Along the outback mail run

By Sue White 29 November 2010
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It’s a long day as outback postie Peter Rowe travels 600 km along the Oodnadatta Track’s mail run.

THE OUTBACK STATIONS AND desert pubs forming a triangle between Coober Pedy, William Creek and Oodnadatta may be some of the world’s most remote addresses, but that hasn’t stopped Australia Post. Twice a week mailman Peter Rowe drops in, delivering snail mail to the residents of outback South Australia.

The job that has sparked an unusual tourist drawcard: every Monday and Thursday morning a 13-strong crowd waits at Coober Pedy’s underground bookstore, after paying $190 to join Rowe for his 600-km drive along the iconic Oodnadatta track. Gathering outside his 4WD bus it’s clear we’ll be delivering the mail on bush time. “There’s no rush,” explains Rowe. “We might be back at 7pm or 10pm, depending on how often you stop to look around.”

If outback cliché number one is that no-one hurries, it doesn’t take long for every other ‘wide brown land’ chestnut to visualise. Within minutes of pulling out of Coober Pedy the tarmac is replaced by red dirt. Out the window are sprawing flat plains with more dirt, a bright blue sky and the occasional emu. For twelve hours. Is it possible life out here gets a little monotonous? Never, says Rowe, whose knowledge and love of the stark desert is obvious. “There’s always something different,” he enthuses, passing around photos of the desert in full bloom of wildflowers while recalling a day he saw a flock of budgerigars so thick you couldn’t see the sky.

Somewhere around the centre of the middle of nowhere, just past the famous dingo fence, he decides we need our own dose of desert wildlife. “Take a walk up the sandhills,” he prods, pointing across the isolated highway. “Look for tracks.” Wandering off, the punters are slightly dubious. Surely, there’s nothing here but more red dirt? Within minutes it becomes obvious there is.

Take a closer look

The desert is alive with lizard-feet imprints, crisscrossed bird tracks and other unidentified markings. That the seemingly boring becomes incredibly interesting is part of the magic of the mail run. Under the tutelage and enthusiasm of Rowe visitors see and learn far more about the outback is possible solo. Of course, it’s also great subtext for snooping. City slickers can’t fathom how people actually live on places like Anna Creek Station (which, at 23,000 sq. km, is roughly the size of Belgium).

After doing the mail run for six years, Rowe is acutely aware of how nosy tourists can be; as we pull up to Anna Creek he reminds us to keep the probing in check. “Remember, it may be the world’s largest backyard, but it’s peoples’ homes. So don’t go opening gates or doors – you’re in someone’s house.”

Even without breaking the rules, there’s plenty to see: outback clotheslines are covered in mesh, perhaps to stop the clothes from fading; most stations have a school of the air setup for the station owner’s kids; and there are myriad surprises enroute, like the inexplicable green patches of lawn in front of every house.

What’s missing from the cattle stations are people, and, weirdly enough, cattle; it’s three stations before we log a cow, and the only person we see all day on any of the stations is a 13-year-old girl who explains to Rowe that dad’s at work and her mum’s dropping the other kids off at boarding school. It doesn’t take long for passengers to begin polite murmurs about people do all day in the outback.

Hard day’s yakka

But all this apparent nothingness has to be maintained. “Fences, bores, water for the cattle,” says Rowe. “If a station manager wants to check on his bores, it’s about a 300km round trip along far worse roads than this.”

While the slice of life is fascinating and the vastness of the outback alone is worth the trip, it’s Rowe’s storytelling ability that keeps this intriguing journey alive. Arriving back in Coober Pedy after lunch in the one-pub town of William Creek and dinner at Oodnadatta’s Pink Roadhouse, he has achieved the impressive feat of talking without pause for 12 hours on everything from geology to history and outback living.

This is clearly a man who loves his job. “Some people have to sit in an office all day; I get to see my mates, meet new people and be out here. It’s fantastic,” he says. 

The Outback mail run departs Mondays and Thursdays from Coober Pedy, year round. Be warned that temperatures in Coober Pedy can reach 50ºC in summer. The route is 600km on dirt road; expect to be out for 10-12 hours.