The Stuart Highway, named after explorer John McDouall Stuart, runs between Port Augusta and Darwin for some 3,000 kilometres. Although named after the famous explorer it does not follow the exact route Stuart took during his many explorations in the north. The southernmost part of the highway is quite a distance to the west from the Northern Flinders Ranges and the Oodnadatta Track where most of his attempts started to locate the centre and cross Australia from south to north.
Although many explorers, among them Edward John Eyre, Charles Sturt and Peter Egerton-Warburton, have tried to reach the centre of Australia, it was Stuart who can claim the honour of being the first to do so. His subsequent route through the centre to Darwin resulted in both the Overland Telegraph line and the Great Northern Railway, The Ghan, to follow his route much more closely. It also led to the annexation of the Northern Territory to South Australia. The Overland Telegraph has been superseded and the southern part of the railway, via the Flinders Ranges and Oodnadatta was last used in 1980 after which it ran via Tarcoola. The Northern Territory was handed to the Commonwealth Government in 1911.
The bombing of Darwin in 1942 exposed the lack of communication facilities between the northern and southern parts of Australia. Consequently an overland telephone link with Adelaide was constructed and the Stuart Highway, a much more direct route, sealed up to the South Australian border. The section from Port Augusta to the Northern Territory border was not sealed until the 1980s.
Driving north from Port Augusta along the now sealed highway is vastly different from years gone by. Gone are the sandy ridges, salt pans, gibbers, rocks, washouts and other obstacles encountered on the hazardous journey. Although it is still possible to get stuck in swollen creeks, run out of petrol or suffer mechanical breakdowns. To really enjoy the trip, and get ‘a feel for the history of the track’ and the people who live along it, one should stop as often as possible, check out information signs, historical markers, scenic attractions and the towns, both small and large.
The first to travel from Adelaide to Darwin by car were Harry Dutton of Anlaby Station and Murray Aunger. They used a 24 horsepower Talbot (not a 4WD) which they had named Angelina. They called in at the Alice Springs Overland Telegraph station in December 1907 and were the guests of the Bradshaw family. They were held up at Barrow Creek for four days, but with the mud and torrential rains of the wet season had to abandon both the trip and their £900 car near Tennant Creek in the middle of nowhere. They were back the next year with another Talbot, repaired Angelina, picked up Ernest Allchurch and continued their trip in two cars to Darwin and back.
Dutton, born in 1879 was the son of Anlaby station owner who had bought a motor cycle in 1906 to collect the mail from nearby Kapunda in 1906. Aunger, born in 1878, was a champion cyclist. In 1900 he had assisted Vivian Lewis to build South Australia’s first motorcar. The Lewis Motor and Cycle Works became Adelaide’s Talbot agents and in May 1907 Murray delivered the Dutton’s first car to Anlaby – the Angelina. In 1907 they tried to cross the country by following the Overland Telegraph for nearly 3,500 kilometres over mostly roadless country.
Arriving at Port Augusta from Adelaide a visit should be made to Wadlata Outback Centre where the geology and history of the north is presented in a very unique and interesting way. To get the most out of it and best value for money a few hours should be put aside for this. Other must see attractions are the Royal Flying Doctor and the School of the Air.
From Port Augusta one can continue along the main highway via Lake Hart and Pimba. Here one should make a short detour and visit Woomera which in its heyday was quite some town. From there it is only 70 kilometres to Roxby Downs and Olympic Dam, the world’s largest copper and uranium deposit and Australia’s largest underground mine. Surface tours are available. On the way back take a left turn to have a look at Andamooka, a sight well worth seeing. High quality opal was discovered near Andamooka in 1930 during the depression. This caused many miners, mostly recently arrived migrants from southern Europe, to make their way to the field and try their luck. Some of their early cottages, and underground living quarters, can still be seen throughout the town. Many of the modern day miners at Olympic Dam, which is only 30 kilometres away, have now made their home at Andamooka.
Returning to Pimba turn north, to Glendambo, Coober Pedy, the Breakaways, Cadney and on to the Northern Territory border. However, if the idea is to follow Stuart’s route as close as possible one should take a trip through the Pichi Richi Pass from Port Augusta to Quorn. From Quorn the main road leads to Kanyaka, Gordon, Wilson, Yourambulla Caves and Hawker. From here the recently sealed road takes you via Arkaba and Wilpena to Blinman and a dirt road on to Moolooloo Station, the starting point for many of Stuart’s explorations. While at Blinman have a look at the cemetery where William Kekwick, Stuart’s second in Command, is buried
If time is not important take the main road from Hawker to Parachilna and see the Flinders in all its beauty by taking a right turn after some twenty kilometres through Moralana Gorge. This will bring you to the Wilpena road again. Past Wilpena a left turn can be made to go through Bunyeroo Valley, Brachina Gorge and Parachilna Gorge. In Parachilna Gorge a stop should be made at Angorichina to take a walk to an extensive display of Aboriginal rock carvings and then on to the Blinman Pools.
From Parachilna the road goes to Beltana Roadhouse where there is a dirt road turnoff to Beltana Station, once owned by Thomas Elder, the historic town of Beltana and ruins of Sliding Rock and its old copper mine. Going back to the roadhouse take the sealed road to Leigh Creek and Copley. At Copley visit the old Hotel which was run by Mrs Pierpoint for many years. Continue further north to the Leigh Creek Coalmine viewing area or better still do a bus tour of the coalfield. Next stop should be Lyndhurst where a visit to Talc Alf, only two kilometres from town on the Strzelecki Track, will provide an experience not to be missed.
At this point the sealed road has changed to dirt - but the good news is that it is only 400 kilometres to Oodnadatta. Before you start complaining about the road’s condition just think of Stuart and his men walking it during the middle of summer! Going north along the Oodnadatta Track, which can be done with a conventional car, the Ochre Pits are about two kilometres on the left. Next stop would be Farina, which is well worth exploring. It has a campsite to have a rest and do stay a day or two before continuing to Marree.
Marree was previously known as Hergott Springs, named after a companion of Stuart on one of his earlier trips. For many years Marree was the railhead for passengers and a loading station for cattle from both the Oodnadatta and Birdsville Tracks. It had the first mosque, built by Afghan cameleers, in Australia. Marree is also the town from which years later Tom Kruse would start out to deliver the mail along the Birdsville Track.
Leaving Marree you are now traversing that part of the Oodnadatta Track where its mound springs and artesian water proved so important for Stuart and his men. Along the track are still many ruins of old railway sidings, wind mills and water towers needed for the old steam trains. Do not try to climb them as you could suffer the same fate as John Sharpe. He was killed when he fell from a windmill platform at Anna Creek Station in 1902.
Among some of the most interesting places are Curdimurka, Coward Springs, Strangways and William Creek. This last town, had a population in 1901 of nearly sixty, including J.R. Mack who was the local Post, Telegraph and Station Master. At last count it had reduced to less than ten. Even so, it can be quite busy at times and a doubling of its population is not unusual. Most of the time it is possible to meet them all at once. No guessing where that could be.
Having enjoyed their company the road is north again. This time through the world’s largest pastoral property, owned by the Kidman Company and called Anna Creek. Next stops will be at Box Creek, Edwards Creek, Warrina and then the greatest spectacle of all - the Algebuckina Bridge across the Neale River.
Crossing it on 6 June 1859, Stuart wrote; Struck a gum creek with a number of channels and very long water holes. This I have named The Neale after J.B. Neale Esq. MLA. No person could wish for a better country for feed than we have passed over today.
After crossing it, on foot, it will only be a short drive to Oodnadatta. To continue following Stuart’s tracks as close as possible, a 4WD is definitely advisable. Failing that one can head west and follow tracks to Coober Pedy, Cadney or Marla, all of which are on the sealed highway.
It would be a good time now to fill up with all the necessities, including fuel, water and food, it is just a matter of following the old railway line where it is still visible, via Hamilton, until the Finke River is reached. A few kilometres north of Oodnadatta a small detour can be made to visit Dalhousie Springs for a nice hot bath before continuing to Finke. If it wasn’t for some of the agricultural machinery and the palm trees, which can still be found there, it would be hard to believe that people actually were game to work the land. But back in the 1870s it was RAIN will follow the Plough!
On 4 April 1860 Stuart wrote in his diary, The Creek is very large, with the finest gum trees we have yet seen, all sizes and heights. This seems to be a favourite place for the natives to camp. I have not passed through such splendid country since I have been in the colony. The creek I have named the Finke after William Finke of Adelaide, my sincere and tried friend.
From Finke it is a relatively short and easy drive to Alice Springs, either straight ahead or via Kulgera. If one likes to visit Uluru and Kata Tjuta first before continuing to The Alice, another detour should be considered. On the way back from Uluru turn left at about 50 kilometres past Curtin Springs. This road (4WD only) will get you to such exotic places as Kings Canyon, Hermannsburg and Glen Helen. At Glen Helen a relaxing swim will do wonders before attempting the drive to Alice Springs for a well-earned rest and recreation.
Stuart Highway Part 2, Alice Springs - Darwin