Ooldea Joining of the Rails 100th Anniversary

Thursday, Nov 23, 2017 at 21:58

Stephen L (Clare) SA

Well after lots of planning, the time was fast approaching for this long awaited special historic event. For nearly two years on the ExplorOz forum I had been reminding and updating readers of this event, in the hope of getting as many readers to attend and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Joining of the Rails at the remote site of Ooldea on the Nullarbor Plains.

The week before the event there was some quite heavy rain than came in from the North West and most parts of inland Australia received some heavy and welcomed rain. It was not so lucky for one ExplorOz member and fellow friend of ours, Idler Chris who had been stranded at Neale’s Breakaway for three days because of this unexpected rain band. Over many phone calls, we worked out a way of getting his group safely out of the desert to be able to arrive in time for the event.

In my usual fashion, the car was fully packed with the exception of last minute perishable food a week before our departure date and the week could not go quick enough. The Thursday night before our planned Friday departure, the car was now fully packed. Next morning we were out of bed a little earlier than usual and around 7:45am on Friday morning, we were pulling out of our driveway and soon heading north in what can be described as just perfect travelling conditions.
Our first stop for fuel was Port Augusta and it was now time to take off our jackets, as even though it was only 19 °, it was now getting quite warm travelling in the car. Back out on the highway and we were soon at Lincoln Gap and time to turn off and head for the west coast. The car was purring away nicely and then around 80 kilometres from Kimba, the timing belt warning light came on. What the hell was going on, as we had the belt replaced at 115,000 kilometres? Finding a safe place to pull over I immediately turn off the car and then it was time to make the first of quite a few phone calls, firstly to my reliable mechanic back in Clare. That was no good as he was in hospital, so then a long phone call to the RAA in Adelaide.

The usual questions were asked by the very friendly and helpful phone assistant, and then we were told to sit tight, as the nearest road service was back in Port Augusta and it may take up to three hours before they can get out to us. I then told the RAA chap not to make the call just yet, as I would like to ring Toyota. After what seemed like a long wait on the phone, I was able to speak to a Toyota Service Manager in Adelaide and explained the situation. He said that because the belt had been replaced, it was quite safe to drive the car, as it was just a safety feature and designed to come on every 150,000 kilometres to make sure that the belt is replaced and to take my vehicle to the nearest Toyota dealer, as the code could only be reset by computer. I then explained the situation and where we were and was there a fix that I could do myself, as the nearest dealer was over in Ceduna, still a half days drive away, but the answer was no, you cannot reset the fault and it can only be carried out at a Toyota dealer. This was now the first time that we had lost so much time sitting on the side of the road and we were finally on our way again, but this time with the warning light staying on.

We made a few stops along the way and nearly two hours behind schedule, we finally arrived at Streaky Bay where we had planned to stay the night. The evening was just perfect, and we took the dogs on a nice walk along the beach and by the time we got back, it was time for jackets, as it was now quite cool. After tea we sat around and then I went to Mr Google, and bingo, I finally found a very simple and easy way to reset the warning light myself and not at a Toyota Dealer as I had been informed by the Service Manager. It was now after 10pm, so I was not going to go outside in the cold and try to reset the light, as seeing it sounded very simple, I would give it a go next morning, so off to bed I went and hoped that it was going to be as easy as it looked on the internet. I was out of bed early Saturday morning and a final quick look on Mr Google again and by 7am and in less than a minute, I had carried out the very easy fix and the light now only came on when it should, at start up and then went out as it should. So much for not being able to do the reset myself and wanting me to take the car in to a dealer just to hook it up to a computer and do the reset that way, and in my books would have taken far longer just to set up the computer and do the reset. After our showers and packing up, it was out on the Cape Bauer Road to take in the great coastal scenery before heading on towards Ceduna. It was another perfect day for travelling and after a refuel and lunch stop at Ceduna; it was time to head towards our next nights planned stay. Since our last visit to the west coast, there is now a new Windmill Museum in Penong and if you are ever passing through the area, it is well worth the small detour to see these mighty structures.

The stand out windmill is Bruce, the 35’ Comet windmill and it is the largest in Australia. This is not the first time we have seen this unit, as we had previously seen it a number of times in a very derelict state on Coondambo Station, and it was great to see it now fully restored. Heading further west, it was time to head for the coast and our next night’s stay, Fowlers Bay. This is one little place that we always enjoy coming to and quite often stay here when over this way. With everything set up, I then had one important thing to do next, to visit the ruins of the old Yalata Homestead and grave site of the little known explorer, Richard Thelwall Maurice. We have driven past this location a good number of times and never knew if its existence and if it was not for my good friend, Murray Collins from Ceduna, I would never have known about this special little piece of West Coast history. After a good look around the site, we headed back to Fowlers Bay and then went for a walk down to the beach. On our return, a chap walked up to me and said, you’re not Stephen, are you? It turned out that it was a fellow EO Member, Peter G from Tamworth that had been in contact with me prior to the event and had made the long trip from Tamworth in NSW. After a quick chat with Peter we organised that he was going to be travelling with Fiona and I up to Ooldea in the morning.

It was another perfect morning in Fowlers Bay with not a breath of wind and it would have been great to just chill out in this great little spot, but we were now on a mission. After a slow start to the day, we were on our way out of Fowlers Bay and heading for the most direct route to Nundroo, which is via Coorabie.

I told Peter over the UHF where the ruins were of the old Yalata Homestead as we drove past them and in a very short time, it was time to top up our fuel tanks at Nundroo before heading further west on the Eyre Highway before turning off and heading north for Oodlea. Just out of Nundroo we came up behind a large Oka and as we passed the vehicle, I knew we had seen it before with its very distinctive Perentie lizard painted on the side.

Heading further west I knew where the turn off was and if it was not for the fact that we had been on the road before, it would have been very easy to miss the turn off, as it is still not sign posted. I told Peter over the UHF that the turn off was coming up and as we made the turn, the Oka that we had passed a few minutes previously, also made the turn off, so we knew where they were going as well. The Iluka Road is a great road to drive, with a variety of scenery along the way, from long straight sections, to hilly scrub country. There were only a couple of Road Trains on the road and after the luxury of this great bitumen road; it was time to turn off and the start of the dirt to Ooldea. True to form as per the updates received, the road had been graded and to be honest, it was a pleasure to drive this great dirt road. Our first stop on the road was the crossing over Lake Ifould which happened to have some water in it. With a few photos taken, along came the Oka and we went up to say hi. Well what a small world it was, as the vehicle was owned by EO visitor, Peter and Margaret. Back on the move again and the countryside was looking great, and the rain that had fallen a week before had and freshened up the countryside and there were a couple of sections of the road that still had water on it, but it was not cooling down and it was now 38 and we still were not at the hottest part of the day yet.

The closer we got to the Ooldea rail crossing, there was now constant chatter over the UHF radio and when I told Peter over the radio which track to take to head to the actual ceremonial site, there was a familiar voice over the radio with “is that you Stephen”, to which I replied, “it sure is Chris and what are you doing here “. Idler Chris (ExplorOz Member) was escorting his group of 9 vehicles and was going to the Daisy Bates site on the northern side of the railway, having driven in from Oak Valley, before coming into the camping site at the Monument site. It did not take long now and we were finally back at this very special site and were very surprised that we were the first group of attendees to arrive, other than the main team led by Leon Ashton and Greg Bannon from Quorn who were busy setting up the area. With Leon’s team and our arrival, it now brought the grand total of nine vehicles on site, so we wondered just how many more would turn up today. With our camp sites selected and set up, we had a quick bite to eat and we then went over to Leon and were given a few tasks to do to help set up the area. During the afternoon there were only a few other vehicles that arrived while we were helping set up the area, including the volunteers from the Ceduna CFS. Everyone that arrived on the Sunday all chipped in and as they say, many hands make light work and slowly the site was getting into shape, with still a lot of work to be done on the Monday. Around 5pm, Leon called it a day, and we all had a chat about what we would do tomorrow.

The evening was still quite hot which was a real pity, as the very large pile of wood that had been brought into the site was not going to be put to good use. There was still only a small group of people on site, but the atmosphere was building up and it was just great to be out in the desert again and the only noise that was heard during the night, were the trains that went hurtling past and one solitary Dingo in the early hours of the next morning. Dawn next morning was just perfect, with not a breath of wind and if it was going to keep up like this, it was going to be a perfect day for the ceremony. By 8am the work team was at it again with my first job to grab the wheel barrow filled with the witches’ hats and place them along the boundary of the National Park and around some rather large rabbit warrens that would soon take care of any vehicle that happened to drive over them. Monday morning now saw a slow increase in the number of vehicles turning up to the site and as people arrived and set up camp, it was now looking like a well organised site with one thing on everyone’s mind….the anniversary in 24 hours’ time. Even though the event was still many hours away, those that had Anniversary Items to sell were starting to do a good little trade, with one person in hot demand, Phil Hodgins with his very limited and individually number commemorative Original Dog Spikes.

With the number of vehicles increasing during the day, it was now time for Peter G and me to head down to what little shade we could find in the 43 ° heat to do some vehicle marshalling and to direct the vehicles to their camping sites and a general run down on the basic rules while on site. The afternoon went quick and then came along the eagerly awaited Hayward Contractors with the 10 portable toilets for the event. These were not just ordinary toilets, but spotless and smelling as fresh as daises and were kept this way for the duration of the event. At 3pm, our relief party arrived and Peter and I walked back to camp. There were now over 60 vehicles on site and it was fantastic to see so many people from Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and South Australia attending the event so far. With everyone setting in now, Peter and I now had another job that we took on ourselves with one of the event souvenir sellers, Rhonda. They had produced 4 boxes of commemorative Stubby Holders at the bargain price of $5 each, or 2 for $10! Off we set and with our professional sales skills, managed to sell a box full to which Rhonda was so chuffed with all proceeds going to the worthy Ceduna CFS Group. One of the special things that Phil had now organised was the next passenger train that was passing through was going to slow right down, but could not completely stop with the expected time of around 6:30pm.

Around 6pm, there was a steady stream of people making their way over to the bunting and now waited for the train to pass. We all chatted about many varied topics and then in the distance coming from the west, the train finally came into sight and the closer it got, there were very large toots from the train horn and there was much hand waving from both train passengers and those of us waiting on the side of the railway line. This had now set off the atmosphere and after tea, Mike Roberts put out an announcement over the PA system that there was going to be a concert for everyone to attend. How special were we, hundreds of kilometres from our nearest major town of Ceduna and our own special concert in the outback. Portable lights were set up on the new memorials and many people settled for a fantastic evening. Mike performed many of his great songs and we even had another freight train go past to add to the excitement, and then out from the shadows emerged Leon and his guitar to perform a song that he had written about the railways. The evening went off without a hitch and the crowed applauded both Mike and Leon for their great songs and then it was time to head off to bed, a little later than expected. During the night there were more trains but the concern now was the very strong wind that hit in the middle of the night. The sound of flapping canvas and tarps and the sound of chairs blowing over was the last thing we wanted to hear. It seemed to last like this for quite some time and then around 5am the wind calmed down, or so we hoped.

Finally after a couple of years of talk, the big day had finally dawned and we were now getting excited to see the event go off without any hiccups. I was out of bed early as Peter and I again had the early shift and was back on traffic marshalling duties by 8am. The first hour or so was quiet with only a few day visitors arriving, but by around 9:30am we were now getting a very steady stream of vehicles arriving for the event. By 10am the wind had had come back to haunt us again along with a very hot 42 ° and the temperature was increasing to add to the joys of the wind. People of all ages had made the effort of be part of history and it was a credit for them to venture to this remote location, with many people having travelled many thousands of kilometres just to be here. To further add to the atmosphere of the day, Pacific National loco NR6 arrived onsite around 10:45am and for the first time in the event, the bunting to stop access to the other side of the railway line was removed and people were making the visit to the memorial on the other side of the line and inspecting the train. ARTEC workers were busy onsite, with the supervision of the public crossing over the railway line as well as having fun erecting the cover over the shelter for guests to shelter under from the sun. Around 11:15am Peter and I were relieved and we both joined in the fun of the event.

Hundreds of people were now gathering at the ceremonial site and it was great to catch up with many people that we have had past contact with, including Bob from Yalata with a group of his school students, Robin from Maralinga, Jo and Graeme from Westprint Maps, ExplorOz Members and other great people. Right on cue, the official ceremony started at 12 noon with opening speeches from Bob Sampson and other invited speakers. The one person that everyone was waiting for hear from took the stage around 1:30PM. Dick Smith had flown in on his plane and spoke about the challenges of building the railway line and other feats of history of the area. To coincide with the exact time that the rails were joined way back in 1917, Dick Smith officially unveiled the commemorative plaque at 1:45pm with cheers from the gathered crowd. With the officially unveiling of the plaque, it was then time for Mike Roberts to perform his special song that he had written and composed for the event. It was then time for photos of the new Memorials and to know that they will still be standing in another 100 years. The official count for the day was over 420 people and the event went on without a hitch and the crowd was fantastic, despite the heat and the wind, while on a positive note, at least the wind kept the flies away.

The wind and heat had now worn out its welcome with it topping 43 ° for the ceremony and by around 2pm, many people had left the site and headed south to make their journeys home. After we were finally packed up, we were sorry to see the wind, as well as the hot conditions and departed for our return night’s stay at Fowlers Bay then slowly made our way back home. While at the event we were able to catch up with the follow EO Members, both current, past and regular contributors.

Peter G from Tamworth

Peter and Margaret from Adelaide

Idler Chris from Melbourne

Mechpete from Shepparton

Paul from Kalgoorlie

Les Lexic from Berri

On Behalf of all the readers of this Blog, I would like to thank the following people that made this special event happen.

Murray Collins from Ceduna

Leon Ashton from Quorn

Greg Bannon from Quorn

Regional Development Australia Whyalla and Eyre Peninsula

Bob Ramsay from Port Lincoln

Bob Sampson

ARTC officials and staff for the construction of the two new Steel Memorials and for proving staff for the event and allowing people to travel on the usually closed track to get to the site.

The Maralinga Tjarutja people for allowing the Airfield at Ooldea to be used by visitors.

John Sampson from Quorn for the PA Sound system.

Phil Hodgins for organising the Train for the site on the day….and his Dog Spikes.

The Ceduna CFS volunteers that were on site.

Howard Contracting for the cleanest portable toilets in the Outback.

The Fowlers Bay Progress Association for their fantastic sausage sizzle and at $3, they were fantastic.

Dick Smith for his most generous support.

Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary

And everyone else that helped to make the day a success.

Stephen Langman

November 2017
Smile like a Crocodile
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