is now about 300 people and opal mining is still the main activity. It’s also become a dormitory town for some of the workers from Roxby Downs due to cheaper housing and rental prices.
Although the buildings are much more substantial and there are many more services than the early days, Andamooka maintains its rough and ready charm.
Located on the banks of Cooper Creek in the far north of the state, the remote township of Innamincka has endured a stop-start history.
Explorer Charles Sturt passed through the area in 1845, but it was the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition in 1860/61 that thrust the region into the spotlight.
An eight-man exploration party led by Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills had travelled from Victoria and established a base camp beside Cooper Creek. Burke and Wills then headed off with two men, John King and Charlie Grey, to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Eighteen weeks later, and a month overdue, three survivors returned to Cooper Creek ‒ Charlie Gray, four camels and their only horse had died en route. The four men, led by William Brahe, who’d remained at base camp had run short of supplies and left for Melbourne only a few hours before Burke, Wills and King arrived.
Brahe left food at the now famous Dig Tree, but when this ran out the three men tried to live off the land.
The local Yandruwandha people, who’d lived beside the bountiful Cooper Creek waterholes for generations, did their best to help. Sadly, Burke’s prickly personality would only allow him to accept limited assistance in the form of fish, and flour made from the nardoo plant.
Burke and Wills eventually died from exhaustion and malnutrition, while sole survivor John King was cared for by Yandruwandha locals until a rescue party found him months later in September 1861.
This disastrous outing, and subsequent more successful ventures, opened the land for settlers. By the early 1870s, Innamincka cattle station was established, followed by a police camp in 1882, and a pub and store in 1885.
The town was proclaimed in 1890, initially under the name Hopetoun in honour of the Victorian Governor. This outraged locals so much that it was quickly renamed Innamincka – the long-accepted moniker for the region.
Floods, droughts and isolation were always challenging, but when shifting sands blocked the Strzelecki Track (the main access road), transport services moved to the Birdsville Track. By the 1950s, the town was deserted.
The early 1970s saw the beginning of the recreational 4WD boom, together with increasing oil and gas activity in the surrounding desert. Innamincka was reborn. Thanks to the ongoing development of mining infrastructure, the 472km-long unsealed Strzelecki Track has improved substantially over the years.
With a population of 44, Innamincka has a pub, a store, fuel and accommodation, and the ruins of the Australian Inland Mission building – built in 1928 – have been completely restored to house the National Parks and Wildlife headquarters and information centre.
Travellers flock to the area in the cooler months to enjoy the magnificent waterholes along the Cooper Creek. Massive river red gums, extensive water plants and prolific birdlife thrive in these classic desert oases.