The Flinders Ranges is a brutal landscape rendered implausibly beautiful - formed over a timescale over half a billion years.
“I am … interested to see this.”
The word “interested” is said carefully and deliberately. It’s oblique and safe.
Kat Bevan is the resident guide and naturalist at Arkaba, as well as a self-confessed Flinders Ranges obsessive.
Driving her LandCruiser on the dawn game drive, she’s spotted a set of tracks in the red dirt and, on jumping out to inspect, confirms what she’d hoped.
“They’re dingo tracks.”
There’s no disguising her excitement, but current law states that dingoes must be controlled – shot or poisoned – in areas where stock is being farmed. It does however mean something interesting: that the native ecology is making a stand.
The Flinders Ranges in South Australia’s arid north is an impossibly brutal landscape rendered implausibly beautiful. It’s also quintessential Australian outback, a massive quasi-wilderness that European Australians have quixotically tilted at for 200 years.
The Flinders were formed over a timescale that messes with your head.
In the space of 540 million years, the planet patiently raised Himalayan-sized mountains before patiently whittling them away again. It’s a tough concept until you stand looking up at Arkaba’s nearest ranges, the Elder Range and the adjoining stump of an eroded mountain, a vast saucer called Wilpena Pound.
“You can kind of see where those bigger mountains used to be,” says Kat. “Follow the strata.”
The vast uplifted plateaus appear striped because of ancient layers of seabed, layers that flush with colour in the dawn light depending on their composition: some are the plum, others are ochre, or white as tallow. Kat traces them across the broad horizon, indicating where they jump huge gaps, the places where the missing mountains used to be.
It’s a moment that abruptly makes nonsense of my own personal significance, and my head is dutifully messed with.
Then the pawprints are found, and yet more planet-sized revelations are made.
In the 1850s, dingoes were just one of several torments that the Flinders Ranges visited upon European pastoralists like the Browne brothers who established Arkaba.
The dingoes tore through their sheep. The graziers also had to contend with fearsome drought – not to mention fearsome flooding. And there were sheep-killing Aboriginals who, after thousands of years, had a deep understanding of the rock country but found it inconceivable that land could be fenced and owned.
But the Europeans persisted: they shot out the wild dogs, drew water from subterranean aquifers to water their stock and drove the Aboriginals away.
When the dingo was removed, populations of native grazing animals like kangaroos and wallabies – to say nothing of introduced rabbits – exploded, joining forces with the sheep to profoundly alter the ecology down to the tiniest plants, eaten to nothing.
Today, Arkaba is a 63,000-acre conservancy complete with a luxury homestead that is open to a dozen guests.
Three years ago, the most recent owner, wilderness lodge specialist Wild Bush Luxury, cleared the last sheep from the property, disabled the wells and began a massive program of eradication of feral pests like goats, cats, foxes and rabbits.
“We couldn’t believe how quickly the native bush began regenerating,” says Kat. “Just months after the sheep went, we began to see the return of species.”
Improved soil stability and plant diversity was quickly followed by sightings of hitherto unseen reptiles, 10 new species of bird and two colonies of rare yellow-footed rock wallabies.
The native apex predator, the dingo, also seems to be making an appearance.
Kat begins a discourse on what apex predators actually do, keeping the balance, serving the cycle of things, and how American experiments with wolf reintroduction have led to spectacular ecological recoveries.
“Australia only has two main apex predators – the dingo in the south and the crocodile in the north. But we can’t have dingoes in sheep country, so now humans are having to manage the herbivore populations when they get too big. We’ve had to become the apex predator.”
I look at the tracks with new eyes. And wonder where all this is leading.
Layer upon layer
Tourism in the Flinders Ranges has taken off in the past two decades, so relatively speaking it's a newcomer to mainstream tourism and certainly less trammeled than Uluru, the Victorian Alps and the Blue Mountains.
Sir Hans Heysen was one of the first to effectively "broadcast"; its beauty: in the 1930s the celebrated landscape artist towed a homemade caravan for several days behind his Model T Ford to capture the ranges - stark beauty on canvas. Today however the region can be reached after a five-hour drive north of Adelaide, or else a fulsome day's wandering through the Clare Valley winelands plus the rolling copper country of Burra.
Most visitors head for Wilpena Pound, where four resorts are located, each in splendid isolation with their own views of the Pound's craggy walls known as ramparts.
Arkaba is at the top end of the price range, known for its luxury homestead, safari drives and walking tours over its huge private concession. Wilpena Pound Resort is something of a local icon, a family-friendly oasis of green at the very base of the Pound. Ikara Safari Camp opened in 2014, quickly winning awards for its 15 luxury tents with king size beds and en suites. Rawnsley Park is a firm Flinders favourite and has been in the hands of a family that's worked the country for generations; it has a complete range of accommodation including its upmarket eco-villas.
All the resorts - as well as the visitor's centre next to Wilpena Pound Resort - are able to help visitors peel back the layers of the region with specialist tours and experiences.
Overviews are given in spectacular fashion through year-round flight-seeing. From above you get the sense of the planet's skeleton laid bare. Longer flights can take in sizzling vistas of bone-white salt lakes out to the west.
On the ground, there are operators to take you on safari, either by four-wheel drive, guided walk or on horseback, as well as self-guided bushwalks around, up and even into the Pound.
Many of the trails weave past creek beds and through surprisingly dense forest of centuries-old rivergums, offering a chance to see kangaroos, wallabies and native birdlife.
Some lead to the amazing sight of Wilpena, the elevated saucer that's 17km long and 8km wide, which the Adnyamthanha likened to a pair of cupped hands. Most hikes can be done in an hour or two, but keen walkers tackle the hike to St Mary Peak, taking four hours (one way) to reach the 1171m crag.
A number of Adnyamthanha rangers and guides operate in the area offering different lenses on both the ecology and the history of the region. Arkaroo Rock is an especially evocative place to sit and listen to indigenous narratives: Arkaroo is an impressive wind-sculpted cave, complete with Aboriginal paintings depicting the story of serpents that formed the walls of Ikara/Wilpena. The cave resembles the head of a serpent - one of very few known sites where the rock formation appears to embody a dreaming story.
Key to discovery of early life
North of Wilpena is Brachina Gorge, which slices through some of the oldest exposed rocks on the planet. The track through the 30km gorge is rough but easily self-driven, and it too offers a number of perspectives.
From a natural point of view, it’s cooler, shady and home to several permanent waterholes, which means wildlife. Of particular interest is the colony of yellow-footed rock wallabies, with their mousy faces and long lemur-striped tails. Look for them peering down from shadowy crevices in the gorge walls.
Brachina cuts through layers of time, with layers of exposed strata signed to explain which part of the planet’s history you’re “in”. The Ediacaran Period is rendered especially significant thanks to its fossils of primitive life forms first made known to science by local geologist Reg Sprigg in the 1950s. The discovery of the Flinders biota demonstrated that Earth’s life evolved much earlier than first thought.
Cutting to human history, the Gorge is also home to pits that were the source of sacred ochre. Prized by language groups all over the continent, the ochre was regularly collected after long journeys across the salt lake country by desert peoples, later to be traded into all corners of the continent – considered one of the planet’s oldest trade routes.
Get involved with daily work
There are a number of interesting towns in the region. Stop in outposts like Craddock and Blinman (both with rather good pubs) for some local characters, as well as pastoral and mining history. Hawker and Quorn are larger but no less scenic, and both have plentiful B&B options. Local sheep stations afford a terrific window on Flinders life: you can stay in homesteads, converted shearers’ quarters or on campsites, often with opportunities to get involved with the daily workings of these huge, often historic properties.
Examples include Angorichina, Willow Springs, Wirrealpa and Merna Mora.
Parachilna has a population that oscillates from two to 200 depending on how many people are visiting the famous Prairie Hotel. The Prairie has been serving since 1897, though outback tourism pioneers Jane and Ross Fargher have well and truly put it on the map with the like of bush tucker flavoured ice cream and posh platters featuring feral ingredients like camel, goat and emu.
Head further north on the unsealed road and you become increasingly excited or nervous (depending on your liking for remote and rugged terrain) but stick to the signs for the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary and you’ll arrive at a comfortable if far-flung resort.
Arkaroola is known for its link to the Ediacaran chapter (it’s owned by the Sprigg family) as well as a superb observatory and a white-knuckle Ridgetop Tour.
The latter is a 4WD tour that follows an old exploration track through the 1600-million-year-old terrain, stopping at abandoned uranium mines as well as Sillers Lookout which can only be reached by driving up a 1-in-2 gradient.
You will most certainly be… interested.