The ‘bones of nature laid bare’… the Central Flinders Ranges…

Our brief encounter with South Australia now continues with another scenic road trip through the Central Flinders Ranges.

For us this was the beginning of the most magnificent mountains and ranges we had ever seen with views that stirred up a strong appreciation of the natural wonders of this amazing country.

The ‘Central Flinders Ranges’ stretch from Hawker to the Parachilna and Blinman areas further north, and include Wilpena Pound, the Brachina and Bunyeroo Gorges and Parachilna Gorge, which cuts through the ranges from Parachilna to Blinman.

From there the rugged ‘Northern Flinders Ranges’ stretch from Parachilna on the western side of the ranges to the coal mining town of Leigh Creek and just north to the small township of Lyndhurst and the start of the Strzelecki Track leading to Innamincka – a place we are looking forward to visiting later in the year after our ‘Simpson Desert’ crossing!

On the eastern side, the ranges stretch from Blinman through to Arkaroola with the northern tip near Moolawatana Station. The main feature of this area being the spectacular country of the Gammon Ranges National Park and the privately-owned Arkaroola Resort.

Leaving Hawker our drive meandered through coarse dry paddocks dotted with sheep, rusty gates, windmills and more wildlife than we had seen on our entire trip.

Kangaroos grazed in broad daylight on the dry land, emus flounced their feathery tutus and disappeared into the bush. Lizards, horses, cows… all on the short 37.7-kilometre drive to Rawnsley Station.

20-kilometres from Hawker we pulled in at Arkaba Hills and Elder Range Lookout.

Here we had amazing views of the stunning scenery that stretched before us with the vast quartzite wall of Elder Range and Mt Aleck overshadowing the flatter Arkaba Hills.

This scenery was only a fraction of what was to come!

This is where the ‘Central Ranges’, named after the explorer Matthew Flinders, begins to warp and uplift into spectacular and very ancient ranges. 

After reading the information boards about Sir Hans Heysen, one of Australia’s most famous landscape artists who captured the raw beauty of the Flinders Ranges, we set sail again.

Sir Hans Heyson (1877-1968) had a great love for these ranges, and he once described the area as…  ‘where the bones of nature were laid bare’! He now has a range, a lookout and a track named after him.

We finally arrived at Rawnsley Park Station located on the south eastern edge of the same ranges that create Wilpena Pound.

There were plenty of camping choices in the Central Flinders Ranges with Wilpena in the Ikara-Flinder Ranges National Park and lots of other surrounding stations having setup their properties to grab the tourist dollar – including Willow Springs who cater for those who like remote camping on a sheep station with room to spread out and explore 4WD tracks.

Rawnsley Station was another and came highly recommended by campers at our last free camp and also by a couple in the caravan park at Echuca… and it did not disappoint

It appears the farmers out here have suffered a range of natural disasters over time and Rawnsley Park Station is the early initiative of 2 resilient souls, Clem and Alison Smith, who turned to the tourism industry as a second income back in 1968… and it has certainly paid off.

This working sheep station now boasts eco-villas, a restaurant, air tours and great camping and caravan facilities.

We made our base here for the next few days and although we usually find it hard to settle in a caravan park after having so much space and freedom, this park was the exception with an abundance of camp sites; powered, unpowered and bush, a great camp kitchen and very clean amenities… and our stay was made all the more enjoyable due to the friendly and very helpful station staff.

Understandably we could hardly wait to explore the ‘bones laid bare’, so after pitching our rooftop tent, we spent the next couple of days walking the many walks, riding the trails, exploring Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, which includes Wilpena Pound and the many gorges, and visiting the little isolated towns located in this diverse terrain.

From the caravan park there were many walks along and around several surrounding hills, including to the top of Rawnsley Bluff where you can peep inside the pound.

Most are easy for folk with moderate fitness… other than the climb up the bluff.

Rawnsley Bluff walk is a difficult walk of 12.6-kilometres with an off-shoot to Wilpena Lookout, which is another 11.4-kilometres along the track.

At the beginning of the walks, the trail follows the creek bed for about 660-metres before climbing to the foothills of Bonney Sandstone, which is the main range.

The trail then gradually steepens to a climb to ‘Lone Pine Lookout’ with the worst of the climb over as you approach the summit.

Wilpena Pound Lookout is 600-metres on the left fork and provides excellent views down into the centre of Wilpena Pound.

Taking the right fork, Rawnsley Blufff is a further 1.5-kilometres on where the Survey Cairn, constructed by Samuel Parry in 1858, still stands. From here there are incredible views overlooking the Chace Range in the south and east.

Next morning we woke to another perfect day in the Flinders Ranges. It was a bit cool over night until the sun peaked over the hill and then it was a glorious day, so we opted to do the walks around the station to stretch our legs again.

Many of these walks are quite short, just a stroll in the bush actually, but we combined them all and they took us along a track of just over 11-kilometres.

Pulling on our walking boots and donning our hydration packs we left the caravan park following white markers and the stations map.

We passed the first and second shower blocks where we picked up the walking trail then passing through the bush camping area we turned making our way through a gully to ‘Clem Corner Lookout’.

This trek through very dry country was only 4.6-kilometres but well worth the hike to see the amazing views back over the hills of Arkaba to the Elder Range.

This track would normally finish via the Ulowdna range and Kangaroo Creek back to the starting point, but we continued on past Kangaroo Gap Lookout, a small knoll that looked out over Chace Range, Elder Range and Rawnsley Bluff. 

We continued on over the dry barren land along a track that was so rocky under foot that we had to watch every step.

Broken slate like rock surrounded us and sparse low shrubbery, then we came to the very dry Kangaroo Creek. 

Beautiful gums lined the wide creek bed and we couldn’t help but wonder how they could survive in such conditions.

Further on we followed a fence line as we made tracks to Pines Cove.

We passed a few lone sheep grazing on the dry land. There wasn’t a blade of grass or a pool of water to sustain their existence. You really have to see this part of the country to realise how short of water it really is!

Further on 2 large kangaroos bounced across our path. Again, their existence was a mystery to us but there was evidence they had been digging for water further along the track.

Pines Cove was a 6-metre rock hollow situated almost at the top of Ulowdna Range.

Climbing up onto the range via a steep rocky slope we finally reached the summit where we had a surprising view of the country south to Hawker and north out over Rawnsley Station and the bluff.

Descending one rocky range we then climbed another before descending the slippery slopes back to the caravan park.

It had been a long, hot walk without a lot of shade but it was a great workout and a much welcome break from driving for hours as we had done over the last couple of days… and it was a welcome relief to shed our boots and head to the rather icy swimming pool to cool off.

The country we covered on the mountain bike trail the next day was no different, another 16-kilometres of rocky, rugged terrain. 

We rode from our camp to the Rawnsley Bluff Car Park then following more markers made our way along the base of the range through very dry, rocky country. I had one spill when my chain came off as I changed gear and we lost the markers at one stage… at the creek bed at the end of the track resulting in having to follow the fence line to the gate. The track eventually brought us out at the back of the airport where we followed the graded road back to camp.

Another of the great things about Rawnsley Park is ‘The Woolshed Restaurant’ that was worth the short drive of 1,659.8-kilometres from Tassie just to taste their classy food!

Rawnsley History… thank you to the girls at reception for allowing me to borrow the book.

This area was first settled as part of Arkaba Station in 1851, with Arkaba, Wilpena and Aroona the first pastoral leases settled in Central Flinders Ranges. Initially, pastoral leases were granted for a period of 14-years by ‘The Colony of South Australia’ for what was then known as ‘unoccupied waste land’.

In 1895 parts of Arkaba Station were subdivided for farming allotments. A portion of Arkaba (Section 10, Hundreds of Morlana and Warcowie comprised 6253 acres) was granted as a Perpetual Lease (99 years from change of ownership). The new lease was issued to Mrs Fahey of Carrieton, however little is known of Mrs Fahey and her family. The lease passed to Mr Nuggent and his family of six sons in the year 1905. The original stone house of three rooms from the Nuggent period is still standing (near the old wagon). The present homestead was begun in 1915 by the Nuggent family and completed by Mr Haesler in the early 1920s. The years 1895 to 1919 were the period of greatest farming activity.

The lease was transferred to Mr. Montgomery Haesler in 1921, principally for grazing rather than farming. Mr Haesler held the lease until 1937 when it was transferred to Mr Neil Cutten, who also held the Ulowdna lease (now held by Stephen and Alan Gregory) which resulted in the whole area being known as Ulowdna.

In 1953 Clem Smith purchased the portion of Ulowdna (Section 10, Hundreds of Morlana & Warcowie) comprising 6253 acres. In 1963, another parcel (Section 9, Hundreds of Warcowie comprising 1200 acres) was purchased to make up the 7453 acres and the land was renamed Rawnsley Park Station.  The property is now 29,000 acres, including part of the neighbouring Arkapena and Prelinna Stations, which were added in 2009.

Now our trip to the Flinders wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Wilpena Pound, the natural amphitheatre of mountains we had only seen from afar.

Unfortunately, the walks to the lookouts and the homestead in the Pound were closed when we arrived at the Information Centre the next morning (apparently due to road damage), with only one walk open, the 14.6-kilometre return ‘outside trail’ to St Mary Peak.

This track follows a clearly marked track in the direction of the highest peak in the Ikara Flinders Ranges. St Mary Peak offers a 360-degree view of the ranges, salt lakes, and the surrounding plains. 

The walk takes about 6 hours and was relatively easy for the first hour but the final hour to Tanderra Saddle was rather steep, stony and exposed. We were warned this section was difficult and can be dangerous… and prohibited from climbing in wet weather, but we didn’t have to worry about that… it was a glorious day!

Normally the return route would take us through the Pound back past Wilpena Homestead, but that would have to wait until the next day with the hope the trails would be open then.

From Wilpena Pound we headed north along Explorers Way to check out some of the gorges and sights.

Making our way back out to the turn off we stopped only a few hundred kilometres from the entrance at the Cazneaux Tree, named after New Zealander Harold Cazneaux who photographed this tree with the back drop of Wilpena Pound in 1937.  

He thought this tree ‘symbolised the spirit of Australia’ with its ability to withstand drought, flood, fire and everything nature could throw at it. Like so many others, this well-known photographer loved the Flinders Ranges. His photo is known as the ‘Spirit of Endurance’ and has been awarded many prizes in Australia and internationally.

Our next stop was Sacred Canyon following a 13-kilometre dirt track from the main road.

Sacred Canyon is one of a few sites within the Ikara Flinders Ranges National Park where you can see some great examples of Aboriginal art. This is where the Adnyamathanha people carved symbols in to the rocks instead of painting them. 

Bunyeroo Gorge, Aroona Valley and Brachina Gorge all within Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park were just a bit further along the highway.

We turned off onto another narrow dirt road and headed on.

These gorges were a beautiful drive and revealed an amazing example of the 630-million-year-old geology of the ranges… and the road displayed a fairly good sample of the road quality we had previously experienced and had to come to expect in the Aussie outback.

The Bunyeroo track afforded us superb views.

The first part of the drive took us through grassy plains, covered with Native Pines and surrounded by bare hills and then within a few kilometres, the purple peaks of the distant ABC Range were a dominant feature.

Then came the steep descent into Bunyeroo Gorge down into Bunyeroo Creek where we drove along a creek bed carved out of the ABC Range over millions of years.

Emerging from the creek bed the road entered the Wilcolo Creek Valley and a more dramatic change in scenery, with vastly steeper hills, sheer gullies and pyramid shaped peaks. 

Further on we crossed a few more creek crossings, all with no water but very rocky beds as the track led us along the ‘Geological Trail’ where signs, at various points, explained the different types of rocks that made up the ranges.

The Heysen Range, named after the famous Australian painter Hans Heysen, could be seen to the west and the ABC Range to the east.

The track continued to dip and climb over low hills and after passing through one last creek we came to a T-junction where a side track cut along the valley floor to some lovely bush campgrounds and several walking trails… and ‘Aroona Homestead’ ruins.

The first leaseholder in these hills was John Hayward and the original homestead was built in the 1850s.

At the ‘Razorback Lookout’ further on we were privy to breathtaking views in all directions. We stopped to admire and take photos of the ‘Razor Back Range’ – photos that just did not do it justice.  

We were high up on the ranges and had incredible views of the road below as it meandered through hills with some of the ‘bones’ of the Flinders Ranges as a background.

These ranges are part of an ancient landscape which originated over 600 million years ago when the area was covered by sea.

Sediments like sand, silt, mud and millions of skeletons of sea creatures were deposited in layers on the sea floor and these sediments were compacted over time to form rocks called sedimentary rock.

Layers of sand turned into sandstone, silts turned in siltstone, mud turned into mudstone and skeletons of marine creatures turned into limestone.

These layers of rock were hundreds of metres in depth and contain some of the oldest fossils on the planet.

We encountered a family of emus who obviously ignored all traffic rules by dashing across the track in front of us.

Last one across the track!

We stopped at Yanyanna Hut, a camping hut for walkers on the Henyser Trail then further on after following another sand track we came to Brachina Gorge.

Brachina Gorge did not disappoint and we’d recommend this drive as a ‘MUST DO’ when you are visiting the ranges. The colours of the gorge and the magnificent trees were breath taking.

This region of South Australia is very rugged and bears the scars of extreme tectonic torture. Ranges at varying angles and various colour of sediment layers – some very dark, others browns and reds, it was absolutely beautiful!

Finally, we came to Heysen Lookout and the end of our journey through the gorges. Heysen Lookout was named after Hans Heysen from Hamburg, the same guy the Heysen Range and the Heyson track were named after… the artist who loved the ranges and spent a lot of time here.

Back on the sealed road we turned right to explore the little outback town of Parachilna.

Parachilna is home to the very famous Prairie Hotel, which is known for its unusual menu that includes ‘feral food’; emu, goat, kangaroo and camel… that I don’t think are gathered from the side of the road, so it should be a nutritious meal.

It is also a former train station that has long since been abandoned as have the sidings, but trains still stop briefly.

Heading back to camp we followed the Parachilna Road passing the turnoff to the gorges as we headed for Moralana Scenic Drive.

Moralana Scenic Drive was only a stretch of 28- kilometres along an undulating route that roughly followed the course of Moralana Creek, and took us past the southern wall of Wilpena Pound, the ABC Ranges and Black Gap Lookout.

The creek beds were lined with impressive River Red Gums with their gnarled trunks and branches bearing all the signs of centuries of survival, and Cypress Pine were alway a common sight.

In the late 1800s, these pines were harvested from deep within the ranges and hauled by bullock cart out onto the plains for use as overland telegraph poles. This was gruelling work and the bullocks would often require reshoeing.

We stopped at the now restored cueing yards, towards the western end of the drive where the bullock driver would pull his teams in for running repairs. 

There was obviously a sheep station somewhere on this road but we didn’t see a station or too many sheep… although it was obvious that lots emus and kangaroos populated the valley.

Still following the pencil thin pine trees with the occasional gum tree that graced the creek beds, we hadn’t travelled very far when, after rounding a sharp bend, we encountered another rather indecisive family of emus.

After crossing the road and reaching the other side, they then changed their mind and ran straight back in front of us, their long lolloping steps stretching out in front of them as they headed straight into the scrub from where they had first come.

After our little excitement, we continued on along the gravel road and back to camp.

The Moralana Scenic Drive was a nice way to end a day of exploration and was another spectacular drive through a valley flanked by the Pound on one side and the Elder Range on the other.

We were always on the lookout for birds of prey and photo opportunities as this area is home to ‘Wedge Tail Eagles’, and although we didn’t get to see any, there were many, many what I call crows… otherwise known as ‘Australian Ravens’ in this neck of the woods.

There are lots of bird species in these ranges, with many friendly varieties back at camp, namely the more common magpie and minor bird who were happy to flock around at meal time.

Beautiful birds like the ‘Red-capped Robin’ and the ‘Elegant Parrot’ avoided us like the plague, however, occasionally a parrot couldn’t resist the temptation of a drink of water from the water bowl in a native garden… but didn’t hang around long enough for a good photo.

Rawnsley Station is truly a beautiful place with the most amazing sunsets and under the stars each night we felt like we were in a different world.

As evening closed in around us each night and the light changed from blues to beautiful oranges the surrounding scenery and the ranges were spectacular especially from Alison Saddle with a surprising view of the country south of Hawker and an incredible sunset in the other.

Rawnsley Station is a bit over 25-kilometres from Wilpena Pound so for a second time we packed up our rooftop tent the next morning and headed for the Pound once again.

Wilpena Pound sees thousands upon thousands of visitors a year and is set amongst beautiful native pines and huge gum trees, common to the ranges.

The campground was surrounded by trees and quite lovely and there was an information centre, a shop and petrol available for purchase.

There were large green parrots and kangaroos that seemed oblivious to the tourists and campers and the red sandstone walls of the pound could easily be seen from almost every location and campsite.

The tracks were really well marked and each walk colour coded which helped heaps – dark purple indicated moderate, light green and orange – difficult, and blue strenuous.   However, we did find the map left a lot to be desired as it was a little vague.

With boots on and hydration packs on our backs we left the registration booth and headed for Hill’s Homestead, an easy walk of 6.6 – kilometres return to what was the original farm building that had been renovated from ruin in 1995.

This old homestead is in the Pound itself and is one of the most iconic pastoral settlements in South Australia. It was a working station for over 135 years and has the most continuous and best-preserved history for a remote setting, to be found anywhere in this state.

When you enter the inner region of the Pound you meet this old homestead where 2 rooms supported 2 very large families over many years.

Wilpena Pound is also a significant site for the Adnyamathanha Aboriginal people. Their tribal law prevents them from entering the Pound as it is bad spiritual magic if they do.

It was here 2 giant snakes, or ‘Akurra’, encircled the tribe locking them in after 2 youths disobeyed tribal law and killed the young ‘Akurra’.

There were a couple of walks from the homestead to lookouts.

From ‘Wangarra Lookout’ we had spectacular views of a string of high mountains surrounding the depression – Wilpena Pound, with the only outlet a watercourse at Sliding Rock.  We were told you cannot really appreciate the Pound unless you see it from the air!

The lower lookout was only 300 metres from the homestead where the upper lookout was around 600-metres over a slightly more difficult track.

The vibrant colours that changed with the light, the natural amphitheatre of Wilpena Pound, the rocky mountain ranges, craggy outcrops and ancient cliffs are all part of this majestic Flinders Ranges National Park, or ‘Ikara’ as it is known to the Adnyamathanha people, the traditional owners of this land – ‘Ikara’ meaning ‘Meeting Place’.

We have stood among the ranges of this beautifully rugged and colourful landscape that are said to be the oldest in the world, a timeless land of history and wonder, and I felt so priviledged to be walking upon this soil.

We could now tick another ‘Must Do’ Aussie destination off our ‘bucket list’.

We left Rawnsley Station the next morning and headed north along the ‘Explorers Way’ to the little town of Blinman before heading south along an unnamed road to Yunta and the Barrier Highway.

Rawnsley Lookout was roughly about 15-kilometes south of Wilpena Pound turnoff where we were privy to more gorgeous views back to Rawnsley Bluff. It was just another magical experience to be able to look back over some of the oldest rock formations in the world.

Hundreds of millions of years ago what was once a dusty track from Wilpena Pound to Blinman and then to Arkaroola, was an inland sea.

Now, the land has formed these mountain ranges that can be seen today… rugged bright cliff faces, stunning red landscapes, yellow and orange ochre clay pigments bedded into the earth, ancient gorges and extensive plains all under a blanket of blue skies.

We bypassed the turnoff to Wilpena and a little further on we pulled in at Hucks Lookout where we had stunning 360 degree view of Flinders Ranges.

Further on again we came to the sign to Stokes Hill Lookout.

At 750 metres, this lookout gave fantastic 360-degree views of the ranges and there is a great scale model of the ranges and the Pound, and interpretive signs on the cultural heritage of the area.

To the north was Patawarta Hill and beyond, to the south was the Chace and Druid Ranges, looking towards the east we could see the Bunker and of course to the west was Wilpena Pound.

Then came the Flinders Ranges National Park sign.

The rest of the road was undulating and winding and before long we came to the ‘Willow Springs Station’ turnoff, another popular remote station stay with 4WD tours and tagalongs.

The ‘Great Wall of China’ was a sight to behold where lines of rocks topped with ironstone and really did resembled the Chinese landmark.

Our journey from there took us a little further north to the small town of Blinman, just 5-kilometres along the road.

Where many towns dotted along the countryside on our travels of late had failed, Blinman has survived!

As remote as it is on the northern edge of Ikara- Flinders Ranges National Park, the highest town in South Australia still has a general store and a few old buildings… and although there was no sign of a Blinman Central, East, West or South Hotel, Blinman North Hotel still stands in the main street.

Attractions include the ruins of the old Blinman Copper mine, the largest mine in the Flinders Ranges which was worked extensively up to 1908.

Copper was found in this area in 1859 by a one-legged shepherd called ‘Peg Leg’ Blinman.

The town boomed for about a decade until all the copper had been removed and the rusting ruins of the mine now form an historic reserve, complete with interpretive information for our self-guided tour.

To the west of Blinman was the famous rail station of Parachilna that we visited only a few days ago. To get there a bitumen road heads west through Parachilna Gorge.

We were heading south-east to Yunta, so saying goodbye to Blinman we headed down another gravel road.

For now we have finish this incredible journey through the Flinders Ranges, but we will be back as there is so much more to see!

Before you visit Flinders Ranges make sure you download the ‘Discover the Flinders Ranges’ free mobile app (iOS / Android).

This app includes narrated driving and walking tours, guides to geology, birdlife and wildflowers, information and special offers and is a great app to have on you phone or ipad.

From here our journey will take us back to the Barrier Highway then east to Broken Hill and beyond.

Strap yourself in and come travel with us for more adventures into the Aussie Outback!

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