Marree and the Railway Track, South Australia

An Antipodean travel company serving world travellers since 1983

Marree a view from above

Marree and the Railway Track, South Australia

At the meeting point of the Oodnadatta Trail and the Birdsville Track, the town of Marree, South Australia, has a fascinating history at the crossroads of the outback.

Marree, South Australia

Prior to European settlement, the area was inhabited by the Kuyani people. The first European to pass through the area was the explorer Edward John Eyre, who had travelled north from the Spencer Gulf to reach the southern shores of Lake Eyre.

In 1859, John McDouall Stuart left his station at Oratguna, heading north of Lake Torrens. He was accompanied by the German botanist Joseph Albert Hergott, who discovered seven artesian springs. Stuart then named the area Hergott Springs in honour of his companion’s discovery. The same year, the spot was visited by the Governor of South Australia, Sir Richard MacDonnell. The land was auctioned for pastoral use, but the springs were declared a government water reserve, which they have remained ever since.

Pastoral development was hampered by the harsh climate, but in the 1870s, Hergott Springs became a maintenance camp for workers on the Overland Telegraph Line, which connected Port Augusta to Darwin and the world. Soon afterwards, the South Australian government financed a railway line to be built from Port Augusta to Farina. The line was extended to Hergott Springs in 1882.

Abandoned train station, Marree.

The extension connected the railway line to the main route used by stock drovers from Queensland to the coastal markets, making Hergott Springs a transit hub. The town grew significantly. Businesses arrived, including two general stores, a butcher and a pub, while the town also acquired a post office and a police station. In 1883, the town was officially declared and named Marree, after Mari, an Aboriginal word meaning ‘possum country’. The name Hergott Springs remained in informal usage until World War I, when anti-German bigotry saw the town renamed.

In particular, Marree provided a home base for the ‘Afghans’ (cameleers from Afghanistan, British India, Iran, the Middle East and Egypt), who transported goods across outback Australia. Camel teams helped with the construction of the Overland Telegraph and railways, brought goods to Alice Springs, Broken Hill, and other places in central Australia, and carried wool to Adelaide and other coastal ports.

Marree became known as ‘little Asia’ thanks to the large population of cameleers. They planted date trees, and established Australia’s first mosque. Many of the cameleers were subject to racial discrimination, and Marree was a segregated town, with separate quarters for whites, ‘Afghans’, and Aboriginal people both in town and in the cemetery. Though many cameleers married Aboriginal women, they remained socially estranged from much of the white population.

Afghan cameleers continued to carry goods through the outback until the 1940s, and the last cameleer, Ahmed Moosha, died in 1999 at the age of 86.

Marree Mosque, 1884.

Today, the Marree region has a population of 634 (around 70% of whom are men), but the town proper only has a population of around 150. Major sites include the heritage Marree Hotel. Built in 1883, the Maree Hotel is more than just a source of accommodation, but a place of living history. Delve into Marree’s past in the hotel’s two museums, devoted to John McDouall Stuart and Tom Kruse, mailman on the Birdsville Track and subject of the award-winning 1954 documentary, The Back of Beyond. 

Other sites in Marree include a reconstructed mosque, in the ‘bough shed’ style of the original, and the Museum Park, which most memorably displays Kruse’s mail truck. Marree is also home to the world’s largest piece of art, the ‘Marree Man’, a giant figure of a man carved into a plateau outside of town. No one knows how or by whom this figure was created. Thanks to its scale, the full figure can only be seen via a scenic flight.

Odyssey Traveller visits Marree as part of our tour of Broken Hill and the outback. Beginning in Broken Hill, New South Wales, we take a couple of days to explore the history and culture of the ‘silver city’, paying homage to its mining history at the Lode Miners Memorial and Broken Hill Courthouse, and learning about the ‘Brushmen of the Bush’ at the Regional Art Gallery.

From Broken Hill, our outback tour heads towards Birdsville, near the Queensland/Northern Territory border, stopping in at the opal mining town of White Cliff and the Menindee Lake National Park along the way. From Birdsville we take the famous Birdsville Trail through the desert to Marree, before our tour continues to Arkaloola Wilderness Sanctuary, a flora and fauna sanctuary on the northern edge of the Flinders Range. From the Flinders, we head back to outback NSW, passing through the isolated ‘corner country’, which might be the most remote area in Australia.

Odyssey Traveller has been designing tours for mature Australians since 1983. Our journey is no ordinary outback tour: we specialise in educational tours, for travellers who want to get off the beaten path, and have an authentic experience of their destinations. We move in small groups of between 6-12 travellers, and are led by a local guide chosen for their expert knowledge.

We are now offering a number of outback Australia tours, including: 

  • An odyssey through the outback roads of the Kimberley, taking you on a scenic flight over the rock formations of Purnululu National Park and to the ancient landscape of the Mitchell Plateau, where the red dirt meets the west coast
  • An outback adventure through rural Queensland, learning about the history of the cattle station in the outback town of Longreach and Aboriginal culture at the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Brewarrina Fish Traps. 
  • A tour of the Flinders Ranges, South Australia, taking in ancient Aboriginal art and quintessential arid Australian landscape in one of the most accessible areas of the golden outback.

In addition to our Australian outback tours, we offer a number of other tours of Australia, including a city tour of Adelaide and surrounds (including the Barossa Valley and Kangaroo Island), the Wildlife of Tasmania, and West Australian Wildflowers.

Birdsville cattle muster
Stockman mustering cattle near Birdsville.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

You can read all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers on Australia

External articles to assist you on your visit to ‘Broken Hill and Back’

Selected small group package tours of Australia

Small group tour; Broken Hill and back

 Small group tour of New South Wales, Queensland & South Australia deserts, from Broken Hill. Learn about the history of the people who explored the deserts, from indigenous communities to Europeans, as well as Burke and Wills, visit White Cliffs, Birdsville, Maree.

Departing Sep, Oct, Mar, Apr

Small group tour of outback Queensland

To Dubbo and back, this small group tour takes you to learn about the Brewarrina fish traps, we travel high up into North Queensland to see the Dinosaurs of Winton and incredible Aboriginal rock art at Cathedral gorge and learn about opal mining and the history of Lightning ridge.

Departing Jul, Aug, Sep, Oct, Feb, Mar

Small group tour of Australia's Flinders range

Escorted small group tour of the Flinders range in South Australia from Adelaide. Learn about Coober Pedy, Wilpena pound and water system of Lake Eyre as we explore and learn also about the history of the people who explored the Flinders.

Departing Jul, Aug, Sep, Oct, Mar, Apr

Articles about Australia

Pilbara wildflowers WA

The Australian Outback: A Definitive Guide

15 mins read

Explore learn and consider what is the outback in this article. For mature and senior travelers considering joining a small group package tours into the outback to see, learn and explore about this unique place, not only the landscape but the Aboriginal approach to living. On each of the tours for couples and the single traveler you learn something different but fascinating, from Outback Queensland, the Flinders, Broken Hill and the Kimberley and the wildflowers all contribute to this question, what is the outback?