Story telling from Australia
Visit William Creek. It’s tempting to leave it at that. Just go.
If you get a move on you can catch the William Creek Gymkhana that celebrates its fiftieth anniversary on 28 March.
If you haven’t heard of it (and most Australians haven’t, never mind tourists) William Creek is one of the smallest towns in Australia, tucked away on the remote Oodnadatta track near Lake Eyre.
The town – although that’s hardly the right word for a place that consists of a pub, a caravan park and a café, with a population of eleven people (and that’s high for William Creek) – sits within the confines of Anna Creek Station. ‘Confines’ isn’t the right word either; at six million acres Anna Creek is the largest working cattle station in the world. It’s roughly the size of Belgium. Don’t expect to spot any cattle.
It’s hard to find the right words to describe William Creek, other than to admit it has to be one of the most intriguing, and entertaining, places I have ever visited.
You can drive from Adelaide to William Creek in two days, as Clyde’s parents did in the early 1950s with two young children and everything they owned loaded onto the back of a truck, heading for the pub his father had bought from Scotland, sight unseen. He wanted a pub in the country.
We took three days, preferring to approach the place that Clyde once called home with a degree of caution. His memories were mixed, coloured perhaps by his mother’s enduring sense of shock at the remote tin shack her husband had bought and the sudden transformation of their fortunes. It was a boy’s own adventure for seven year old Clyde in some ways and a lonely, harsh experience in others. At seven he was expected to slaughter goats for meat; he earned pocket money by trapping and skinning rabbits and dingoes; and it was his job to drive the truck out to Breakfast Bore to fetch water.
But don’t let that put you off going to William Creek. Trevor Wright, who now runs the pub and the caravan park, has transformed the place into an oasis of welcome for tourists, travellers, backpackers and grey nomads with a sense of adventure.
It’s changed a lot since Clyde’s parents took that long journey north, driving on dirt roads across a landscape that grew progressively flatter and emptier the further north they went.
They would have driven, as we did, past dunes of red earth and the snow-white plains of salt encrusted Lake Eyre South, alleviated by occasional ‘jump ups’ – humps of earth topped by reed-like plants that carried the faint promise of an underground spring. What must that young family from Scotland have thought?
Most of the journey to William Creek is on bitumen now, and you don’t really need a 4WD for the last section of dirt track either, not unless you’re planning to explore off road and that may not be the wisest decision – there’s no mobile phone coverage at William Creek. At the very least take an emergency warning beacon, or a satellite phone, and if your car breaks down the golden rule in such a remote desert climate is never, under any circumstances, leave your vehicle. A car is far easier to spot from the air than a person.
Warnings and caution aside, you won’t get better food or finer company than at the William Creek Hotel, especially if Trevor is there to talk to. He’s the tall bloke with hair the colour of the salt flats that stretch across Lake Eyre. It’s Trevor who put a collar on the Bird the dingo, to stop him getting shot. Bird is likely to be asleep on the veranda, unless he’s hanging around one of the planes, hoping to hitch a ride to Anna Creek Station where his girlfriend lives (apparently.)
And here’s a weird coincidence: we got talking to Sue who was working with Trevor for a few months and it turns out she used to live in Sydney.
‘We live in Sydney now,’ I said.
‘Balmain.’ (Not many people have heard of Birchgrove and everyone knows Balmain.)
‘I’ve got a friend who lives right next to Balmain, in Birchgrove. ‘
‘Actually, we live in Birchgrove too.’
And it turned out we were practically neighbours, all living on the same street. Six degrees of separation.
As well as the pub and caravan park, Trevor runs the local air tours business, led by chief pilot Talia and her team of extremely capable young pilots; Tom flew us across the Painted Desert that from the air looked a lot like a lemon meringue pie and Rev piloted a scenic flight across Lake Eyre that left me awe-struck at the vast expanse of such an ancient landscape.
William Creek is a camper’s paradise with everything you need by way of hot showers, clean loos and laundry facilities. The site we picked even had a spot of shade, courtesy of a small peppercorn tree. Flocks of galahs, cockatoos and crows that swooped around the camp site fell silent at sunset and the lighting was discreet enough to see where we were going, but not so intrusive that it drowned out the stars.
And if it’s stars you’re interested in, then you should visit Arkaroola, high up in the Flinders Ranges. That’s where we went after we left William Creek.
More of that in the next post…