In South Australia’s outback, the postman only rings twice a week. I contemplate this unusual fact as I bounce along a dusty road in a mail truck with outback postman Peter Rowe.
The mail bags in the back of the truck are bulging with letters and parcels addressed to residents of the remote outback stations and towns which we are about to visit.
Twice a week, Peter drives the 644km round trip from Coober Pedy to the South Australian Outback, and fortunately, more often than not, their truck is filled with adventurous tourists eager to experience a day in the outback with the postman.
The tour starts from Coober Pedy, a multicultural community of opal mining families.
Peter arrived in Coober Pedy over 30 years ago to dig for opal and his mail run commentary is peppered with personal memories about the good old days.
As we drive away from Coober Pedy, he points out rocky ridges at the edge of town that conceal sprawling underground mansions.
“Some of these underground homes are really posh; they have swimming pools, gyms, solid gold fittings in the bathrooms and there’s one with en-suite bathrooms attached to all bedrooms”, he says.
Not far from Coober Pedy, the countryside is desolate and sunburnt. We stop at a section of the longest fence in the world, the 5300km dingo fence.
The fence – which is twice the length of the Great Wall of China – was built to keep out the dingoes from chasing and destroying the sheep.
On the road in the Outback
Along the highway, we leave a cloud of dust in our wake as the truck’s wheels spin through the Moon Plains.
Peter says that the rocky landscape is abundant with 120-million-year-old marine fossils, remnants from a time when this barren area, which we’re travelling through, was once at the bottom of a freezing polar ocean situated close to the Antarctic.
This landscape has captured the imagination of apocalyptic filmmakers and the Moon Plains featured in movies like Red Planet and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Adding to the out worldly ambience are movie props, such as an alien spaceship which sits parked in front of the Opal Cave underground complex, left behind by filmmakers
Every few kilometres, we come across floodway warning signs that look completely out of place along the dry and dusty road.
These incongruous signs are not to be ignored as rain falling 20km away can turn dry creek beds into raging torrents, flooding the entire area.
Although regular rainfall is uncommon, when it does rain the wildflowers grow fast and once every few years the desert transforms into a colourful kaleidoscope of blooming flora.
The desert communities plenty of water, thanks to the Great Artesian basin, the natural underground reservoir which holds 132,000 times more water than Sydney Harbour.
At Mount Barry Station, the lean cattle are some of the healthiest animals in Australia. These cattle walk 10km a day, nibbling on highly nutritious saltbush while searching for water.
In comparison, cattle on the east coast of Australia require up to four times the feed to receive the same nutrition.
At another station, a young woman who presents Rowe with a surprise, a Bundaberg rum bottle filled with mum’s homemade tomato sauce.
As we approach the entrance of a third station, in order to short circuit 25km of dirt road to the station homestead, we slide a parcel under a cattle grid near the entrance.
However, you might be interested to hear Australia Post is trialling the use of drones in the Outback.
As the day passes, the desert reveals russet landscapes highlighted by narrow carpets of green, and creeks with names like Giddi Giddina and Abebuleullia.
Eagles swoop to seize marsupials scurrying along the dirt; emus run across the desert; sulphur-crested cockatoos soar freely above us.
Most of the mail is taken to the Oodnadatta Post Office and Pink Roadhouse. This building is a legendary outback stop, in a town with a population of less than 200.
We move on to William Creek. Browns, yellows, lime-green and yellow flowering Darling Lilies blur past.
At Algebuckina Creek, there’s a decommissioned iron railway bridge once used by the old Ghan. Other ruins of railway huts, sidings and telegraph stations (from the old Ghan) are sprinkled across the desert.
At Edwards Creek, you can see the remains of the ticket office, waiting room and stationmaster’s house.
Ghost towns of the Outback
When the Ghan was rerouted, many towns, such as William Creek, became ghost towns. William Creek, which is Australia’s smallest town, sits within the world’s largest working cattle station, the 34,000sqkm Anna Creek Station.
At last count, William Creek had a population of 10, a ramshackle pub, a few weatherboard houses, a dusty nine-hole golf course and the Dingo Café.
The walls and ceilings of the William Creek Hotel – the only watering hole for 160 kilometres – are plastered with business cards, bank notes, old caps, bras and t-shirts left behind by travellers as tokens.
I pin my business card to the wall, wondering if it will still be there the next time I return.
Outside the pub, my eyes are drawn to a flaming sunset, a ball of blazing crimson that glows like a giant opal against the clear sky.
I feel moved by the raw beauty of the outback and honoured to have met some amazing characters who call the outback home. And certainly, there’s no better person to make this introduction than the outback postie.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of South Australia Tourism Corporation.
Discover South Australia
Desert Cave Hotel has underground rooms. Mud Hut Motel (tel: 08 86 723 003) has fully self-contained two-bedroom units and motel rooms with en-suites. Desert Diversity Tours (tel: 1800 069 911) runs the Mail Run.
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