Feet first

Treks with a touch of lux­ury in South Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SHARON VERGHIS

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

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