Carved through nearly 500kms of South Australia’s harsh and remote north-east, the Strzelecki Track links Lyndhurst with one of Australia’s most isolated towns, Innamincka. Desolately scenic and brimming with history, the Strzelecki is by no means the tough 4WD track it once was, but is still a worthy drive for any outback enthusiast.
Australia has no shortage of great outback tracks. Many, like the Simpson Desert or the Canning Stock Route, are renowned for the challenges and difficulties they can present even to experienced off-road drivers. Others, like the Birdsville, Tanami and Oodnadatta, offer a taste of some of Australia’s most remote areas without much of the challenge or hazard. The Strzelecki falls into this second category.
While its 475km length traverses a vast expanse of inhospitable land, the wealth of gas and oil fields hidden amidst the sparse landscape means there’s enough money put into the road to keep it in reasonably good shape.
Having just come off the busy, heavily corrugated and bulldust-ridden Oodnadatta Track, it proved a welcome relief. Better road aside, there was a great sense of isolation to the Strzelecki, even in arguably its busiest period, with only a fraction of the traffic we passed on the Oodnadatta. Technically, there’s nothing difficult about the drive other than the remoteness. You could honestly do it in a 2WD, but for obvious reasons a 4WD is always recommended, as is the usual retinue of spare tyres, food, water and other supplies associated with outback travel.
We set off from Arkaroola, exchanging the first bland leg of the Strzelecki for a more scenic side trip through the rugged and colourful Gammon Ranges. Arkaroola is a stunning destination in its own right, and the road from here joins up with the Strzelecki after about 100km, north of Lake Frome. Set to the backdrop of the wild northern Flinders, this route offers a scenic mix of open plains, stony gibber, river gums and ancient mountain ranges.
The Strzelecki Track proper hides a more subdued beauty. Channel country is a sparse and arid land of low dunes, gibber plains, windswept saltbush, salt lakes and at times, nothing but the desolate scenery of vast, sweeping nothingness. The appeal of places like this is subtle and certainly not for everyone. If you’ve been bored senseless by the slog across the Nullarbor before, then you’ll likely find little of interest out here.
We took two days, taking the drive pretty easy, but there were plenty of people tearing past us, one who we met half an hour later replacing a punctured tyre. It doesn’t take long to hit the Strzelecki Desert, and a lot of the drive from here is through the Strzelecki Regional Reserve, and later the Innamincka Reserve. The whole area is dotted with turnoffs to gas and oil fields, all thankfully hidden away except for the towering gas-field of Moomba.
While the desert and track are named for Polish explorer Edmund Strzelecki, most famous for his explorations of the eastern states and Tasmania, the original track was blazed in the 1870s by Henry Arthur Readford. A cattle rustler, Readford drove a thousand head of stolen cattle from Queensland down into South Australia where he sold them. He was later caught, but allegedly the jury was so impressed by his incredible feat he was let off with all but a warning.
You could pull over for the night any number of places, but Montecollina Bore is hard to beat. It’s a lush oasis of spring-fed pools, vibrant greenery and teeming birdlife amidst the white desert sands. The vivid blue-green pool can be a good place for a swim in the warmer months too, if caravanners haven’t set up directly beside it. We spent the afternoon by the small thermal wetland serenaded by the deafening chorus of corellas, galahs and other birdlife.
While it may seem inhospitable at a glance, the Strzelecki Desert hides a wealth of life, the signs of which spring forth around places like Montecollina. Rare and elusive desert birds like grasswrens, whitefaces and Gibberbirds, as well as rabbits, dingoes, geckos and mice all somehow thrive out here, as do delicate flowers that burst forth from wind-rippled dunes, ignorant of the harsh conditions.
We stopped at the Strzelecki River crossing for lunch, its shady dry bed lined with cane grass and gnarled coolabah trees, before setting off for the final stretch. This is probably the dullest and least interesting part of the drive, but you can detour into Sturt National Park and Cameron Corner to explore the red dunes of NSW corner country to break up the monotony. We pushed on, the land brightening a little as we neared Innamincka, as the earth tones grew richer from the pale sands of the desert, and green life started to carpet the roadsides.
At the heart of a huge reserve of desert, gibber, wetlands and salt lakes, Innamincka has a long and vibrant history, from thousands of years of busy Aboriginal occupation, through to the final days of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, and on to the present day.
Considering it’s one of the most remote towns in Australia, we found it bustling with life. There’s a well stocked trading post, accommodation, a pub, reception, fuel and even hot showers. There’s great cheap camping along the river gum and coolabah-lined Coopers Creek, and a slew of smaller national park campgrounds further along, all of which make a great base for exploring this area and its history.
There’s off-track walking opportunities, 4WDing, the stunning wetlands of Coongie Lakes, or an endless stretch of Coopers Creek to explore. A large draw for many is the history surrounding the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860. The Dig Site, site of depot LXV, is a good place to start. It sits just over the border in Queensland, by another tranquil stretch of the Cooper, and also another great place to camp.
It’s hard to imagine setting off into the endless gibber north of here on foot, a journey of a thousand kilometres ahead of you, but that’s exactly what the intrepid explorers did. For those unfamiliar with the story, a party of four made a foolish and poorly thought out dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria in the height of summer. Against all odds, they made it to their destination, and four months later three of them came staggering back to the Dig Site to discover the party they had left behind had abandoned the camp just that morning. Exhausted and starving, the trio headed downstream, where both Wills and Burke finally succumbed to their fatigue and died beside the river. Both their grave sites are just a short drive from Innamincka, with the tree Burke died against still standing beside the peaceful river.
The rescue parties searching for the lost explorers took note of the area, and not a decade later the town had sprung to life, first operating as a tax collection point for those bringing stock down from Queensland, before a hospital became the main draw. The town was abandoned with the closure of the hospital, before being repopulated in the 1960s to cater to the growing tourism industry, as it has continued to do since, a welcome respite amongst the harsh land.
As the nearby Coongie Lakes National Park was still closed due to flooding, we finished our trip by taking the Walkers Crossing route to meet up with the Birdsville Track, joining the hordes heading for the Big Red Bash, which our poor timing had inadvertently gotten us caught up in. At the end of the day, it’s a pretty good trip for those looking to get their first taste of proper outback travel.
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