Exploring the Flinders Ranges S.A.

Monday, Sep 28, 1998 at 00:00


For reasons I’ll never know we were up at sunrise and none of us bothered to check our watches. Hence, following our showers, breakfast and anti hangover panadol, we were on the road by 6.30 a.m. Bloody Hell this sets a bad precedent! Despite some rain overnight, the day dawned bright and clear. Our first port of call was the pub to return the “Borrowed” Crows victory icon and then to the site of the old Burra Copper Mine. The old open cut mine is hardly a shovel turn of earth compared to today’s great mines but impressive when you consider that it was dug mainly without mechanical aid.Ruins of old mine works, smelters and chimneystacks remain and today form an integral part of Burra’s heritage. From our vantage point above the old works, we could see our highway beckoning us north. We answered the call.

The thing that struck us as we drove through the rolling hills to Peterborough, was just how green everything was. On both Scotts and my previous journeys to the area in past years, the countryside was as dry as chips (admittedly my last time there was at the end of a particularly nasty summer) and to see the hills covered in lush pasture and crops was quite a contrast to previous experience. Flowering crops of canola added a surrealistic effect to the countryside, their brilliant yellow blooms contrasting sharply with the green of surrounding fields and looking to those passing as if some mad artist and draped the landscape in bolts of yellow cloth. Coupled with the bright purple blooms of Lucerne crops, the crazy patch work effect would have caused any hardened 1960’s drug user to think he was having a bad acid flashback. Certainly everything had that healthy spring feel about it. The green fields, the fat livestock the happy Crows supporters (even the windmills up here were painted in the crows colours).

Peterborough was shut strangely enough. Could have been something to do with the ungodly hour of our arrival (7.20 a.m.) so it was on to Orroroo for a spot of breakfast at the Goyders Line Roadhouse.Orroroo is one of those little service towns that has existed to service the surrounding pastoral and grain growing country. The town grew at the junction of the Burra-Blinman mail route and the Port Augusta track from 1864 with growth really accelerating after the arrival of settlers taking up grazing and cropping lands in the 1870’s.Orroroo straddles Goyders Line. Goyders Line is a theoretical boundary line established in the mid 1800’s past which it was believed, that the country would not sustain crops. George W.Goyder himself a surveyor, was contracted by the Colony of South Australia to conduct the first survey and mapping expeditions of the north of the colony. As a result, Goyder spent an extensive amount of time in the outback of South Australia. In testament to the accuracy of his forecasts, the country north of here is littered with the remains of dwellings long since abandoned as the arid country rejected the efforts of the early settlers to establish farms and crops. Today’s modern farming techniques and the liberal application of superphosphate have extended the cropping boundaries somewhat, but sure enough, the land usage changes noticeably from cropping to grazing within the next 70 or so kilometers north of this town. Even today, Goyders Line maintains its forecasted accuracy.

Suitably refreshed after scoffing down a carton of milk and a couple of toasted ham, cheese and tomato sanga’s, we resumed our northward journey to Quorn, Wilmington, and our first glimpses of the Flinders, blue in the distance. Both Quorn and Wilmington grew up as service towns on the Great Northern Railway as it was pushed northwards in 1878, largely under the labour of Chinese coolies and British stone masons. The line was shut in 1957 as it became more uneconomical but at Wilmington, the railway is being restored and a large museum holds all manner of engine and railways paraphernalia.Wilmington is also the crossroads where one can head south for Horricks pass and a sensational view of the Spencer Gulf and Port Augusta.

After departing Wilmington it was on a further 66 kilometres to Hawker, another typical outback town of broad streets and verandahed buildings. Then, onwards into the Southern Ranges of the Flinders. The countryside became progressively drier but despite this, maintained a good cover of native vegetation. To our surprise we had not seen a single rabbit since leaving Melbourne, something unheard of in the past. The dreaded calysi virus obviously taking a devastating toll on the bunny population. The results are amazing with plenty of feed about for the native species. This lack of competition for feed must have a positive affect on the native fauna.

Our first place of interest was the old Kanyaka Homestead nestled behind low hills and on the banks of the dry Kanyaka Creek. Many of the stone buildings that make up this quite impressive station property are remarkably well preserved. Despite its sheltered position behind low hills, the original homestead has fallen largely into disrepair but restoration has largely halted further decay of the 16 room homestead. Other buildings have survived the ravages of time much better and are largely minus their roofs, and joinery work (courtesy of termites) only. The walls of the homestead are over 60 cm thick in some places and constructed entirely of local stone and mortar. This thickness would have helped combat the oppressive heat of summer and as nearly every room had a fireplace to banish the chill of the desert winter nights. The shearing shed built entirely of local rough-hewn stone was a masterpiece of workmanship. It was certainly huge for it’s time. Some 40,000 sheep were shorn here in 1865 with the clip being transported across country probably to Port Augusta, by bullock dray. The shearers quarters were in equally good condition. The remains of the large kiln type oven remain and I would hate to think just how much bread would have been baked in that oven each day whilst the shearing was in full swing. We took the opportunity to have a morning tea break whilst at Kanyaka and contemptuously watched the passing parade of “Schoolies” arriving with their “Big Rig” 4 x 4’s complete with all the attachments, whistles and bells. Cam was right into the shooting of his video documentary gaining as much historic footage and interviews as possible. The result will be most interesting.

A few kilometers down the track, the Rawnsley Bluff lookout provided us with a wonderful view of the Southern Flinders. Rugged Rawnsley Bluff to our immediate west, the Heysen Ranges to the south and the jagged walls of Wilpena Pound to the north. It was becoming very blustery and the wind was raising a fair amount of dust before it creating a haze.

It wasn’t long before we reached the ramparts of Wilpena Pound. I’ve always loved the drive into the Pound area. The low native pines give such a different feel from so many other areas of Australia. Cam summed it up in saying that the road in could almost pass for some of the many national parks in the states with the pines being the dominant tree. I suppose it’s the lack of eucalyptus that makes it so. With green grass beneath the trees and hardly any shrubbery, the whole area had the feel of a well kept park. We are still yet to see a rabbit and no where more than here are the benefits of their eradication more obvious. Wilpena is one of the best known features of the Flinders and is itself an immense elevated basin covering about 50 square kilometres and encircled by sheer cliffs which are set in a foundation of purple shale and rise through red stone to white topped peaks. The only entrance into the pound is through a narrow gorge. The external cliffs rise to over 1000 metres but inside is a gentle slope to the floor of the basin. The highest peak is St Mary’s peak which dominates the northern wall of the pound. The Wilpena Tourist area and campground has changed significantly since my last trip with a new ranger and information centre, a supermarket and other facilities. The range of activities involving park staff was impressive with lectures and tours being co-ordinated for most of the national park site. We took the opportunity to purchase some needed aeroguard insect repellent and then headed off for Bunyeroo and Brachina Gorges.

Camping within the Flinders Ranges National Park is permitted within certain areas only.Camp permits are gained on an honour system at various points within the park. As we were yet to decide upon a campsite for the night, we made our $5.00 donation on the chance that we may be within the parks boundaries. The drive north to Bunyeroo is spectacular and is certainly one of the most scenic routes in the Flinders. Initially the road crosses grassy plains dotted with native pine and gum trees. After 10 kilometres the rugged peaks of the ABC Ranges become visible in the distance and before long the scenery becomes rugged with the road climbing and winding its way through the Bunyeroo Valley. The surrounding jagged peaks and steep sided hills and ravines make scenic views with the floor of the Bunyeroo valley stretching away. All to quickly though the road makes a steep descent into the Bunyeroo Creek and follows the stony bed of the watercourse criss crossing it as you wind through the steep sided Bunyeroo Gorge.The gorge itself splits the ABC Range emerging on its western side in the Wilcolo Valley between the Heysen and ABC Ranges. The often sheer sided gorge provides many a spot to stop for lunch and we opted for an elevated spot towards the end of the gorge. Like a well-oiled machine, the table and chairs were out and a lunch of biscuits, chicken and salad was before us. The meal quickly became more of a race between us and the flies to see who could scoff the offered food fastest. You had to be quick or the food was carried away by the eager little bludgers.

The track emerges into the Wilcolo Creek Valley and then proceeds north through dramatic country of steep hills sheer gullies and rocky pyramid like peaks until it meets the Aroona Valley Road. We then headed west again and into Brachina Gorge.Brachina Gorge cuts through the Heysen Range as Bunyeroo does the ABC. The road follows the broad rocky creek bottom for several kilometres through spectacular rock formations. The creek still held a trickle of water and the few deep waterholes attracted a lot of campers. It seemed that every decent camping spot held a 4 x 4 and tent so we decided to push on out to the highway and up to Parachilna

On the way north, a scenic lookout on a low hill afforded spectacular views of the Western Wall of the Heysen Range and the ramparts of Wilpena to the south. By now it had become very blustery with the hot wind scorching out from the north. Parachilna is an aboriginal word which means “peppermint gum tree scrub” (compact language isn’t it?) and the town saw several rises and falls from it’s inception in 1863. In those times it was a stop off for eager prospectors and when the railway went through in 1882, copper from Blinman was carted through the gorge to Parachilna to be hauled south. At this time the town’s hotel was built and it remains the principal (if not only) building in the town. It does however signal the turnoff for the 30 odd kilometre trip to Blinman through two of the most scenic gorges in the Ranges. Again the road follows the gorge proper crossing the stony creek many times. There is a slight trickle of water emanating from natural springs which form large rock pools. Layers of steeply tilted limestone rise from the floor of the gorge at acute angles and become progressively older as you penetrate further into the gorge becoming shales and siltstones. There were many pleasant places to camp along the way but unfortunately most had been staked out by campers. We were looking for a campsite with a bit of solitude and where the firewood offerings would be somewhat more generous. After leaving the gorge, the road winds through low scrub and pine covered hills to Blinman.

In 1859 a one legged shepherd named Robert “Pegleg” Blinman discovered copper in the area which now bears his name. He secured a mining lease which he promptly sold out to a syndicate. After again changing hands, the lease was finally established and copper mined in 1862. Although the town prospered in those times, it did not grow to a large size. Several of the old buildings remain such as the original Blinman Hotel, the Police Station & Post Office. The town is now a stop over for tourists as was evident on our arrival by the number of four wheel drives parked outside the pub. Needless to say, we didn’t hang around long but headed north out of town to Glass Gorge along the alternate route back to Parachilna. We were still in the hunt for a camping spot. The glass gorge rout travels through superb undulating country lightly forested in native pines. The scenery is spectacular and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves a secluded camp spot in the bed of a small yet reasonably broad washaway that ran into the hills near the western end of the gorge. It only involved a minor amount of expedition type (rough) travelling to get the car in and to our delight, the position in the narrow valley offered excellent protection from the wind. In no time at all camp was set, firewood gathered and we were ready for a walk into the surrounding hills.

We opted to follow the small valley in which we were camped for a short distance into the surrounding hills. The creek bed, more a down hill water course in times of heavy rain than a creek, supported lone eucalypts amongst the more numerous native pines. Before long we branched off and climbed to the top of the hill directly overlooking the valley in which we’d camped. From here we struck along the ridge top to a distant but higher vantage point a short distance to our west. Here the wind had scoured the top soil from the hilltop exposing the slate like shale and making it near impossible for anything larger than grasses and shrubs to gain a foothold. It did however afford an excellent view of the surrounding countryside which we took in in rapt fascination as the sun sank lower in the west and the colours deepened with the coming shadows. It was a great opportunity for photo’s and video footage, each of which was tackled enthusiastically by Cam and myself. In true Olsen fashion, it was decided to build a cairn to forever mark our passing on this spot. So while the sun sank lower, we raised our monument from the local rock topped off with a handy piece of engraving by Scott. Not a bad piece of work for amateurs. As the light faded, we trekked back down hill to camp to begin the essentials. Cooking! This was my department and before long, my trusty old three burner stove, a veteran of many previous campaigns, was again turning out a culinary delight.

Dinner was enjoyed around the fire. The menu, chicken in a red wine and plum sauce with vegetables, fruit with custard, coffee and chocolate biscuits all accompanied with a glass or two of red wine. I told you that starvation was not a consideration on this trip. I’m sure that Scott would have been just as happy with a baked bean jaffle and a beer. Now I can’t quite recall just where the seed of this idea was germinated but I believe it was around the fire after tea. Some bold fool (Scott I believe) said, “Let’s go to Innaminka. What do ya reckon?” Now I don’t know if it’s a good idea. We haven’t got a map. We aren’t carrying spare fuel so I don’t know if we’ll make it, but nothing is insurmountable and I reckon we’re all mad enough to give the Strzlecki a bash!

The moon was bright as we settled in for the night. I think all of us enjoy the fact that we’re out here away from the city, from work and it’s pressures. It never ceases to amaze me just how much you miss all this.
''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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