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ROAD TRIP - Melbourne to Mataranka

Most people would think you’d be crazy to spend 3 weeks driving 7556 km to the top of Australia and back to swim in a hot springs . . . And they’d be right!

Mataranka Thermal Springs

When you’re a family of road trip lovers like us, the destination is just an excuse to hit the road in search of some adventure.

Our original plan for this road trip was to head up to Lake Argyle in the East Kimberley.

But plans have a habit of changing . . . especially at the last minute!

I’ve been working with Charlie Sharpe (who owns the Lake Argyle Village) on getting back up there and shooting some new material for the 2016 edition of our Discovering Lake Argyle documentary.

Since we shot the original film things have really kicked on around Kununurra & Lake Argyle and there is plenty of new development, especially around the Ord River Scheme.

There is even talk of raising the height of the Ord Dam to increase the capacity of the Lake.

So with the outline of a shooting plan in hand, I packed the kids (Savanna, Sara & Sienna), my Dad (Peter)  and Buddy the Dalmatian into our Landcruiser, hooked up the camper trailer and we hit the road.

It would take us about 8 days to get to Lake Argyle via the Oodnadatta Track and Stuart Highway, I’d have 4 days to get all the shooting done, then we’d spend about 8 days getting back coming down the Tanami Road and exploring around the Red Centre.

At least that was the original plan . . . and plans have habit of changing.

Three days into the trip I managed to get some phone range and found an email from Charlie letting me know that things at Lake Argyle had taken a turn for the worse.

They had bushfires all around them, the air was filled with smoke and everything was winding down for the season rapidly - sooner than they normally do.

This meant that I wouldn’t be able to shoot a lot of the material I was planning to!

So rather than only get half the job done, I decided to postpone the Lake Argyle visit (an excuse for another trip and we grabbed the road atlas and started working on plan B.

We were in Coober Pedy at this stage and had about 17 days before we needed to be back home.

This was our first road trip with our new dog, Buddy, so we now had to factor him into our plans.

Our first road trip with a dog creates a new set of challenges.

This is when the restriction of travelling with a dog really hit home.

We talked about the idea of spending a couple of weeks around the Red Centre and taking my dad out to see Uluru (which he hasn’t seen yet) - but virtually everywhere we wanted to go is in a National Park and ‘NO DOGS ALLOWED!!'

You can take dogs to the Yulara campground but not out to Uluru or Kata Tjuta - and we couldn’t leave Buddy in the campground by himself.

We looked at heading up to Dalhousie Springs & Mt Dare then taking the Old Ghan Railway track into Alice Springs but this would involve entering Witjira National Park, and of course, no dogs allowed out there either.

Nor are they allowed at any of the gorges along the Western Macdonnell Ranges (except Glen Helen Resort) or Kings Canyon.

So, with the 4WD atlas open we looked further north along the Stuart Highway until our eyes landed on Mataranka and then the decision was made.

It’s a long way to go for a swim in a hot spring but having been there many times before, we knew it was worth it.

Plus, all of the road houses on the way up and the Mataranka Homestead are dog friendly so we’d have no issues with places to stay.

We reworked the itinerary and locked in 4 nights at Mataranka which would give us plenty of time for swimming, relaxing, checking out the local area and enjoying some cold drinks at Maluka’s Bar at the Mataranka Homestead.

It did occur to me at this point that we were probably a bit crazy driving several thousand kilometres from home to basically go for a swim but, after all, it’s all about the journey!

Car Trouble

A couple of weeks before we left on this trip the starter motor in our Landcruiser starting playing up.

I would intermittently get a CLICK, CLICK when I would try and start it, then it would start on the third or fourth attempt.

It only happened randomly but murphy’s law being what it is, it was bound to fail completely when we were furthest from civilisation and the means to easily fix it.

I’d checked and cleaned all of the battery terminals and connections and it was still not behaving so it looked like the starter motor was on the way out.

It has done over 350,000km after all!

With only a week before our trip started I jumped on eBay and bought a replacement unit which fortunately arrived a couple of days before we left.

I didn’t have time to install it but brought it with us just in case.

And I’m glad I did!

A few days into the trip we were half way between William Creek and Coober Pedy with about 100km of station track in front of and behind us.

We’d just narrowly missed a good sized brown snake that decided to cross the road in front of us. As I looked in the side mirror I could see him still on the track so I swung around and headed back to get a couple of photos.

As you can see in the photo above it has a black area behind it’s head. Juvenile brown snakes often have black on their head but I’ve never seen one with the black colour further down - if you know more about what this snake is, please leave a comment below.

I give any brown snake a wide berth anyway so I didn’t bother to get out of the car for a closer look but managed to get a couple of good shots through my open window.

A bit further down the track I pulled over for a 10 minute break to give the dog and everyone a chance to stretch their legs etc . . . . and when we jumped back in, the car wouldn’t start!

CLICK, CLICK, CLICK, CLICK . . . . CLICK, CLICK, CLICK, CLICK . . . CLICK, CLICK, CLICK, CLICK

And on it went for about 5 minutes.

It really looked like we were camping there for the night but I gave it one more go and . . . CLICK, CLICK, CLICK . . . START!

Hooray!

I’m convinced that was the last start we were ever going to get out of that starter motor so we kept going to Coober Pedy and didn’t turn the engine off until I had reversed the camper onto our site in the caravan park and the car was parked ready for it’s new starter motor to be installed next morning.

While I was reversing the camper in, my Dad jumped out and started chatting to our new neighbours.

It turns out that they recognised our car as soon as we drove in and were fans of The Big Lap Series.

They even told us that it was The Big Lap Series that had inspired them to do this trip . . . awesome!

So it was introductions all round and we got to work getting to know them over a cold beer or three.

Paul & Lisa and their three kids Matthew, Riley and Laura were on a 5 week trip from their home in Tuncurry on the north coast of NSW.

This trip is a trial run for their own Big Lap which is a couple of years away if all goes to plan.

Paul had put a lot of work into preparing their caravan for the trip and, so far so good, the work was paying off.

We also found out that these guys are local legends back at home thanks to their annual efforts in setting up thousands of Christmas lights and displays all over their house.

It takes weeks to set it all up and Paul & Lisa collect donations from passers by which all go directly to one local charity or another. They take nothing for themselves, not even to cover the cost of buying the lights and decorations or paying the power bill. Great people!

Paul & Lisa's house fully decked out for Christmas

Next morning it was time to tackle the starter motor replacement and rather than being a pain in the arse job I thought it would be, it was all done and dusted in about an hour.

It worked a treat and my confidence when I turn the key that something will happen is back up to 100%.

A nice new starter motor installed in about an hour

I’m sure the old one could have been serviced and put back in, but for $179 for a replacement off eBay it hardly seems worth it. That even includes a 5 year warranty!

We took the opportunity in Coober Pedy to fill up with diesel and grab some supplies before hitting the road north towards Mataranka which was still 4 days drive away.

Travelling With A Dog - The Story So Far

Before we left on this trip, my biggest concern was how we’d go with Buddy the Dalmatian.

Of course there are the restrictions about where you can and can’t take dogs, but at only 6 months old the longest trip he’d ever been on was the 2 hour drive from the breeder when we went to pick him up.

Now he had nearly 8000 kilometres in front of him - what if he was no good in the car?!?!

We have also toilet trained him at home and even when we take him to the park, he waits until we get home before doing his business.

There was no way he was going to hold on to it for three weeks so that was an issue we would have to overcome.

But it quickly becoming apparent that I need not have been worried.

Buddy The Dalmatian

He loves being in the car and sleeps most of the time. No issues of him getting car sick like some dogs do.

He also soon worked out that if he did his business at camp as far away as he could reach on his rope then we were happy.

Being a predominantly white dog, of course he took every opportunity to roll in the dirt and after a few days we were convinced we’d be calling him Red Dog by the end of the trip.

Amazingly though he has a built in ‘self cleaning’ feature and the dirt seems to just fall out of his fur - I don’t remember reading about this when I was researching dog breeds but it’s a welcome bonus.

He’s also not a fussy eater at all and will eat virtually everything we give him which makes it easier on road trips where food options are not as flexible as at home.

It also means we have to be vigilent around camp and roadside stops to make sure he doesn’t eat anything he should, like dingo baits.

We fed him a mixture of dry food, a meat and veggie casserole I made up on the camp stove, and whatever we were having and he was happy with that.

A few weeks before we left on this trip I bought a folding travel kennel for $74.90 from eBay and a $25 heavy duty mattress and starting using it at home.

Buddy's kennel fully set up - plenty of ventilation and it can be zipped shut
The portable kennel folds flat in about 10 seconds ready for transport

The theory was that everywhere we went, it would be a familiar surrounding for him - his own piece of personal space.

Well it was an inspired idea I have to say and it worked perfectly.

We started out setting it up inside the camper trailer for him to sleep at night and left the door of the camper open at the bottom so he could go outside at night when he needed to - he was tied to the back of the camper with a rope about 6 metres long.

Once we were further north and the nights we warmer we starting putting his kennel outside and we had no problems there either. Maybe the fact that I was also outside in my swag helped.

We’ve also found a growing trend with caravan parks becoming more dog friendly.

Big 4 Parks have traditionally shunned dogs as a general policy but every one we saw on this trip I noticed they had ‘Dogs Welcome’ on their signage.

We stayed at the Oasis Tourist Park in Coober Pedy and they had changed their signage from ‘Sorry No Dogs Allowed’ to ‘Dogs Allowed’.

I’m not sure if this is seasonal or permanent but overall it’s a positive step.

If you look carefully at the bottom of the sign you'll see the 'Dogs Allowed' and the 'Sorry No' has been taped over.

While this is our first trip with a dog, I’ve never been bothered by other peoples dogs in caravan parks and have wondered why so many places have said ’no' to dogs.

The biggest issue now is not being able to take them into National Parks.

I understand that National Parks are there for the wildlife first and foremost but I wonder if this restriction is not too absolute?

Maybe being able to take them into some of the campgrounds and keep them on a rope could be feasible, but I won’t hold my breath!

Anyway . . . back to the road trip . . .

So far on this trip we’ve had an overnight stop in Port Pirie before driving up the Oodnadatta Track as far as William Creek then turning off for Coober Pedy We’ve pretty much driven straight through except for a quick overnight stop at Marree.

Our plan though is to come back the same way except we’ll start at Marla and so drive full length of the track and take the time to do some more exploring along the way.

As we head north out of Coober Pedy up the Stuart Highway our next destination is Kulgera Road House just over the Northern Territory border.

Camping at Kulgera Roadhouse - basic but cheap and we managed to find some shade

The campground and facilities are cheap and basic but they have a good bar and we enjoyed a few games of pool with some of the locals and gave the jukebox a solid workout.

It’s a good thing we weren’t hoping to have a swim in the pool because it’s seen better days. But I’m not complaining - sometimes you want to stay somewhere with great facilities and you pay the price for it - other times is just about somewhere cheap and easy to camp that has amenities, food and somewhere to have a beer or three.

The pool is temporarily out of service

Next day it’s on to Alice Springs to refuel, grab some more supplies at Coles and buy the girls some more books to read at Target.

The girls have managed to turn this trip into a reading marathon which is a welcome change from iPads.

Savanna is re-reading the Harry Potter series, Sara is working her way through the Hunger Games books and Sienna is into Coco Banjo.

They’re reading so fast that we needed to stop and buy them all the next books in their series so they didn’t run out.

It's been like this in the car most of the way so far - the girls reading and Buddy sleeping!

After a few hours in Alice we’re back on the road continuing north and by mid afternoon we've made it as far as Ti Tree where we found a nice piece of grass at the road house to camp on.

Surprisingly the camp area was nearly full but we managed to find a quiet spot and setup camp once again.

We had plans of another pool competition tonight but unfortunately the bar was broken into the night before and is closed so the police can investigate - so its ’s early night for us instead!

Back on the road and its about 460km to our next overnight stop at Renner Springs.

The days are getting a lot warmer now and the thongs and t-shirts are finally getting put to good use.

Back at home it’s cold and raining so we’re happy to be heading north away from the southern winter weather.

The Devils Marbles make for a good lunch stop and I lay out a spread of dips, cheese, biscuits, carrots, cucumber, South Australian mettwurst, coleslaw and a few other goodies.

This is a typical lunch for us on the road because it’s quick and easy with minimal dishes involved.

Everyone can fill a wrap or two with their favourite things and eat it standing up without a plate - doesn’t get much easier.

Buddy has dry food for lunch in the collapsible bowl we bought him and of course he’s happy to clean up any of our leftovers that fall his way.

He finishes off with about half a litre of water and chills out in the dirt under the shade of the car.

I’ll usually put the billy on at lunchtime but don’t bother today as we’re keen to keep moving.

Another hour or so up the road and we’re in Tennant Creek.

It’s a Saturday and the place is deserted.

Fortunately for us though the supermarket is open and we stop in and pick up a box of ice creams before heading down to the pub for a carton of beer.

There’s a police officer standing outside the bottle shop and at first we think that there has been some trouble but when he walks back in and sits on a chair by the entrance to the bottle shop we realise that he’s actually a acting as a security guard.

I’m not sure how many places in the world could claim to have the local law enforcement guarding the bottle shop!

Welcome to the Northern Territory!

Renner Springs

We push on and make it to Renner Springs Roadhouse in plenty of time to setup the camper trailer before it gets dark.

It's $48 for an unpowered site and probably the most expensive road house we’ve stayed at, especially when all the others are more like $20 to $25 for the night.

Behind the camping area is a waterhole fed by a windmill and a few resident geese that waddle over to greet you when you get there.

It makes for a great photo opportunity, especially at sunrise with the sun coming up behind the windmill.

Windmill at Renner Springs
The welcoming party - Renner Springs Geese
$48 per night - might explain why we had it mostly to ourselves - nice grass though!

The girls are keen to toast some marshmallows so we fire up a campfire after dinner and suitable toasting sticks are found in amongst the wood pile.

Next morning we’re up early and packing up so that we can get to Mataranka.

It’s hot and we are dirty and dusty and yearning to get in that warm spring water.

North of Renner Springs is Dunmarra Road House who make their own home made meat pies which are far superior to the commercial ones you get most other places.

So we decide to forego the tailgate lunch and opt for pies, chips and gravy at Dunmarra instead.

Dunmarra Roadhouse

One of the roadhouses resident snakes

I have fond memories of Dunmarra.

We spent 3 nights camped here on our Big Lap trip on our way back to lake Argyle after a month around the Red Centre.

Jen was in Queensland catching up with our friend Anita and I spent the time catching up on our blog before we met up with her again further north in Katherine.

The girls made friends with some other kids camped there as well and spent all day every day playing one game or another.

Looking back now it was a luxury to be able to just relax for a few days without needing to be anywhere or see anyone - no mobile phone, no internet connection, no pressure.

Happy days!!

Not today though, we’re on a mission to get to Mataranka so with plates cleaned and Buddy fed and watered, we’re back in the car on the road for the last push north.

About 3 hours later we finally roll into Mataranka, setup camp and head down to the springs to immerse ourselves in that glorious spring water.

Mataranka

Sienna & Sara cooling off in the Mataranka thermal pools after a week of driving
Our campsite at Mataranka Homestead

I first visited Mataranka Homestead and the springs in 1989 and have been back at least a dozen times since.

Some people complain that it’s under developed with old amenities and fairly basic facilities but frankly I prefer it that way. It costs us about $26 a night for a powered site for 2 adults, 3 kids and a dog and there is no cost to swim in the springs.

I reckon this is great value and wouldn’t want to see that price double to cover the cost of a new amenities block and a jumping pillow.

Sure it would be nice to have grass to camp on but that too would come at a cost.

Maluka’s Bar is simple and relaxed with hot chips and gravy and cold beer, a pool table, fire place for cool nights and entertainment some nights.

Maluka's Bar at Mataranka Homestead

They serve a decent menu of pub food a reasonable prices and the service is fast and friendly.

It’s a great spot to chill out for a few days after a solid week of driving.

On our first full day here the girls and I spend pretty much the whole day soaking in the springs while my Dad and Buddy chill out back at the camp.

There’s a colony of red flying fox bats living in the palm trees around the Mataranka Thermal Pools and during the day they hand in the canopy of the trees and try and keep cool.

Bats sleep in the trees during the day then fly off to feed at dusk

Walking down the path to the pools there is a slight risk of being hit by falling droppings but it didn’t happen to us this time.

At dusk the thousands of bats in the colony take flight in search of food and for a while the sky is filled with bats flying in every direction.

The bats take to the skies at dusk

The campground area has its fair share of friendly wildlife as well with several peacock families and numerous wallabies roaming around the grounds on the lookout for a meal.

It’s tempting to offer the wallabies some bread but there are signs around the grounds asking that you don’t.

Bread causes a condition in wallabies and kangaroos called lumpy jaw which can be fatal to them.

Vegetables like carrots are more in line with their normal diet and they are happy to be hand fed which is great opportunity for the girls to see them up close.

Bitter Springs

On our second day there the girls and I leave my Dad and Buddy at camp and take a drive a few kilometres down the road to Bitter Springs.

Unlike Mataranka Thermal Pools, Bitter Springs is much more natural and undeveloped with just a few stairways providing access into the gentle flowing water.

Bitter Springs, Mataranka Northern Territory

Bitter Springs is part of the Little Roper River and the spring that feeds the Mataranka Thermal pools Pools runs into the Waterhouse River. Both feed into the Roper River which runs east for almost 300km before emptying into the ocean in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The water at Bitter Springs is crystal clear and the bottom is a mixture of tannin stained vegetation and sand.

If you’re planing a visit, bring something like a pool noodle that you can float on and you can climb into the springs upstream and drift effortlessly downstream through the Livistona palms before climbing out with another set of steps.

There is a camping area near the Bitter Springs swimming area but we haven’t stayed there so I can’t vouch for it.

The town of Mataranka has fuel and supplies and a few acres of shady green grass that you could have lunch on if you’re passing through.

There’s a small park with life sized statues created by Yvonne Dorward in 2000 of some of the people that have made this area famous as ’Never Never’ country.

These include Jeannie & Aeneas Gunn - Jeannie wrote the classic Australian novel ‘We of the Never Never’ about life on Elsey Station in the 1890’s which was made into a film in 1982.

Jeanie & Aeneas Gunn, Mataranka Northern Territory
Aboriginal Stockman, Mataranka Northern Territory

Later in the afternoon we make it back to the Mataranka thermal Pools for some more swimming and soaking before dinner.

While we are heading down to the steps to climb in a guy in the pool tells us to watch out for the snake on the steps!!

And true enough there is a golden tree snake in pursuit of a frog across the stairway.

These guys aren’t venomous but we sit back and watch him for a while and snap a few shots until he’s made his way back under the rock beside the pools.

Golden Tree Snake at Mataranka Hot Springs

The nights are cool but the days are hot here at Mataranka this time of year, climbing into the mid 30’s most days

We’re enjoying doing very little and the idea of cooking dinner just doesn’t seem that appealing, so most of the nights here we head over the the bar and order a couple of plates of hot chips and gravy washed down with some cold drinks.

This trip is fast becoming referred to as the ‘Hot Chip Tour of the Northern Territory’.

Savanna has started reading the Harry Potter series to her sisters at camp and while we’re driving anywhere.

After 4 nights it’s finally time to hit the road south and we pack up camp and grab a box of ice creams from the store in town on the way out.

Bank Banka Station

It’s little under 500km south to Banka Banka Station where we decide to stop for the night. I haven’t stayed here before but it’s impossible not to notice the expanse of green grass as you drive by so I vowed to check it out on this trip.

There’s a school group staying the night and several other vehicles but for the most part there is plenty of space and we find a nice piece of grass to camp on which is a welcome change from the dirt at virtually everywhere else we’ve stayed so far.

It’s only $25 a night which is reasonable but the bar which is normally open, is closed due to the school group using that area - never mind!

Our camp at Banka Banka on the Stuart Highway

Banka Banka Station was actually the first operational pastoral lease in the area and was a supply camp during World War II proving meat, eggs, fruit and vegetable.

While I setup camp, the girls take Buddy over to meet some of the school kids and check out a couple of camels behind a fence beside the campground.

There’s a walk to the lookout at the top of the hill behind the station buildings but by the time we get our camp setup it’s dark.

It’s a great place to stop on your way up or down the Stuart Highway and I’ll definitely be stopping in here again on our next trip and discovering more of this historical property.

The next day we continue south and push on to Aileron Roadhouse for the night ready to head into Alice Springs the next morning hopefully in time to get to Macca’s for breaky 🙂

On this trip so far we’ve seen road train after road train heading south carrying all manner of army vehicles - at least 50 vehicles so far.

We’ve been trying to work out where they are all going and our best guess is that they have come back from Afghanistan into Darwin and are being trucked back to their respective bases around the country - of course this is pure speculation.

Aileron Roadhouse

Aileron Roadhouse is certainly one of the tidiest and most organised of any that we’ve seen around the country.

It’s most distinguishing features are two giant statues of an Anmatjere Aboriginal woman with her child near the roadhouse campground and an Anmatjere Aboriginal man atop the hill behind the roadhouse overseeing the area.

The statues were built by Mark Egan in 2005 and funded by Chris Dick who owns the Aileron Roadhouse.

Anmatjere Woman with her daughter and the goanna they have caught, Aileron Roadhouse, Northern Territory
This shot gives you a sense of how tall the statues are
Anmatjere Aboriginal Man overseeing the Aileron Roadhouse
Sara & Sienna roasting the last couple of marshmallows

It’s amazing what an incentive it is for the girls to get ready and pack up camp when we need to be in Alice Springs by 10:30 before the Macca’s breaky menu finishes.

But despite the incentive we only make it with minutes to spare

After bacon and egg muffins and hash browns we fill up with fuel once again, 260 litres all up which will get us most of the way back to Adelaide.

A few more supplies at Coles and we’re heading west this time along the McDonnell Ranges.

Glen Helen Gorge

Glen Helen Gorge

There are very few places out west that you can take a dog but one exception is Glen Helen Resort so this is our destination.

Glen Helen began life as a cattle station in 1905 but the original homestead was repaired and opened up for tours in 1954.

Since then it’s changed hands numerous times and even been closed for several years between 1996 to 1999, but today it’s thriving and a great base for exploring the Western McDonnell Ranges.

We’ve setup in a decent camp site with a great view to the escarpment and the Glen Helen Gorge itself.

Before dinner the girls and I take a walk down to checkout the gorge and grab a few photos. It’s only about a 10 -15 minute walk from the camp ground but you are walking into the National Park so no dogs allowed.

You can swim in the still waters of the Finke River which runs through the gorge or just sit back and enjoy the view.

Tonight it’s back to the bar and the girls have claimed the pool table and we enjoy a few games.

Our next destination is Kings Creek Station which is 36km east from Kings Canyon.

This is another cattle station that has diversified into tourism and we’ve enjoyed staying there a couple of times in the last few years.

Most importantly, it’s dog friendly so we can take Buddy there.

To get there though we have to tackle the Mereenie Loop road which runs out west from Glen Helen before turning south and then east and ending just before Kings Canyon.

The Mereenie Loop runs through Aboriginal Land and a permit is required to drive it which you can but for $5.00 from Glen Helen Homestead and other business’s at either end of the road.

The alternative would be to head east through Hermannsburg then south through Finke Gorge National Park to the ernest Giles Road, then back west to Kings Creek.

This option is off the table for us though because you can’t take a dog into the Finke Gorge National Park.

So The Mereenie Loop road it is.

It’s about 260km from Glen Helen Resort to Kings Creek Station and the Mereenie Loop Road section is pretty rough unsealed road.

Lots of corrugation and and loose rocks - Definitely 4WD only unless you’re plan is to shake your 2WD to pieces.

I let my tyres down at the start of the road to about 30psi which softened up the ride somewhat and helped preserve the tyres. I also kept the top speed to 80km/h on the good stretches.

The road reverts back to sealed bitumen a few kilometres before you get to Kings Canyon Resort (approaching from the west) and I pumped the tyres back up at the service station there.

There are no services along the way but there is one roadside stop/rest area about 35km west of Kings Canyon Resort where you can camp overnight for free. You’ll need to be self sufficient though as there are no services provided.

We stopped there for lunch and besides the fact that a million flies joined us, it was a great spot with an excellent outlook.

View from the rest area on the Mereenie Loop Road

Kings Canyon Resort is a nice place to stay, and we have stayed there before, but we’re not planning to visit Kings Canyon on this trip so we push on further down the road to Kings Creek Station.

When we arrive at Kings Creek it’s soon apparent that plenty of other people have the same idea . . . it’s busy!

I didn’t bother to book a site in advance and when I walk up to reception it looks like we’re not going to get one either.

Fortunately though after some shuffling, we have a site and a pretty good one too.

I’ve only ever done one night stops at Kings Creek Station, and tonight will be no different, but it’s definitely a destination in itself and a great place to spend a few days and get out and explore the station.

They offer a whole range of activities including helicopter flights, camel rides and quad bike tours.

There’s also a café that serves food from 7am to 7pm every day and a small shop where you can buy the essentials, including fuel.

If you’re heading this way I’d definitely recommend penciling in a few nights to find out more about what Kings Creek has to offer.

Our camp site has it’s own fire place so after we have the camper trailer setup I head a couple of kilometres down the road and along a side track and load up the roof with firewood so the girls can toast some marshmallows.

The nights are not cold at this time of year but camping is not quite the same without a camp fire.

The girls toast their marshmallows and Savanna reads Harry Potter to them. She’s already finished reading them the first book and started on the second.

We couldn’t find a hard copy to buy in Alice Springs so we bought the ebook version and downloaded it onto her iPad.

Next morning we get an early start as we have a 400+ km drive to get to Marla which is on the Stuart Highway but also the northern end of the Oodnadatta Track.

Our first stop about 100km out of Kings Creek is a roadside stop on the Luritja Road.

No sooner have we pulled up than Buddy starts barking like crazy in the back at a dingo which is trotting over to greet us.

A 'wild' Dingo hoping for a free meal
"Can we keep him Dad? . . . PLeeeaaase!!"

It’s only a young one and has no fear of us as it waits patiently for us to offer it some food (which we don’t).

We leave Buddy in the car to avoid any potential confrontations, much to his dislike, and push on.

Erldunda Roadhouse is at the junction of the Stuart Highway and Lasseter Highway and about the halfway point if you’re driving between Alice Springs and Uluru.

They have Telstra mobile phone range here so it’s a chance to check in with the world over a pie and chips for lunch.

It’s a hive of activity with at least 40 to 50 vehicles parked around the roadhouse clustered around any shade that is available.

The shop is well stocked and they have hotel and camping accommodation available.

In the past I’ve noticed that diesel prices at Erldunda have been significantly more than at Yulara which is 200km further away.

This never made sense to me given the fuel truck had to drive past Erldunda to get to Yulara, so I put it down to ‘opportunistic pricing’.

I’ve noticed today though using the Fuel Map app on my iPhone that the price at Erldunda is lower, as you would expect it to be.

If you don’t have the Fuel Map app yet then I’d recommend you grab it from the App store.

You can use it to check out the fuel prices along the route you are intending to travel and make decisions in advance as to where you’ll fill up.

Saving 10c to 20c or more per litre can be substantial on a long road trip like this one.

We’re back on the Stuart highway now and heading south and after a couple of quick stops along the way we make it to Marla Roadhouse for the night.

Oodnadatta Track

The start of the Oodnadatta Track at Marla, South Australia

We travelled some of the Oodnadatta Track on the way up but our plan is to drive the full length of the track on the way back.

The track runs between Marla on the Stuart Highway and Marree which is 617 km south east.

The first leg of the track is 211 km between Marla and Oodnadatta and apart from the occasional cattle roaming around, it’s the spareness and lack of anything that is the attraction.

If you broke down out here you’d find little if anything in the way of natural resources to help you out so you need to be completely self sufficient.

It’s not all desert though and after some solid rains a few months back that had the tracks closed, there is signs of life down at ground level if you look for it.

Wildflowers along the Oodnadatta Track after recent rains

The track itself is in pretty good condition thanks largely to the repairs that have been done since the rains earlier in the year.

There are long stretches where is is as smooth as sealed road but still plenty or rocky and corrugated stuff to keep it interesting.

We make it to Oodnadatta in time for lunch at the famous Pink Roadhouse and Buddy finds some shade under the car to avoid the sun.

Oodnadatta Pink Roadhouse

Heading south from Oodnadatta we’re now following the route of the Old Ghan Railway line which once carried passengers and freight between Port Augusta and Alice Springs.

Construction of the line began in Port Augusta in 1878 and continued steadily north until it reached Oodnadatta 13 years later in 1891.

With cars and trucks still in the distant future, ‘The Ghan’ was the major artery between the south and the centre.

However it wasn’t until 35 years after it reached Oodnadatta that work commenced on the final stretch into Alice springs.

During that 35 years, camel trains were still used to complete the journey and prospectors heading to the gold rushes around the centre at places like Arltunga, would push their worldly possessions in a wheelbarrow from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs.

It’s hard to imagine how tough that would have been been the lure of riches on the gold fields is strong.

Despite that very few made any real wealth.

Following the line today you can still see evidence of it everywhere including piles of wooden sleepers and bridges and overpasses that were built from iron and would likely still hold a train today.

There are also decaying buildings and water tanks intermittently along the track that were once sidings and stations where the Ghan would stop to replenish it’s water tanks and give the passengers a chance to stretch their legs.

Many of these are now bush camp spots.

The Algebuckina Bridge across the Neals River is probably the largest and most prominent remains of the once busy line.

If you can handle the millions of flies that greet you when you open the car door, it’s worth a walk up onto the bridge to take in the view.

There is some water in the river today but I saw a photo on Facebook a few months back of a car that had camped to close to the creek here when the water level rose overnight - they woke up in their rooftop tent to find the creek up tot heir car windows.

Algebuckina Railway Bridge, South Australia

Aside from the flies, this would make a good bush camp spot so long as you don’t camp too close to the river.

Pushing on south and we make it into William Creek late in the afternoon and setup the camper in the campground.

It’s a glorious sunset which is not uncommon out here and the William Creek Hotel is rocking into the night with a large group of adventure motorbikers who have stopped in for the night.

William Creek Hotel on the Oodnadatta Track, South Australia

The first time I visited William Creek in the mid 1990’s there were light planes asked in front of the pub.

Not anymore but apart from that, not a lot has changed.

I’m sure if the walls in the Pub could talk they would have some stories to tell and in fact the walls are famous for being covered from floor to ceiling and many layers deep in business cards, licenses, foreign currency and other memorabilia.

This is how the walls looked a few years ago before they were re-painted to start all over again

Since then the walls have been scrapped and repainted but have already started to fill up again.

I guess some traditions just never die.

Next morning we get a slow start as it is one of th shortest drives of the entire trip. We’re only covering the remaining 204 km to Marree so we can take our time.

I manage to get a great cappuccino from the hotel and Buddy revels in the pats and attention that he gets from most people that he comes across.

There is no doubt that Dalmatian’s stand out and he seems to love every bit of attention he gets.

We make it as far as Coward Springs around lunchtime and the girls are definitely keen to get into the spring and wash the dust off.

Buddy looks like he’d like to get in too but not this time.

It’s a great spot to stop and take a dip but also a top campsite which doesn’t cost much. Dogs and campfires are permitted and it’s only a short stroll to the spring for a dip.

Coward Springs Thermal Pool

After a few more photo stops along the way, we make it into Marree late in the afternoon and setup camp in the grounds beside the Marree Hotel.

This is a free camp provided by the hotel with access to amenities and a covered area to get some shade if you need it.

Marree Hotel, South Australia

It’s nothing fancy, but it’s free and we invest the money saved on the site at the bar anyway so a pretty sensible move by the hotel if you ask me.

At the bar we have a chat to Phil Turner who owns the hotel with his wife Maz and he tells us about the effort to try and preserve the ‘Marree Man’ geoglyph.

Marree Man from the air - Photo Credit: Peter Campbell via Wikipedia

The ‘Marree Man’ was first discovered by a charter pilot, Trevor Wright on June 26th 1998.

The giant figure is 4.2 km high and 28 km around the perimeter with the lines being up to 35 metres wide.

It’s is believed to have been made with a plough.

The mystery as to who made it continues to this day, but the top suspect is the late Alice springs artist, Bardius Goldberg who passed away in 2002 but is known to have wanted to create an artwork visible from space.

Another theory is that it was American engineers who were working at Woomera rocket range around that time.

Today the figure of the Aboriginal man is all but disappeared as the desert is consuming it but there are moves underway to restore it and open it up to tourism.

Read More: Marree Mann Geoglyph returns in Outback South Australia

Our last stop in Port Pirie

We’re on the home stretch now and drive through to Port Pirie and stay the night at a caravan park in Port Pirie before cruising back into Adelaide the next day.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in three weeks and we’re all ready to get back into civilisation.

The girls are looking forward to going back to school in a couple of days (I never did when I was a kid!!) and I have plenty of work to catch up on.

So where to next?

Well, we have a few ideas . . .

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Steve Baile
Steve Baile
I’m the founder of Expedition Australia, a writer, filmmaker & adventure travel junkie. Passionate about my family, health and fitness, hiking, 4WD touring, adventure motorbikes, camping and exploring as much of the planet as I can.

15 COMMENTS

  1. An interesting read, I've been to a few of these places when I was a teenager, would love to revisit them, especially Mataranka (last time I was there they were burning the palms to get the bats to move on, made for a very surreal experience during a night-time trip to the springs).
    It's good to see how traveling with dogs can affect your itinerary, I have two large Malamutes and have often thought the only way I could do a long trip is to leave them in the hands of a minding service, I'm pleased to find there are some good places you can get to with the furkids.

    • I'd give Mataranka springs a miss and just head straight to Bitter Springs. Its under an hour from my place and so much better than the smelly spider infested Mataranks springs. Bring a pool noodle, goggles & underwater camera.!

  2. Well done Steve... great Report. We could certainly relate to much of your trip, having covered a lot of that territory on our Big Lap in 2013. A lot more of that territory was covered as well on our most recent trip... a 7 week trip from Rockhampton to Rockhampton, through western Queensland, Northern Territory, South Australia, Western NSW and back up to Queensland. It's a great country... we are truly blessed!

  3. Wow amazing, the girls have grown so much but in saying that we only saw the big lap 2-3 months ago! Have a great trip 🙂

  4. hi
    just read your latest trip sounds great .
    i did miss one person where was your wife
    looks like you did a lot of travelling and seen a lot in the 3 weeks away cant wait for your next adventure

  5. Hi Steve and family
    you brought back many memories and I enjoyed your story of the Mataranka trip, what do you feed the girls on they have grown so much since the big lap, and now a dog. We poked around some of these old railway stops along the Ghan I found a cross section of the old track it is only 3 cm wide some one must have oxy cut it of the track I kept it plus a railway spike which punctured one of my tyres. The man in Maree who fixed the tyre told me I wasn't the first one and most likely not the last one. Well Steve I enjoyed the big lap I watched a couple of times now, the only trouble is it giving me itchy feet.
    Happy and safe travelling mate in this beautiful land, we must keep it that way
    Cheers Ed

  6. What a great read! We too are a family with two boys (14&9) who love our road trips to a new part of this amazing country every year. We also have a dog who we take with us. It is very restricting, although as you have mentioned, there are more and more dog friendly parks coming on board. We have a golden retriever (so not a small dog) who loves to be with us and the feeling is mutual, he is part of our family. He really is no trouble to take and we are very responsible dog owners, but I'd be lying if I didn't say it is restricting travelling with a pet, hence why we prefer to free camp and head out west to the outback. You really do have to plan ahead with a dog though, especially if you are wanting to stay in parks. It is also hard to know what to do with them if you all want to do a tour/experience, etc. We are wanting to do the Simpson Desert but it will have to wait as dogs aren't allowed in National Parks, Reserves or Conservation Parks. I can understand why and appreciate that. It would be fantastic though, as I'm sure most dog owners would do the right thing (keep them on a lead, pick up after them, etc) as they wouldn't want to lose the privledge.
    Sounds like you all had a great time and I'm sure it has whet the appetite for more road trip adventures...I know it always does for us!

  7. We spent 6 years travelling without dogs and we picked up two Labradoodle pups in February....they are now 10 months old and have known nothing but travelling. It is a little tougher travelling with dogs, but so worth it! As far as National Parks are concerned, you can take dogs through the parks as long as the road is a gazetted road. And quite often the gazetted area extends 100 metres from the road. You need to get in touch with the local council to find out which roads through a NP are gazetted. Obviously you still can't camp in them. This made it easier for us to travel through NPs in Cape York.
    We love your DVD by the way!

  8. What a great read. Love the way you write, lots of homour, it makes you feel like travelling along with you guys. Your girls have grown heaps since the Lap. I have watched the video twice. Thanks for a interesting web site. Next year hope to do a road trip to the never never or somewhere, where ever our old Henry (1989 Ford Maverick) Nissan in disguise takes us. Love our old car, you can still fix it and work on it, hate computerised cars. Looking forwards to your next roadtrip.

  9. What a fantastic read for those of us who like to get off the beaten track but aren't 'hard core' off-roaders. It really hits the spot. It has given my wife and I some great ideas for our next trip from the South West of WA through the centre to Far North Queensland.

  10. Well written, humorous and just enough information, but not too detailed as to make it boring. We are planning a trip next year to Darwin (from Melbourne) and then accross the top to Cairns and back home. I think after reading your trip notes, Mataranka will certainly be one of our overnight (or two) stops on the way North.

  11. Hi Steve, What a great read - you write so matter of factly and informatively. Love it. I'm about to head off on my own big lap with my 2 kids 11 & 12 for 6 months, our Labrador and cat as well. Just the 3 humans and 2 furkids - should be very interesting. Loved the photos of all the different camp spots and experiences you have had on this short trip. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to hearing more. Keep up the excellent road tripping. Cheers, Sonya

  12. Thanks so much for a very interesting read. I'm on my way to Australia in 3 weeks and I'm shipping my newly converted 2013 VW Transporter in which I plan to do my own grand tour in 12 months starting in mid January from my son's house in Melbourne. I was hoping to write my own blog during the trip and wondered if you might recommend a suitable blogging site for this purpose. I know I could use google, which I have but would far rather use one that is recommended for this kind of purpose.
    Thanks in advance.

    Colin

  13. Military vehicles would have been heading from their base in Darwin to the Cultana training area in SA for an exercise at that time

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