Man In A Suitcase

The Mail Run

Thursday morning after breakfast I was back at Underground Books, our departure point for The Mail Run. Twice a week, one of the Rowes, father or son, makes the twelve hour journey over unpaved roads to pick up and deliver mail to the Outback townships of Oodnadatta and William Creek and to a handful of enormous cattle stations. This is in addition to their regular jobs as proprietors of Underground Pottery in town. Derek was our guide today; I'd met him on Tuesday when my tour popped into the pottery shop for a look 'round. Oh, and I met him at the airport on Friday before my flight out. Small world, Coober Pedy.

Once outside of town, we head across the Dog Fence and on to the Moon Plain. A hundred million years ago the Plain was at the bottom of an inland sea. Derek is credited with several major fossil finds, including part of an ichthyosaur backbone. Hard to imagine this place under water, although I'm told the residual salt content from those long ago days is responsible for the extremely poor quality of the soil.

Eventually the landscape changes a little. From entirely flat and devoid of any vegetation, we go to occasional clumps of trees or shrubs and even more occasional water holes, a couple of which have water on this early fall day. There's even a sign or two of animal life, which I manage to capture before it bounces out of sight.

We reach our first cattle station, find someone to take the mail, pick up the outgoing and we're back on the road. Forty-five minutes later we're in Oodnadatta, dropping off mail and getting lunch at the Pink Roadhouse. The town's not much now, but back a hundred years or so it was a pretty happening place. Oodnadatta was a station on the old Ghan, the rail line that ran north from Adelaide. When the line was first built, goods intended for Alice Springs got this far by train and then made the rest of the journey by camel. A few decades later the line was extended to Alice. Now there's a new Ghan that runs from Adelaide through Alice and all the way to Darwin on the north coast. The new line bypasses Oodnadatta, which saw its last old Ghan train in 1980.

We follow the route of the old Ghan for more than an hour out of Oodnadatta. It's hard to imagine the work of creating a level roadbed using only manual labor, especially in this unforgiving desert. The roadbed is still visible for much of the journey, although a lot of the track has been pulled up for use on the local cattle stations. (I think they call that "ingenuity". Or maybe "theft".) At left is the longest bridge on the old line, indeed the longest in South Australia: the Algebuckina Bridge over the Neales River.

At right is a monument to an amazingly stupid and unlucky driver. The river was in flood, so he decided to use the railway bridge to cross. Unfortunately, the southbound Ghan had other ideas. The driver jumped out of the car and survived. In addition to losing his car, he was charged for the damage he did to the train.

Before leaving the bridge, we spotted a pair of emus crossing a ridge nearby. Not a great picture, I grant. But I like emus; they're like ostriches without all the attitude. And these were the only ones I'd seen in the wild this trip, aside from a family pet at a B&B on Kangaroo Island. So if it's okay with you, I'll keep the picture.

We stopped at three more cattle stations that afternoon. The last, Anna Creek Station, took forever to reach. At 12,000 square miles it's the world's largest, and is often described as being a little bit bigger than Belgium. The property belongs to the Kidman organization, started by Nicole's grandfather. (Beautiful, talented and rich? That is so unfair...)

Our guide pointed out the satellite disk on the station manager's house; these days, Internet access is an essential component to running a station. But the net has changed more than that out here. On my second trip to Oz I visited the School of the Air in Alice Springs, where Outback kids are taught by radio. It's a valiant attempt to solve a huge logistical problem. But as one of its students, Derek didn't think much of the education he'd received. Given the state of the mails, test results could take months to be evaluated and returned. Talk about a loss of immediacy! The net has changed all that, providing timely feedback even to isolated students. One wonders what effect it'll have on the next generation out in the Outback.

Our last stop of the day was at William Creek: a pub, a cafe and an airstrip. Oh, and the township's square, with exhibits farm equipment, along with some rockets from Woomera that landed in the neighborhood. We were at William Creek longer than we'd planned due to a problem with the van's muffler that required an emergency repair. That gave me a chance to experience my first real Outback pub, the kind I'd only read about, where people leave souvenirs: business cards, driver's licenses, underwear. The owner of the pub used to be in IT in Adelaide. Now he serves drinks in a town with a population half the size of my high school math class. Makes you think, don't it?

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California