The 3200-kilometre-long Overland Telegraph Line from Adelaide to Darwin connected the Australian continent with the rest of the world. ROSAMUND BURTON shares with us her journey 150 years later, as she traces the path of this largely forgotten strand of wire through the country’s vast desert interior to the flood-prone Top End.
Having spent the earlier part of my life in Ireland and England, it was a desire to understand more about Australia, which is now my home, that drove me to follow the Overland Telegraph Line. As well as tracing this extraordinary engineering feat and slice of history, it was a quest for connection to the land and an understanding of its people.
I was intrigued by the single strand of wire, 3200 km long and supported by 36 000 poles, that ran through the heart of the country, which I had first learnt about years earlier when my partner, Steve, and I drove along the Oodnadatta Track in 2006. Constructed in the 1870s and connected by undersea cable from Darwin to Java, it heralded the dawn of instant global communication for Australia.
I wanted to move slowly across the country, which is why I chose to cycle the first section from Adelaide. Over 18 days, my friend Fleur Dare and I cycled from Adelaide to the deserted outback town of Farina.
Part of the way we followed the Mawson Trail and cycled through the Barossa and Clare Valleys along dirt tracks, disused railway lines and quiet back roads. Our most challenging day was the first – initially we got lost, and then in the Adelaide Hills faced ascents so steep we were barely able to push our bikes up them.
Completely exhausted, I didn’t think I could reach the town of Woodside, where we were staying, and it was only with Fleur’s gentle goading that I did.
One day we had a strong wind against us and struggled to make any headway, on another, torrential rain meant we arrived at Kapunda absolutely drenched and spent the evening drying our belongings with a hair dryer. But usually cycling was a joy, and it was exhilarating to propel ourselves 800 km by pedal power.
Our accommodation was mostly in pubs and we spent our evenings chatting to locals. At the Barbed Wire Hotel in Spalding we were shown a piece of the original Overland Telegraph Line wire, and in Hawker General Motors shop I was directed to a display of original telegraph insulators.
But the further north we travelled, the greater the distance between towns, so we spent several nights on stations. In the Northern Flinders Ranges staying at Merna Mora Station, the owner, Donald Fels regaled us with stories of the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line in the area, as if it were yesterday, not 150 years ago.
From Farina, Steve joined me and we continued by four-wheel drive along dirt tracks to Alice Springs.
On the Oodnadatta Track we met Arabunna man Reg Dodd, who showed us two original telegraph pole stumps, and told us how the Arabunna had shown the Overland Telegraph Line construction workers where to find water, and the best route for the line. The mound springs in the area, with their water from the Great Artesian Basin, were a vital water resource for the Arabunna for thousands of years, before John McDouall Stuart began his search for a route across the continent and the telegraph line was built.
Steve and I followed a rough, rocky dirt track to The Peake, where we found the remains of the seven-roomed repeater station – its high chimneys and walls still standing – and nearby springs, known as Yardiya, by the Arabunna. This wetland, with its river red gums and gidgees and clusters of rushes, truly is an oasis in this dry desert region.
In Alice Springs I met Frank Ansell, whose parents both spent time at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station when it became a home for children of mixed race. He shared his story of growing up feeling that he didn’t belong to either the white man’s world or, because he didn’t know the laws, the Arrernte one, and his journey to becoming a traditional medicine man and healer, helping both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
For the final part of the journey, along the Stuart Highway from Alice Springs to Darwin, I travelled with friend Alison Martin in a campervan.
Leaving behind the dry desert interior we entered the Top End with its thermal springs fringed with palm trees. In between my search for poles and wire we plunged into crystal clear warm waters, watching our fingers wrinkle like prunes as we floated in one pool after another.
I moved across the continent listening to people living in this harsh but beautiful country, and hearing about its sometimes brutal history. These voices, alongside age-old and more recent history, and my personal journey, make up the many interwoven layers of the book.
Whispering Wire: Tracing the Overland Telegraph Line through the heart of Australia by Rosamund Burton is published by Wakefield Press
Rosamund Burton also wrote Castles, Follies and Four-Leaf Clovers which was about her delightful ramble along Ireland’s St Declan’s Way – an ancient pilgrims’ path – battling the mist and the rain (often longing for a warm fire and stiff drink) with just an old photocopy of a map to guide her.