THIS must be the most beautiful time of day in the Outback.
The sun is plunging towards the horizon, casting a captivating shade of gold on the landscape and forcing long shadows to fall on the red dirt where buildings stand on the gibber plain, and there’s only a sliver of vibrant blue holding the great glowing ball in the sky.
The colour may be draining from the land but it’s still fiercely hot and I’m hiding under my baseball cap with the sun biting into my neck every time I turn my back on the western sky to marvel at the pastel shades of sunset in the east.
This is my second night in Marree, the isolated South Australian settlement 680km from Adelaide on the old Ghan line to Alice Springs. My APT group arrived after the sun disappeared yesterday so I didn’t have time for a stroll around the settlement’s dirt streets in the perfect hush of dusk until now.
It’s been a big day. I left my comfortable donga in the yard at Marree’s historic hotel when the sun was just peeping above the horizon for a sunrise sightseeing flight over Lake Eyre, then drove to the southern shore of the great inland lake after lunch for a paddle, and this evening’s amble is the perfect way to finish today’s adventures.
I’m surprised at how much I like Marree. I certainly didn’t expect to find this rustic town at the junction of the Oodnadatta and Birdsville tracks to be so enchanting, but I think it’s the mix of history and bygone beauty that appeals to me.
Edward John Eyre was the first European to see the site in 1840, the spot was named Hergott Springs after the German botanist travelling with John McDouall Stuart on his 1859 expedition, and the Central Australian Railway arrived in 1883 boosting the town’s population to almost 1000 residents in just a couple of years.
Marree became a busy depot for railway workers maintaining the troubled Ghan line, a hub for the inland cattle industry mustering beef from around Corner Country for the rail journey to market in Adelaide, and a camp for the Afghan cameleers that hauled supplies to stations as far north as the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Afghan migrants arrived in the early days of settlement, building Australia’s first mosque in their neighbourhood Ghantown, and today the sparse cemetery is home to headstones with the swirling writing of the cameleers’ mother tongue beside the graves of white pioneers.
We explored the graveyard on our return from Lake Eyre – the pond is less than 100km along the Oodnadatta Track – and saw the grave of “Wahub, Afghan’’, who perished in 1895 beside the lonely plot where “Little Clem’’ was buried when he died at three months in 1898.
The railway left town in 1986, after the Ghan track moved west to avoid the troublesome terrain that caused a century of problems, and while Marree was home to just 70 locals at last count in 2011, it’s easy to imagine the boom years with the ghosts of a thriving settlement in the exhausted buildings scattered around the streets.
A long concrete platform flanks the main drag, with faded signs asking pedestrians to be wary of shunting trains pointing to the location of the old tracks, and a cluster of railway buildings abandoned years ago crumble into the dust nearby.
I would love to poke around these derelict houses but I dread coming across a collapsing wall or – even worse – a snake, so I keep my distance and snap pictures of the ruins before going on my amble around Marree.
I pass an old Commonwealth Railways diesel left to decay at the end of the line, see the truck that legendary outback postman Tom Kruse used on his epic 700km mail run between Marree and Birdsville, and spot the famed Lake Eyre Yacht Club, before heading for a fleet of rusting vehicles I spy on an empty block in a corner of town.
There’s a truck belonging to Miller Industries Ltd, with Marree phone number 22, indicating the person operating the local switchboard wasn’t too busy, and the panels on these rusting carcasses date them back to the 1940s or 50s.
There are not many people around this evening, just the odd 4WD thundering along the Oodnadatta Track to announce the arrival of new visitors, and I pause to look at the houses I pass unable to tell if they are occupied or abandoned because they are so delightfully decrepit.
I see wrought-iron bedheads used as garden gates, verandas that once provided a shady perch for railway workers relaxing after clearing drifting sand from the line, and patches of paint on sandblasted weatherboards tell me Marree shacks were once vibrant shades of blue and green.
I thought Marree would just be a stop to sleep between Lake Eyre and the Flinders Ranges.
I didn’t expect it to be a destination with a silent story to tell, but those willing to explore the streets will find a window to an almost-forgot chapter of Australia’s history.
*The writer was a guest of APT.
Marree is an eight-hour drive from Adelaide, or five hours from Port Augusta on the northern tip of Spencer Gulf, and while the road is bitumen to Lyndhurst, the last 80km is dirt so a four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended.
The Marree Hotel, which has been serving drinks to travellers since 1883 and can help organise a scenic flight to Lake Eyre, offers a range of accommodation options from renovated motel rooms to ensuite cabins.
Those keen to visit as part of an organised group can join APT’s Coober Pedy and Lake Eyre expedition with the nine-day loop from Adelaide seeing a section of the Oodnadatta Track and the Flinders Ranges as well as spending two nights in Marree.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ESCAPE ON SUNDAY, AUGUST 23, 2014