End of the Line: Flinders Ranges

Friday 21st March
I woke up feeling slightly melancholy because I knew that my tour to the Flinders Ranges was my last activity before leaving Australia and I wasn’t sure, when, or if I’d ever be back. It was a tour I’d booked late partly because my trip to the Nullarbor hadn’t gone via the southern section due to bush fires and because my trip from Alice Springs to Adelaide hadn’t taken us off the Stuart Highway. I was therefore also excited because I was looking forward to visiting the outback one final time and to have at least one more night to sleep¬†under the stars in a swag.

The other passengers on the tour were slightly older than me but I think I’ve always been able to have a conversation with anybody and age doesn’t really mean anything to me. Ultimately we were all there for the same reasons. To discover “real” Australia. Besides I’d been one of, if not the oldest on my previous tours so it was lovely to be considered so young for a change.

Our guide Mark kept talking to a minimum letting us rest for the first section of the journey as it had been an early start. Whilst I didn’t sleep the sentiment was appreciated. The lady sat in front of me said she was a tour guide undertaking research and although Mark was having a conversation with Martin the passenger in the front seat the passenger in question kept asking for information to be repeated. Eventually I told her to relax in my belief that if Mark felt something needed to be shared we’d all be told especially as we’d be driving over 1000km in 3 days so had plenty of time to ask questions.

During our first stop it was unfortunately clear I wasn’t the only one that had felt mildly irritated and in fact one person was quite honest about the fact she’d crossed a line in her behaviour. After leaving the first stop we passed some wind farms and in the township of Snow Town there was a propeller blade from one of the turbines which made me appreciate just how big they are. It was a very cloudy and windy day so when we passed the Southern Flinders and saw evidence of the January Bush Fires it was difficult for me to remember just how hot it had been when I’d passed by the area in late January when apparently the fire had been burning for 18 days.

Mark started providing us with some information explaining the Flinders Ranges are made up of a series of mountain ranges not just one. Most of the information however was about the surrounding the vegetation we were passing. As we were passing fairly close to the Spencer Gulf there were a lot of bushes called Mangroves which is evidence of a good water eco system. We also passed Mallee scrub and Acacia’s which we were told grew better in the region. I also finally got to see the famous Ghan train which was heading in the opposite direction as well as a wedge tail eagle, possibly even two.

We had another stop at Port Germain where I walked to the jetty but didn’t walk to the end it because despite it being shorter than it once was it is still over 1.5km in each direction. There was also a lighthouse just before the jetty and it appeared that restoration work was taking place to smarten it up though it is no longer used or in its original location. Before Port Germain we had passed Port Pirie which had a smelter that is currently out of action because the lead levels in the town were to high. In the UK the older generation often bemoan the lack of heavy industry but I think we should consider ourselves lucky we don’t suffer the ill effects especially as I still remember when the chemical factory in Berkhamsted caught fire. Let’s also not forget the Buncefield explosion which would have been catastrophic if it had happened on a Monday and not the middle of a Sunday night.

We stopped at Mount Remarkable National Park for lunch before going on a short walk in the area around Mambray Creek. There were two main types of trees in the area. The first were the only pines native to Australia called Callitris or cypress-pine which are apparently resistant to termites so the wood was used for the original telegraph poles. The other type was the Red gum (a eucalyptus tree) that was also useful to the early settlers this time for railway sleepers. Aboriginals used to make a small hole to ‘burnt out’ the inside of the tree to get rid of insects and this then made it possible to store food or even to use as shelter.

Whilst it was a short walk, it was still a good introduction to the Flinders Ranges and whilst we saw lots of emus and a kangaroo we didn’t see any of the Euros, another name for the walleroo. The views down towards alligator gorge in one direction and the Spencer Gulf in the other were nice. We also saw a slag heap from the copper mine workings and we later passed a mine shaft.

We departed the national park and headed for Quorn. I had heard of this town before the trip because it was one of the stations on the Pichi Richi Railway which runs along part of the old Ghan railway route. It looked quite a spectacular journey through the lower Flinders Range as it passed through tunnels and over dry stone walls. We also passed the Devils Peak as well as Mount Brown which was named after Robert Brown the naturalist on Matthew Flinders boat HMS Investigator. We briefly stopped in Quorn and whilst I would have liked to have had a quick look around the exhibition at the station I didn’t think there was time. Instead I headed with the group from Netherlands to the bottle shop (off licence)

Our final stop of the day was Kanyak Homestead a cattle station which had been built by Hugh Proby in 1852 but was eventually abandoned after severe droughts. It was quite eerie to look at and to think that at one time early settlers had tried to make a livelihood in such a remote location. There was a big ants nest so when we were taking pictures we had to be careful where to stand. There was also a creek bed near the homestead but there wasn’t any water flowing.

We arrived at Rawnsley Park and Mark cooked us a BBQ and I cheekily asked if it was going to be my last in Australia and he said he’d cook another one for lunch on the final day of the tour. It was a really good BBQ as well, and despite eating my fair share we still had a number of sausages left over to have cold the next day. I helped with the washing up and left my cider to one side, turning round a few minutes later to discover that unfortunately it had been mistaken for someone else’s. In their defence we had been sitting next to each other and whilst the flavours were different they were by the same company.

Some of the group weren’t camping like me and the family from the Netherlands so they departed and I opened a 3rd bottle of cider before having a shower and eventually setting up my Swag. Martin and Casey decided to join me outside but they didn’t have a swag so pulled their foldable beds out of the tent. The night sky was as stunning as I hoped and I tried to take some photographs but my mini tripod was too loose to support the camera and it was too dark to work out what was wrong.

Saturday 22nd March
We didn’t have to go to breakfast until 06.30 and because I was packed and only had to leave the swag in the tent rather than rolling it up I had set my alarm for 6am. Unfortunately one of the others had set theirs for earlier and because I was outside I couldn’t escape the noise or activity. I therefore decided to get up as well though it did mean I was able to have a shower before I made my way to breakfast and had what would be my last Vegemite on toast in Australia.

We got on the mini bus and made our way to our first stop Wilpeana pound, arguably the most famous feature of the Flinders Ranges. We were able to drive in to the national park and started a short walk to Hill’s Homestead. We saw a few trees that had fallen down and saw evidence of branches that were effectively forming new trees from those that had fallen as they grew to try and get more light. As it was early in the morning I had hoped to see a kangaroo or a Euro but we didn’t see anything. It was also much colder than I had expected.

We arrived at the Hills Homestead and there was a moving story about the early inhabitants and their struggle to survive in such an isolated landscape. There was a walk to a lookout overlooking the Homestead I thought we were going to do but we didn’t and instead returned back to the mini bus. We took a different route back in the belief it would be warmer and to see a different path. I had been told the day before that the only real way to appreciate Wilpeana Pound was from the air and as we didn’t have time to climb the main lookout I think this is probably fair because walking at ground level you couldn’t get a sense of how impressive and extensive it actually is.

Once we returned to the mini bus we had quite a long bus journey to just outside of the national park to see some Aboriginal rock engravings at ‘Sacred Canyon’. The date of these are unknown but the local clan believe they were left during the dreamtime Stories so it is fair to say they are very very old. The walk there was through a dry creek bed and whilst it was flat there were a few big boulders towards the end but all the group managed to make it through some with a bit of support from Mark.

The engravings were on a rock face in a really lovely secluded location and as the symbols were similar to the cave paintings I had seen I instinctively recognised the pattern for kangaroos, emus and water. There was also some ‘modern’ graffiti dating back to the 1800s though I wasn’t sure what the initials stood for.¬† It was amazing the engravings had survived so long because if the rivers water levels rise enough there is a risk the symbols can be hidden under water.

The drive to the Aroona Valley was very picturesque and took us through the Bunyeroo Valley where we saw a number of Euros sitting under the trees. From the Aroona Valley lookout there was a nice view towards the Heysen Range named after the Australian painter Sir Hans Heysen. There is also a walking trail named after Heysen. The walk stretches 1200km (750 miles) from Cape Jervis (where I caught the boat to Kangaroo Island) on the Fleurieu Peninsula to Parachilna Gorge in the Flinders Ranges. We had lunch and then did a short walk where we saw an under water spring. When we were at the top of the lookout we heard what sounded like a fire engine and we realised one of the fire trucks had arrived to fill up their tank. Mark had to quickly move the mini bus as we were blocking the fire hose but it didn’t cause any problems as there weren’t actually any fires in the national park.

As we drove through Brachina Gorge Mark said he had a surprise for us and we made our way to the bottom of a much larger slag heap than the day before. There were quite a lot of people looking at what only appeared to be rubble and hope built up inside me that it was a spot that is popular with the rare Yellow footed wallabies which now only live in the Flinders Ranges. It didn’t take Mark long to spot one under a tree. When it stood up and still it was nearly impossible to distinguish it due to its colour but occasionally it shook its head.

We walked along the road a bit more and soon realised there was another one by a big rock. This one was slightly more active and was eating food off one of the branches From a nearby bush/small tree. I’d seen a lot of wallabies and kangaroos but this was a particularly special type because it had a lovely black and yellow ringed tail. The fur was one of the main reasons that this type of wallaby had been hunted by the early settlers and as a result it had nearly become extinct. I had hoped at best to glimpse one from a distance from the bus so it was a highlight of the trip that we got to see them so close. I knew we were lucky that it had been a relatively cool day which had encouraged them out rather than them seeking shelter under the rocks.

We continued our drive through Brachina Gorge, which is known as the ‘Corridors through Time’ to see the gradual evolution of the rocks in the area. This included the Wonoka Formation a limestone and siltstone formation which is 570/580 million years old. We also saw some rocks that had the oldest fossil evidence of animal life known as Ediacara fauna. Having seen the stromatolites on the West Coast it was interesting to now see the fossils of the first animals.

On our way back to the campsite we drove along the Moralana Scenic track. Whilst the scenery was still stunning it had been a tiring day due to all the fantastic things we’d seen we all started to doze off. We did however stop off at two more lookouts. The first was of the southwestern wall of Wilpena Pound which looked particularly impressive framed in between two trees. The second was of the Hills of Arkaba which were a favourite of Sir Hans Heysen when he was painting.

We returned back to the Rawnsley Park and this time Martin, Casey and I made sure we were in a good viewpoint for the sunset. There wasn’t any cloud and it didn’t quite look as good as the day before but it was still a nice way to end a memorable day. There was a wall in the kitchen providing cooking recipes which included “Spaghetti on Toast”. This included useful instructions such as ‘open the can’. I enjoyed the rest of my ciders this time keeping a careful watch over them to ensure they didn’t go missing.

Before going to bed I set my camera up as I was determined to get a picture of the Southern Cross. Eventually I was satisfied I couldn’t do any I rolled out my swag for the final time and fell asleep with a million stars above me.

Sunday 23rd March
I woke up feeling a lot warmer than the night before and feeling quite refreshed and after sorting everything out including rolling the swag as tightly as possible I made my way down to breakfast. I arrived just as the bus arrived and helped carry some of the boxes for breakfast in. Throughout all my other tours breakfast for me has been a slice of toast with Vegemite and a slice of toast with jam. Sometimes I add a bit of excitement by having cornflakes as well. Today however Mark surprised us by doing a cooked breakfast of bacon, sausages and eggs.

Feeling quite full we set off on our long journey back to Adelaide where we passed through Hawker and briefly stopped off in Melrose the oldest settlement in Flinders 1853. I hadn’t planned on getting off the mini bus to get a tea or coffee but the group from Canada came back with some home made ice cream. It wasn’t that warm outside but I suddenly realised it would be my last opportunity to have some in Australia so quickly kept out of the bus. The guy that served me had what only can be described as a Justin Bieber haircut not that I can judge, my hairs not been cut since I was in New Zealand and it now looks like an unshaped scruffy mop.

We were slightly ahead of schedule so Mark made a decision to carry on to Wirrabara where we set up lunch in Wongabirrie Park. Mark then lived up to his promise of cooking a BBQ and this time I knew it really would not only be my last ‘down under’ but due to the British weather my last for a while.

We carried on and despite wanting to stay awake to take in the view of nothingness for the last time however unsurprisingly I was eventually overcome by sleep. Eventually I woke up as Mark started to provide some information about the Clare Valley and eventually we pulled in to Taylors Estate (Wakefield in UK) for a few samples at their cellar door. The first white I tried was a Chardonnay from their Jaraman range which was a fusion of 2 regions. Then I tried a sparkling pinot noir Chardonnay brut cuvee which I preferred but at the price of the bottle I’d have been surprised if it had been disappointing. I may have tried others but they had no dessert wines or sweet late harvest wines and as no one else appeared to be sampling I rounded off with the Tawny Port.

We arrived back in Adelaide and I discovered I was in the same room as before. I hadn’t previously mentioned it but one of the beds had towels all the way around so they had complete privacy and it was above this bed that I now had to spend my final night. I was somewhat startled when as I was packing my bags for the last time someone emerged from behind the curtains as for some reason I had assumed no one was there.

My flight was at around 06.00am and although normally for an international flight check in is 3 hours before, this wasn’t possible because I was told that the airport wouldn’t be open until 04.00am. I therefore set my alarm for 03.00am with the intention of phoning for a taxi around 03.30am.

Monday 24th March
The alarm went off and it sounded particularly cruel. I tried to silently climb down the ladder but anyone that has stayed in a top bunk in a hostel knows this is near impossible and it squeaked loudly at every step. I made my way to the reception and as I waited for the taxi I think there was a small group that were just getting back from a night out.

I got to the airport and even though it had gone 04.00am it appeared it was still locked even though the lights were on and I could see staff. I wasn’t the only person waiting and when they finally did open the doors and then the desks it was clear that like me those serving wanted to be in bed. The lady serving me was particularly miserable and my luggage, despite being within the weight limits was deemed by her to be oversized because I’d attached my sleeping bag. I’ve done this for near enough all my flights so it seemed odd that during the final part of my journey it would suddenly be an issue. Anyway I did as I was told and took it to the oversized baggage desk. As I approached the guy asked why I’d had to come over and when I explained he laughed in that classic Australian way and told me she was being over zealous.

It wasn’t a great start and things got worse when the flight was delayed by 15 minutes due to ‘issues’ at Sydney Control Tower and it doesn’t bode well when the very first flight of the day is delayed. Then it started raining as we were leaving which meant we bounced around dramatically as we lifted off. Turbulence is never a particularly nice sensation but even worse when there is no screen in front to look at in order to create a distraction. Instead I had to make do with the in flight magazine which had a number of articles on different holiday destinations including Antarctica but it then failed to say who the tour operators were. Not that I can or should even consider a holiday for sometime after how fortunate I’ve been to experience what I have over the past 5 months.

The view of the sunrise was spectacular but soon the ground below us was hidden by cloud. We were near Sydney. The air traffic team still had issues so we ended up circling for a further 15 minutes making us over 30 minutes late by the time we landed. Not only that I realised I had to transfer from terminal 3 to terminal 1 and it took longer than expected.

When i reached the terminal required the last call for boarding was already going out for my flight and I had to clear security again.
Three ladies were serving at the Qantas desk but when it got to me they seemed to vanish. Eventually I lost my cool and called out to one of them that was just standing around looking gormless that my flight was leaving in 20 minutes and I was going to miss it because my qantas flight from Adelaide had been late. She suddenly looked a bit faint and came trotting over and gave me a priority boarding card. It allowed me to take a short cut up a hidden passageway but didn’t seem to help with security. I ran through the duty free where I had hoped to buy myself some Bundaberg rum to take home and as I ran I heard someone say anyone for the Bangkok flight. Luckily I had my name ticked off the list and this meant they effectively held the plane for me until I arrived at the gate.

We still departed on time but as we were taxying on the runway 6 planes somehow got in ahead so we were late leaving. I was desperate for the toilet as I hadn’t been since 3am and it was now gone 10.00am so as soon as we were airborne and the seatbelt sign went off I jumped up. I couldn’t believe it when I discovered there was already a queue. I had for some reason expected a routine departure where I should have had time in Sydney to buy souvenirs. Unfortunately it wasn’t at all the way I’d wanted to say goodbye to Australia.

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