William Creek, SA
22 Oct 21 · 6 mins read
Henry Lawson wrote: “Somebody said to me, Yer wanter go out back, young man, if yer wanter see the country. You could go to the brink of eternity as far as Australia is concerned and yet meet an animated mummy of a swagman who will talk of going ‘out back’. With a population of five to ten people, and situated 210 km north west of Marree and 166 km east of Coober Pedy, William Creek can safely be said to be “out back”. In any case it is the smallest town in South Australia, outside of council areas, and administered by the Outback Communities Authority.
William Creek marks the halfway point between Marree and Oodnadatta, and has crucially the only petrol station between Marree, Coober Pedy and Oodnadatta on the Oodnadatta Track. It is the nearest settlement to Lake Eyre (Kati Thanda). Marree is also the starting point for the Birdsville Track, which heads north along the eastern side of Lake Eyre, while south of Marree the Strzelecki Track connects Lyndhurst with Innamincka to the north east. These tracks are a part of the great network of ancient Aboriginal pathways across Australia, each one vital to survival, communication, trade, spiritual and cultural traditions. These pathways were committed to tribal memory in Dreaming stories, songlines, visual art and dance.
The earliest inhabitants of the country around William Creek were the Arabana and Wongkanguru peoples. It was their expertise in navigating the arid expanses of central Australia that was indispensable to the European explorers such as the indomitable John McDouall Stuart, who was the first to traverse the mainland in 1862 from south to north and return using the same route. In his own words he “fixed the centre of the continent and successfully crossed it from sea to sea.” Stuart’s principal patrons and expedition financiers were William Finke and James Chambers, so the centre of Australia is sprinkled with creeks and landmarks named for both men, and for Chambers’ son William and daughter Anna. Chambers Creek, south west of Lake Eyre, was later renamed Stuart Creek, and of course the great Stuart Highway follows approximately the explorer’s route between Port Augusta and Darwin.
In 1858, while Stuart was searching for grazing land as far afield as Coober Pedy, another European, Peter Egerton-Warburton, was also exploring the region of Lake Eyre. Warburton ‘discovered’ some springs, which he named after a member of the SA parliament, Henry Strangways. Strangways, who became Premier for a short while, was a great land reformer, and supporter of exploration and development, including the Overland Telegraph. The Strangways Springs bubble up from the Great Artesian Basin just 38 km south of William Creek, and in the 1860s were used to establish one of the earliest pastoral leases.
The Oodnadatta Track curves between a number of these water sources. In geological times when natural flows of water from the Great Artesian Basin were much greater than today, there would have been thousands of active springs. Now termed Mound Springs for the characteristic mounds of salts and minerals created by the artesian pressure forcing water to the surface, this line of waters also determined the route of the Overland Telegraph and then the Great Northern Railway.
Work on the Overland Telegraph Line began in September 1870, with the first southern section stretching from Port Augusta past William Creek to Oodnadatta. The Strangways Springs property was sold to the South Australian government, and became a repeater station on the Overland Telegraph Line. After the epic completion in 1872, maintaining the line – a single galvanised iron wire – proved to be a major problem. Many times poles and lines would be washed away as a result of heavy rains and floods. During the summer of 1895 rain washed out the line, and railway, just north of Strangways Springs. The stationmaster wired to the South Australian Superintendent of Telegraphs Charles Todd, Tried to get wire across but, when the blackboy was nearly over, the binding wire broke and he was washed down stream and lost the wire. I was unable to do anything till the binding wire arrived by special train from Herrgott (Marree). This afternoon I got the assistance of a good swimmer and we worked hard till evening. The wire proved too heavy to swim with, so we passed over a strong wire with the binding wire attached. The line was finally joined on the other side in complete darkness. When we hauled the wire with blocks and tackle, and got it almost out of the water, it caught on a snag in the middle of the stream. If it doesn’t break we will have it joined after daylight. (In 1899 a second wire was added but this time it was a copper wire. In 1941 a second copper wire was added. In 1942 news of the bombing of Darwin was sent in Morse code down this line.)
The Strangways repeater station was closed down in 1896 and moved to William Creek, where some telescopic galvanised iron Oppenheimer poles may still be spotted. That early pastoral lease, however, became the Anna Creek Station. While William Creek is Australia’s smallest town, Anna Creek Station is the world’s largest working station, with an area slightly bigger than Israel.
Technology of the 19th century
The Overland Telegraph Line inspired the building of the railway line eventually known as The Ghan, which started in 1878 in Port Augusta and reached Oodnadatta in 1891. The steam locomotive used the water resources from the natural springs along the route. Initially operating fortnightly, in the 1930s this increased to weekly. From 1956 until 1975, it operated twice weekly, before reverting to a weekly service. During this time the population of William Creek swelled to around 50, but in 1980 a new standard gauge line took diesel locomotives from Tarcoola to Alice Springs, 160 kilometres west of the former line in order to avoid flood plains where the original line was often washed away during heavy rain. The most impressive piece of structural engineering on the old Ghan line was built precisely to counter floods, and it stood up to the task – the very photogenic Algebuckina Bridge crosses the Neales River a couple of hours’ drive north of William Creek.
William Creek today
Since then it is not trains that dominate William Creek but the magnificently scenic flights offered by Trevor Wright of Wrightsair, and the very welcome, and welcoming, Heritage-listed William Creek Hotel, which offers fuel for vehicles and for travellers. The pub has a richly betokened interior, and its dining room is wrought from old Ghan railway sleepers. A regular visitor is the OKA mail truck (an Australian all-terrain vehicle) which travels twice a week between Coober Pedy, William Creek and Oodnadatta. The trip takes around 12 hours with stops for meals at William Creek and Oodnadatta. The truck also stops to deliver mail at a number of homesteads, including Anna Creek Station. In fact most of the mail run’s route is within the Anna Creek station. When carrying tourists as passengers, it also stops at scenic points including the Dingo Fence, and ruins connected with the old Ghan railway.
Just like any self-respecting regional town, William Creek honours its departed, and its Memorial Park harbours a quintessential outback spirit, with the various headstones preserving the names of individuals and families who were a cherished part of this far-flung community. The ruggedness of central Australia is underlined by the memorial plaque to an Austrian tourist who lost her life in 1998 trying to walk back to William Creek from a 4WD vehicle bogged in the sand beside Lake Eyre. Until 2019 the Memorial Park also contained a unique piece of jetsam: part of a rocket fired from Woomera in 1971 – to be exact, the remains of the first stage of the British Black Arrow three stage rocket, showing the eight nozzles of its Gamma engine. The Black Arrow’s final flight was the first and only successful orbital launch to be conducted by the UK, and placed the Prospero satellite into low Earth orbit. After 48 years it was decided to repatriate the rocket remains, and put them on display near Edinburgh.
William Creek follows the words of Henry Ford, except in William Creek, you can have any colour as long as it is White! And it is infamous for having a drive through bottle shop for “light planes” Welcome to outback Australia.
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