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John's 400-Mile Outback Mail Run  (Coober Pedy)

(Reprint from News: March 8, 2002)

March 7, 2002

 

For being such a bleak town, Coober Pedy actually has a lot of interesting things to see and do.  The most interesting thing I did during my three-day stay there -- and perhaps the most interesting thing I've done so far while in Australia -- was spend a day riding with the Coober Pedy mail truck.  Twice a week, the mail truck makes a 400-mile triangular run, all on rough, dirt Outback roads, to deliver mail to remote towns and ranches.  Up to 13 visitors are welcome to come along at a cost of US$45 each.

 

We all met at the Underground Bookstore at 9 a.m. and clambered into the 4-wheel drive mail truck.  Our jovial driver, John Stillwell, has been doing the mail run twice a week for the past eight years and had a lot of interesting stories to tell, many of which he shared with us during the next 11 hours.  

 

After leaving Coober Pedy, we drove on a dirt road for about three hours across the most featureless place I've ever seen in my life.  They call this area the "Moon Plains" and the closest thing I've ever seen to it are the photos from the surface of Mars:  no trees, no bushes, and no grass.  Just rock, dirt, and sand -- absolutely barren.  I got excited when, an hour into the ride, I saw what appeared to be a tree looming on the horizon.  Nope, it was just a windmill.

 

Around noon, we stopped in Oodnadatta, a mostly-aboriginal community of 150 people a long way from anywhere.  Now believe it or not, I've wanted to visit Oodnadatta ever since I started planning this trip a few years ago.  In fact, if you happen to have one of my "DelsJourney" travel cards handy, you'll see that it's one of the place-names that I printed on the background of the card.  Oodnadatta fascinated me not only because of its weird name (which, as John told us, means "stinky bush," much to my disappointment) but also because up until about 1930 it was the northern terminus of the Ghan railway.  From here, supplies were transferred from railroads to camel trains, which continued northward to places like Alice Springs.

 

We spent about an hour in Oodnadatta, mostly at the Pink Roadhouse, Oodnadatta's most visible landmark.  While on the mail truck ride to Oodnadatta, I'd met a friendly, retired guy from England also named John, and we got a table inside the roadhouse and started munching down our burgers.  John was a nice guy who loved the cinema and, interestingly enough, he'd seen every one of Johnny Depp's movies. 

 

A few minutes into our conversation about Edward Scissorshands, I heard a loud "CRASH" and the entire roadhouse shook.  I didn't know what it was, but I looked around and saw that someone had driven their car into the side of the building (yes, I'm serious).  I guess the driver, an elderly white woman who was visibly shaken, was planning to park outside the roadhouse but her brakes had failed.  This was something I'd never seen before -- and neither had our driver John in the eight years he'd been doing this.  Ah, life in the Outback!

 

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Above left:  Heading out for an all-day, 400-mile trip on the mail truck.  We’re parked here next to a billabong and some coolibah trees, just like in the song, “Waltzing Matilda.”

Above center:  Inside the hot, bouncy truck.

Above right:  Crossing one of the many streams during our trip.

 

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Above left:  After driving for three hours, we reached Oodnadatta at noon and had lunch here at the Pink Roadhouse.  Just about everything here is pink, apparently the owner's favorite color.

Above center:  John dropping off the bi-weekly mail.

Above right:  Inside the very exclusive Pink Roadhouse (reservations recommended).  I had an Oodnadatta Burger for lunch. 

 

After our eventful lunch, we all hopped back into the truck and continued on our merry way while the thermometer topped 95 degrees.  John (the driver, not the one who liked Johnny Depp movies) stopped at a few vista points along the road during the next hour and we all got out and took pictures, then we stopped at our first ranch-house to deliver the mail.  A young couple with a baby lived here, 60 miles from the nearest ranch-house, and the mail delivery, I'm sure, is the high point of the week for these folks. 

 

An hour later, we stopped at William Creek, which appears on my map as a large dot but is, in fact, just a dusty pub on the dusty Oodnadatta Track with a total population of two dusty souls.  We spent about a half-hour here and I walked into the pub, which was something right out of Crocodile Dundee, and had a beer with some of the locals.  It was really hot outside and after riding around all day in a semi-air-conditioned mail truck, that beer tasted really good.  I mean REALLY good.

 

Our last stop was at the Anna Creek Ranch,  the largest cattle ranch in the world.  The Anna Creek ranch is bigger than Holland but has a total population of only 20 people -- lots of elbow room out here!  Once again, the ranch owner's wife came out to greet us with a smile.

 

After returning to Coober Pedy around sunset, I thought about the Mail Truck run as I walked back to the motel.  I enjoy quiet, remote places like eastern Oregon, central Nevada, and southern Utah but, and without exaggerating, this part of Australia makes those places seem like Coney Island.  It's difficult to put into words how desolate this area is other than to say that the remoteness is overwhelming, even stifling.  The Mail Truck run was a fascinating experience and I heartily recommend it to anyone traveling through Coober Pedy who wants a better understanding of the Outback -- you certainly won't be disappointed.  But if you have a burger at the Oodnadatta Pink Roadhouse, don't sit near the wall.

 

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Above left:  Here's the inside of the Pink Roadhouse after the car crashed into it.  Note the cracked beam and broken wall.  Yep, just another day in Oodnadatta...

Above center:  A hunky dude (?) somewhere on the Oodnadatta Track..

Above right:  And another stop.  These folks live 60 miles from their nearest neighbor.  As much as I like quiet, remote places, I don't think I could handle living out here.

 

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Above left:  Downtown William Creek, population 2.  That's the hotel on the left -- the only building in town.

Above center:  The very exclusive William Creek Hotel.

Above right:  A fun-to-read "mudmap."

 

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Above left:  It costs only $5 (US$2.50) to play 9 holes at the posh William Creek Golf Club.  Proper attire required.

Above center:  Road sign on the Oodnadatta Track.

Above right:  Having a beer in the pub before our 120-mile ride back to Coober Pedy.

 

 

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