My apologies for the way I have introduced the Flinders Ranges but I felt South Australia was under represented in my blog and it truly is a wonderful state. Our trip to Wilpena Pound took place in April 2005 with some friends who also owned a caravan.
I’ll begin our adventure in Quorn, an old railway town built to service the wheatlands. The wheat failed and the railway closed but the 1880s buildings are still standing. We stayed overnight in the Quorn Caravan Park and chatted to the new owners who had only been there four months. They had plans to turn the dry and dusty campsites into lush gardens using recycled grey water. The local publican, newly arrived from Adelaide, was extolling the virtues of the town. He said Wilpena Pound wasn’t a patch on Quorn, which lowered our expectations somewhat.
On the publican’s advice we diverged from the main road and took the gravel road to Warren Gorge. He was right. It was spectacular with red, saw-toothed cliffs towering above a pebbly stream. The promised yellow-footed wallabies were nowhere to be seen as it was too late in the day.
It seems that the Flinders are awash with dashed hopes and dreams. In 1851 Hugh Proby founded Kanyaka Station at the age of 24. A year later he drowned while attempting to cross the flooded Willochra Creek. The property continued to function and at one stage employed 70 families, but years of flood and drought caused it to be abandoned by 1888. A kilometre away from the homestead ruins is a woodshed where 40,000 sheep were shorn in 1864. All that is left is a damaged land trying to recover from overgrazing, erosion and drought.
Nearby Simmonston was surveyed as a town when it was thought the railway would go through it. Part of an old stone wall and cellars from the Teamsters’ Hotel is all that remains today. It is said that this town was surveyed with the view that it would one day become the biggest settlement in South Australia outside of Adelaide. The railway when built went past 20 km’s further east at Gordon and the dreams and money of the investors came to nothing.
The countryside changed as we approached Wilpena Pound. Cypress pines grew thickly on each side of the road. On our left the rocky outcrops contrasted to the undulating hills on our right.
After registering at the Visitors’ Information Centre we set up camp next to our friends on a dry and stony site. On the plus side there were shady trees and a tantalising glimpse of the walls of Wilpena Pound.
The first job of the morning was to book our flights over the Flinders for the next day at 7.30 am. Eager to explore, we followed a walking track alongside a creek, through tall river red gums and pines to Pound Gap. At the end was a hut built by the Hill family in 1902. When they obtained the lease in 1901 they decided to try farming, something never before attempted so far north in South Australia. Being in the shadow of some of the highest mountains of the Flinders, rainfall in the pound is a little higher than outside so the Hills were determined to try.
The first enormous hurdle was the construction of a road through Wilpena Gap. After building their small hut they cleared the thick scrub around them. For some years they had moderate success growing crops inside the Pound, but a major flood in 1914 destroyed their access road. They could not bear to start all over again and sold the homestead to the government. The Pound then became a forest reserve leased for grazing.
Now a tourist destination, the Pound is a paradise for walkers. Continuing our trek we continued up Wangarra Hill for an impressive view. From the second lookout you can see the entrance to the Pound.
The afternoon was devoted to Sacred Canyon. It turned into a kangaroo spotting and counting competition which our friend won with her keen eyes. As we walked into the dry gorge we saw engravings of images of animal tracks, human figures and waterholes. On the horizon the clouds caused concern over tomorrow’s flight but the next morning dawned clear and bright.
We waited while our red headed pilot, Andrew, who looked like he should still be in school, took a couple of passengers back to the resort. He told us the biggest dangers on take off were wandering emus and misplaced kangaroos.
Our little plane flew over Wilpena Pound, the Theissen ranges, Brachina Gorge and the ABC Ranges. From the air the Pound looks like a huge crater formed from a meteorite impact. In reality it began as a slow layering of sediments, starting around 800 million years ago. Pressure in the Earth’s crust compressed the sediments, folding them up into a mountain range that was once higher than the Himalayas, before erosion brought it down to a more Australian level.
The indigenous Dreaming story behind the creation of Wilpena Pound, also known as Ikara (‘meeting place’) is different but interesting. According to the traditional owners, the Adnyamathanha people, the Pound’s steep walls are actually the bodies of two intertwined giant serpents (Akurra), whose journey from the northern Flinders seriously changed the landscape.
The two Akurra pursued an old man on the way to a ceremony at Ikara, gorging on people in their path, eventually so full they willed themselves to die. Wilpena’s highest peak, St Mary’s (1171 metres), is said to be the head of the female serpent.
After our flight with the child pilot we set off on a day trip to explore the area. The first stop was the Cazneaux Tree, photographed by a man of the same name who won first prize at an International Photographic Exhibition in 1937 with a photograph entitled “The Spirit of Endurance”. He just so happens to be Dick Smith’s grandfather (for the Australian readers).
From Bunyeroo Valley Lookout we could see views of Wilpena Pound and the vast horizontal layers of the Heyson Ranges.
Morning coffee was prepared at Aroona Valley near the hut used by Sir Hans Heyson when he painted some of his best known works.
In the early morning we had seen it from the air. Now we were travelling through Brachina Gorge. The highlight for us was a family of emus who walked along the creek bed and then crossed the road in front of us. It was Dad and nine young ones. Apparently Mum goes walkabout after the birth. They stopped and drank for a long time from a pool of water – quite a rare sight in this dry countryside.
It was 1.30 pm and tummies were rumbling. What a relief to see the Prairie Hotel at Parachilna roll into view. It is famous for its “Road Kill Grill”. The men tucked into a mixed grill of kangaroo steak, emu patty, camel sausage, bacon, tomatoes and mashed potato. The women ordered Caesar salad with emu prosciutto.
Another 32 kilometres saw us in Blinman, a thriving copper town of 1500 people in 1869. Mining continued until 1918 when the ore ran out. The busiest time for the mine was 1913-1918 with a town population of 2,000. The population is now 35.
We were heading for home in the late afternoon, passing the Great Wall of China. There must be thousands of rock formations around the world with that name. In this case it was a limestone ridge at the top of a range.
Before we left next day we walked to the Old Wilpena Station. A working station for 135 years, it ceased to raise animals in 1985. It was a surprise to find it was not in ruins but had a blacksmith’s cottage, shop, stables and harness room, a two storey storeroom, bookkeepers hut and motor house as well as a homestead. Known as “Government House”, the homestead is now used as the operational headquarters for the Flinders Ranges National Park.
On the walk back to the camp kangaroos flew off in every direction. The “big three” of the area are eagles, emus and the elusive yellow-footed rock wallaby. Overhead the eagles soar in search of their next meal, often ready to eat in the form of road kill. The single emu dads roam the creek beds with their chicks in tow. In amongst the boulders live the rock wallabies, almost extinct in 1992 and now happily increasing in numbers.
There is so much still to see in the Flinders Ranges so one day, hopefully, we will return.