Off the beaten track

Petra O’Neill experiences the adventure of South Australia’s Flinders Ranges

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Kev was looking fatigued, exhausted even. That day, he’d rounded up 500 dohne merino sheep, and was sprawled out resting. Tony Smith, the owner of Rawnsley Park Station still had several sheep to shear that were waiting their turn in the pen. The prized fleece would be bundled up and turned into fine quality wool. Later that evening Tony would return to the homestead to welcome guests who had come to stay. These days, tourism has transformed homesteads in the Flinders Ranges and the way they operate.

The Flinders Ranges is named after Matthew Flinders who sighted the ranges from Spencer Gulf while circumnavigating Australia in 1802. The Adnyamathanha Aboriginal people roamed these lands for thousands of years. In 1853 William Pinkerton brought 7000 sheep along the eastern edge of the range followed by optimistic settlers drawn by government promises of wealth until drought and hardship drove them away. The stone ruins of cottages are the sad testimony to their fate. But it was the renowned Australian artist Hans Heysen who opened up the region to the imagination in the 1920’s with his landscape paintings of majestic ancient gum trees and dramatic cliff formations.

The Flinders Ranges represents one of the oldest landscapes in the world dating back between 600 and a billion years old. The ranges form a spine stretching 430 kilometres from Crystal Brook in the south to Arkaroola in the north, flanked on either side by two vast saltpans, Lake Torrens and Lake Frome. Characterised by quartzite gorges and steep saw toothed ridges that have been uplifted, buckled and fractured, the Flinders Ranges National Park measuring 95,000 hectares is vast. It encircles Wilpena Pound, an aboriginal word meaning bent fingers, that forms a natural amphitheatre of rugged mountain bluffs.

With no public transport and no licence to drive, I hitched a ride with Kym Tilbrook who leads walking tours at Rawnsley Park Station and has written several guidebooks on the Flinders Ranges. Leaving the well manicured gardens of Adelaide behind, we set off on the Horrocks Highway past rolling fields of wheat and barley, stopping at a winery in Leasingham, renowned for producing quality red and white wine. Passing place names such as Wild Dog Hill, you realise you’re approaching the outback where distances are long and vehicles far between.

Somewhat relieved to arrive at the 12,000 hectare Rawnsley Park Station, we were met by Tony and Julieanne Smith returning from taking their dogs Rusty, Horace, Jack and Kev for a stroll. First settled in 1851 Rawnsley Park Station was originally part of Arkaba Station until it became a separate property in 1953. Sited beneath Rawnsley Bluff, it is so named after HC Rawnsley who bluffed his way into the colony claiming to be a surveyor.

With spectacular views of Wilpena Pound, Rawnsley Park Station is the perfect base for exploring the Flinders Ranges with accommodation ranging from tents to luxurious eco-villas. And while I enjoyed the spectacle of the sunset that turns the range brilliant shades of red, I was late for dinner at the Woolshed Restaurant where I joined Tony, Julieanne, Kym and their friends from Adelaide.

“How about a walk?” asked Kym the next morning.

So wearing my new hiking boots we began our ascent of St Mary Peak at 1170 metres sited on the rim of Wilpena Pound. With the incline becoming progressively challenging, I queried how moderate the walk would be. I had conveyed the impression in my emails perhaps, that I was up to the most strenuous walks that South Australia could deliver, but once we reached Tanderra Saddle, the summit appeared vertical. I surveyed the Elder range, looked to the peak and admitted that heading down the other side to the floor of Wilpena Pound was a more appealing alternative. With a view towards Lake Torrens we sighted fossils embedded in rocks, walked along rocky creek beds, the arid landscape of salt bush and wildflowers. On the plains the landscape turned green with grasses, river red gums and native Callitris pines.

Next day we walked the infinitely easier Wilcolo-Bunyeroo circuit where we sighted much of the wildlife for which the region is renowned including emus, western grey kangaroos and euros or smallish kangaroos, skinks, bearded dragons, shingle back lizards with their stumpy tails, wedge tailed eagles, whistling kites, robins, corellas and the squawking galah. Kym was particularly adept at spotting them and he really came into his element with his knowledge of the wildflowers. Not an easy task since some plants had not been sighted for decades with the seeds lying dormant, germinating only after heavy rainfall. The walking track followed rugged red mountain bluffs, cool tree lined gorges and green banks along the creek before a gentle incline towards rolling hills with plants including wattle, curry bush and the curiously named dead finish, a hardy acacia. When it died, everything else was well and truly finished.

Kym also provided anecdotal information including how Blinman Pools got its name. Robert “Pegleg” Blinman worked as a shepherd until 1859 when he discovered a seam of copper. He went on to make a fortune.

Rawnsley Park Station may provide a chic retreat, an unlikely location for attracting sophisticated urbanites to enjoy South Australian wine and fine dining, but it’s the isolation that strikes you. After dinner I’d walk back to my eco-villa along a dirt road, in absolute stillness, with only the stars and moon to guide me. Few places in Australia capture the outback as definitively as these ragged ranges.

On our return drive to Adelaide we stopped at the historic ruins of Kanyaka station, a homestead with outhouses and shearers quarters. We visited the aboriginal paintings and etchings thought to be 40,000 years old at Yourambulla Caves. Town after town of charming heritage cottages, churches and stone buildings and the vibrant yellow of canola crops, this has to be one of the most scenic parts of Australia.

As much as I enjoyed the walks, the gourmet dinners and the spectacular scenery, above all else what I took away with me was the experience of genuine Australian hospitality, and if you do pass that way anytime soon, say hi to Kev.

Travel Notebook

Getting there
After flying to Adelaide, hire a vehicle and buy provisions. As roads are sealed you won’t need a 4WD unless you plan on heading further north. Drive time to Rawnsley Park Station takes 4.5 hours. Drive along the Horrocks Highway through Leasingham and Hawker and return through Quorn.

Where to stay
In Adelaide the Mercure Grosvenor Hotel is close to parklands, museums and Rundle Mall T: 61-8-84078888 W: www.mercuregrosvenorhotel.com.au E: stay@mercuregrosvenorhotel.com.au

For family friendly accommodation, the Adina Apartment Hotel Adelaide Treasury has spacious apartments W: www. Adinahotels.com.au 61-8-81120000 E: adelaide@adinahotels.com.au

Rawnsley Park Station offers accommodation to suit all budgets from a well-maintained camping site with cabins and bush camping, to units and eco-villas. The Woolshed Restaurant is first rate. T: 61-8-86480030 W: www.rawnsleypark.com.auE: info@rawnsleypark.com.au

Getting around
Rawnsley Park Station offers tours, mountain bikes and walking trails. Guided walks are highly recommended with Kym Tilbrook, who is a skilled hiker, and highly knowledgeable.

May to October are the best months to visit with days averaging 25 degrees during autumn and spring and 18 degrees in winter. Bring layered clothing, shorts and good hiking shoes. From December to March temperatures can reach 40 degrees.

More information
Contact the visitor information centre in Adelaide W: www.southaustralia.com

Petra ONeill
Petra ONeill
After growing up in Australia's outback she enjoys visiting remote destinations in Australia for the wildlife, vast open spaces and brilliant night sky and travelling overseas to exotic destinations to experience different cultures. Her bag is always packed and ready for the next trip

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