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Driving to Alice
Drive to Alice

Adelaide to Alice drive

Thursday, June 16, 2005

This week, David Reyne takes us on the last journey in our Australian drive series, through some of the driest parts of the continent from Adelaide to Alice Springs.

Rather than stay on the highway out of Adelaide, the crew took a detour through the Clare Valley. One of Australia's oldest wine regions, this is a place of small valleys and wonderful views. English, Irish and Polish settlers arrived during the 1840s and much of their rich heritage remains.

Port Pirie, 227km from Adelaide, was South Australia's first provincial city, beginning in 1845 with a caretaker's cottage and three woolsheds. Rich in silver, lead and zinc, it forms the south-eastern point of the industrial triangle with Whyalla and Port Augusta. Things of interest are the National Trust Museum buildings which include the railway and police stations and customs house.

Next stop was 92km up the road at Port Augusta, which lies at the crossroads between Adelaide, Alice Springs and Perth. The last large town before the outback, it's a good place to stock up on supplies.

Nearby Wadlata Outback Centre is a multi-award-winning place of mystery, magic, fear and excitement. Discover the outback's origins, relive Aboriginal Dreamtime and tales of pioneer explorers and settlers, as well finding out what the vast and varied land means to today's residents.

A distance of 394km away is Wilpena Pound in the heart of the Flinders Ranges National Park. The amazing rock amphitheatre has a single entrance through a narrow canyon and across Sliding Rock. It can only be explored on foot and there are many well-marked graded bushwalks. It is a place of abundant wildlife and vegetation and the changing colours of the surrounding peaks are a delight for photographers.

From Wilpena it is 570km to Parachilna, a tiny railway siding with an attractive pub. With a population of just seven, chances are you will meet the entire town in one go. The Prairie Hotel is an oasis, surrounded by glorious scenery. The restaurant is open every day and serves some innovative meals.

David met up with a Sky Safari pilot at the Prairie Hotel and enjoyed one of their helicopter flights. They offer specialised flights over parts of the country most people never see. A Flinders Ranges sunset flight is an unforgettable experience.

It was another 71km to the tiny settlement of Copley, made up of a pub, general store, caravan park and the most unusual Quandong Café, where it's possible to eat well in the middle of the desert, named after a native fruit resembling a peach and tasting somewhat like rhubarb. Most visitors stock up here for the trip along the Oodnadatta Track. The restaurant also offers excellent tourist information.

With a few jars of quandong jam to take home, the crew drove another 60km to Farina, a ghost town. Proclaimed in 1878, it was known as Government Gums — a place hit by the cold winds of the Strzlecki and Simpson Deserts. Early explorers had dreams of farming, but lack of rainfall and underground water too salty for irrigation saw hopes fade and the town died.

From Farina to Marree is just 56km, but you drive to a place rich in history and intrigue. Once a staging post for large camel trains carrying wool and supplies, it became an important railhead between 1940 and 1980. It's the starting point for Birdsville and Oodnadatta Track trips and for a place with a population of just 80, has lots to offer. The Camel Cup is held every second July, there are gymkhanas in June and October, a mosque, an Aboriginal heritage museum and the famous dingo fence runs right through.

The town's main attraction, though, is Marree Man, believed to be the world's largest geoglyph, a man-made figure or symbol cut into the earth. It appeared in 1998 but just why or how remains a mystery. It measures four kilometres from head to toe and is 28km in circumference. No one has laid claim to being its creator.

Pondering the Marree Man mystery, the crew continued into the hottest, driest and most barren part of their journey and were amazed to come across an enormous monument garden. Coward Springs is an oasis in the driest part of Australia's arid zone. Water from the Great Artesian Basin flows continuously through the spa and into a wetland which is home to at least 120 bird species. New additions arrive each year.

The privately owned and managed campground offers sheltered and lowkey camping, toilets and hot showers. Buildings erected from recycled railway materials add to the ground's character. Tamarisk trees and date palms provide shade. There are camel safaris suitable for all ages.

William Creek, 209km on, is almost in the centre of the Oodnadatta Track. Home to 16, it is in the middle of Australia's largest cattle station, Anna Creek, which measures 30,100 square kilometres. Settled in 1887, it was a support station and sly grog shop for camel drivers working on the Overland Telegraph Line. The town has a store, camping ground, toilet facilities, public telephone box and the William Creek Hotel.

The 165km drive to Coober Pedy is some of the roughest road of the journey. The world's opal capital has experienced summer temperatures as high as 60˚C and because of that, the majority of residents live underground. It is said there are over a million mine shafts in the plains around town, but opal gouging isn't the only thing that happens here. There is a golf course with greens made of sand and sump oil, but the fairways are rough and the roughs aren't fair. The club does, though, have reciprocal rights with St Andrews in Scotland, the home of golf.

Visitors can stay in an underground room at the Underground Motel, on the edge of the town centre in a quiet and secure area. It has a kitchen, rooms have ensuite facilities and your pets are welcome to stay. It has beautiful views from the verandah and there is a children's play area.

Time to hit the road again, over the border into the Northern Territory. It's 741km to Uluru. No picture can do justice to the rock's size and colours. It holds deep significance for the Aboriginal people and many stories are told as groups walk around its 9.4km base.

The last leg of the long journey was just another 452km. Alice Springs was a true frontier town, developed in 1871 as a telegraph repeater station between Adelaide and Darwin. Its development was slow and while it covers only five blocks between the Todd River, Anzac Hill, Stuart Highway and Stuart Terrace, it is perfectly situated in the harsh outback next to some of Australia's great natural wonders.

The Alice Springs School of the Air provides an educational service for about 140 children living on properties or settlements in over one million square kilometres of central Australia. First broadcast in 1951, it was the first of its kind in Australia and uses various communication technologies to have daily contact with students, tutors and teachers.

For our other great Aussie drives:

  • Melbourne to Sydney
  • Sydney to Brisbane
  • Rockhampton to Cairns.
  • Mt Isa to Darwin.
  • Perth to Monkey Mia.

    For more drives, visit

  • Location

    From South Australia to the Northern Territory.


    Wadlata Outback Centre entry is $9 for adults and $5.50 for children.

    Prairie Hotel deluxe rooms start at $97.50 a person twin share.

    Skysafari Mount Samuel tour is $195 a person with a minimum of two people. The tour is around one hour.

    The Quandong Café opens from mid-March to late November. Quandong pies are $3.20.

    Coward Springs camping costs $7 per person a night. A soak in the springs is $3.50 per person.

    William Creek Hotel rooms are $60 a double. Campsites are $3.50 a person or $10 a car.

    Coober Pedy Golf Club green fees for visitors are $5. Club hire is $10.

    Underground Motel single rooms start at $85 a night and double rooms $98 a night. Breakfast is included.

    School of the Air visitor's centre costs $4 for adults and $3 for children.

    Please note that the prices listed are valid at the time of filming.

    More information

    The Prairie Hotel
    Parachilna 5730
    Ph: (08) 8648 4895
    Fax: (08) 8648 4606

    The Quandong Café
    Railway Terrace
    West Copley 5732
    Ph: (08) 8675 2683

    Coward Springs Camping Ground
    Oodnadatta Track
    Coober Pedy 5723
    Ph: (08) 8675 8336 (April to October
    Ph: (08) 8559 6144 (November to March)

    William Creek Hotel
    Oodnadatta Track
    William Creek 5710
    Ph: (08) 8670 7880
    Fax: (08) 8670 7881

    The Underground Motel
    Catacomb Road
    Coober Pedy 5723

    Ph: (08) 8672 5324
    Fax: (08) 8672 5911

    Alice Springs School of the Air
    80 Head Street
    Alice Springs NT 0871
    Ph: (08) 8951 6800
    Fax: (08) 8951 6835

    Northern Territory Tourism Commission
    Ph: 13 3068

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