Australia’s Heysen Trail - a walk in art
The Heysen Trail is a 1,200 kilometre trail that extends from Cape Jervis on the south coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula to Parachilna Gorge in the Flinders Ranges. The trail passes through some of South Australia’s most scenic areas, including national par
From the top of St Mary Peak, the highest point in the Flinders Ranges, the jagged edges of ancient tilted sandstone layers curve around forming the curious basin of Wilpena Pound to the east and south.
In long parallel rows, ridges snake to the north, making credible the indigenous belief that they are the tracks of a magnificent serpent. We are standing on its head. It takes every bit as much imagination to understand that we are looking at rocks laid down in a sea when life was first stirring, 550 million year ago. This land is impressive, very old and very beautiful. And however it’s been created, it’s a work of art.
From this viewpoint we can see the route we took yesterday along the Heysen Trail, over the rim of Wilpena Pound at Bridle Gap and into the big flat basin of the Pound, encircled by rocky peaks.
Turning around we can see where we’ll walk tomorrow further along the Heysen Trail, through the valley left by the tail of the serpent, between the Heysen and the ABC Ranges.
The trail is 1200 km long, starting on the coast way down south of Adelaide. We are not planning to walk too much of it.
Our guides Tom and Wes have sorted out
some of the best bits as it crosses parts of the Flinders Ranges. The trail is named after Sir Hans Heysen who came to Australia from Germany as a seven year old and died in 1968 as a much admired painter of the bush of the Adelaide Hills and the Flinders Ranges. His watercolours of the Red River gumtrees, painted early last century, are still famous.
One of our walks started at the ruins of one of the earliest sheep runs in the region, where Heysen had stayed and painted.
At the end of this walk, we reached a spot where Tom and Wes often bring artists who are inspired by the stunning atmospheric effects of light. As we walk along the valleys, our eyes follow the huge speckled trunks of the gums, bulbous at the base, battered by debris at times of flood, and staunch survivors of many terrible droughts. They frame a diverse series of pictures at every turn. The mood of the ‘paintings’ changes with the light on the red sandstone hills in the background.
This winter, good rains have greened the landscape to an extent not seen previously by our guides, so we also have reflections in pools and vistas of wildflowers. The stony ground supports no grass, just the gums, forests of cypress pine, shrubs ,and grass trees on higher ground.
Wes and Tom picked up our group of ten from our hotels in Adelaide and drove us north to Quorn for lunch and our first night’s stay.
On the way, Wes regaled us with how Matthew Flinders first spotted the southern end of the ranges named after him, and climbed a peak near the Spencer Gulf to try and see the great inland sea imagined by all who wondered about the resources Australia had to offer. Many more Europeans would waste much energy searching for it, never seeking to ask the indigenous tribes that had traversed the inland for thousands of years, trading especially in ochre, the best of which was found near the Heysen Trail. The ochre fulfilled their desire to paint in these surroundings.
Newer arrivals brought with them new pigments, and cameras, and were likewise attracted to the Flinders Ranges.
Quorn lies on the Heysen Trail, as well as being on the old Ghan railway from Adelaide to Alice Springs. From the top of nearby Devils Peak, we could see back to the Spencer Gulf. That night we enjoyed the special hospitality offered at Australian country pubs.
For the three following nights, we stayed
in the shearer’s quarters of a sheep station, where our guides showed that their skills include gastronomy, as well as route planning, wheel changing, plant identification, pioneer history and Macpac promotion.
After that, we enjoyed great pub meals that offered preparations of some of the plentiful wildlife in the region, and initiated us to unusual accommodation such as adjacent metal cubes, basic but fun and known as dongas. Wes announced these with such enthusiasm that we just had to like them!.
The pub in Melrose on our last night of the trip provided highly imaginative lodging using old crashed trucks. There is as much creative ability revealed in these old rural towns as in any city. Also, the heritage stone buildings built by the pioneers are beautifully preserved, as are the time-warped interiors of some of
Another art form revealed by our guides is a work of nature, not of humans. Of course the living trees and animals admired so recently by Heysen are a perfection of nature, but so are the remains of some of the first organisms that appeared on this planet.
We were taken to one of the very few places on earth where rocks revealing fossils from the Precambrian period 550 million years ago can be found.
In its first attempts at complex life on earth, nature created organisms with intricate patterns, the images of which are left as works of art in the rocks for us to admire today. If you’ve been on walks that sent you back in time to the artistry of the Middle Ages, the Ming Dynasty, the Romans and the Greeks, or Australian aboriginal cave art, its only a recent flash in time. What’s a few thousand years compared with nature’s artistry, hundreds of millions of years old in the Flinders Ranges!
And we found that this artistry, in all its forms, is best seen by walking through it.
Above: Chris and Ian descend from Devils Peak near Quorn, through Sugar gums. Below: Lunchtime at the top of St Mary Peak.
Above left: Some of the walkers in our group outside our accommodation in Melrose, ready to climb into the clouds up Mt Remarkable on the Heysen Trail. Above right: A clear imprint of what may have been a flat segmented worm living 550 million years...
Above: Wilpena Pound is a large basin surrounded by sweeping slopes leading to a jagged crest. Opposite page: Geoff follows the bed of Moralana Creek through Red River gums along the Heysen Trail.
Above: Looking south from St Mary Peak, the floor of Wilpena Pound leads to the rim, with the Elder Range beyond..