Located 1011 km north of Adelaide via Coober Pedy and 1092 km via Marree and the Oodnadatta Track (it is a good dirt road for the last 486 km), Oodnadatta lies in the heart of the desert 112 m above sea level. It is, by any definition, a fascinating place which, since the closure of the railway line in 1981, has become a quiet settlement inhabited mainly by the local Aborigines who now run the Railway Museum, the General Store and the local Transcontinental Hotel.
It is likely that the Oodnadatta Track, that famous old carriageway from Marree to Marla, predates the arrival of Europeans by tens of thousands of years. It was a trade route for the local Aborigines who moved from spring to spring along a route which was eventually to be used by both the Overland Telegraph Line and the railway to Alice Springs.
Oodnadatta is probably an adaptation of an Aboriginal word 'utnadata' meaning 'blossom of the mulga'. Located on the northwestern section of an area traditionally occupied by the Arabana people, Oodnadatta today has many people with Aranda, Antakarainnja, Loritja and Pitjantjatjara family ties.
John McDouall Stuart explored the region in 1859. The route mapped by Stuart in his journeys of 1857 to 1862 was adopted as part of the Overland Telegraph Line route. To the north of the town it is still possible to see some of the old telegraph posts which cut through the loneliness of the outback.
During the 1870s millions of hectares of land in the area were taken up as pastoral leases. The availability of good water supplies was crucial. Often graziers took large amounts of land just to obtain enough feed and water.
Work on the Overland Telegraph Line began in September 1870 and by January 1872 this section was completed. On 22 May 1872 the first message was sent from Darwin to Adelaide. The contractor, E. M. Bagot, was responsible for the 800 km of telegraph line north from Port Augusta at the charge of £41 per mile.
In 1874 the explorer John Forrest, having journeyed from Geraldton in Western Australia to the Overland Telegraph Line camped beneath a large box tree some 8 km north of Oodnadatta at Angle Pool Waterhole on a branch of the Neales River.
Oodnadatta was proclaimed a Government Township on October 30 1890. On 7 January 1891 the railway line from Warrina to Oodnadatta was opened. Around this time good quality artesian water was located in the Oodnadatta region and permanent waterholes supplied by natural springs were tapped.
The first bore sunk at Oodnadatta in 1893 was 1417 ft deep. It supplied 260 000 gallons a day. The town immediately took on major importance as the railhead for the north. Its population in 1891 was 162 - 127 males and 35 females with 50 unoccupied dwellings. There were many goats kept at Oodnadatta in the early days and the Chinese had successful market gardens out of the town.
Camels were introduced and with them the Afghans who tended them. By 1893 there were 400 camels. Some camel teams travelled 900 miles north to Newcastle Waters. They also carried mail regularly between Oodnadatta and Alice Springs.
The Oodnadatta Medical Hostel (now the Australian Inland Mission Hospital) was opened at the cost of £653 in 1911. John Flynn designed and supervised the construction. Sister Bett was the first sister in charge. In 1928 the railroad was extended further northward and Oodnadatta lost some of its former importance as a railhead.
The decision to close the railway line and build the new Tarcoola to Alice Springs railway appeared to herald the end of Oodnadatta. The last Ghan train departed from Oodnadatta in 1980. However the local Aboriginal community were determined to retain the town as their home. It is now predominantly an Aboriginal settlement. The local school has four teachers.
In 1987 Australia Post approached the Aboriginal community to provide the mail service between Oodnadatta, Coober Pedy, Hamilton Station and William Creek. The mail man who takes the mail from Coober Pedy to Oodnadatta (on what must be one of the best dirt roads in Australia although as it approaches Oodnadatta it must cross at least 30-40 creek beds - an ominous sign for wet weather) used to work for the legendary Tom Cruise who was the subject of a famous film in the 1950s called Back of Beyond. In those days the mail to Birdsville was taken from Marree. The mailman can now do the return journey from Coober Pedy to Oodnadatta in a day.
Today Oodnadatta is one main street with the Transcontinental Hotel, the General Store and the Pink Roadhouse on one side and the old railway line and the fascinating Railway Museum on the other side.
Things to see
The Railway Museum
The Railway Museum is open but you've got to get a key from the General Store. It is well worth looking at. A series of interesting photographs chronicling the history of the town.
The Pink Roadhouse
The Pink Roadhouse offers caravan accommodation and fuel. It is run by enterprising couple who are eager to help everyone who arrives and who make excellent hamburgers and have plenty of supplies. They are a source of all knowledge regarding the condition of the roads and it is well worthwhile phoning (08) 8670 7822 before heading out on the Oodnadatta Track.
Flinders Ranges & Outback Information
Telephone: 1800 633 060
Facsimile: (08) 8223 3995