From Adelaide to Oodnadatta by train in 1905

By train from Adelaide to Oodnadatta in 1905

Picture kindly supplied by Leo Fogarty.

Part I

This article was printed in the Register of 21 August 1905 and written by a reporter who obviously had never been up north and did not think very much of it either. It is not very complementary, far from politically correct and often insensitive and derogatory. However it does give an indication of what it was like to be a passenger and the condition of the country.

'The ticket clerk at the Adelaide Railway Station repeated the name of the depot three times when on a recent Monday morning the writer called for a ticket to Oodnadatta. Mingled unbelief, scorn, and pity were in his voice as he searched for the pigeon hole allotted to the faraway station which receives one passenger train a fortnight and cannot show an adequate return even for that rare service. The ticket vendor must have been there himself at some time in his life, for he could never have emitted such a heart-felt wail without actual experience of the trying three-days' journey in a train that averages, broad and narrow gauges lumped, less than 20 miles an hour.

I was the guest of the Hon. John Lewis, M.L.C., who was visiting his Dalhousie Springs Station, and, even with the most comforting equipment of travel that such a host was able to introduce, the journey proved to be one which nobody should lightly undertake. Bush life and these artesian bores are not what they are cracked up to be, and the train ride sets up a crushing monotony, although it could be improved by the department in several respects. One is in regard to the lighting. When night comes up the whole of the passengers are required to sit in darkness.

The oil lamps are the worst that could have been provided, because the lights consistently go out directly the train starts. This condition of things has continued for months without attempt at rectification, and the knowing travellers always carry candles. A train full of naked lights is a dangerous thing, and something ought to be done before a disaster forcibly calls attention to the grievance. There is nothing new up this way, and the object of these articles is only to record an outsiders impressions of our more or less developed interior.

Let us skip over the first day's run, ending at Quorn, and get out of the region of commercial travellers and prosperous and struggling agriculture. Its features are comparatively familiar to everybody, but not so is the second stage to Hergott Springs (two trains a week), and the third one to Oodnadatta (one train a fortnight).

The Willochra Plain. Two of the railway officers who dispatched the train from Quorn to the 'top' were Messrs. Currie and Rice! Soon after 8 o'clock in the morning we found ourselves well on to the Willochra Plain, a desperate locality in the past for agriculturists, but showing a splendid revival this season. Marvellous to relate, there was not a grain of dust in sight, and one old passenger who had come this way many times thought for the moment that he had boarded the wrong train.

The plain, indeed, was fresh with ‘squash' and more enduring herbage, and the bounteous rains had collared the drift, though, no doubt, only temporarily. It was stated that the Willochra Creek, one of the finest watercourses of the north had been running for two months. Nature intended that it should spend its water in Lake Torrens, but that never satisfied briny basin which has been cheated of a flood this year by Mr. Bob Salmon, one of our pluckiest pastoralists who has diverted the flow on to his Kallioota run where a sheet of fresh water, nearly 30 miles around, had formed at the end of last month.

The Kallioota run was originally held by EB Gleeson from 1 February 1856 on lease 462 and by O Horner from 1866 on lease number 1512.

It was interesting to reflect on the condition of the Willochra Plain several years ago. When the Waterworks Select Committee of which the Hon. J. Warren, M.L.C. was Chairman, visited the junction of the Kanyaka and Wirreanda Creeks. I remember witness after witness coming forward and expressing the opinion that the vegetation would never return again. The country was just a fearsome wilderness as the result of drought, and some of the inhabitants reckoned that the very seed had cleared out with the drift.

Kanyaka Woolshed

But the scene today proves that the seed was not dead, nor has it gone before. There is something in the Willochra Plain after all. It looks more pleasing now than the Adelaide park lands. One object of interest to be observed from the train is a ruined mud hut, which once marked the furthest north hotel, kept by Mr. Ben Ragless. Those were the days when Mount Brown, Willowie, Coonatto, Wirreanda, Kanyaka and Mount Arden Stations all embraced a slice of the great plain, before the poor cockies sunk their sweat and coin in it.

Further along are the ruins of the Black Jack Hotel kept by the late Mr. David Bowman, a two storied house, which was a favourite place of call for hundreds of teamsters when the Blinman, Yudanamutana, Oratunga, Mora, Umberatana, and Mount Chambers Mines were enjoying their, palmiest days in the early sixties. The mail for the north went through Beautiful Valley. The decline of the mines and the drought of the 1860s hit the Black Jack hard and when the railway line was built the crumbling stage started in earnest.

To Hawker and Beyond. Crossing the Kanyaka and Wirreanda Creeks the country became drier. Though the saltbush and bluebush had freshened up considerably, and there was plenty of water about. The Kanyaka Station carried about 60,000 sheep when in the hands of Mr. John Phillips. That was not nearly its true capacity, and a big woolshed fading away to decay, testifies to the fact. The uninviting township of Gordon was looking greener than it had been for many a year and the same might be said in describing the appearance of Wilson and Hawker, over which sharp, rugged and barren peaks of the Flinders Ranges stand sentry.

‘A capital start' was all that the cautious residents of those two districts would say concerning the season’s prospects, and that is all that they can be expected to say while the critical and telling months of August, September and October remain in the agricultural calendar. The Wonoka Plains that starved out many cockies lie immediately beyond Hawker. This is the locality of some of Mr. Robert Bruce's early exploits, but appears to be one of the last places in the world that would inspire the poetical instinct. The remains of his brother Douglas, who met a violent death, are buried almost within a stone's throw of the railway.

The locomotive had a tremendous struggle to negotiate the incline outside of Hookina. It seemed odds on that the train would slide back out of the interior, but it managed to crawl over the pinch, and gathered up way after rounding curves almost sharp enough to enable one to sight the passengers in the other carriages. The vegetation in the Hookina country was showing good growth and a few wheat crops, representing the very outskirts of our agricultural areas were promising.

As early as 1881 it had been reported that from Hawker steep curves begin and continue all the way to Hookina. The rock-ribbed hills, among which the train winds its serpentine course, presents a desolate appearance which is in a slight degree relieved by brown tussocks, broom and other dwarfed and scanty garnishing.

The railway dam at Mern Merna was full to the brim with water and the feed in all directions was splendid. Brachina and Meadows were desolate in comparison. What a hideous contrast Meadows North presents to Meadows South! The former appears to be the most, idiotically named place in the State, although when heavy rain falls along this strip of the Flinders Ranges the locality does not affront its attractive nomenclature, for the soil is deep and fertile.

At present, however, it shows Nature in a trance. Edeowie, some miles lower down, had been better treated. Lying close under the range, the vicinity of the railway station had received the full force of a rush of flood waters from the barren mountains. For a long distance the deep alluvial soil either side of the line had been gutted out and gangs of labourers were employed on a job that will divert the water from the line in future.

A Full Train. It was hard to believe that we were travelling on one of the most unpayable sections of the whole railway system. Besides a string of well-freighted trucks the engine was drawing over 120 passengers, the second-class accommodation being so fully taxed that there was an overflow into the first class apartments. One of the latter coaches was covered in dirt and smokers’ debris while the lavatory was minus the usual appointments. The very good excuse was that the carriage had been unexpectedly and hurriedly attached, but this is one of the things that escape the notice of the railway officers of high degree when they make their annual inspection, as they did this month.

The swollen passenger traffic was mainly due to the presence of many shearers and School of Mines’ wool classers bound for Myrtle Springs, Nilpena, Mundowdna, Lake Torrens East, and Witchelina stations. We were soon apprised of the company of shearers by the strains of the inevitable accordion which sounded as though it were making its last journey. Unfortunately its owner was one of the last to leave the train. Still the presence of a large sprinkling of shearers spoke well for the condition of the pastoral industry.

The men on the footplate were very obliging in filling their quart pots with boiling water. Possible travellers should remember that everybody has to shift for himself on this line, for the provision in the way of refreshments, except at the terminal stations, is exceedingly inadequate, another fact that does not come home to the railway inspectors who dine on their car. Carry your own food and your own candles, and the journey is a tolerable one.

Where Blinman is Tapped. Parachilna was the next stopping place, desolate, worn out God forsaken Parachilna. The sandy town was in a great state of excitement. There had been a cycle race meeting on the flag-defined sport ground on the previous day and people had come in from far and near to take part in this rare diversion. A bookmaker had travelled all the way from Booleroo Centre, and gleefully confessed to a 'skinner'. Even in its normal condition, however. Parachilna is passing through lively times.

Darmody's Prairie Hotel (SLSA B16783)

The drink traffic is one of the surest signs of bush prosperity and it is more or less gratifying to be able to note that Mr. W. Darmody is rebuilding an hotel of 17 rooms, including a dining room to seat 70 or 80 people. This town taps the trade of Blinman, where mining operations at the old property are in a vigorous swing. A Bill was once introduced in Parliament, for building a railway between Parachilna and Blinman. Will it be revived? Probably the owner of that large mob of donkeys we saw half buried in the sand hopes not. At any rate, the road to the mining town is in a terrible condition and large stacks of coke await transport to the mine.

The railway yard also holds a large heap of red gum sleepers which the contractor Mr. Jesser is cutting at the Oratunga Creek, about 18 miles away. Besides enjoying the Blinman trade, Parachilna taps Moolooloo and Wirrialpa Stations. The latter was sold to the late MR. J. H. Angas by the trustees of Philip Levi, and is now occupied by Messrs. John Lewis and Boxer Ware—cattle, horses and mules having exclusively taken the place of sheep. The outlook generally at Parachilna is tiring to the eye. For the first time since leaving Adelaide the sand drift was observed to be almost flush with the tops of the fences.

On the return journey a terrible dust storm was raging for the second day in succession. The railway engine was the colour of refined copper and the whole scene was dreadful to behold. The Government party experienced the full force of the storm in their drive to Blinman and residents said that the dust quite disheartened His Excellency in regard to the far north. And the public house is called the Prairie Hotel! However, the name was not always a misnomer'.

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