It is 600 kilometres (373 miles) from Marla to Marree on the Oodnadatta Track. The red dirt road follows a path used for millennia. Its route is guided by water.
The surface is hot and the sunlight dazzles on the salt desert of Kati Thandi/Lake Eyre. It looks barren, but there is life here. Metallic green tiger beetles (Pseudotetracha australis) with big eyes and bigger jaws scuttle across the surface in search of insects. Lake Eyre dragons (Ctenophorus maculosus) rest in the sand beneath the salt crust, emerging to hunt Melophorus ants along the lake’s edge.
In exceptional years, Kati Thandi is filled by cyclonic rains falling a thousand kilometres away. Water travels through Queensland’s Channel Country, along rivers with names that drive colonial tales of the Outback — the Georgina, the Thompson, Cooper Creek, and the Diamantina. Water takes weeks to make its way downstream but when it finally arrives, brine shrimp and tadpole shrimp (Triops) hatch from eggs that have lain dormant in the sediment since the last flood. The flow brings in fish. Then pelicans and terns, avocets and other wading birds fly in from the coast to feed and breed on the great salt lake.
But most years are dry.
From the air, the glittering white extends to the horizon. Tracks of camels draw lines along the shore.
Near the edge of the Great Artesian Basin, the desert is dotted with tiny oases where water bubbles up from an aquifer as big as a sea and as old as the dinosaurs. At the surface, the water is cradled in mounds formed from mineral deposits and shored up by wind-blown sand. Reeds and sedges grow in these oases. Some springs hold endemic fish and hydrobiid snails the size and shape of apple pips. Where the water spills over and pools on the ground, the wetlands attract birds and insects. Mound springs are islands in a desert sea.
The Oodnadatta track stays close to water, skirting the margin of the Basin and linking the springs of Cadna-owie/Kadnjawi (Mount Dutton), Pangki Warrunha (Strangways), and others. At Wabma Kadarbu Conservation Park, a boardwalk curves around Bidalinha (the Bubbler), keeping visitors from trampling the delicate structure. Bidalinha is where Kuyani ancestor Kakakutanha killed Kanmari, the Rainbow Serpent. The bubbles that rise from the floor of the spring are the Serpent’s death throes. It is said that Kakakutanha paid dearly for his transgression.
Standing in the desert, looking out over the mirroring water and sand, and across the grey saltbush, to a horizon that looks as though it has been cut with a blade, it feels as if thousands of years have been pushed together into a single moment.
The Oodnadatta Track ends at Marree, which was once an important stop on a now abandoned railway line. In the 1800s and early 1900s, supplies brought up from Adelaide were carried to remote properties by camel train. Later, trucks were used to transport goods and mail. A postal delivery service from Marree to Birdsville in Queensland ran every two weeks, even through perilous dust storms and floods.
The first mosque in Australia was constructed at Marree perhaps as early as 1861. It was built by Muslim cameleers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, north-western India, and beyond, who had been brought to Australia to open up the continent’s interior for colonial interests. The most significant infrastructure projects at the time, including the Overland Telegraph from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs, relied on cameleers to transport materials and supplies. They kept desert stations and towns alive.
The most imposing building in town is the Marree (formerly Great Northern) Hotel, a two-storey Victorian building made from local stone and fitted with stained glass windows. I visited Maree a few years ago with Inala Nature Tours. Not long after dinner at the hotel, the power went off across the whole town. It was too early to go to bed, so we took the spotting scope into the main street and pointed it at the sky. There we spent the evening in the company of locals looking at the Galilean moons of Jupiter and revelling in the ‘wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars’.
The next day we headed out again on the wide open road.
The Oodnadatta Track crosses the Traditional Lands of the Arabana, Kuyani and Dhirari People.