Dozens of people have spent the past five days stranded in far north South Australia after heavy rains made unsealed outback roads un-drivable. The remote towns of Marree and William Creek were cut off last Thursday when the Oodnadatta Track, a popular tourist drive, was flooded.
While parts of the track were cleared yesterday, allowing people in Marree to leave, around 40 tourists are still in William Creek. To give a sense of the imposition, the town's off-peak population is ten.
William Creek Hotel owner Trevor Wright told VICE that the tourists, who are holed up in tents or in the local pub, are running low on things to eat. "They're hoping like hell the government will send graders through on the roads, clean it up, and get them out before they get stuck again because a lot of them are very low on food," he said over a bad phone line.
Up until now, the tourists have been living on food they brought for their late autumn camping trips. But with those supplies dwindling, the town has had to step in and help out. Wright's been trying to get supplies flown in from Coober Pedy, but otherwise there's been little help from outside.
"People were using up all of their dry and camp food, and we're seeing what we can come up with for them tonight," Wright said. Although he did add that their water has run out, which means that locals are now sharing their own tanks.
Wright explained people are understandably starting to get freaked out. Most of the tourists are young families with kids and are running out of nappies. Many have now missed days of work, and are struggling to communicate the situation to their employers due to downed lines.
"If it rains again there's going to be a serious issue about getting people out, because it will be over a week," Wright said. "I think what's happened is frustration levels have built up so high that people are looking for answers."
Those answers are hard to come by with the area's lack of mobile phone coverage. Presently they've been given no sense of if or when help will come.
Three and a half hours away in Marree – off-peak population 100 – things are looking a little less dire. Marree Hotel manager Phil Turner told VICE that the flooding has eased and the tourists have finally managed to leave. Turner housed 20 stranded visitors in his pub over the weekend, where the scene was a bit more joyful.
"We were lucky in that we had three separate groups caught here, and would you believe all of them were musicians," Turner happily reported, adding the group had spent much of the time jamming at the hotel.
At the end of our call, Turner heard the rattling of a road train in the background and told me to listen in. He declared it must have finally started again after being stuck there since Thursday. With a bit of luck, those people in Birdsville will get their supplies.
Both Wright and Turner stressed that the issue isn't just about roads, but about a lack of workable phone coverage to request help. Both men told VICE they've tried to get government attention about this in the past, but feel they've been ignored.
"We get frustrated when we're treated flippantly by those in a position to do something about it. But you only have 50 to 60 people here, so you don't rate a mention on the voting scale in terms of importance," Turner lamented.
And as last week showed, without external help a lot of the responsibility falls to locals. Trying to run a tiny town while keeping a room full of tourists calm brings a lot of pressure.
As Wright summarised, "We're basically first-aiders – we're our own little fire brigade. We go and do retrievals, and we do search and rescue, so it is pretty full on."
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