Up the Birdsville Track from Marree to Kati Thanda and Kalamurina

Marree sits at the junction of the Oodnadatta and Birdsville tracks in some of the remotest parts of South Australia. It has always been an important trading juncture, especially after camels and their cameleers were brought from the Indian subcontinent to transport goods in the desert, hence the Ghan, the original railway running from Adelaide to Marree. While commonly referred to as Afghans, these camels and cameleers were largely from Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province or present day Pakistan, and were instrumental in establishing Islam in Australia. The ruins of the first mosque can still be found in Marree. Unfortunately the railhead is now abandoned as the current Ghan line runs further west but the station, railway carriages and rail line still stand opposite the main street.

Ruins of 1st mosque, Marree
Marree Railway Station

Once the the Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks became roadworthy in the 1930’s, the outback stations also relied on the mail man. Tom Kruse famously delivered the mail from the 1950’s till 1984. His wild journeys in his truck were captured in a film called ‘The Back of Beyond’ and his tenacity in providing a communication link to many isolated communities was rewarded with an OBE. We were treated to some of the old movie on the long bus journey back to Marree and Tom’s truck is proudly displayed beside the rail carriages.

Rusty truck propped up on bricks bearing E.G.KRUSE on side
Tom Kruse’s mail truck, Marree

We had settled into the Marree Hotel, which is surrounded by date palms, reminiscent of the camel era. Our destination on the first morning was Kalamurina (pronounced Kalamurna). Half our group travelled up the Birdsville Track to Kalamurina and we lucky 13 were transported to the airfield for a morning flight over Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre).

Small bus outside old style two storey hotel in outback South Australia
Marree Hotel

Our pilot Matt explained we were first going to fly over the famous Marree Man. This huge geoglyph or engraving on the landscape can really only been seen from the air, a helicopter pilot spotting it in 1998. It is 4.2 km long and 28 km around the circumference. The scale suggests the coordinates could only be drawn using GPS satellite which was only available to a select few in the 1990’s. It’s an extraordinary figure of an Aboriginal hunter, his left arm outstretched to throw a woomera. No one knows who did the original engraving, but theories abound, and its fame has become so widespread that when the original carving began to fade, a grader was commissioned to redraw the outline which proved much more difficult than expected. You can read more about the mystery surrounding the Marree Man here (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-24/mystery-of-the-marree-man-in-australian-outback/11310330).

Large outline of indigenous man with arms extending to throw in desert landscape seen from air
Marree Man

We had not met or seen any indigenous people in Marree but apart from the Marree Man we had seen evidence of their concern about mining and damaging their important water sources. In our walk around town, a huge poster stood next to an Aboriginal flag. On it was the statement from the International Conference on Indigenous peoples and land from 1981 beside a map of the Lake Eyre Basin. The statement read ‘If the transnational and colonialist governments continue to defy the natural order of things in their quest for material wealth, Mother Earth will retaliate, the whole environment will retaliate and the abusers will be eliminated. Things come back full circle back to where they started. This is the prophecy of all indigenous peoples.’

Poster showing indigenous people in one corner and script in top right hand corner
Statement from the International Conference on Indigenouse peoples and land, Marree

Our flight soon veered north and crossed the first of the waterways, Lake Eyre South the southern part of Kati Thanda. Kati Thanda is usually a dry salt pan, at its lowest 15 metres below sea level. It is 140km long, 80km wide and covers 10,000 cubic metres and is the 3rd largest lake in the world. Here Donald Campbell famously broke the land speed record of 400 miles/hr in the Bluebird in 1964.

Salt pan seen from air
Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre)

The Lake Eyre Basin, which covers a landmass equivalent to France, Germany and Italy combined, includes the head waters of the Diamantina, Georgina rivers and Coopers Creek in western Queensland which drain into the Warburton river and the Finke river in Northern Territory which drains into the Macumba river. Both the Macumba and Warburton flow into Kati Thanda but only after heavy rain. The lake has completely filled only twice in the last 100 years, in 1950 and 1974, but partial fills have occurred in the last three years, due to ongoing La Niña effects. When this occurs huge flocks of birds descend on the lake to feed on the abundant fish, and wildflowers bloom. Fortunately for us, there was still water flowing in the Warburton River as we landed at Kalamurina, an Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

Large salt lake seen from the air
Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre) and Warburton river
View of desert airstrip with light aircraft in background
Kalamurina Australian Wildlife Conservancy

Anne Marie van Doorn met us at the airstrip. She and her husband Luke Playford are ecologists employed to manage the Kalarmurina AWC and conduct wildlife surveys of the area. Anne Marie explained the history of the area. It was set up as a pastoral lease in 1894 for camels and merino sheep but abandoned in 1902 after severe drought. The Dunn family lived in the current homestead from 1949-2005 when it was purchased by the AWC. Kalamurina covers 1.7 million hectares and sits at the intersection of the Munga-Thirri-Simpson Desert, the Tirari Desert and Sturt’s Stony Desert. Traditional ownership by the Kigari, Arabunda and Wonkungural tribes came to an end in 1900 due to drought, massacre and clearing for pasture. Anne Marie explained that it is very harsh country but despite this there are 50 ecological survey sites where 210 species of plants, 23 mammals, 167 birds, 54 reptiles, 12 native fish and 4 frogs have been identified. Endangered species like the dusky hopping mouse are making a comeback due to control of feral pigs, camels, cats, foxes and rabbits. After digesting all this information, Anne Marie led our bus through the dunes to the Warburton River where we stopped for lunch.

Landscape of river with grasses and shrubs in foreground
Warburton River
Group of people wearing hats sitting on camp stools under tree eating
Lunch stop Kalamurina AWC

The greening of the river banks by reeds, grasses and trees was such a contrast to the harsh landscape around the airstrip and homestead. Most of the birdlife has left however Don, an amateur birdo in our group spotted a flock of black capped Caspian terns, which apparently had flown from Siberia to breed. Other water birds, such as spoonbill, ibis and ducks could be seen in the distance and corellas and kites in the trees. Anne Marie warned us to watch out for snakes. The three species found here are all venomous.

River with reeds in foreground, water birds in distance and trees on further bank
Black capped Caspian terns, Warburton river

Australian Wildlife Conservancies of which there are 35 properties is run financially from volunteer contributions. It seems extraordinary that such a professional organisation is supported purely from donations (https://www.australianwildlife.org/where-we-work/kalamurina/).

Large sign with welcome to Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary standing in desert

Sadly we left after lunch for the long bus ride home along the Birdsville Track, stopping for a quick pint at Mungerannie Pub with the crazy publican Phil, who had apparently supplied our doorstop sandwiches for lunch. The highlight of our trip back to Marree was the sighting of a family of brolgas feeding at ‘Harrys Lake’.

4 large birds with long necks and legs standing in grass beside gravel road
Brolgas at Harry’s Lake

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