South Aussie Space Odyssey

Posted on: 24/04/2020

There’s a lot more to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia than the national park, as I discovered on a nine-day expedition as low down as the Bridle Track and as high up as Arkaroola. Airborne tyres, pristine stargazing and unsettling silences are all around the corner.

In the reception of the ol’ Gladstone Gaol, there’s a black and white photograph of the Booyoolee Hotel in flood, dated September 1910. Water ripples and licks at the brick facade. A group of men, mostly in hats, stand next to or sit on a low wall to the left. To the right, two gentlemen in drenched clothes struggle to pull each other up from the slop. A row of spectators lean over the upper floor’s balcony balustrade on their elbows.

Almost everyone is smiling. Packing the 4WD for this nine-day trip to the Flinders Ranges in the pouring rain two days before, I hadn’t been smiling. I guess in a dry place like this, you’ve got to celebrate the rain when it comes. 

Blue skies today — barely a cloud in sight — but, despite it being February, rain has fallen in the Flinders Ranges recently. We’ve come too late to see brown streams tearing through the gorges, but evidence lingers. Green grass, puddles swirling with tadpoles, high animal activity, a surprise water crossing and challenging track wash-outs await us.

ETCHED IN TIME

Of course, a spot of rain can’t overhaul the prevailing dryness of this Grand Daddy of Aussie destinations. Add up all the dates on every toilet-wall calendar you’ve ever owned, multiply them by 1,000, and the Flinders are still older than that. The further north you go, the older the land becomes. The more beautiful, too. Scrap any misconceptions about the beauty being contained within the national park — it blossoms outwards in both directions.

The bloke I’m with, Adam Jane, knows this better than I do. He’s the brains behind an upcoming Hema Maps’ Flinders Ranges Atlas & Guide on the region, set to be released in July 2020. He knows what data we need to gather, what photos we need to take. Courtesy of his extensive research, and as if to prove my above point about how expansive this region is, our Flinders experience starts a lot further south than I’d expected, at the Bridle Track, near Port Germein. 

The track takes an hour to drive. To kick it off you have to open a gate — the first of about four or five others — then climb a dirt track up some surprisingly green hills. The wash-outs, occasionally sharp gradients, and loose rocky surface are a teaser of what’s to come later in the journey. This is your last chance to see the ocean in a while, from here just a flat blue patch on the far side of the plains that harbour the coastal towns lining this side of the Spencer Gulf.

A note on getting to this point from the east. You can come via Mildura, through orchard country, near the Mighty Murray, and past road shoulders blown over with red sand; or via the Western/Dukes Highway. If you travel via the Riverland, check what fruit and veg you can bring, as there’s quarantine stations to protect local industry from fruit fly. Do you realise how hard it is to eat ten under-ripe bananas in one hit?

 

NATURAL ADVANTAGE

Perhaps the biggest recommendation that can be made for the Flinders is its distinctiveness. It’s instantly recognisable. Part of that is the colour — there’s a whole wheel of ochre splashed randomly on the towering rock faces and over the rolling plains. 

On our crash course, we took in a lot of lookouts. The most memorable include: Pugilist Lookout, which requires a steep climb (too steep for a trailer), and which affords views of lovely orange bluffs, called the Chase Range; Stokes Hill Lookout, steep but less so, which gives you views of Wilpena Pound foregrounded by plants and red plains; and of course, the instantly recognisable Razorback Lookout, near Bunyeroo Gorge. If approached from the gorge, the climb will require low gearing in high range but it’s very easy. From the lookout, the weaving road, straddling the highest points of the hills, leads the eyes to the staggering ABC range.

Many of the best views are to be had on scenic drives, like those through Brachina and Parachilna Gorges. Brachina is a geologist’s fantasy land; the 20km Geological Trail travels through 130 million years of the earth’s history. For the layman, that equates to a lot of visual variety. Meanwhile, Parachilna Gorge stuns with its pebble-bottomed floodways burst through with bulbous gums, and its surreal contrasts. At sunrise and sunset, one half glows molten orange, the other plunges into cold purples. It’s a Hans Heysen painting in the flesh.

Flies can find you anywhere in the Flinders, but they’re most likely to do so near water sources, as found in these gorges. Water equals animals, animals equal flies. Same goes for mozzies. At Parachilna Gorge, in my swag — my headlamp hanging above me on a strap, a Tim Winton book spread over my chest, the swag’s canvas peeled back like an under-ripe banana’s skin — I could hear what I thought was a flock of galahs squawking in the social way they do. Then I heard the light pitter-patter of bugs on mesh, and realised the sound was the whine of mosquitoes seeking the light, looped back on itself a hundred times.

The high concentration of bugs and the intense heat — often in the high 30s or low 40s in summer — render hiking an insane undertaking in summer (so much so that some walks are actually closed). But if you’re there in April or later, check out the 20km St Mary Peak Trail, which puts you inside the ubiquitous Pound. Alternatively check out the shorter walking trails around Mt Ohlssen Bagge, Wilkawillina Gorge or Dutchmans Stern near Quorn. 

 

A VEHICLE TO SUIT

As you’d expect, a region this rugged calls upon a suitable vehicle. There’s a whole heritage of these to uncover in the south — we saw a monster truck backed into the 45 degree parks out the front of the Caltowie Hotel, a row of Land Rovers forming a rainbow out the front of the Wilmington Toy Museum, and offroad trucks mounted with accommodation units in Melrose (at the North Star Hotel).

Three 4WD tracks stood out to me. The first was Glass Gorge, a detour from within Parachilna Gorge, that takes you to the Nuccaleena Mine ruins via a public access road through Moolooloo Station. The track weaves through the gorge before the valley opens up and you travel along straighter but more rocky roads. Several dry creek beds require slow-paced boulder navigation and an awareness of the lowest points of your undercarriage. We ultimately parked and walked the remaining ‘track’ (loosely designated) to the copper mine ruins, including the impressive brick tower.

Second in line are the tracks near Grindell’s Hut in the Gammon Ranges. Fun is the best word to describe the sharp turns, shaly surfaces, and moderate climbs, but you’d almost rather be in the passenger seat to properly take in that scenery — so stark, dashingly rugged, and painted in colours the eye is not accustomed to. Because of the blind crests and steep inclines, some tracks through here are one-way only, so bring a map — a cheeky U-bolt may not be possible. You can camp at Grindell’s Hut like we did, but Italowie Gap also looked awesome. I hear there’s a good chance of seeing a yellow-footed rock wobbler here.

Rounding out the trilogy are the self-drive tracks in Arkaroola. I’m making a bit of a punt here as we didn’t complete many. The LandCruiser 79 Series lost its grunt up a rutted climb and stalled mid-hill, its front right tyre twirling as pointlessly as a hula hoop at the end of the extended suspension. We could have gotten up if we’d locked our diffs on our second tilt, but given we were travelling solo, we pulled the plug. 

These tracks are vulnerable to extreme rains, like anything unsealed; rocks dislodge and tumble downhill, leaving exposed pockets in the soil that rain can exaggerate. Wind down the windows and the rolling tyres sound like someone fossicking through shattered china. Basically these tracks are the most fun you can have with your diff locks on. The folks at Arkaroola clean them up for the tourist season, so they should be more moderate by the time this is published. The views on higher ridgelines would knock your socks off.

 

HUMAN HISTORY

The Flinders aren’t really hospitable at first blush, but there’s a long human history in the ranges, starting tens of thousands of years ago with the traditional custodians. There’s plenty you can see and do in the modern day to get in touch with this side of the place. The rock art site of Arkaroo Rock — with its overlapping grooves and subtle mix of colour — is a visual spectacle. As are the Ochre Cliffs, near Lyndhurst. Indigenous Australians once mined the cliffs here for ochre, for its subsequent use in ceremony, ornaments, medicine and art. The colours are vibrant, the extent of excavation startling. 

Tours and experiences granting insight into traditional culture are also available from Wilpena Pound and Iga Warta. To make your trip really meaningful you could read up on the significance of certain places and things, and familiarise yourself with Dreamtime stories. I’ve read that the crow is black because the eagle set him on fire — why exactly depends on the particular retelling. Some say the crow hoarded food, others that he gave the eagle cheek, others yet that he killed the eagle’s baby. Such a record made me less surprised when a crow at Wilpena beaked ten holes in our butter tub.

There’s also the history of European settlement — longshot cattle runs, ambitious farms beyond Goyder’s line, the usual jazz. The most interesting ruins we came across were the aforementioned Nuccaleena Mine Ruins, the easily accessible Kanyaka Homestead and those out at Beltana. A note on ruins, kangaroos often go into the coolness of their shade to die. Not fun for anyone…

Clearly some of these visions of settlement flopped but there are still stations up this way, a testament to a spattering of successes. It seems, if it’s a lifestyle you love, you can make it work. In the lighthearted words of one station owner we bumped into, “Tracking dingoes and shooting sh*t” ain’t too bad.

The human stories of the Flinders Ranges are still unfolding. Leigh Creek was purpose-built to service coal mining, which commenced there seriously in 1941. Come 2015, the owning company announced they were closing the mine, along with the Port Augusta power station which it serviced. You can still dig up a video of the station’s demolition — the spark of the detonation radiating outwards from the centre, the towers face-planting in slow motion, black smoke plumes billowing like ink through water…

With the mining jobs went a lot of the residents and the historical raison d'être for the town. The population is now down to one or two hundred, but plans to rebuild are afoot, and essential services remain as the town transitions to state government management. It’s a nice place, well-maintained, almost a bit like a fenced community; there’s a short ring road around a central hub of accommodation, previously workers’ accom, now resort. 

We stayed at the resort and the bloke at reception told us that it was just us and the crew of a German telemovie there for the night (the movie is probably going to be called Outback Odyssee [sic], I have since uncovered). The silence is notable, because the infrastructure makes you subconsciously expect noise; in the morning, when packing up, I could hear a kid peddling his bike from a few streets off. 

Some places, though, are beyond habitation. Take Lake Frome. Beyond the towering purple face of Mt McKinley, along an offroad access track that passes the dog fence and a gas pipeline, you pull up at the fringe of the lake. They say on flat terrain the horizon is 5km distant; Lake Frome measures 100 by 40km. We stood, sweating profusely, in utter silence, staring at the distant heat shimmer. No small, usually lost noises marked the silence. No fly buzz, nothing. I felt a mind-bending urge to whistle a ditty. 

Is silence like this peaceful or disconcerting? Does how you react say something about you? 

 

SEEING STARS

We roll into Arkaroola late in the afternoon. Aside from Ochre Cliffs, it’s the highest point on the map we’ll attain. By this stage, constantly rewarded by our movements northwards, I can feel an almost magnetic pull from Alice and above. But this time around, we’ll have to let it go. 

After lamb roast in the dining room, with its huge wooden beams, fairy lighting and rusty ornaments hung on their handles, we’re ready to hunker down for the night when we bump into Doug Sprigg, whose family founded this Wilderness Sanctuary in 1968. Doug is an icon in these parts. 

He’s sitting around a small glass table with a group of local characters, partaking of afternoon drinks in the shade of the main building as the sun paints the surrounding hills. We take a seat and the conservation fires back up, spurred on by Doug’s flawless memory for fascinating trivia. The topic drifts from lightning strikes turning sand to glass on the Canning Stock Route, bomb testing near Maralinga, and how landing planes on long airstrips wears down your airplane’s tyres. 

Later, when the sun sets, we meet Doug again at reception and hike up the hill towards Dodwell Observatory. The darkness is without fault, but for Doug’s glow in the dark T-shirt. The text is even, legible; he’s clearly having no issues seeing in the dark. Meanwhile I’m suddenly cursed with two right feet.

Doug lets us into the adjacent storeroom and flicks a light switch, instantly breaking the darkness and illuminating the space-themed paraphernalia lining the walls — old Star Wars posters, astro shots taken with early DSLRs, constellation maps. Doug tells us he’s loved space since his Dad took him along on the first motorised crossing of the Simpson Desert. Each night, he says, they’d camp without a roof over their heads. Doug and Reg would look up at the stars and Doug would ask questions that his Dad couldn’t answer. Now, he says it’s his turn to struggle to answer the questions youngsters ask him about the cosmos.

Doug lowers a platform, steps up into the dome, does some quick tinkering and calls us up. Inside there’s a telescope, and not some last minute Xmas present jobbo. It’s called, I find out later, a Celestron 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain. Doug kills the lights again; at least this time I have the telescope’s lit orange interface to fix myself in space. Doug opens a hatch in the dome, revealing the sky. He punches in some numbers, steps back, tells us to look into the eyepiece.

And suddenly there’s the stars, magnified, shimmering, a hologram of something ginormous unimaginably far away. First up it’s a double star. In turn, Doug brings up constellations I’ve never heard of, black holes, swirls of suspended hydrogen gas, whole galaxies. Each time he swirls the dome on its bearings to face the open panel towards the next phenomenon in line. The space up there is endless, dizzying. It expands from the horizon and assaults you with endless possibilities. Just when you think you’ve reached the best part, alluring new distances are revealed to you. Space is a bit like the Flinders Ranges, that way.

Doug grabs the handle and spins the dome, around and around, again and again.