The track from Marree in South Australia to Birdsville in Queensland, is the best known and loneliest road in Australia. It was opened up in the 1860s to bring cattle from the Northern Territory, New South Wales and Queensland to the nearest railhead which at that time was Port Augusta.
As early as 1858 Samuel Parry, who had made a comprehensive survey of the Northern Flinders Ranges, had reached the southern point of the present day track. Within a few years German Lutheran missionaries had a mission established for the Dieri Aborigines at Killalpaninna where they stayed until it was closed by the government in 1916.
When the railway reached Marree in 1884 it became the railhead for Birdsville and the far north. It also became, and remained for a long time, the most isolated, but also most important stock route in Australia where names like Crombie, Scobie, Kruse and Oldfield are still a legend.
Mail coach leaving Marree for Birdsville.
As a result of the total lack of surface water along the entire route, the South Australian government sank artesian bores at intervals of about 50 kilometres. Even so, big droughts or floods are still common. Mungerannie Station has been washed away twice, whereas Mona Downs was completely washed away in 1974, when other stations were also submerged for long periods.
The bores have made it possible for man and beast to survive the distance through some of the most arid, harsh and desolate country in Australia. Drovers with mobs of cattle of a thousand or more travelling south, and Afghan cameleers driving camel trains of up to a hundred camels north carrying station supplies, were common before the days of motor transport. Early settlers and drovers soon learned that their lives and income were ruled by floods, sandstorms and often prolonged droughts.
Droughts and sand storms can obliterate the track from one season to another. Weeks on end of furnace like heat have resulted in many deaths of man, sheep and cattle along the track. As late as the 1960s, a whole family died after their car broke down.
The first mail service was pioneered by Jack Hester in 1884 followed by a mail-passenger service opened in 1886 by August Helling using packhorses and buggy. From Birdsville it was George Roberts' job to get the mail to Haddon Downs. He left Birdsville on 27 December 1884 for the last time. His body was found near Nappanalka two weeks later. Sometimes the mail went by boat. In April 1887 the track between Cowarie Station and Goyder's Lagoon was flooded to such an extent that the only way to get the mail to Birdsville was by boat. In 1902 it was Frank Booth who had the mail contract using a buggy and five horses. It was not until 1922 that the mail and some other supplies were delivered by car. Since 1970 the mail is carried by plane.
In 1890 it was suspected that Mr Helling, or his driver, was also involved in Sly-grog selling, although this was never proved. This practice was quite common. Eating houses which operated at Clayton, Blazes Well, New Well, Mungerannie and Mulka were all suspected of illegally supplying alcohol. Very few cases have been proven and even fewer convictions made.
The best known mail man along the track was Esmond Gerald (Tom) Kruse, MBE, of 'Back of Beyond Fame' who delivered the mail for nearly twenty years, come drought, 'hell or high water'. Over the years mail, stores and passengers have been dropped off at Lake Harry, Clayton, Dulkaninna, Cannuwaukaninna, Mona Downs Tidnacoordooninna, Etadunna, Kopperamanna, Killalpaninna, New Well, Mulka, Oorawillanie, Mungerannie, Blazes Well, Appatoongoonie, Cowarie, Kalamurina, Mitta Mitta, Mount Gason, (named after police trooper and later publican Samuel Gason) Minnie Downs, Karratunga, Alton Downs, Mays Hills, Clifton Hills, Pandie Pandie, Andrewilla, Diamantina and Birdsville.