Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Outback rocks

Just when you think you are getting used to waking up alongside rugged coastlines and windswept beaches, the car takes an about turn and takes you to an Australia even more elemental, even more primeval and even more spectacular because of it. The inland: for once these were seas and lakes, dried out and risen up, shaped by forces of nature and sculpted and polished on an imperceptible and incremental basis every day. Mighty inland rivers and fruitful oasis towns, wide barren plains sliced by the arrow straight bitumen of industry, incredible crenulated ranges pitted with iron red gorges, and the past, present and future pursuits of life in this landscape.
The journey to this landscape entailed something of a gradual transition, winding along the gorgeous back roads of the Adelaide Hills to the Barossa Valley, a place given over to industrial scale wine production. Thus there were creeks belonging to Jacob and estates belonging to Penfold and a Wolf named Blass and basically any other Australian wine you would see in Tesco. And while such quantities of average wine are necessary, it seemed to the detriment of the heritage of the area and the provision of hearty Germanic food for lunch. The saviour was courtesy of Maggie Beer, a well known and much loved cook in this part of the world, who provided a small farm and repository for much verjuice and many other money-spinning products. Commercialisation on a cute scale, but anything capped off by a small tub of burnt fig, honeycomb and caramel ice cream will leave a sweet taste in the mouth.
It didn’t take long from the Barossa to clear the last of the hills and be confronted by a broad flat landscape, through which the Murray River winds and carves, leaving a swirl of River Red Gums along its course. The irrigation from the river provides water for the mass production of fruit and vegetables necessary to feed this nation, yet the river itself looks healthy right now and continues to weave its magic way in reserves and national parks fringing its embankments. Near Berri, a national park camp spot opposite Booky Cliffs offered a fine wakeup call in the still calm and amber light of morning.
Berri itself had little to offer. Even the Big Orange, which proclaims itself proudly as ‘The World’s Biggest Orange!’ was closed and looked to have been that way for some time. Obviously I just don’t understand this, because surely if this place was open it would get hundreds of thousands of visitors every year who come to look at the biggest orange in the world and take the opportunity to climb to its top. Perhaps most bypass this place for Renmark, the major centre of the SA Riverland and useful spot for stocking up on food and a regional quality coffee.
It says much for this meandering trip that today we were heading back into Victoria and, perhaps unbelievably, NSW. Signs proclaimed Sydney a ‘mere’ thousand kilometres or so afar as we made it into Mildura, an oasis in the barren lands of northwest Victoria, and provider of afternoon ice cream. Across from town and bridging The Murray once more we were into New South Wales, and bound for Mungo National Park.
It only takes a few kilometres to get away from the Murray irrigation area and find yourself in proper outback country, with sandy soils and low saltbush for company, the occasional emu running stupidly in every which direction as you pass it by. Soon the tarmac ends and you are on sandy but sturdy roads which would probably turn to treacle after rain. But it clearly doesn’t rain that much and you make it to the campground at Mungo with a few minutes of daylight to spare, conscious of the kangaroos and feral goats and cats and rabbits and those stupid emus, deciding to try their hand at road kill roulette.
Mungo National Park is a special place in which an ancient lake has dried out and winds eroded the sands to, almost daily, reveal fresh prehistory of Aboriginal life. There is a Mungo Man and Mungo Lady from here, dated back some 47,000 years. Nowadays the park is well equipped and managed by members of the local Aboriginal tribes and its bones and artefacts undisturbed to rest in peace. A blessedly low key tour around the Walls of China with a park ranger yields some insight into the history and significance of this place. Elsewhere a foray onto the dunes around Vigars Well is highly recommended to satisfy any cravings one has for being immersed in a dry, arid, sandy, spectacular desert.
Mungo has clearly been subject to climate change, albeit over many hundreds of thousands of years. It is already dry and barren and hot so I doubt anything we can do will change it for better or worse, but it seems to be in good safe hands (unless a rich vein of minerals appear, in which case, who knows which multimillionaire baron will gobble it up). However, reducing the carbon footprint I can say that the full moon that accompanied the nights here certainly saved on electricity and torch batteries, and offered further captivating dusk and dawn views.
Leaving Mungo and heading north took us onto a variably rough road, sparse and unforgiving, though with a 10 kilometre paradise of smooth tarmac in the middle. Reaching the town of Menindee was welcome, and another overnight stop beside one of this country’s grand inland waterways. Again a picture of health, teeming with fish and birds and probably biting ants and nasty spiders too, the Darling River bordering Kinchega National Park was tranquillity encapsulated. Apart from the dawn chorus.
The big smoke of the NSW outback is Broken Hill, bringing a return to civilisation of sorts. There is ‘gourmet’ coffee and fancy cheese sandwiches, outback art and sculptures, churches and historic railway stations. You can tell it is aiming to attract Sydney types for weekenders in the outback, but much of this refinement is juxtaposed with a gritty array of mines and pubs, shacks and beat up cars.  Thus while we saw some sculptures on a hill and tried a ‘gourmet’ coffee we also were content with roast chook and chips with gravy for dinner and pottering about Big W in the mall.
Up the road from Broken Hill a more digestible outback awaits, with the old mining town of Silverton (can you guess what they mined?) proving a distracting stop for an hour or so.  With an historic pub, a bit of art, ubiquitous useless bits and pieces you don’t need for sale, and a series of rusty old trinkets and tumbledown bricks littering the dusty streets it gives you a sense of what you imagine life in the outback to be. Its palatability within the starkness of the landscape has made it a mecca for cinema and TV, from Mad Max 2 to practically unheard of Australian shows and even adverts for American and British products. Further beyond Silverton there is nothingness, viewed from Mundi Mundi lookout and compelling in the absence of anything other than wide flat land and big blue sky.
It would be interesting to see where the road goes. I have no doubt it would swiftly turn into a lumpy section of hard rock and soft sand, with vultures circling for their next morsel of road kill. Back on track, other roads lead from Broken Hill and head west and south, back once more into South Australia and through further arid, red rock country. Eventually there is some notion of the pastoral, as farmsteads appear and golden grassy hills emerge. These hills are the fringes of the Flinders Ranges, an astonishingly diverse chain of peaks and ridges stretching from the south of Adelaide and penetrating deep into the outback. The next week would be a chance to thrive within its spell...
The ranges come close to the sea north of Adelaide and it is at Mount Remarkable National Park where you can begin to see the transition from the moist, cool forests of the southeast to the arid, rugged ranges of the interior. The name of this park may not be too much of an overstatement, alas the weather turned anything but remarkable. Thus a dampener formed on the 18 kilometre loop walk through Hidden Gorge, which softened the spectacle of the surroundings, moistened the scrambling over creek bed stones and churned the soil into sandy clumps of mud that gathered around your shoe with every step. It wasn’t until late in the day that the weather cleared, and things could begin to dry out in earnest, ready for the next steps forward along this range.
Northward through the small towns of Quorn and Hawker, the Flinders Ranges take on their more well-known colours and forms... outcrops of Rawnsley Quartzite stained red by iron, layers of Conglomerate and Tillite and many other rock names I read but now cannot remember. They present a picture so evocative of Australia, rugged and raw and ancient but nonetheless colonised by plants and animals and people. It’s astonishing to see swathes of Cypress Pine across this landscape, as if we had arrived in a California on Mars, while deeply rooted along the gorges and canyons sit beautiful River Red Gums. Around every corner is a Hans Heysen original.
Stopping overnight at Angorichina, a dusty station positioned within Parachilna Gorge, we woke up to the flame red sunlight projected onto the ranges, a red that changed hues throughout the day on the trek north. A stop at Leigh Creek for provisions was something of a surprise break, for here sat a Canberra suburb in the middle of the desert, with loop roads and cul-de-sacs, a central shopping village and oval and a general sense of orderliness. It was a nice diversion and reminder of the past.
Back in the real world, the landscape remains raw along the 125 dusty but stable kilometres to Arkaroola, through a couple of Aboriginal townships and alongside the Gammon Ranges, which I can only assume were named because of their tasty resemblance to a piece of roasted Gammon. Here the northern end of the Flinders Ranges nears and the rocks are even more ancient and even more crinkled. You’d look old and ragged if you reached 900 million years I guess.
Arkaroola was splendid, with two very fine walks to enjoy – one along the dried up creeks carving their way through Barranarra Gorge, dotted with the occasional waterhole, the other along Acacia Ridge with expansive views of the layered rocky terrain and out beyond to the vast salt pan of Lake Frome. In between, a roast dinner buffet and a less healthy tasting of flies, one or two of whom no doubt found their way into my digestive system.
The highlight of Arkaroola however was the Ridge Top tour, a four wheel drive adventure along a ridiculously inclined formation of rocks masquerading as a road. It was built for mining exploration, though thankfully this astounding natural wilderness has recently been granted an exemption from mining, for now. Skilfully negotiated as passengers clung onto railings and bars and bits of each other, it culminated at Sillers Lookout with a cup of tea and a Lameington (spelling error intentional). And awe-inspiring views of yet more wrinkly red ridges and hills and never-ending plains. One man on the tour told me it was the most amazing thing he had ever seen. It seemed folly to argue against him.
I don’t know if you are bored of red rocks and overuse of words such as rugged and astonishing yet, but I wasn’t. The Flinders Ranges are a bit like that. Both Jill and I agree we would happily go back as there is so much to see and do and just see and do again and again and again. We returned south from Arkaroola to spend a few more days in the Flinders Ranges National Park, close to one of its other jewels, Wilpena Pound. A pleasant campsite at Aroona offered up an also pleasant two hour loop walk through more gorges and forests and ridges, every River Red Gum looking like it was painted by our old friend Hans. Indeed, the following morning, a short walk up to the Heysen Viewpoint presented a frame for further perspectives on the Aroona Valley and the northern barrier to Wilpena Pound.
The early sun heralded an especially warm day, with the hike through Bunyeroo Gorge thirsty work and presenting more opportunities for flies to linger around your head and go up your nose and in your ear. There was some respite with iced coffee and a beautiful drive across to Wilpena, a spot where the flies seemed to have mostly avoided. Here too was a shady, gentle walk through the gap into Wilpena Pound, before a short but steep climb to view this large, natural enclosure. On the inside, the pound is much greener than elsewhere, with gentle slopes and fewer rocky red outcrops. You can see why it looked like an ideal spot to keep sheep and make a living. But good rains over the last couple of years mask the severity with which this land can endure, a severity too harsh for sheep and their owners.
At Rawnsley Park Station, on the south side of the pound, some sheep continue to find nourishment amongst its vast acres. Rawnsley was the final stop in the Flinders and another well maintained spot provided for camping. It must have been fairly luxurious since it attracted a lot of expensive caravans pulled by excessive trucks, but there was enough space for our swag and battered Subaru to look inconspicuous. In fact I’m rather proud that we don’t need a plush ensuite villa on wheels or a big white car with more torque than Jeremy Clarkson’s wet dreams to explore and enjoy this country, even if it means I can’t join in on amenity block shaving boasts of gear to weight ratio and high range transmission power boosted by solar panelled satellite combustion. I just tend to shave.
There are sacrifices to be made of course, and a proper bed is a luxury currently enjoyed but once in a while. Another sacrifice was an early rise from the swags on the last day, for a walk pre-heat and pre-flies up to the top of Rawnsley Bluff. This is one of the lumps of rock forming the ring around Wilpena Pound and it naturally affords expansive views, not only over the pound but north and south and east. Today, a cooler and cloudier day subdued the colours somewhat but made the ascent all the more comfortable, as comfortable as it could be after a week of walking something in excess of 70 kilometres. The final few steps were a bit of a drag, though there was satisfaction in coming down as others scrambled up, and the knowledge that the remainder of the day promised rest and a rare meal out in The Woolshed Restaurant to cap the Flinders Ranges holiday.
Distant in the south, hidden beyond a few more hills Port Augusta loomed and the crossroads to head east, west, north and south. South and west would be our path, but we knew it would be unlikely that anything could cap the week that had just been, even as it ended with a few droplets of rain. It was the right time to move on, fully sated on a true, earthen experience of outback that will linger long and likely come to mark the highlight of this vast trip.  

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