End of the roadhouse for pair who made desert bloom
HALFWAY along a dirt road between Coober Pedy and the Simpson Desert, a little sea of shimmering corrugated iron roofs marks the hottest place in Australia.
No one is stupid enough to venture outside during the day in Oodnadatta. The main drag is eerily silent, bar the humming of airconditioning units. The town's record in 1960 of 50.7 degrees has been inching closer as an unprecedented heatwave continues to grip the country.
Even the birds have capitulated, retreating to the shade of a petrol bowser, and just a few lonely cars head towards the famous intersection of the Oodnadatta Track. But Oodnadatta, with an expected top of 49 degrees on Saturday, is now heading for a crossroads of a different kind.
Lynnie Plate is leaving the tiny community of fewer than 180.
The legendary Pink Roadhouse is for sale and, after 39 years in the mainly indigenous community in northern South Australia, its owner is moving on. Mrs Plate's husband, soul mate and business partner, Adam, was killed in a freak motor-sports accident in August, leaving the town dumbfounded.
As Mrs Plate rushed out of the roadhouse to fly to the crash scene in Adelaide, news spread and she was met at the door by the entire community - in tears.
Oodnadatta - South Australia
Signs at the entrance to the town. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
"I've been their friend, their mother, their sister, their aunty, all of that," she said. "And I'm really blessed because they let me into their lives."
However, the job of mechanic, tour guide, restaurateur, Post Office owner, hotel provider, repairman and unofficial mayor has become too much for one.
Mrs Plate's identical twin, Annie Trevillian, 59, flew to Oodnadatta after Mr Plate's death and has temporarily moved from Canberra to support her sister and help her sell the roadhouse.
Oodnadatta's relaxed folk have become fond of the sight of the two "kindred spirits" giggling and pottering about in matching
sundresses as they continue the monumental task of de-cluttering, packing up and sorting through hundreds of machinery parts, kooky sculptures and pink signs that Mr Plate, an art school dropout from Sydney, and Mrs Plate have amassed since walking through Oodnadatta on a soul-searching trip in 1974.
"It'll be the end of an era," Ms Trevillian said. "Lynnie and Adam are like the town elders. There's no divide between the indigenous and non-indigenous here and they've just brought this town together beautifully."
Life in Oodnadatta after the Pink Roadhouse is uncertain for now. Mr Plate's death and Mrs Plate's imminent departure have left a large void, but the town is also experiencing an increasingly unpredictable and unrelenting environment.
Central Australia has warmed by 1 degree during the past 30 years and this week Oodnadatta broke its own record of consecutive days above 45 degrees with seven sweltering days including 48.2 on Tuesday.
"We are generally seeing our hottest-on-record temperatures being broken more frequently across all Australian states, and that's certainly true for Oodnadatta," said Darren Ray, a senior climatologist at the bureau.
In 30 years, its average January maximum temperature has risen by 0.9 degrees to 38.4 and the average night-time temperature by 1.3 degrees to 23.8.
"It's like a wall of fire when you walk outside at the moment," Mrs Plate said amid 48-degree heat. "But there are still some tough people around. You just learn how to grin and bear it."
Despite headline-making predictions by the bureau, it's unlikely the national record of 50.7 set in 1960 will be matched in coming weeks.
Either way, talk of the relentless heat dominates chatter at the Pink Roadhouse and governs life in the outback town. "We're a bit obsessed about the weather in Oodnadatta," Mrs Plate said.
Work has to be done in the early morning and late afternoon. Petrol can't be pumped when it's more than 45 degrees because it vaporises - and the fridges and freezers melt down completely about twice a year.
The cold water taps send out warm water because the pipes are so hot and rearing cattle becomes a meticulous balancing act with water calculations and constant monitoring.
The roadhouse's Irish backpacker worker, Aisling, has learnt to sleep with wet sheets and the town's two swimming pools are getting a workout.
Since electricity subsidies were cut in some remote communities two years ago, the price of airconditioning in Oodnadatta has risen by 100 per cent, an "untenable and unsustainable" rise, according to the Cooper Pedy Retail, Business and Tourism Association, which says the area now has among the highest power rates in the nation.
"It's a land of no second chances," said a cattle farmer, Douglas Lillecrapp.
"But at other times of year it's beautiful. You've just got to keep your spirits up and wait for the cool change."
There's a red-hot challenge waiting for whoever takes over from Mrs Plate in the engine room of Oodnadatta.
"It'll be a hard act to follow," said Mr Lillecrapp. "But change is a great opportunity."
The Plates resurrected Oodnadatta from near death when the Ghan railway line bypassed the town in 1981. The population waned as drinking and violence spiralled.
They promoted tourism, lobbied for road upgrades, re-named the incoming road the Oodnadatta Track, built a small business to service the growing four-wheel-drive trade and then eventually painted their roadhouse an unmissable pink.
''People like Lynnie and Adam only come around occasionally,'' said a pilot and long-time friend, Trevor Wright.
''They're totally unique and incredibly focused - and the legacy is through the community. I don't think there is a community anywhere in Australia that operates in the same way as Oodna.''
Oodnadatta has become a place where everyone looks out for each other and leaves their doors unlocked. There are no bars on the windows, the Aboriginal school has high attendance rates, new houses are being built, there is virtually no crime and drinking is allowed.
"Oodnadatta is a pretty special community," said Mrs Plate. "But it was Adam who was the visionary. He could see the potential of windows without bars and of looking out at a hot stretch of dirt and dust. He'd say, 'who cares? That's what you come here for. Don't hide with curtains and bars on the windows.' That was Adam's view. I just went along for the ride."