Desert brush­strokes

In the Bad­lands of South Aus­tralia, Mother Na­ture has painted the ragged out­back land­scape in bold and an­cient colours.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - Story by Bruce New­ton Pho­tog­ra­phy by Cris­tian Brunelli

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.

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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.

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