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Photo Report: Outback Australia & the Oodnadatta Track vs. Toyota C-HR Part 2: Moon Plain and Coober Pedy

Our Toyota C-HR exploring the Moon Plain near Coober Pedy (click on any pic to enlarge).

This is Part 2 of our adventure through Outback Australia and the legendary Oodnadatta Track with a Toyota C-HR. See Part 1: William Creek and Oodnadatta here. After a rather uncomfortable night in an overheated cabin part of the Oodnadatta Pink Roadhouse – the only inside accomodation option available in town, we decide to leave the Oodnadatta Track to head straight towards Coober Pedy instead of continuing onto Marla and the Stuart Highway, as Coober Pedy has a lot to offer and we want to spend a bit of time in town.

Part 2 of this Photo Report takes us back to Sydney via Coober Pedy.The Oodnadatta Track. Today we’re cutting Marla out and are headed directly towards Coober Pedy.

But there’s another reason for this little shortcut: the dirt track from Oodnadatta to Coober Pedy offers some pretty spectacular desert landscapes that would be almost criminal to overlook. Talk to the majority of city folks in Australia and you will find out that first, only a few have explored the Great Outback this country has to offer, and second, they would be citing as an excuse that “it all looks the same, it’s boring”. Well. Just get your wheels out there…

The ever-changing hues of the Australian earth, courtesy of Natasha the Toyota C-HR.

…and you will be hit by dwarfing immensities, bewitching nothingness and skies as big as you’ll ever see, all this while traversing – believe it or not – ever-changing landscapes. The colour of the earth never stays the same for very long, oscillating between bright white, sandy yellow, ochre red and everything in-between. And as you’re getting used to the new dimensions around you, complete and utter silence will allow you to isolate your thoughts as if they were written with big letters onto the sky. Still think all of this is boring?

The Grid: an Australian Outback specialty.

I can’t go through another Outback exploration without mentioning one of the region’s specialties: grids. Barely registering under the wheels when passed at speed, you realise that these grids are actually quite widely spaced when you set foot on them, and that’s the whole point. We humans need to take when walking across, but livestock just cannot twirl their head around it and tend to stay way clear. These grids are indeed here to keep cattle within the bounds of their respective homesteads without having to resort to gates that each driver on the Track would need to stop to open then close. All grids are connected to a network of barbwire separating the immense homesteads, which are sometimes so large (such as the Anna Creek station we described in Part 1), the owners use planes or helicopters to herd stock.

Moon Plain. There’s now at least one Toyota C-HR in the world that can say: “I’ve been to the moon and back!” Mad Max 3 and Priscilla Queen of the Desert were shot on the Moon Plain.

Roughly 15 km before reaching Coober Pedy is a location imaginatively called Moon Plain, simply because, well, you have guessed it, it does look a little extra-terrestrial. A vast expanse of rocky plain, the lunar-like landscape has been inspirational not only to the 4WD enthusiast, the car blogger (look who’s talking) or the avid tourist, but also Hollywood (and local) movie producers. This precise location has been the set for many movies including Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994), Pitch Black (2000) and The Red Planet (2000) where the Moon Plain was a stand-in for planet Mars…

The Kanku-Breakaways.

Before we can get right into the meat of Coober Pedy, there is one last worthwhile detour: the Kanku-Breakaways. An arid Conservation Park covering 15.000 hectares forming part of the traditional country of the Antakirinja Matuntjara Yankunytjatjara people, the Breakaways are called this way because the mesas and low hills appear from a distance as if “broken away” from the higher ground of the escarpment. It’s the perfect spot for a stunning sunset over the orange cliffs, that is if you don’t mind the billion flies that get intensely obsessed with your nose, eyes and ears. I watched the whole thing from inside the car!

Natasha has arrived in Coober Pedy

Now our Toyota C-HR baptised Natasha and we are entering famed Coober Pedy. Home to 1.695 inhabitants (including 285 indigenous Australians), it is the largest opal mining area in the world, with over 70 opal fields. The name comes from the local Aboriginal term kupa-piti, which means “White man’s burrows”. Why is that I hear you ask? Well, such is the stifling heat in this part of the world that inhabitants have had to think creatively about where to live. Coober Pedy is indeed famous for its underground residences bored into the hillsides, called “dugouts”. A standard three-bedroom cave home with lounge, kitchen, and bathroom can be excavated out of the rock in the hillside for a similar price to building a house on the surface. However, dugouts remain at a constant temperature when outside regularly exceeds 40°C (104°F).

The Underground Motel The Serbian Orthodox Church, and the view inside.

So when in Rome, or rather Coober Pedy, we had to do what everyone is doing here and sleep underground in the aptly named Underground Motel which I strongly recommend. The entire hotel and all its rooms are dug into the hill and the significantly lower temperatures naturally achieved inside do make you think twice about wanting to get out into the heat ever again. It’s a fascinating experience that has to be lived to be believed. There are a few things to visit in Broken Hill too, one of them being the Serbian Orthodox underground church, built in 1993. The whole church complex, with a church, a community hall, a parish house and a religious school, is carved in the sandstone between 3 and 17 meters under the ground level. Today, more tourists visit the church – including us – than there are parishioners.

Mine shafts around Coober Pedy and the warning signs going with them.1919: ‘Wilful Murder’ is the first motor vehicle to reach Coober Pedy.1920: Cartering of water to Coober Pedy by camel.1946: the Bush Church Aid Society commences medical flights to Coober Pedy.Before the Sturt Highway was sealed in 1987, regular bus services to Coober Pedy travelled under all conditions. Above: a few Coober Pedy transport milestones courtesy of the Umoona Opal Mine & Museum

Opal was discovered near Coober Pedy in 1915 and the town was established right after that in a bleak and uninviting spot that was utterly waterless – all water and food had to be brought in. In 1918 news of rain as well as the end of the construction of the transcontinental railway nearby (see Part 1) brought an influx of miners, bringing the population to 100. A request for a Police Officer was ignored by the South Australian government, pushing miners to act for themselves. Yep, the wild wild west right here in Australia! By 1999, there were more than 250,000 mine shaft entrances in the area and a law discouraged large-scale mining by allowing each prospector a 165-square-foot (15.3 sq m) claim.

Back to bitumen for 2.200 more km!Mining spec Toyota Hilux in Glendambo.That’s 66.667 flies on every human – sounds about right…

After 650 km/400 mi of dirt tracks we are now back into bitumen for the remainder of the trip (roughly 2.200 km or 1.375 mi), and let’s be honest, Natasha our Toyota C-HR wouldn’t have minded continuing the entire journey on the dirt. This AWD variant is at home on the graded tracks of the Lake Eyre Basin desert and we’re glad we took it for a spit in this stunningly beautiful part of the world. Next stop on our way back to Sydney: Glendambo. And if flies were the secret weapon of the Breakaways near Coober Pedy, at least this tiny settlement is seeing the humour in it. Glendambo officially has a population of 30 humans, 22.500 sheep and… 2 million flies! That’s 66.667 flies on every human. I concur.

Stern warning sign near the Woomera Air Force base

Before looping back onto Pimba, we cross the Woomera Range Complex, a large Australian Defence Force long range weapons and rocket testing ground covering an area of approximately 122.000 square kilometres (47,000 sq mi). That’s roughly one fourth of the size of France! It is named after the woomera, an Aboriginal spear throwing implement which extends the range a spear can be thrown. The airspace above the complex is restricted and controlled by the Air Force for security reasons. Woomera is the only land-based test range left in the western world that is large enough for the testing of the next-generation of weapons systems such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. As such, it is an extremely busy base, and bookings for access have been made as far in advance as 2023 (in case you had anything you wanted to test there, no – not cars). Access to the complex is leased to foreign militaries and private companies for their own testing of weapons systems, rockets and drone aircraft.

Natasha standing to a heavily roo-barred Toyota Prado in Hay.

The rest of the trip is a breezy run to Sydney and the opportunity to verify that the Toyota Hilux and Land Cruiser 70 are still kings of the deep Australian Outback. Strong sellers in South Australia include the Mitsubishi Triton, Kia Carnival, Ford Territory, VW Amarok and Renault Koleos. Entering New South Wales from Adelaide, I noticed more-than-usual numbers of Nissan Navara, Holden Colorado, Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, Pajero, Isuzu D-Max and MU-X. The Australian countryside remains definitely more keen on Chinese vehicles: in Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, I spotted three Foton Tunland, three LDV G10, three Haval H6 and one Great Wall Steed. We arrive back in Caringbah at Toyota’s facilities with Natasha showing 11.820 km on the odo. We have just driven around the Australian Outback for 4.972 km or 3.089 miles with not a single technical issue to report. Very impressed by this small crossover that is taking the worldwide sales charts by storm.

Overall a very confident performance by the Toyota C-HR: everything is working as it should be and no gremlins bugged us during the almost 5.000 km / 3.100 miles journey. The trip included 650 km of unsealed road driving which posed no issue to the car.

A very aggressive exterior design all round is a true breath of fresh air from Toyota. There are a lot of very interesting design features, notably the tail lights, that makes the car unique and visually-pleasing day after day. Hopefully Toyota’s next launches with follow on the C-HR’s path.

A very practical car despite its small size, with multiple cup and phone holders in the front and the space inside the doors has been used optimally with large bottle holders in the back doors – a rarity.

Dashboard has very pleasant buttons and more sophisticated materials than you’d expect for a car this price (AUD$30.990, US$24.300, 19.800€), with leather-like stitches on the passenger side, Lamborghini-like A.C. controls and shapes that feel very nice under the fingers.

The touch screen is on the smaller side but the GPS does allow unsealed route directions and recognises hotels.

Adaptive cruise control is really effective and automatically returns to the set speed after braking or accelerating. One of the best systems I have driven.

In terms of safety issues, automatic high beams are not a feature I would expect for this level of price but it’s there, although may need some fine tuning. It worked better than on the Tesla Model X which is almost 10 times dearer.

One very useful feature is the inclusion of blind spot alerts on the rear view mirrors, as the design of the rear of the car makes it prone to blind spots.

The C-HR letters are projected on the floor when closing the doors at night, and rear view mirrors automatically slide against the door when the car gets locked.

The 500km range is just enough for Outback driving: we didn’t end up having to use our backup jerrycans simply because Natasha is able to drive 95 Unleaded and above which is traditionally the type of fuel available in remote petrol stations, such as William Creek. That’s a marked improvement on both Havals we drove to similar terrain as these would only take 98 and above which was an issue as no remote stations stock this fuel type.

Sound system is very good again based on vehicle price, withstanding strong bass without battling an eyelid.

One victim of the car’s innovative design is the high up back-seat windows limiting visibility, a mild inconvenience for an adult that can become a tad annoying for shorter persons or kids.

Understood as a safety feature, the fact that you cannot input a GPS destination while driving can be frustrating when you have a passenger ready to do it safely without any input from the driver.

The glovebox opening is not straight forward and requires a few attempts to work properly.

The GPS ETAs when on unsealed roads are based on average speeds of 40 to 60 kph which tends to be on the lower, conservative end.

Integrated into the rear doors to achieve a purer design, the rear door handles feel light and cheap when used.

When in deep Outback, our starting point wasn’t recognised because it was too “isolated” but this only occurred once, in Oodnadatta attempting to get directions to Coober Pedy – there is only one way to get there so this wasn’t a real issue per se. Can become problematic if lost in the desert but then again there aren’t many cars that would calculate destinations at all when in the desert.

Photo Report: Outback Australia & the Oodnadatta Track vs. Toyota C-HR Part 1: William Creek and Oodnadatta

The Toyota C-HR in the Australian Outback

Launched in late 2016, the Toyota C-HR is the first crossover to rank #1 in the monthly charts at home in Japan, ending the year at #4. It is the most popular recent launch in Europe for 2017 at #46 (the Audi Q2 comes next at #60), the only new nameplate to rank inside the Top 50 every single month of the year. Its best performances include Georgia (#4), Cyprus (#5), Latvia (#9), Norway (#10), Ireland (#15), Finland (#17) and Poland (#19). Among the Top 5 European markets, the C-HR ranks #28 in France, #32 in Italy, #35 in Spain, #57 in the UK (H1) and #82 in Germany. It also ranks #11 in Puerto Rico and 55th in Australia where it is the best-selling new nameplate for 2017, and it would have ranked higher if there weren’t supply issues out of Japan where the car has been more successful than expected. It is estimated that Toyota has missed out on 100.000 to 130.000 sales of C-HR in China by not having launched it there yet.

The itinerary for Part 1 of this Photo Report

Such commercial success warrants a test drive here at BSCB where we do our best to get a better feel of the most popular nameplates worldwide. Toyota Australia was kind enough to lend me the AWD version priced at AUD$30.990 (US$24.300, 19.800€), roughly one-tenth of the last car we drove, Mikey the Tesla Model X. After Joey the Toyota Hilux, Kaitlin the Peugeot 208 and Lars the Volvo V90 we need a female name starting in N, as this is a car, which has a feminine gender in my native tongue, French. We will go with Natasha. Natasha has 6.848 km on the odo when we pick her up in the southern Sydney suburb of Caringbah where the Toyota offices are located. I asked for the AWD variant because I want to take Natasha on an Australian Outback adventure, with the aim being the unsealed Oodnadatta Track in South Australia. However, we have decided that in order not to push the C-HR too hard we would only take the Track if the access is open to all vehicles – even though theoretically it could (should) handle a “4WD only” sign.

In the company of Road Trains in Pimba.

The first part of the trip is a long highway stretch from Sydney to Mildura then Adelaide, Port Pirie and Port Augusta. We turn off at Pimba, population 36, 480 km north of Adelaide, where Natasha acquaints herself with a couple of Road Trains, as pictured above. A lot of this trip will follow the steps of a transcontinental railway whose construction began in 1878, the Australian version of the American “Far West” era. As such, Pimba was originally established as a construction camp for the railway and has been retained as a railway siding up to this day. It was only surveyed as a township during the 1960s and had to wait until August 2004 to be gazetted as a locality. Despite the tiny population, both the Indian Pacific (running between Sydney and Perth on the west coast) and the Ghan (running between Adelaide, Alice Springs and Darwin at the extreme north of the country) still call at Pimba Siding on request, both trains servicing the town twice a week in each direction.

The Toyota Hiluxes of Roxby Down wear heavy kangaroo/cow protection…

Next we hit Roxby Downs, a very interesting little mining town at the edge of the desert and 563 km north of Adelaide. Home to a little more than 4.700 inhabitants, almost one third of whom are under the age of fifteen. Built from scratch in 1987 and officially open in November 1988, Roxby Downs is the first town in South Australia to have been set up as a joint venture between the state government and a mining company, WMC (now BHP Billiton), to service the Olympic Dam mine. The mining company provides the infrastructure for the town including the housing, lighting, electricity and water while the state government provides recreation and educational facilities (schools and TAFE), policing and town administration. In the sweltering heat Roxby Downs doesn’t show much activity but the swimming pool and cinema, rare features of Outback towns, are there for us to used if we had some spare time. No such luck!

Remote Areas warning sign in Olympic Dam as we are about to engage in dirt tracks.Stretching our legs on the Borefield Road between Roxby Downs and the Oodnadatta Track.

We are now about to leave the bitumen for dirt tracks for the next 650km or so. It has now been 1.992 km (1.240 miles) since Sydney so it’s time for a quick summary of how Natasha has fared so far. Up to now, the Toyota C-HR has been a model of sturdiness and reliability. Toyota is never at the cutting edge of technology, rather opting for tried-and-tested options to ensure longevity. If you are a tech geek, you would enjoy the Tesla Model X a lot more but, proving my point, the American electric SUV wasn’t really quite “finished” as numerous items weren’t working properly. None of that in the C-HR. Granted, the touch screen on the dashboard is on the smaller end, but it works faultlessly. One safety feature is that you cannot input a GPS destination while driving, which is fair enough if you are by yourself in the car, but not so much when there’s someone in the front passenger seat. The sound system is above par for the car’s price, there are enough large storage options even in the back seats, the adaptive cruise-control is truly adaptive and gets back up or down to speed after braking or accelerating. Automatic high beams are a lot more effective than on the Tesla Model X. So far, so very good Natasha.

We hit the Oodnadatta Track between Marree and William Creek.Big skies and long distances: this is the Australian Outback.The Oodnadatta Track links Marree to Marla in South Australia

We’re in luck: the section of track linking Olympic Dam to William Creek is open to all vehicles. Off to the unsealed world we go! 118 km on the perfectly graded Borefield Road and we arrive at the junction with the Oodnadatta Track. This 617 km (383 mi) stretch of dirt road is the third in a set of legendary South Australian tracks also including the Birdsville Track (we explored it in a Haval H8) and the Strzelecki Track (we crossed it in a Haval H9). It follows a traditional trading route linking springs used by Aboriginal groups for over 20.000 years. This route was later used in 1862 by the explorer John McDouall Stuart during his crossing of Australia, in 1870 for the Overland Telegraph Line – a land line more than 3.000 km across the continent from Port Augusta to Darwin to link with an undersea cable connecting Adelaide to London – and finally by the now abandoned steam-train powered Central Australian Railway, later called Old Ghan Railway. Ruins of Overland Telegraph repeater stations are located along the Track that follows the former railway line as far north as Oodnadatta. Long an anonymous stretch of dirt, it was baptised Oodnadatta Track in 1979 by the owners of the Oodnadatta Pink Roadhouse in a marketing push for the area (it worked!). More on the Oodnadatta Pink Roadhouse further down in this Report.

Kati Thanda – Lake Eyre. Natasha matching its colour……with the Bluebird-Proteus CN7 that broke the land speed record in 1964 in the same location.

Upon heading west onto the Oodnadatta Track we quickly find ourselves on the shore of Lake Eyre, the largest lake in Australia covering 9,500 sq km (3,668 sq mi). That’s on the rare occasions it fills: only a handful of times per century, the last one being in 1999-2001. Most of the time it’s a large salt pan. Named in honour of Edward John Eyre, the first European to see it in 1840, it contains the lowest natural point in Australia at approximately 15 m (49 ft) below sea level. Lake Eyre was the site of the wheel-driven land speed record established by Donald Campbell in July 1964 with the Bluebird-Proteus CN7 at 648.73 km/h (403.10 mph), although the car had been designed for 800 km/h (500 mph). That record only lasted two months. Our C-HR sports a similar dark blue hue, but there won’t be any land speed record attempts from us, mainly because the lake is off limits to vehicles – otherwise I would have loved to have a go!

A pretty lonely Railway crossing in Curdimurka.

Tagging along the Track we reach the Curdimurka siding, the last remaining station left intact on the Old Ghan Railway, dating from 1888. Local Aborigines believed that a giant snake named Kuddimuckra lived at nearby Lake Eyre. They avoided travelling along the shores of the lake, and when many viewed the approaching Ghan for the first time they fled. Curdimurka siding has been the location on an Outback Ball held since 1986, reportedly attracting thousands of dancers, but when we were here it really did look like ghost building, and hard to believe it would still hold any significant event.

Natasha following in the steps of the Old Ghan Railway.Afghan cameleer, late 19th century Australia.

So why Ghan I hear you ask? It honours Muslim Afghan cameleers who arrived in Australia between 1860 and 1910 to help reach the country’s isolated interior. The first mosque in Australia was built in Marree at the start of the Oodnadatta Track to meet the needs of the cameleers. Construction of the railway began in 1878 in Port Augusta, reaching Hawker in 1880, Beltana in 1881, Marree in 1884 and Oodnadatta in 1891. Then, the final leg of the journey to Alice Springs was made by camel – hence the Ghan name – up until 1929 when the railway extension to Alice was completed. The Marree to Alice Springs line closed in 1980, replaced by another railway from Tarcoola further west, only gaining a connection to Darwin in 2004.

Sunset on the William Creek Hotel Natasha in William Creek Inside the William Creek Hotel. My BSCB business card now has a forever home…It will cost you AUS$2 per litre to refuel in William Creek. The joys of the Outback!Natasha with the only other car in William Creek that day, the hotel manager’s. 

After 136 km on the Oodnadatta Track we arrive at William Creek, population 10 and home to one of the world’s most remote pubs. William Creek is located on the world’s largest cattle station, Anna Creek Station, covering 23.677 sq km (9.142 sq mi), slightly larger than Israel and over seven times the size of the United States’ biggest ranch, King Ranch in Texas (3.340 sq km, 1.289 sq mi). We are welcomed by Rose who manages the hotel and pub, adorned with thousands of artefacts left by fellow travellers like many Outback pubs in Australia. After we sorted the details of our room, the conversation went roughly like this: “So could we have dinner here?” Rose: “Oh so you want to eat here?” “Uh, yes there aren’t any other options, right?” “Of course there are!” “?” “You also have Coober Pedy just 166 km away, Oodnadatta at 201 km or Marree at 210 km!” “Ummm we’ll settle for here then!” Cheeky Rose.

Road conditions: Green all the way to Oodnadatta.

An evening of amazingly starry skies spent with friends is exactly what I was longing for in this trip. William Creek was good to us. The next day we embark on the next step of the journey, taking us a little more than 200 km to Oodnadatta. Given it hasn’t rained here for the past few months, all sections of the Oodnadatta Track are dry and “green” on the Road Conditions board, meaning all vehicles are allowed to drive on it. The landscape gets more and more arid as we penetrate further into the desert, a region encompassing Lake Eyre whose native title is held by the Arabana Aborigine people. The Toyota C-HR’s GPS calculates arrival times on unsealed tracks based on speeds of between 40 and 60 km/h. To be honest I am impressed it obliges on calculating anything outside of bitumen roads, as this wasn’t the case on both Havals I drove to neighbouring areas. But these tracks are so dry and graded so smoothly that peak speeds tilting over 100 km/h are not unreasonable. We arrive in Oodnadatta in a little less than three hours.

Arrival in Oodnadatta.

The name Oodnadatta is derived from Arrernte Aboriginal language utnadata, meaning “mulga blossom”. Population is 277 including 103 indigenous Australians. Oodnadatta’s busiest era was during World War II as a vital stop on the Ghan Railway for the transport of military supplies to Darwin which was bombed by Japanese troops. Both the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Air Force set up local facilities to service troop trains and fighter aircraft headed to Darwin. After the closure of the railway line in 1980, Oodnadatta became a residential freehold town for Indigenous Australians. The Aboriginal school is the biggest employer here. Oodnadatta has recorded the highest reliably measured maximum temperature in Australia: 50.7°C (123.3 F) on 2 January 1960, hence the proud sign “Australia’s Hottest, Driest town” at the entrance pictured above.

Natasha paying a visit of the Oodnadatta Pink Roadhouse.

But Oodnadatta’s main attraction is its legendary Pink Roadhouse. Lynnie and Adam, owners of the only shop in town, baptised the track we have just taken the Oodnadatta Track in 1979 to help what was merely a railway access to become a well known adventure drive from the Flinders Ranges to Uluru (Ayers Rock). Their shop became Oodnadatta Traders in 1983, then adding fuel to the service, and they decided to paint the store pink to easily identify their enterprise to travellers. The Pink Roadhouse was born. Well. All that build-up for nothing, as the staff of one was rather circumspect and the cabin we were offered was stifling hot with broken air-con! When the outside temperature under the sun is well above 50°C (it was the middle of Summer when we visited), that’s not a good combination. Gotta keep your standards up Oodnadatta!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this Photo Report hitting the opal mining town of Coober Pedy…