Ark­aba ad­ven­ture

Rimmed by spec­tac­u­lar ochre-coloured cliffs and wend­ing its way past an­cient red gums and through wild­flower-stud­ded grass­lands, this four-day Flin­ders Ranges walk is a cap­ti­vat­ing must-do.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Justin Walker

This four-day Flin­ders Ranges walk winds past red gums and grass­lands.

No­body would dis­pute the fact that South Aus­tralia’s Flin­ders Ranges are spec­tac­u­lar.

This re­gion’s rugged ter­rain, rolling hills, deep val­leys and an­cient wa­ter­ways of­fer a sense of true re­mote­ness. Wilpena Pound and neigh­bour­ing Ark­aba Con­ser­vancy are two of the ranges’ most pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions – par­tic­u­larly for bush­walk­ers – with a va­ri­ety of short, long and very long tracks to fol­low, al­low­ing ex­pe­ri­enced walk­ers the chance to re­ally im­merse them­selves in this re­gion of Aus­tralia. But that doesn’t mean those with less time, fit­ness or walking ex­pe­ri­ence can’t en­joy ex­plor­ing these ar­eas. In fact, join­ing a guided walking ad­ven­ture here can lead to a richer ex­pe­ri­ence…which is ex­actly what I dis­cov­ered on the Ark­aba Walk.

STEP INTO GREATNESS

Cross­ing some of Aus­tralia’s most spec­tac­u­lar and var­ied ter­rain, the fully guided and sup­ported Ark­aba Walk takes four days and three nights, stay­ing at his­toric shepherd and sta­tion camps. It winds its way from the beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral am­phithe­atre sur­rounded by moun­tains known as Wilpena Pound, and heads across the forested in­te­rior of the Pound it­self, be­fore travers­ing the pri­vate Ark­aba Con­ser­vancy wilder­ness (see page 110) and fin­ish­ing at the re­stored Ark­aba Homestead.

Ark­aba, lo­cated on a prop­erty that used to be a 24,000ha work­ing sheep sta­tion, is just less than f ive hours drive from Ade­laide. If you’re f ly­ing into Ade­laide, take a con­nect­ing pri­vate char­ter f light to Hawker airstrip, from where you will be trans­ferred via shut­tle bus to Wilpena Pound and the start of the Ark­aba Walk.

With knowl­edge­able guides who re­late the area’s his­tory and de­scribe the na­tive fauna and f lora in de­tail, you’ll f in­ish the walk with a height­ened ap­pre­ci­a­tion for why the Flin­ders Ranges is so highly re­garded by ad­ven­tur­ers and na­ture lovers.

The fact you only carry light day­packs while the rest of your gear is trans­ported be­tween camps, and in­dulge in three-course meals, hot show­ers and lux­ury swag ac­com­mo­da­tion at the end of each day’s walking all goes to en­hance the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Part of the Ark­aba Walk’s route fol­lows sec­tions of the long-dis­tance (1200km) Hey­sen Trail. But mostly

it goes its own way, tak­ing you through ter­rain that ranges from dry creek beds, rocky ridge lines and wide grass­lands, to rolling hills and na­tive cy­press pine forests, all while pass­ing nu­mer­ous an­cient river red gums that are ubiq­ui­tous in the area.

For a re­gion syn­ony­mous with dry, red-rock land­scapes and rugged ranges, the be­gin­ning of the Ark­aba Walk does a great job of throw­ing such pre­con­cep­tions out the win­dow. Dur­ing my visit, the ar­rival at Wilpena Pound, af­ter a 45-minute road trans­fer from Hawker airstrip, saw our small group (there are never more than 10 walk­ers on any trip) con­fronted by a land­scape sur­pris­ingly green, due to a late and very pro­lific rainy sea­son.

So be ready for the to­tally un­ex­pected, which in my ex­pe­ri­ence made for an un­for­get­table sight. You will, of course, still see plenty of the area’s iconic red rock through­out the four full days of the walk – in the form of the red rib­bon of dirt that you fol­low and the al­ways loom­ing ranges. But you may get lucky and have this glow­ing red path­way to the never-never sur­rounded by vi­brant green veg­e­ta­tion.

THE EARLY DAYS

The f irst camp is a day’s walk away, at the ‘other end’ of Wilpena Pound, just be­low its western rim. Thank­fully, there’s no rush and your guide will f ill you in on some of the sur­round­ing eco­log­i­cal mar­vels, a com­men­tary that re­curs through­out the trip. The guides truly are in­cred­i­ble fonts of knowl­edge of both fauna and f lora along the en­tire walk.

Then it was time to throw on the day­packs and start hoof­ing it. The magic be­gan in­stantly as we made our way through a gap in the Pound’s east­ern rim. The rugged land­scape was still just that – there were plenty of large rocks pok­ing their heads out from be­neath the grass, and twisted, gnarled trees sur­round­ing the track it­self. Abun­dant birdlife sup­plied many and var­ied songs as a tune­ful ac­com­pa­ni­ment to our walk. The track it­self was well graded and its un­du­lat­ing, wind­ing route soon took us through Pound Gap and into the bowl of the Pound it­self.

For those Euro­peans who ar­rived in this re­gion more than a cen­tury ago, the land­scape must have been daunt­ing. It’s hard to have any­thing but ad­mi­ra­tion for their stoic ap­proach to ek­ing out a liv­ing in this tough land. This view is re­in­forced not more than an hour or so into the walk when you fol­low a side­track to the site where the Hill fam­ily of Hawker built a small cot­tage in 1905 as part of their wheat-grow­ing lease over the Pound it­self.

Even al­low­ing for how green it was when I was there (and not­ing the creek be­low the cot­tage), it’s jar­ring to read the SA Parks’ info board and learn that the Hills gave up on this place in 1914 due to f lood­ing and not the lengthy droughts usu­ally syn­ony­mous with these harsh out­back ar­eas.

The re­stored cot­tage is ex­cel­lent, as is the climb up to Wan­gara Look­out. The track up­wards starts be­side the cot­tage and is a must-do be­cause the ex­pan­sive views from the look­out across the Pound’s f loor are fan­tas­tic. Plus, the l ook­out is per fect for mor n i ng tea.

The magic be­gan in­stantly as we made our way through a gap in the Pound’s east­ern rim.

AN­OTHER WORLD

Leav­ing the Hills’ site, you re­turn to the main track and start the long walk across Wilpena Pound’s f loor. The land­scape here al­ter­nates be­tween scrub and open ar­eas that re­veal the extent of clear­ing by early colonis­ers. Im­pres­sively, the na­tive f lora has bounced back, with the stately river red gums look­ing like tall bea­cons in a sea of tea-tree and cy­press pine as walk­ers move steadily up­wards to­ward the cross­ing point of Bri­dle Gap.

Here, the ter­rain be­comes very rocky with a few steep pinches. The pace is kept leisurely by our guide: rest stops are com­mon, en­sur­ing you ac­tu­ally look at the gob­s­mack­ing land­scape you’re trav­el­ling through. You don’t come to these mag­i­cal places to power through them at race speed. To do so would mean you miss the sub­tle changes in to­pog­ra­phy and veg­e­ta­tion.

Top­ping out at the rocky ledges of Bri­dle Gap, you will cop your first view of the Bun­binyunna and Red ranges and, in the dis­tance but still clearly vis­i­ble ow­ing to its in­cred­i­ble size, the Elder Range. Af­ter f ive hours and about 10–12km of walking, it’s the per­fect re­ward for ef­fort, and only matched by the re­as­sur­ing glimpse of your camp­site. Ap­pear­ing from above the steep de­scent of Bri­dle Gap’s western cliff­side and the rolling hills be­yond is the glint of metal in the sun that sig­nals the large shed/din­ing area at Black Gap Camp.

It’s upon ar­riv­ing at this first camp that you’ll ex­pe­ri­ence the dif­fer­ence a guided lux­ury walk af­fords – in both the fig­u­ra­tive and mon­e­tary senses. Any un­pleas­ant mem­o­ries you may have of lug­ging your own food and cook­ing over a com­pact hik­ing stove will be erased as you in­dulge in a three-course meal and bev­er­ages (all trans­ported to camp via four-wheel-drive). Yes, I still call it camp­ing, even though the camp­site has show­ers – hot, via heated wa­ter fed into a shower bucket above you and enough for a nice five-minute wash – el­e­vated eco-toi­lets and, to top it all off, warm comfy swags to en­sure you get a great night’s sleep.

These aren’t the swags most out­back trav­ellers would be used to rough­ing it in. They’re housed within cor­ru­gated iron shel­ters that each con­tain two sep­a­rate swags. And they of­fer a star-f illed night on the open lower tim­ber deck – yes, the shel­ter is split-level – if you so de­sire. Or you can choose the added pro­tec­tion of a roof on the up­per deck in case of rain – and you can still see the stars.

Oh, and just in case you aren’t quite com­fort­able enough, the swag con­tains a heated wa­ter bot­tle. You’ll never ques­tion the term ‘lux­ury walk’ again.

You don’t come to these mag­i­cal places to power through them at race speed.

THE TRACK GOES EVER ON

The Ark­aba Walk is not about rush­ing through the coun­try­side, and our sec­ond day her­alds an­other dra­matic change in to­pog­ra­phy and veg­e­ta­tion. You will start mov­ing through a series of dry or still-run­ning creeks, shad­owed by im­mense river red gums, as you con­tinue south-west, ini­tially fol­low­ing a sec­tion of the long-dis­tance Hey­sen Trail, be­fore mak­ing a left turn and head­ing through Madge Gully.

It is an­other 12km day of var­ied ter­rain ex­plored at a leisurely speed, al­low­ing us to en­joy the sur­rounds while lis­ten­ing to the guide’s talks on par­tic­u­lar plants, an­i­mals or the re­gion it­self, not to mention dis­cus­sion of the vi­tal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion work be­ing done here by the Ark­aba Con­ser­vancy.

A morn­ing of wind­ing through creek beds is fol­lowed by a grad­ual climb over grass-cov­ered hills to an­other look­out that does duty as a meal stop and of­fers closer views of the craggy red cliffs of the Elder Range.

This night’s camp is nes­tled at the foot of the range, and is still a fur­ther few hours away from this im­pres­sive van­tage point. The im­mense size of the range’s big cliffs be­comes more and more ap­par­ent as you get closer to camp and a re­peat of the pre­vi­ous night’s in­dul­gences.

Noth­ing beats an out­back sun­rise, so make sure you set your alarm early and psych your­self up to quickly leave the com­fort and warmth of your swag to watch the ris­ing sun paint the ochre cliffs of the Elder Range. It re­ally is a sight to be­hold. A won­der­land, in­deed, and on this last full day you face an­other strik­ing com­bi­na­tion of con­trast­ing ter­rain as you weave your way through the cy­press pine for­est, with its un­der­belly of lush green grass, and head out and down through mallee coun­try, with plenty of rock and open space.

Ark­aba Con­ser­vancy’s ef­forts are pay­ing off here, ev­i­denced by the ex­pan­sion of na­tive veg­e­ta­tion into this area that was pre­vi­ously over­run with nox­ious in­tro­duced plants.

For this last day you also re­join part of the Hey­sen Trail, which has a creek­side sec­tion high­light with dense cy­press pines and long green grass mak­ing it feel as if you’re walking in a to­tally dif­fer­ent part of the world. The land­scape changes again to­wards the end of our day as we move through and then up and out of a val­ley sec­tion that in­cludes a walk along the dry Dorothy Creek. Then we climb up a far drier hill (with con­trast­ing green-clad ranges be­hind us) and f in­ally spot the end goal: Ark­aba Homestead.

A FAIR DEAL

The fi­nal hour of the walk is a de­scent over rocky, sparsely veg­e­tated ter­rain, be­fore a pleas­ant wan­der along Ark­aba Creek’s green­clad banks and then up a small rise to the homestead it­self.

Here, you are met by staff with a wel­come warm face-washer, be­fore the sight of the homestead’s drinks fridge in­vari­ably sees walk­ers un­der­take a quite dig­nif ied fast shuff le to grab cel­e­bra­tory bev­er­ages.

For those who might re­gard a lux­ury walk as all gloss and no grunt, the Ark­aba Walk def ies that view. Yes, this out­door ex­pe­ri­ence is more ex­pen­sive than an in­de­pen­dent hike, but the added benef its are many.

Trans­port, food and lo­gis­tics are all taken care of and you get to ex­pe­ri­ence an oth­er­wise in­ac­ces­si­ble part of this coun­try – plus wit­ness how those who own and man­age it have suc­ceeded in restor­ing it to its nat­u­ral state, af­ter decades of farm­ing and in­va­sive plant and an­i­mal species.

And then, of course, there’s the in­formed com­men­tary and in­sight­ful ex­pert ap­praisal of the sur­round­ing nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment.

When you con­sider that the money you spend on this walk is mostly rein­vested into the con­tin­ued con­ser­va­tion work you see, the Ark­aba Walk doesn’t seem quite so ‘ex­pen­sive’ af­ter all.

It’s what most of us would con­sider a sound in­vest­ment, both in terms of achiev­ing con­ser­va­tion goals, and the fact that the walk it­self is an ab­so­lute cracker, tak­ing you on a mem­o­rable jour­ney through one of Aus­tralia’s most mag­i­cal land­scapes.

On top of the Red Range at golden hour, you can look out past the grass trees, across Wilpena Pound to­wards the Elder Range.

The group tack­les the as­cent from the old Hills Homestead to Wan­gara Look­out. A mid­day pause for lunch atop a rocky rise, look­ing across to the im­mense ram­parts of the Red Range, with na­tive cy­press trees clus­ter­ing at its base.

Travers­ing rocky coun­try on the de­scent off the lip of Wilpena Pound to Black Gap Camp. The site was once oc­cu­pied by a shepherd, whose ru­ined stone chim­ney still re­mains.

The shel­tered swag ac­com­mo­da­tion each night is a high­light of the Ark­aba Walk. Or you can get even closer to na­ture by sleep­ing out in a swag un­der the stars.

The Ark­aba Walk guides are fonts of in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing the land­scape and the work done by Ark­aba Con­ser­vancy.

The Ark­aba wool­shed stands at the foot of the rugged Elder Range.

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