Photo : William Creek Gallery
(Source, Writer & Photo: Christina Pfeiffer, Sydney Morning Herald "Traveller" who visited Coober Pedy as a guest of the SA Tourism Commission.)
This is the story of the Cooberpedy postman ("Postie") who doubles as a tour guide.....
I'm bouncing along a dusty road in a four-wheel-drive mail truck with outback Cooberpedy postman Peter Rowe.The mailbags in the back are bulging with letters and parcels addressed to residents of the remote outback stations and towns we are about to visit. Twice a week, Rowe and his son, Derek, take turns to drive the 644-kilometre round trip and fortunately, more often than not, their truck is filled with adventurous tourists eager to experience a day in the outback with a postman.
The tour starts from the multicultural opal mining community of Coober Pedy. Rowe arrived in town more than 30 years ago to dig for opals and his mail-run commentary is peppered with memories about the good old days. As we drive off, 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 ensuite bathrooms attached to every bedroom," he says.
Just out of Coober Pedy, the countryside is desolate and sunburnt. We stop at a section of the longest fence in the world, the 5300-kilometre dingo fence. It was built to keep dingoes out of sheep-farming country and each section is maintained by a different contractor.
Further along the dirt highway, we leave a cloud of dust in our wake as the truck's wheels spin through the Moon Plains. Rowe tells us the rocky landscape abounds with 120-million-year-old marine fossils, remnants from a time when this brown, barren area was at the bottom of a freezing polar ocean.
This stark landscape has captured the imagination of filmmakers and the Moon Plains featured in movies such as Red Planet and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Adding to the other-worldly ambience are abandoned movie props, such as a huge alien spaceship which sits in front of the Opal Cave underground complex.
Every few kilometres we pass floodway warning signs that look completely out of place along dry, dusty roads. Incongruous they may be but these signs are not to be ignored - rain falling 20 kilometres away can turn dry creek beds into torrents. Regular rainfall is uncommon but when it rains the wildflowers go berserk. Once every few years the desert transforms into a colourful kaleidoscope of blooming flora.
Our first mail stop is Mount Barry Station, where the lean cattle are some of the healthiest animals in Australia. These cattle walk 10 kilometres a day, nibbling on nutritious saltbush while searching for water. By comparison, cattle on the east coast require up to four times the amount of feed in order to receive the same nutrition, thus building up more fat.
At another station we're met by a young woman who presents Rowe with a Bundaberg rum bottle filled with mum's home-made tomato sauce. As we approach the entrance to a third station we avoid 25 kilometres of dirt road to the station homestead by sliding a large parcel under a cattle grid near the entrance.
As the day passes, the desert reveals russet landscapes highlighted by narrow carpets of green and creeks with eccentric names such as Giddi Giddinna. Eagles swoop to seize scurrying marsupials, emus run across the desert while sulfur-crested cockatoos soar above us.
After stopping at several stations, the bulk of the mail is unloaded at the Oodnadatta Post Office and Pink Roadhouse, a legendary outback stop in a town with a population of less than 200. But even in a small town in the middle of the outback there's a good chance of bumping into an interesting character or two, such as proprietor Lynnie Plate.
Plate and her husband walked from Alice Springs to Oodnadatta in 1975 - accompanied by a few camels, horses and donkeys - and have lived here ever since. But fame in the outback comes at a price. "I went for a holiday to Melbourne recently. It was so nice to sit in a cafe without being recognised," she sighs.
We move on to William Creek. Browns, yellows, lime greens and yellow flowering darling lilies blur past. At Algebuckina Creek, we stop to look at the decommissioned iron railway bridge once used by the old Ghan Railway. 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.
William Creek, Australia's smallest town, sits within the world's largest working cattle station, the 34,000-square-kilometre Anna Creek Station. At last count, the town had a population of 10, a ramshackle pub, a few weatherboard houses, a dusty nine-hole golf course and the Dingo Cafe. 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. Before I leave, I pin my own business card to the wall, wondering whether it will be there the next time I visit.