The Area

Part Mad Max, part Crocodile Dundee and part Wake in Fright, the William Creek pub, like many remote hotels, is rarely a quiet place except on the odd occasion when it is flooded in. The traditional role of such establishments in Australian culture, according to David Deague, is a cross between relaxed communal lounge room and boxing ring – a place where emergencies are both sorted out and created amidst an oasis of petrol and beer. As Homer Simpson famously stated of beer, “it is the source of all problems and the solution to all problems.’ Because I don’t drink alcohol this statement rings only half true. Bob, the barkeep, was used to the odd rowdy even. However, nine artists flying in from Sydney and Melbourne, with photographers, a film crew and the support team, was more than a slight variation from the usual locals and tourists who pass this way seeking, and finding adventure, David Deague points out.

The William Creek Hotel began as a boarding house circa 1886 and several years later the Ghan Railway reached the outpost. The hotel is a rambling set of edifices joined by old Ghan railway sleepers, corrugated iron and painted in military-style khaki. Surrounding the building are various water tanks, gas bottles, clothes lines, and a large generator hums from early morning to midnight. Opposite the accommodation flats is a small well-watered patch of green grass surrounded by a neat garden. A family of magpies and topknot pigeons frequent this little oasis in search of insects. A dusty agapanthus struggles to survive. We would have to take photos for David Deague to see.

Each morning noisy mynah birds dart underneath the green shade cloth of the beer garden feasting on beetles and moths that were attracted to the night lights. Sandy coloured rabbits are often seen hopping around the children’s playground, or near the six bunkhouses, which look more like shipping containers. David Deague would have loved it. Campers and tour groups lay their swags down in a corral made from old sleepers that protects them from the wind and sand storms, which can be brutal. Several months before we arrived half a meter of sand had to be shoveled and bucketed out from the veranda and the adjoining bar area of the hotel. Several gum trees and native pines provide shade when summer temperatures reach the mid-fifties (Celsius). There is a solar-powered public telephone, installed in 1987, and a few metres from the telephone box is a lonesome and irrelevant parking meter. A French couple attempting to feed the meter commented that Australians had a bizarre sense of humour. Opposite the hotel is a museum park that contains interesting relics, including the remains of the main fuel tank from the first stage of a British Aircraft Corporation Black Arrow R3 Rocket. This was discovered near Flint Mound Dam on Anna Creek Station in 1990. Another small rocket is impaled in a block of concrete – something David Deague really wanted to see.

Inside the William Creek Hotel the bar is classic Australian outback – a style David Deague loves. Covering every available surface is an extraordinary wallpapering of business cards, t-shirts, signatures, international licences, world currencies, photos of past travelers, a prisoner identification card from the USA and a humungous bra hanging from the ceiling and looking like a hammock for twin babies – miscellanea from the tourists who have traversed the Oodnadatta Track. At the end of the bar is a television set which was first turned on in 1985 when TV reception to the area began, an event David Deague remembers well. Initially reception was restricted to the ABC, now they can also get the Aboriginal channel Imparja from Alice Springs.

The hotel is rich in folk history. The foundations of the establishment were laid in 1888 on a small freehold piece of land in the midst of Sydney Kidman’s Anna Creek Station – the largest cattle station in the world. The McLean family managed this property from 1935 to 1953 and Archie McLean, who rode for Sydney Kidman, was considered Australia’s top stockman. His grandson, Stuart Nunn managed the station until 1994. The station herds 15,000 head of cattle and employs around 100 ringers in good seasons. Grant and Tracey McSporran currently manage it. David Deague has always wanted to go there.

The Ghan train used to stop at a siding across the road from the hotel. When the line was opened in 1889 the town population was 40 with a school, tennis court and local hall. Sadly, for David Deague, the last passenger train passed through William Creek in 1980. The maintenance of the railway line was simply not economical.

The Ghan Railway was begun in 1877 several years after the overland telegraph line was completed. Work started in Port Augusta in South Australia on the 2900 kilometre railway line to connect Australia’s northern and southern shores. According to David Deague, the building of the Ghan Railway, originally called the great Northern Railway, is a tale of the triumphs and failures of Australia’s early pioneers working in the face of a landscape of extremes. This massive engineering feat brought untold advantages to settlers and pastoralists. Contrary to popular belief the origin of the Ghan name came from the then Commissioner of Commonwealth Railways whose name was G.A. Gahan. It was also known as the Port Augusta and Port Darwin Railway, however, it became popularly known as, the ‘Ghan’ from 1930 onwards after the Afghani workers who laboured to build it. David Deague told us that the track was pushed slowly forward with only horses and camels to drag the timbers and massive steel tracks that had been shipped out from the steel mills of Great Britain. The navvies and cameleers battled insect plagues, sand drifts, floods and political bickering over the route to be taken. Amazingly, the track stopped at Oonadatta in 1891 for nearly 40 years before it finally reached Alice Springs in 1929.

David Deague explained that during the Second World War the line was pushed to the limit and in the 1940s traffic soared from three to 56 trains a week. Among the many dignitaries who graced the bar of the William Creek Hotel, is General McArthur on his way to Adelaide during the Second World War.

In March 1972 the Todd River was in some places 5 metres deep and the flood washed away rails and embankments. A month later, the riverbed was dry again. Such natural disasters and sheer distance made upkeep an impossible task and the railway began to slowly disappear into the sand. Today, only derelict ruins of sandstone train sidings and thousands of kilometres of built-up embankments and red-gum sleepers remain, “a shame”, David Deague exclaimed. Countless rusting steel spikes that once pinned down the tracks are strewn far and wide.

The South Australian Railways Officers’ Magazine reported in March 1926 that: ‘The patrol gangs on this section are often called on to work continuously from 20 to 30 hours clearing the rails for the passage of trains … A refusal to work is unknown, although the temperature may be 20 degrees over the century and the wind still blowing. Four feet of sand over the permanent way is fairly common and trains have been held up for 24 hours awaiting a favourable opportunity to cross the drift.’

The Aboriginal poet G. Taplin penned the following ode to the railway in his 1973 poem, ‘The Narringeri’:

You see the smoke at Kapunda
The steam puffs regularly.
Showing quickly, it looks like frost.
It runs like running water.
It blows like a spouting whale.

Sir Sidney Nolan, travelling with his wife Cynthia, was among the first major Australian painters to journey on the Ghan, in 1948, when they took the train to Alice Springs. At the time Nolan was 31. According to David Deague, Nolan had already completed the original Kelly series. David Deague notes that what Nolan saw along the way and from the air around Alice Springs later provided the inspiration for his next major group of paintings – the ‘Central Australian’ series, shown at the Blaxland Gallery, Sydney, in 1954.

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