Oodnadatta, South Australia

An Antipodean travel company serving world travellers since 1983


Oodnadatta, South Australia

Oodnadatta is a small and remote town in Outback South Australia with a big history as a trading stop and railway townfor the old Ghan. This outback town today is charaterized by the “Pink Roadhouse”. It is quite a place, on the edge of the Simpson desert. The Royal flying doctor service first outback hospital was established here in 1912.

The name Oodnadatta is likely an adaptation of an Arrernte word utnadata meaning ‘blossom of the malga’. Prior to European settlement, the area around Oodnadatta was inhabited by the Arabunna people. The town was part of a network of Aboriginal trading routes existing for tens of thousands of years, as traders followed a path leading from spring to spring, enabling them to cross the harsh desert landscape aided by the numerous springs at each campsite.


The first settler to reach the area was John McDowell Stuart, the first European to make the journey from north to south across the Australian continent. Stuart followed the Aboriginal trading route, allowing him to successfully travel through the desert where other explorers had failed.

In the 1870s, the Aboriginal trading route used by Stuart was used to establish the Australian Overland Telegraph Line, connecting Port Augusta with Darwin, thus allowing Australia (through Java) fast connection with the rest of the world. Completed in 1872, the cable is regarded as one of the great feats of 19th century engineering and possibly the most significant milestone in Australia’s telegraphic history.

By the 1880s, the telegraph route was being used by camel trains, led by ‘Afghan’ cameleers (commonly known as ‘Ghans’) – who actually originated from all over British India, as well as Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey – who were hired by settlers to haul goods into central Australia. Though many ‘Ghans’ returned to their homelands in the early 20th century, a number settled in the area, often marrying Aboriginal women. Many Oodnadatta locals can trace their heritage back to the ‘Ghans’.

Chameleers with visitors, c. 1891

In the 1880s, Oodnadatta was identified as a proposed terminus for an extension of the Great Northern Railway. When the railway was built, a town around the railway station was established here, proclaimed in 1890. Though the Great Northern was extended to Alice Springs in 1929, Oodnadatta remained an important government service centre and link into outback South Australia via a dirt road network.

In 1981, the Great Northern Railway line was closed, with ‘The Ghan‘ – named in honour of the ‘Afghan’ cameleers – opening up to the west of the town. Since then Oodnadatta has declined in population. Today it has a population of 204, over half of whom are Aboriginal. The main industry in the town is now tourism, thanks to travellers who follow along the traditional trading route of the Oodnadatta Track often combined with the Birdsville track, two iconic unsealed tourist routes of the Australian outback.

The unsealed Oodnadatta track , passing through the Outback from Maree in the south-east to Marla in the north-west is popular with tourists as an unsealed tourist routes leading to and from Alice Springs. Passing along the quintessential red sands of the Australian desert, you’ll be able to see remnants of the old railway and telegraph trail. But the gravel road of the Oodnadatta track is much more. This road whether going South to link to the Birdsville track and to Birdsville or North keeps close to old ghan railway line and its sidings including Curdimurka taking the traveller past Lake Eyre South, into the settlement of William Creek and on through to Marla, where the track joins the sealed Stuart highway or to Finke and Mt Dare hotel after the Dalhousie hot natural artesian spa and springs that are part numerous springs of the great artesian basin. The region was part of the Aboriginal trading routes, so deep history is close to the traveller, though it is the colonial history that is evident out here in outback South Australia with the railway station of the old ghan railway and sidings based beside the waterhole now a memory of steam and then diesel. The Pink Roadhouse at Oodnadatta or Marree will give you the best advise on dirt road conditions in this part of the Australian outback including the Simpson desertand the outlook either before or after a rain event that puts water on the track and closure.

Watch for the quirky Alberrie/Mutonia Sculpture Park, a collection of huge sculptures created in the desert by Robin Cooke, a local mechanic turned outsider artist. Made out of discarded metal, sculptures portray a giant ragweed, dogs, planes, and robots. Or stop about 130kms before Marree at Coward springs railway sidings to take the water from the great artesian basin in this natural artesian spa for just a couple of dollars.

If you’re interested in learning more about the South Australian outback, consider joining Odyssey Traveller’s Tour of the Flinders Ranges. Our tour begins in Adelaide, before heading to historic Port Augusta on the Spencer Gulf, where the sea meats the outback. We then head to the quirky opal mining settlement of Coober Pedy.  From Coober Pedy we head to Lake Eyre National Park, taking a scenic flight to marvel at the scale of Lake Eyre.

From Lake Eyre, our trip heads south through the iconic Flinders Ranges. In the Northern Flinders Ranges, we visit the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary. We then head into the main Ikara Flinders National Park. In Ikara Flinders we visit Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre of mountains regarded as sacred to the local Adnyamathanha people. We also learn about the geology of the area on the Brachina Gorge Geology Trail. This walk may also give you the opportunity to see the elusive yellow-footed rock-wallaby! The Flinders Ranges National Park features a number of stunning gorges, including Bunyeroo Gorge, Parachilna Gorge (near the historic Prairie Hotel), and Alligator Gorge, in the Southern Flinders.

Finally, we pass through the Southern Flinders Ranges on our way back to Adelaide, where we have a final night’s accommodation. While our tour ends here, we encourage you to spend a couple of extra nights to explore the Adelaide region: including Kangaroo Island, the Fleurieu Peninsula, and the wine growing regions of the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, which have given South Australia its global reputation for wine.

If you’re interested in visiting South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, why not join an Odyssey Tour? We have been serving mature and senior travellers since 1983. While we take you to the major sights – Wilpena Pound, Coober Pedy, and the Flinders Range– we also pride ourselves on getting off the beaten track, and taking the time to learn about our destinations. On our trip, we explore the rich Aboriginal heritage of the Flinders Ranges, and visit a number of sites of ancient Aboriginal art on walking trails through the park. We also explore the settler history of the region at Old Wilpena Station.

If our tours interest you, click here for more information.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to the Flinders Ranges and South Australia: 

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