In the Badlands of South Australia, Mother Nature has painted the ragged outback landscape in bold and ancient colours.
In the Badlands of South Australia, the outback is painted in bold colours.
The first rays of sunlight are washing across the Painted Desert.
What had been dull pre-dawn outlines of weathered hills are now coming to glorious, vivid life. As the sun hits the peaks they turn pink and gold, seeming to catch f ire as iron deposits react to the soft, creeping light.
Quickly, we park our SUV in the designated area and follow the well-defined path towards the nearest summit. My guide is Nick Crase, a retired geologist, who’s spent much of his life in outback South Australia. But he’s never been to the Painted Desert before.
“It’s amazing,” Nick says, his awe a mix of a tourist’s delight and geologist’s understanding. “Brilliant!”
We reach a high point and look west. The sun is now spreading across the flat, bare plain, stretching towards the grove of trees where Arckaringa Station homestead is located. The Painted Desert is just a small part of this giant 2745sq.km pastoral leasehold.
The homestead is roughly two-thirds of the way from Coober Pedy to Oodnadatta on a good-quality gravel road. It’s the logical place to spend the night if you want to watch the dawn show, because camping is not allowed in the Painted Desert itself and there is no accommodation available there.
This place is a dramatic contrast to the drive from Coober Pedy across the famous Moon Plain. Red and strewn with gibber rocks, it’s so barr en and flat that it was used as the backdrop to the apocalyptic film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and was the perfect foil to the colour and glamour of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
The road itself is high quality, and usually doable in a two-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance. But there are many trails and paths where four-wheel-drives are the only option. And that’s what’s brought me to the region. Along with a group of mates, I’m road-testing some utes and SUVs for a motoring magazine.
But this morning Nick and I have left all that behind, driving from Arckaringa Station to
immerse ourselves in this incredible landscape. Officially known as the Arckaringa Hills and declared a state heritage area in 1985, the Painted Desert was once, geologically speaking, part of the vast inland Eromanga Sea, which stretched across much of central and northern Australia more than 66 million years ago.
These few stunted hills, with their silica-rich f lat tops, are all that remain. Like rings of a tree, different bands of iron-rich red clay and white sandstone denote different ages of land surfaces.
THE CRISP CRUNCH OF our footsteps on gravel is interrupted when Nick stops to pick up what looks to me like rubble. He says it’s a lump of claystone compressed on the shallow bottom of that long-gone sea.
“Lots of mud and a bit of sand were deposited in the sea and eventually turned into rock,” Nick explains. “It was uplifted and became land surface about 200 million years ago.
“Today, we see the remains of that when we look at the f lat-topped hills around the place. The erosion and weathering moved chemicals out of the rock. Iron, in particular, got redistributed and left red and white and purple patches everywhere.
“Then the rivers eroded some of that material [and] left these little mesas and escarpments, and exposed the coloured material – the beautiful colours that developed into what is now known as the Painted Desert.”
“Mud and a bit of sand were deposited in the sea and eventually turned into rock.”
There’s a bit of an American feel to the name, of course: the Painted Desert is also a well-known attraction in Arizona, near the south-eastern rim of the Grand Canyon. The US connection continues in the description of the gullies and ridges in this area, which are known as the Badlands, a term that was originally coined for the eroded countryside in south-west Dakota.
Nick tells me locals here call the area ‘Breakaway Country’. Short, sharp showers of rain ‘break away’ the loose topsoil, carving the erosion gullies that we drove past this morning.
“This whole area was joined together in one flat surface but now all that’s left are these tiny little caps,” Nick explains as we stand atop a ridge.
Here and there are small domed hills and even their flat caps have been worn away. Gullies and watercourses scar every hill. One day, far from now in the geological sense, all this will have eroded away to nothing.
For now though, we’ll make the most of it and its apocalyptic type of beauty. Nick and I continue our walk. There’s the occasional steep pitch, but the views from the ridge tops are worth every heavy breath.
We can see a series of dust clouds heading towards us. Clearly, my colleagues are on the way to continue their outback testing. They might have had a bit more sleep than Nick and I did, but rest assured, they missed the best part of the day.
En route to the Painted Desert in remote, arid SA, wide open spaces such as this, with their lack of traffic, make it a popular destination for off-road vehicles.The Pink Roadhouse at Oodnadatta is a welcome sight for weary travellers after a day’s travel in the remote SA outback.
Lumps of claystone, such as this, in the Painted Desert are compressed sediment from the bottom of a long-gone sea.
Traffic gridlock takes on a whole new meaning in the outback: here we check our speed behind a large mob of emus going nowhere fast.
Arid zone marsupials, such as this yellow-footed rock-wallaby, are well camouflaged against the landscape out here.