The South Australian outback is the promised land for joyflights, rock’n’roll and, of course, car rallies near and around the famous salt lakes.
Darkness shrouds the deep outback, yet the Oodnadatta Track is ablaze with light. About 600 boozy revellers are cutting loose after a long day of dusty driving in a rambling car rally, and the highway outside the William Creek Hotel has become an impromptu concert stadium. I’m behind a drum kit as my erstwhile old rock band Geezers launch into AC/DC’s Highway to Hell at big volume, a tribute to location being fully appreciated by a roaring crowd – which includes the district’s constabulary, nodding in time as they lean against the pub wall and keep a lazy eye on proceedings.
This somewhat surreal scene defines the conclusion of day three of the Mystery Box Rally, an annual fundraising shenanigan for the Cancer Council, which is the sort of ridiculous event that the William Creek Hotel’s proprietor Trevor Wright loves hosting. Hardly surprising, because it’s a gold mine; this concert event and overnight stop for the rally teams set a new record for a single night’s bar take at the pub.
Established in 1887 and now heritage listed as an iconic structure – which is pretty impressive for a big tin shed on the edge of a desert – the William Creek Hotel may be one of the world’s most remote pubs, yet is surprisingly busy at all hours of the day. Situated close to the Old Ghan Line, this pub was supposed to die after the train line was discontinued after 1980 (a steel girder bridge over Breakfast Time Creek outside of town is all that remains) but it has defied odds by becoming an unlikely tourist attraction.
Part of it is the wild outback look of the front bar, its walls and roof covered in messages and business cards (with the odd bit of signed underwear) left by travellers from around the world. However, the majority of visitors are grey nomads with salt cravings; those determined to tick a bucket list wish to see Lake Eyre from the air. William Creek serves as their lift-off point.
Big rains in 2016 served a powerful reminder that seeing the vast salt lake in flood is a worthy spectacle, which has ensured constant work for Trevor Wright’s small fleet of light aircraft stationed at William Creek. Wrightsair pilots fly one- or two-hour joyflights, covering from Lake Eyre North to Belt Bay, the lowest point in Australia, being 15.2 metres below sea level.
The popularity of these flights is surprising. Even after the Mystery Box Rally cars departed into the dust after an early breakfast, a new crowd of enthusiastic retirees had filled the pub by mid-morning, wanting cuppas rather than beers. They’re in luxurious 4WDs, towing all manner of expensive mobile cabins, although for those wanting to settle in, the campground opposite the pub now has air-conditioned ensuite cabins (which Trevor purchased from former mining sites).
Taking off from a runway that crosses the highway, the flights take about 25 minutes to reach Lake Eyre, during which a surprising number of significant tributaries can be seen flowing. The Warburton River is surprisingly wide and vivid green; Neales River had many black swans. However, when the fresh water hits an estimated 400 million tonnes of salt in the lake, all signs of life stop.
The saline lake takes on vivid shades of frosty blue, and at moments during the flight you can’t tell the sky from the salt; the horizon becomes a faint mirror line. Then you notice strange pockmarks across the long, crusty rim of the lake – hoof marks of camels that had waded in search of drinking water, only to end in bitter disappointment. Close observation revealed other curiosities; a few foolish pelicans that had remained to keep eating fish in the lake, long after their brethren had migrated south. Much smarter were huge wedge-tailed eagles catching thermals in the clear skies around the plane. The eagles glare at us belligerently; this is their patch, and they had no intention of getting out of the way.
Longer joyflights also take in the spectacular Painted Hills, brilliantly coloured stone outcrops located within the world’s largest cattle station, Anna Creek Station. Further afield, you can see giant letters SK cut into the earth, reminding that this was Sid Kidman’s famous 24,000 square kilometre outback lease, although the final truck load of Kidman cattle left Anna Creek Station in April, before Williams Cattle Company took over to run an estimated 18,000 head of cattle.
While it’s remote out here, this year William Creek was finally connected to the mobile phone network, thanks to a small satellite dish with a one-metre antenna parked atop the Wrightsair aircraft hangar – the highest point in the district. This has finally allowed the locale’s six residents (and tourists passing through) to use their mobile phones via the Optus 3G network, although the service only has a three-kilometre radius and degrades quite quickly as you leave town. Still, this means that people can now call emergency services or reference online maps. It’ll soon be put to the test. It’s been raining again and there’s water flowing from the northern rivers in to the lake. The pelicans will be the first to arrive, for a big feed of fish. The grey nomads will be quick to follow.