Treks with a touch of luxury in South Australia
From the air, Wilpena Pound is pure theatre. Like a desert mirage, the steep ochre walls of this ancient crater rise dramatically out of the arid orange plains of outback South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. Our tiny charter plane makes two slow loops over the formation, the crucifix shadow of our wings racing across a surface as pleated and rumpled as an unironed shirt.
From up here, the pound seems architectural, prehistoric, inanimate — an inverted Uluru forged over 800 million years. If a pterodactyl came sweeping up out of that ancient bowl, it would seem fitting.
On the ground, however, it seems a living, newborn thing. On the first morning of a two-day trek through its interior basin, the air is ripe with the scent of bush and earth fed well by unseasonably heavy late rains. Every rock and root, every fracture and furrow in this ancient former sea bed seems to pulsate under our hiking boots.
Walking is the best way to get to know the land, says Charlie Carlow, our genial host. This Sydney-based former corporate high flyer and European peer — he’s reportedly the next Earl of Portarlington, heir to a line of Irish peers that goes back to 1776 — lopes alongside our small pod of hikers this morning in his bush khakis, pointing out a sly roo with joey here, a huddle of 1000year-old river red gums there.
Founder of Wild Bush Luxury, a nature tourism company specialising in wilderness experiences with a luxury feel, Carlow made a bold gamble here eight years ago when he bought a 26,000ha historic sheep station on the doorstep of the pound, 429km from Adelaide, with the vision of returning it to the land as a private wilderness conservancy. Gradually, he removed up to 8000 sheep, implemented a feral animal eradication program and reopened Arkaba as a premium eco-tourism destination.
As we walk, we see everywhere markers of Arkaba’s rebirth. Formerly denuded hills and pastures, ravaged by the impact of more than 150 years of livestock grazing, have slowly regained topsoil and native vegetation cover, says Carlow’s South African-born station manager Brendon Bevan — a bush Steve Irwin to Carlow’s bush Hugh Grant.
He points out tender young river red gum saplings — he calls them ice-cream plants, because they used to be so quickly slurped up by cattle — lovely clumps of silvertail, cypress pines and Acacia victoriae.
Native animals, including quolls, spotted nightjars, euros and endangered yellow-footed rock wallabies, have returned too, along with colonies of western grey and red kangaroos. A bare hour into our trek, we’ve already seen a feast of birdlife: a pair of stately emus that cross our path like ageing, elegant ballerinas; a cheeky brown falcon playing chasings with our truck on the way to the entrance of the pound, a wedge-tailed eagle evis- cerating road kill with mechanical fury; and a noisy cloud of mulga parrots rising out of the mallee scrub.
All around Arkaba, neighbouring sheep farms resemble dust bowls. These local graziers look not just with envy at Arkaba’s lush growth, says Bevan, but Carlow’s efforts in monetising Arkaba’s rejuvenation as a luxury wilderness tourist experience.
The property is based on the so-called Botswana model of low-volume, high-end tourism with only a limited number of walkers (up to 10 a trek) accompanied by local guides crossing a wilderness five times the size of Sydney Harbour. Australia, he says, would do well to emulate that landlocked African nation, now a world leader in eco-tourism after having converted almost 30 per cent of its land to protected park or game reserve.
Bevan hopes the neighbours are watching. In much of Australia, there is more money to be made in tourism than environmentally damaging sheep, he says bluntly. He points to Arkaba’s signature three-night, four-day
Hikers on the Arkaba Walk, top; Arkaba Homestead and guestroom, top right; bush swag deck, above; Southern Ocean Lodge, Kangaroo Island, below