Ship of the Desert

For many Australian city dwellers the Birdsville Track, the Oodnadatta Track and other Outback roads, conjure up visions of remote Outback adventures. That is how it used to be before the four-wheel drive explosion. In those days the tracks were just that, tracks little more than one vehicle wide, and meeting another vehicle was a social occasion. Drivers would stop and talk to each other, particularly if a section of the track was in poor repair. They might even light a fire and brew a billy.

These days it's quite different. It seems that everyman and his dog has a four wheel drive vehicle of some sort and the tracks are well graded highways. This has introduced new dangers. Many drivers have no idea of how to drive in the Outback, and no consideration for their fellow road users. They seem oblivious to the havoc they cause. Many are city dwellers with limited time who fail to understand that travel times are far greater on dirt roads than on bitumen highways. Consequently they drive like lunatics who are late for lunch and fail to slow when approaching oncoming vehicles. Because of their speed they scatter rocks and stones like shrapnel, shattering the windscreens of the other vehicles. This is aggravated if they are towing a trailer.

Some fail to appreciate that these Outback tracks should not be used without careful preparation. Travellers must carry adequate food and water and their vehicle must be sound and properly serviced. In many cases they have no tools and carry no recovery equipment, so are unable to help themselves, even out of minor difficulties.

When it rains the Tracks can become the adventure they used to be and journeys can be delayed for weeks whilst they are closed. When they reopen there are often many flooded creek crossings and long stretches with standing water.

One such creek crossing is at the Cooper on the Birdsville Track, which becomes impassable for any vehicle. A detour of about fifty kilometres overall leads to a ferry, which operates during daylight hours at times of flood. At the ferry the flooded Cooper is approximately three hundred metres wide and three metres deep. It is even wider at the dry weather crossing.

Ferry though is a rather grand title for what is in reality a very basic punt. However, it is effective and carries one vehicle at a time. It must be the only vessel afloat anywhere in the world that has a beam (width) equal to its length. Heath Robinson would have been proud to have been the designer.

The basic ferry is 7.9 metres long with a beam of 7.5 metres. The loading deck is 7.8 by 2.5 metres. It is powered by two 11 kilowatt (15 horse power) outboard motors. A pair of steel cables guide the punt as it makes the crossing and keep it tethered to the banks.

The aluminium dinghy secured at one side of the punt adds to the overall width. In an emergency this dinghy could be pressed into service as an improvised lifeboat.

One driver was so desperate to get his truck across the Cooper that he cut 18 inches (450 millimetres) off the rear of his tray to bring the vehicle down to the 7.8 metres maximum allowable length. Just how this drastic measure affected the vehicle's compliance with the road rules is not known.

According to one of the operators the punt initially consisted of only the central section which, when fully loaded, became almost submerged. To overcome this lack of buoyancy the Department of Transport modified it by adding an outrigger at each side. The vessel is now about three times the width of the original. The MV Tom Brennan, an earlier punt that is on display near the dry weather Cooper crossing on the main track, seems elegant in comparison, despite its basic and functional design.

The Tom Brennan played a vital role, ferrying travellers and goods across the Cooper for months on end during the floods of 1949, 1950 and 1951. The present punt seems set to continue in this tradition.

Port facilities have been developed on both banks of the creek. They consist of a simple cleared parking area. That on the southern shore also boasts a public toilet, but this is the extent of the development. Although functional and providing a vital role like the punt, the toilet is just a very basic outback dunny.

Caravans are prohibited from the punt, but trailers are allowed provided they remain attached to the towing vehicle and the combination meets the overall length restrictions. For a while after the punt began operating in 2010, some enterprising person decided to help travellers with trailers and caravans that were too long. They used a quad-bike to replace the towing vehicle for the duration of the crossing. The authorities frowned on this practice and it was promptly banned.

Summary of Conditions for use of the Cooper Creek Ferry.

Maximum length          7.8 metres

Maximum load              10 tonnes.

Maximum load              8 tonnes with cattle.

Caravan are NOT permitted.

Trailers MUST remain attached to the towing vehicle.

Maximum number of passengers 6.

Lifejackets must be worn.

For full details and conditions of use contact Transport SA, 1300 361 033 or on the internet, .

© Jim Ditchfield

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