The trading area for Oodnadatta Stores in outback South Australia during the late 20th Century was about the size of Victoria - not bad for a general store. The entrepreneurial proprietor Jaroslav (Pec) Pecanek was a contractor for the SA Dept of Transport and his roadmaking machinery made desert roads for the oilmen who followed the pioneering seismic surveyors Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) into the Simpson Desert in the search for "black gold".
In the town, Pec generated and distributed the electricity supply and as well he operated his own road-train fleet. Owning just about everything in the town but the pub, Pec was indeed one of the most influential businessmen of his time although he began his network rather simply as a country grocer willing to work.
The CGG supply truck drivers spent a lot of their time driving over the dunes from the campsite deep within the desert to the supply point of either the railhead at Pedirka or Pec's Store at Oodna. A six-ton truck fully laden could take up to three days to push into the middle of the desert without incident.
On many occasions the drivers were not able to effect repairs from simple-enough breakdowns and had to wait out a reasonable period for recovery from the friends who missed them. No radios could keep drivers in touch with camp over these distances.
The Ghan Railway Siding at Pedirka, 1963
Anyone stranded in Pedirka overnight near the fettlers' huts was in some deep trouble. These were extra special people to be avoided with all your might. A peaceful place these days following the re-routing of the Ghan, the wild and violent narrow escapes have passed into history although they remain indelibly etched in the memories of the CGG men who suffered from the wanton excesses of the fettlers.
Pedirka Revisited After 35 Years
While CGG worked the western side of the Simpson and well into the desert, they shopped at Oodna Stores. Pedirka was only a railway siding, simply a small branch line that had been established when the railway had been constructed and was useful for supplying CGG so long as Pec was selective in the type of goods he despatched by train. For instance, in the absence of any railway officers on duty at Pedirka, grog and groceries could never be offloaded near the dreadful, light-fingered fettlers, yet sending explosives and fuel and auto parts to the siding was pretty safe and a convenience for the supply truck drivers.
"Gone Shopping at Oodnadatta - Back Soon"
John McFayden's job on the supply truck was to support our steadily advancing camps in the Simpson Desert. Shopping with Pec continued until the round trip approached four days, when we began to look to Birdsville for our needs. Lots of heavy goods such as motor parts, explosives and fuel were railed directly along the Ghan from Adelaide to Pedirka, bypassing Pec's Oodna Store altogether. John had a word or two about the handling of material at Pedirka :
"The railway wagons and trucks used to arrive there and were shunted into the siding where we would unload direct from the rolling stock onto the truck to save work. There were no storage buildings at all, or any platforms. There was a Kennecott de-salination tower with a pump house containing two large engines and pumps that are still there."
The Pecaneks of Oodnadatta
Pec was awarded a British Empire Medal in 1981 but on the day of the announcement he was flat on his back in the intensive care ward at the Port Augusta hospital, having been flown in by the Royal Flying Doctor Service following a heart attack. Jindra was able to recuperate Pec in Oodna, but they stayed only to 1984, when they both retired to Adelaide. It was Pec's wish that when he passed away that he be buried at the Mokari well-site that he often visited with his oil company clients in either of his aircraft - his C150 or the C165 he most often flew. Jindra was to respect his request.
Indicative of the quaint right to privacy that back-country women sometimes choose to hold dear, Griselda Sprigg, who knew Pec and his wife very well, admitted in her memoirs that she never did know her friend's first name.
A Grateful Client Responds
Rene Quin was impressed not only by Pec's business acumen, appreciation for which he made known in this letter, but as well for his command of languages. Pec spoke four tongues. Coming upon a fluent French speaker in outback Australia would have been an extreme pleasure for Rene and a great chance to practice on a native speaker of French for Pec.
Dated February 1964, Rene Quin wrote to Pec on letterhead,
'After one year of exploration work in the Oodnadatta area, I wish to express on behalf of French Petroleum Company and myself, our thanks for the assistance you have always given to us in such a prompt and generous manner. In this regard we wish you to accept the enclosed book, the subject being "Paris and its People" and sincerely hope that you will enjoy it.'
Remnants of the Last Pecanek Business
All that remains of Pec's business empire that once reached to Adelaide in the south and north beyond the South Australian border into the 'Territory and west, well into the Simpson, is this unpretentious single-story building next door to the Pink Roadhouse. Pecanek Transport continued to support the oil rig crews that had pursued CGG's seismic survey party into the Simpson Desert and other parts of the Great Artesian Basin almost up to the time of his repatriation to the Big Smoke.
The New Breed Takes Over
The forerunner of today's famous roadhouse was the Tuckerbox - a snack bar opened by the owners of the current roadhouse Adam and Lynnie Plate, just as Pec's foundation business Oodnadatta Stores, closed. In many ways, the enterprise displayed by Jaroslav Pecanek has been perpetuated by the popular Plates' in Oodnadatta since the late 70's. Turning full circle, the couple now run a heavy transport business themselves in addition to the roadhouse where they have been serving travellers since 1983.