OUTBACK FLYING TO WILLIAM CREEK

“Just follow the Old Ghan Railroad north until Marree and turn left”

These are my instructions to Mr T, as we are on the lookout for the Marree Man.

We’re on day 2 of our Outback flying trip and heading north after circling inside the crater of Wiilpena Pound earlier.

The Old Ghan Railroad is not that obvious to spot from the air, but luckily it runs along the Outback Highway and that is easy to follow with the few trucks and caravans leading the way.

We fly over Parachilna, which was one of our potential stopovers with its famous Prairie Hotel until it turned out too complicated to arrange a lift from the airstrip ( save it for the Overlander trip, says Mr T ). 

Then, veering slightly west, we keep our eyes opened, looking for signs of the Marree Man. We don’t know much about it, except that it is a man-made geoglyph, depicting an indigenous man hunting with a spear, located 60 km west of the township of Marree in remote South Australia. We didn’t really ask anyone for coordinates, assuming it would be easy enough to find. But after an hour of gazing at vast desert areas, with myriads of colours and textures, I start to doubt that we will ever find him.

Until Terry signals to look down, and here he is, in all his glory. Etched into a plateau, the outline is 4.2 km long and 28km around its circumference. The structure is indeed so large that it can only be seen from the air. Discovered by a local charter pilot in 1998, how he came to  be is a bit of a controversy, with one version claiming it is the work of a South Australian artist ( now deceased ), another suggesting the US army had something to do with it. After nearly two decades left to the elements, the geoglyph started to erode badly and in 2016, locals took up the project to restore the Marree Man as a tourist attraction with the approval of the traditional landowners, the Arabana people. 

So what you can see from the air is the work of a restoration team using GPS data, space imagery and graders to recreate an artwork surrounded by myth and mystery. Terry and Mr T would in fact discuss the technicalities of such an endeavour for hours afterwards! And because we won’t be back anytime soon, Mr T obliges us with 3 circuits for our viewing ( and photographing) pleasure.

The rest of the flight is just as phenomenal, as we approach the southern reaches of Lake Eyre.

Lake Eyre is the lowest point in Australia, at approximately 15 m (49 ft) below sea level, and, on the rare occasions that it fills, becomes the largest lake in Australia. Most of the time it is a  giant salt pan, glistening white in the middle of the South Australian desert. However, today is different. 

The massive floodwaters from the Queensland cyclones earlier in the year made their way south via the Diamantina, Georgina, and Warburton rivers to fill Lake Eyre and nearby lakes. The result is water levels not seen since 1974. 

At the time of our visit however ( June 2019 ), the lake hasn’t filled enough to be seen from the southern shores like Halligan Bay. But from the air, it doesn’t take long for the parched brown earth to give way to a rim of foam, like waves breaking on the beach but in this case a result of the cracking salt crust. And beyond that is water. Vast amounts of it. As we fly around the lake in the late morning sun, the light sky and soft clouds are perfectly reflected on the lake’s surface. We are 400ft above ground, moving between lines of water, sand, earth and sky, looking like a painting. The colours are fairly muted, morphing between soft blue, beige and grey and at some point the horizon seems to disappear. It is stunning, even Mr T, an experienced pilot, is in awe. He does mention that optical illusions is very much a concern though, as it feels like flying upside down sometimes. 

One of the reasons for the low level flying is that  we are trying to spot signs of wildlife.  Water brings life and birdlife is said to have returned to the Lake. Every speck of black and white has me hopeful that it may a pelican or a duck, but unfortunately, despite Mr T’s best efforts, my eyes are playing tricks on me. We see no birdlife.

The flight ends at William Creek, our stopover for the night. 

With a population of 12, the town is said to be the smallest in Australia and home of the William Creek Hotel. Initially established as a boarding house in 1888, then a stop on the old Ghan Railway line, the hotel is now a destination in itself. As Australia’s most remote pub ( next one is 200km away ), it is owned by Trevor Wright, who also owns the locally based charter flights company Wrightsair, the cabins, camping ground and fuel station. That’s pretty much the whole town.

The sealed airstrip is only 100 metres from the pub, which is most convenient for Deidre and I, as we’re walking there to wait for the boys who are refuelling the Navajo. All accomodation bookings are dealt with at the pub. The staff is a mix of young backpackers from Europe and a couple of experienced locals. They’re all pretty friendly and helpful, and since we’ve arrived earlier than check-in time, we’re offered a quiet corner for our bags and a table next to them. It’s lunch time, and not yet busy so service is swift and we have plenty of room to wander around the building. You could say it is pretty rough looking, a typical outback structure of corrugated iron claddings and timber. At the front is the bar, a narrow room decorated with bush maps, souvenirs, business cards and other paraphenalia left behind by passing travellers. Around the back is the restaurant, its walls built with railway sleepers salvaged from the Old Ghan Railway line and adorned with memorabilia and photos from yesteryear. On advice from the staff, we book one of the tables for dinner later, as we’re told they get snapped pretty quickly otherwise.

Accomodation is in 53 rooms and a camping ground. The rooms are spread out, some next to the hotel, others across the one and only road, which happens to be the legendary Oodnadatta Track. arguably the best known outback track. We are staying in one of what is called the Pelican Suites, a short walk across the road. Hailed as the superior choice, larger than any other hotel rooms, it is housed in a row of dongas ( portable containers ), close to the camping ground. Not exactly luxurious, but it has all the facilities required ( king size bed, ensuite, tea and coffee, air conditioning, etc…) and considering we are in the middle of nowhere, it is quite the superior choice indeed. 

What is there to do during the day in William Creek? Most people take a scenic flight over the lake. Some visit the outdoor museum across from the pub, in Memorial Park, where various odd means of transport are displayed, scattered around the remains of the Old Ghan Railway line. They include the first stage of the Black Arrow rocket, successfully launched from the nearby Woomera Rocket Range in 1971. 

In any case, everyone stops here on the way to or from somewhere, gathering fuel and water, checking road conditions and generally organising the next leg along the Oodnadatta Track.

In the evening, the pub heaves with people: tour groups, grey nomads, bush pilots, workers from the nearby stations…It’s standing room only at the bar and we’re very glad to have our table waiting for us in the restaurant. The menu is quite varied, and I look forward to tasting the goat curry the kitchen is famous for. Alas, this dish is so popular that tour groups order it well in advance and there is none left for late comers like us. I am offered kangaroo yros as an alternative choice, but I prefer chicken parmigiana instead. Mr T orders fish and chips ( an odd choice in the middle of the desert, I think ), while Terry and Deidre stick to steaks.

Wow, the servings are big and the food remarquably good, no doubt helped by the red wine and our favourite champagne ( we paid corkage to bring our own, as availability of French champagne is scarce in the Outback ). Dessert is home made lemon tart, Mr T’s second choice as the sticky date pudding sold out ( once again, you have to be quick! ) It’s a fun evening, spent in the most jovial of atmosphere, meeting fellow travellers and swapping outback flying stories for outback driving tales. To say that there are colourful characters out there is an understatement!

We leave the restaurant in such good spirits, I am not ready for bed and convince Mr T to come and watch the stars with me. How romantic does that sound? With virtually no light pollution, stable air, and 360° surround views of the night sky, William Creek Hotel is famous for offering some of the best outback star gazing in Australia. I grab my gear, rug up and plant myself in the middle of the clearing, at the edge of the camping ground. Mr T makes a point of telling me this is not a cloudless night and the moon is nearly full, so my chances of spotting galaxies and stars are pretty slim. He’s right of course, but I don’t admit defeat and stay out for a while claiming I am practising night photography ( and boy, do I need a lot of practise !) 

We’re late getting up the next day, and by the time we make our way to the pub to check out, we run into Terry and Deidre who rave about the breakfast they just had and highly recommend the barista coffee. Sadly, after the excesses of the previous night, I can only manage a cup of tea! 

One last walk along the track to reach the plane and we’re off for more exploring. Next stop: Birdsville.

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