Nature can still turn on a show – but can the man-made Outback?

Lake Eyre, Australia’s biggest salt lake, continues to experience bumper years as a tourist attraction. Thanks to significant rainfall beginning in 2009, it has slowly filled and brought the surrounding desert to burgeoning and magnificent life. A visit to the natural wonder also takes travelers to the very heart of the man-made Outback, the legendary Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks, the old Ghan railway and their tiny human habitations, some abandoned, some still clinging to life, trading on their Outback image. Last summer KIERAN FINNANE returned to the site of her earliest encounter with “the Outback” – Marree, linked to Alice Springs by shared explorer, Afghan cameleer and railway histories. Many in Alice believe that our town’s Outback image has taken a big dent in the last three decades at the hands of planners and developers and inadequate heritage protection. Marree looks to have shared a similar fate, though from an absence of attention rather than too much development zeal.

 

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The Outback brand covers a vast area – one operator even claims you can experience the Outback in a Queensland Gold Coast theatre restaurant!

My first encounter with what I sensed to be the Outback was in country at ‘the back of Bourke’. I was working for a television company at the time, following the late motoring identity Peter Wherrett in a reconnaissance trip for a Variety Club Bash.

I’d grown up mostly in Sydney and, although I’d lived overseas for a period, in my own country I’d scarcely ever been west of the Great Dividing Range. On the Wherrett reccy, once we were beyond Bourke, I felt, as so many others have, that I was entering quite a different Australia and the Outback was its name (I had yet to visit a non-urban Aboriginal community, quite another country again).

Two tiny towns back then expressed for me the essence of the Outback – remote outposts of human habitation in a vast landscape, attached to the rugged past of the frontier yet remaining resilient in the present. They were Innamincka in far north-west NSW, and Marree in north-east SA, the starting point of the legendary Oodnadatta and Birdsville Tracks.

All I really remember of Innamincka is the pub and the flies. There were two flyscreen doors to pass through to get to the pub’s cool interior, allowing you to get rid of most of the flies on your back before sitting down to an excellent roast for lunch.

The flies can’t have been as bad in Marree. My memory of its beautiful two-storey stone pub in the late afternoon is unclouded by them. Travelling with Wherrett ensured our crew the attention of the publican who joined us around a large table for a spirited evening of food and drink.

We overnighted in the high-ceilinged rooms upstairs – bathroom down the hall – and I remember standing on the lovely second-storey verandah, looking out across the old railway station into the warm desert night and looking up at the clear sky where Halley’s Comet was supposed to be visible. Bright moonlight meant that it wasn’t. This was in 1986.

The intervening quarter century hasn’t been kind to Marree, where I returned for the first time just before Christmas. Travelling with my husband and fellow journalist Erwin Chlanda, I turned east just past Coober Pedy, on a well-maintained dirt road that passes through the old dog fence and an ever-changing landscape en route to William Creek. This tiny ‘town’ has preserved its Outback charm. After a beer at its corrugated iron pub and friendly chat with the publican, we then drove along the southern shores of Lake Eyre South, where the skeleton of the old Ghan line is gradually disappearing into the sandhills.

Arriving at Marree, what was immediately missing was the general impression of effort and pride that we’d observed in William Creek. It’s dilapidated, yes, but also appears depressed, as though no-one cares. Yet a local man, a descendant of Afghan cameleers, told us that they had just experienced their biggest ever tourism year.

What had the tourists thought, I wondered, when they approached the historic Marree Hotel, still standing but with its stone edifice flanked on either side by corrugated iron fences surrounding two donga parks? When they asked for a room, as we did, they would have had the choice of upstairs – the tall windows now sealed, the only air you can get noisy and conditioned whether the night is hot or not – or a donga in a gravelled yard with a few cotton palms. We opted for the deadly-dull donga – for $120! – because at least we could open its window.

But first we went out onto the hotel verandah. The view is still there, of course, across the railway line, out into the desert. But the verandah boards were warped, the seating dusty and broken, the ashtrays full, and a few stale empties were lying around.

We ate in the dining room downstairs – acceptable country pub food – under a mural celebrating Marree’s heritage while all around us were the signs of that heritage rapidly losing its value and meaning.

In the morning we wandered across to the “museum park” – a few transport relics, including the late Tom Kruse’s old mail truck – an under-inspiring display for a town with such an interesting story to tell.  At the southern end of the platform a house that was surely part of the rail complex was falling into ruin.

In the rest of the town ugly corrugated iron fences around homes were common. Only the police station, the hospital, and Marree Aboriginal School were notable for their neat face to the world.

We tried to find the cemetery, but the signposting led us to the rubbish dump. Disheartened we headed out of town, driving into the North Flinders Ranges whose beauty was the perfect cure for this jading return to a town that appeared to have lost its way.

Tourism isn’t the only reason to respect the past and promote it in the present but it’s a pretty important one. I asked the South Australian Tourism Commission whether it is concerned to protect Marree’s heritage character and if so, what is it doing about it.

In reply Flinders Ranges and Outback Regional Manager, Peter Cahalan, said “the SATC continues to support heritage conservation, despite having no statutory powers in the areas of town planning and heritage”.

“In Marree, the SATC has funded projects to renew the central zone with tree plantings and other works, supported the development of the telecentre and interpretive displays at the railway station [these were closed when we visited], funded the redesign and reprinting of the town’s heritage brochure and funded an upgrade of the Arabunna Centre including the production of a short film about the Arabunna people.

“In discussions with local stakeholders, the SATC has consistently encouraged best possible design principles to new buildings.

“Looking to the future, the SATC is developing ideas for reinvigorating the marketing and development of the Explorer’s Way between Adelaide and Darwin.

“Marree is a key node on the alternative Explorer’s Way route – which runs through the Flinders Ranges and up the Oodnadatta Track – and will benefit from increased traffic on the route.”

Here’s hoping.

But back in Alice, mid-winter and at the height of our tourist season, the sad thing to reflect upon is that visitors in search of the man-made Outback, coming on to Alice from the Lake Eyre region, would similarly find precious little of it surviving here.

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