As we set off on our four-day Flinders Ranges Odyssey tour from Adelaide in our roomy 12-seater Mercedes Benz minibus with local guide, Peter Roberts, we know the 480km journey to Wilpena Pound will be as remarkable as the destination.
Not far from historic Burra, Pete points out a little sandstone cottage alone in a paddock.
He tells us it’s the house on the cover of Midnight Oil’s 1987 album, Diesel and Dust. The first of a myriad, not to be missed photo opportunities, we pull over.
Along the way Pete, a walking Google engine, offers commentary and answers countless questions as we sweep by semi-arid plains, solitary ruins and throngs of sheep, cattle, emus, eagles and wallabies.
It’s a photographer’s nirvana.
After a hearty pub lunch at Orroroo and lively conversation with publican Shane Hamilton with a cockatiel on his shoulder, we set off for the impressive Kanyaka settlement ruins.
A cattle and sheep station established in 1852, it grew to become one of the areas largest, supporting 70 families. But falling victim to severe droughts and stock losses, it was abandoned in 1888.
Next stop, Hawker – where artist Jeff Morgan shows us through his art gallery.
The genius of Jeff’s key piece, Wilpena Panorama, comes to light as we climb the circular gallery’s staircase to view the uninterrupted, 360-degree painting of the ranges, vast plains and salt lakes.
So life like, it’s hard to believe you’re not outdoors taking in a real scene.
On our arrival at Rawnsley Park Station, south of Wilpena Pound and home for the next two nights, we quickly drop bags at our striking eco-villas before hopping into a troopie for a 40-minute rugged drive to Chase Range.
At the peak, absorbing soaring views and soft, changing colours as the sun lowers over this ancient place, we sip champagne and enjoy canapés.
Initially Rawnsley ran only sheep across its 11,000-hectares.
In 1985, our hosts, Tony and Julie Smith transformed their small, struggling sheep station into an award-winning tourism operation offering a range of accommodation from budget to luxury, 4WD tours, hiking, mountain biking and scenic helicopter or small plane flights.
Though tourism is now Rawnsley’s mainstay, much to Tony’s joy it still runs 2000 sheep.
At dawn on day three, Chinta Air’s chief pilot Felicity Brown flies us over Wilpena Pound and explains how the crater-like, geological wonder was created.
As the sun lifts, we soar like eagles in thermal winds and gain a new perspective of this timeless place.
During the day Pete takes us on a geological trail through the Flinders and Brachina Gorge.
His generous and knowledgeable commentary will stay with us forever.
We strain to spot the elusive yellow-footed rock wallaby.
We know they’re here, but camouflaged against ochre coloured bluffs, we’re missing them.
Eventually we find one sitting on a flat ridge quite close to us.
The stout little marsupial stays put as we watch and take photos.
Thanks to conservation program the wallaby has made a comeback from the brink of extinction.
They are now found in high numbers at several sites.
Tonight at the authentic Woolshed Restaurant, we dine on local produce, including Rawnsley’s own lamb. Matched with our food experience, we savour the taste of the Clare Valley’s Kirrihill Wines. Nothing like your first sip of crisp South Australian wine after a big day of touring.
On our return leg, we head for Parachilna for a night at the Prairie Hotel.
It’s another day of surprising stops at historical and fossil sites, galleries, quirky towns and of course, frequent on the spot wildlife encounters.
At the unique Prairie Hotel we try the signature ‘Feral Antipasto’ platter – the pub’s main attraction.
While it’s not a great thought eating your national emblem, we’re keen to have a go.
It involves kangaroo mettwurst, emu pate (really like this), goats cheese, brush tomato chilli jam and more, washed down with the hotel’s own, first-rate Fargher Lager.
Next morning we head towards Adelaide via Quorn and the Clare Valley wine region where we enjoy our last lunch together.
At Paulett Wines, yet again we sip, taste and savour delicious food and wine.
After four experience-packed days, it’s agreed, we’ll be returning to the Flinders for more.
Wilpena Pound; a geological wonder
A natural amphitheatre and the Flinders Ranges main act, Wilpena Pound has tended to fly under the radar.
Given its size (almost eight times larger than Uluru), astounding crater-like rock basin, rich Aboriginal heritage and sheer magnificence, this lack of attention is curious.
Perhaps it has something to do with the generations of pastoralists who paid the price by using English farming techniques on parched, stony ground and rough living conditions that came with living in a remote area.
Created through a slow layering of sediments, beginning around 800 million years ago, it’s believed immense pressure on the Earth’s crust compressed the sediments, compacting them into a mountain range.
Today the ringed mountain ridge rises spectacularly from its surrounding plains to flank a saucer-shaped plateau and is one of the world’s oldest surviving environments.
Its highest point is St Mary Peak at 1171 metres. More than 17 kilometres long and eight kilometres wide and with plenty of walking trails and abundant with flora and fauna, the Pound is popular with bushwalkers.
Attempts at farming the Pound failed during the early 20th century.
Due to its natural isolation, the plateau was used as a horse breeding area and later wheat farming was trialled.
Its resemblance to a giant cattle-pound, led to the name Wilpena Pound.
Nilpena Station: An Ediacaran site
While exploring for minerals in 1946, geologist Reginald Sprigg found the fossilised remains of an entire community of soft-bodied creatures.
He discovered the fossil imprints in rocks around the low hills of the western Flinders Ranges at the old Ediacara mineral field.
More than 540-million years ago (before dinosaurs) warm seas were inhabited by soft-bodied organisms, similar to jellyfish.
Some of these organisms became trapped in fine silt in tidal flats and were fossilised as the sea levels changed and the silt turned to stone.
The sea floor became part of what is now Flinders Ranges and the fossils found formed part of what was named the Ediacaran Period.
It was a vital discovery, as it was the first time the fossilised remains of an entire community of soft-bodied creatures had been found in such abundance anywhere in the world.
The diverse and exquisitely preserved community of ancient organisms represents a significant snapshot of our geological heritage and marks the beginning of animal life.
- Paula Heelan was guest of Captain Cook Cruises and SeaLink South Australia. For further information visit www.flindersrangesodysseys.com.au