The Flinders Ranges are in the far north of South Australia, about 400km north of Adelaide.
A convenient stop along the way, and quirky local attraction, is Lake Bumbunga. The 15 sq km lake is the largest of three salt lakes in the region and at its peak in 1967, 1,000 tonnes a day was being extracted. This was big business, with South Australia producing 80% of Australia’s domestic salt requirements.
These days, it’s the ‘pinkness’ of the lake which attracts visitors. You have to pick your time, though. The colour varies from pink to white to blue depending on the salinity level. And by late summer, the lake is almost completely dry.
The tiny town of Loch Eil sits on the shores of the lake, so it was perhaps inevitable that a Loch Ness-style monster legend would emerge at some point.
Allegedly, it began when a bullock driver in colonial times decided to cut across the shallow lake after a night drinking at the local hotel, only to disappear without a trace in the treacherous sands after the bullocks were spooked by a ‘creature’.
More likely, that story was concocted in more recent times – around the same time that a monster made of old car tyres and a metal pipe appeared in the lake bed overnight in the mid-1980s. It became quite a tourist attraction, but the original was vandalised in 2017 and is no more. Happily, in early 2021, a new monster appeared, this time an officially-commissioned installation. Named the Loch Eel, it is said to be Nessie’s Australian cousin.
When we passed by, the lake was shin deep and quite a vibrant pink, and the monster had a few playmates.
After paying our respects, we continued north to the tiny town of Blinman, the jump off point for our hike on the northern section of the Heysen Trail.
The trail begins in the Flinders Ranges, runs through the Barossa Valley, around the outskirts of Adelaide and on down to Cape Jervis in the south of the State. An impressive 1,200km in total.
It’s named after German-born Australian painter Sir Hans Heysen. In the proud Australian tradition of claiming ownership of anyone famous who has lived here regardless of their place of birth – think Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Mel Gibson, Olivia Newton John etc etc – Sir Hans is one of ‘our’ best known landscape painters.
Heysen emigrated to South Australia with his family when he was seven and lived most of his life in and around Adelaide and the Barossa Valley. He is most famous for his watercolours of enormous gum trees, but also loved and frequently painted the arid landscapes of the Flinders Ranges.
We walked the first 80km of the trail plus two circuit walks off it totalling another 25km. Here’s what we did.
Parachilna Gorge to Aroona Ruins
This is rugged country and, in particular, water sources are scant and unreliable. At most access points through the Ranges you will find these signs.
From the trailhead, the track heads out into Parachilna Gorge with the ABC and Flinders Ranges on either side.
It’s incredibly dry and much of the ‘trail’ is actually dry creek bed.
We saw many river red gums. These iconic Aussie trees grow up to 45 metres tall and can live for 500 to 1,000 years. They are impressively drought resistant, although their propensity to drop limbs in order to survive dry periods did lead to early settlers nicknaming them ‘widow makers’. The outer bark is actually white but when that is stripped back, a blood red inner bark is revealed, giving the gums their name.
After leaving the gorge, the trail wound across a flat valley with Cyprus pines, previously a sheep station.
Despite the arid landscape, pastoralists began arriving in the area in the 1840s with ambitions to raise sheep and cattle. Our walk today finished at the ruins of Aroona Homestead, the remains of one such early venture.
The homestead was built by Johnson Fredrick (“Fred”) Hayward, who arrived in Australia in 1847 aged 24 with £40 to his name. After working on another sheep station for 5 years, he bought a half share in Aroona Station. At the time, Aroona was the northern-most station in South Australia and Hayward was instrumental in exploring and opening up the area. In 1861 he sold his share in Aroona and returned to England with £40,000. Quite a return on investment. And his timing was impeccable. The good years he had experienced were an anomaly. A sustained drought from 1864 to 1866 emphatically proved that this country could not support intensive farming and like many other stations across the region, Aroona was abandoned.
All that now remains is the ruined homestead, a covered spring and a few related structures.
But from the hill behind the ruin there is a wonderful panorama of the Ranges.
While waiting for our transport we saw the first of many emus. It’s breeding season and as emu chicks are nurtured by the males, this was almost certainly a father with his brood.
The world’s second largest living bird by height (after the ostrich), they may be common but they are also comical.
Total walk distance: 19km
Aroona Ruins to Yanyanna Hut
From the Aroona ruins we left the Heysen Trail temporarily to follow instead the Yuluna Circuit which heads in the same direction but is said to be more scenic.
At first the track was more of those creek beds.
Then we climbed down into a gorge and then back up, re-joining the Heysen Trail and eventually reaching Brachina Lookout. There’s no actual lookout, just a hilltop with a 360 degree panoramic view. The Ranges are predominantly quartzite, which is naturally white but the ranges appear red due to a coating of iron oxide.
The local Adnyamathanha people have a more evocative explanation. According to Dreamtime legend the region was once blighted by the Murrukurli, a ferocious animal similar to the Tasmanian tiger. The Murrukurli were killed by two lizards, Adnu and Aldyanada, and as they died the Ranges were stained red with their blood.
It has been an even drier winter than usual and the flowering season for most plants is over, but there were still a few impressive blooms to be seen.
The day was blistering hot. 33 degrees Celsius was the prediction and it felt all of that. Indeed, the weather report that evening confirmed the mercury had tipped 34 degrees, the cut off point at which SA Parks recommends against walking.
Late morning we reached the ruins of Monela Hut. This was one of several outstation huts built near water sources on the Aroona sheep runs. For several years in the mid 1800s it was tended by an Irish shepherd and his wife with the distinctly un-Irish name coupling of Anthony and Cleopatra!
We powered on through the heat which, without any shade cover, was unrelenting. This part of the trail is through the Edicara Hills. Geologist Reginald Sprigg visited here in 1946 to investigate the viability of re-opening copper and silver mines which had been abandoned in the 1860s and 1880s respectively. Instead he made an astonishing discovery – fossils of jellyfish-like creatures which were eventually confirmed to be the oldest life forms on Earth. Prior to his discovery, scientists believed trilobites found fossilised in Cambrian rocks were the first and that no life existed in the pre-Cambrian period. Such was the significance of the fossils found by Sprigg that it resulted in the naming of a new geological period, aptly named the Edicaran Period, now officially recognised as the earliest time life existed on Earth.
The trail follows the bed of Enorama Creek where can be found the Golden Spike, which marks the layer where the Edicaran Period rock begins. It is the only pre-Cambrian golden spike on the planet. That rock bears witness to the first known life on Earth. Not much to look at, but massively historic!
Hans Heysen once said “everything looks so old that it belongs to a different world’. He wasn’t far wrong.
We stopped for lunch under some river gums which provided a little shade and pressed on. More heat, more dry creek beds and more of those stunning gums.
After 26km we reached Yanyanna Hut, the site of a hut and stockyards central to Aroona station.
We stayed the night at Rawnsley Park Station, a working sheep farm near the trail. A beer rarely tasted so refreshing!
Total walk distance: 26km
Yanyanna Hut to Wilpena Pound
What a difference 12 hours makes. Overnight the temperature fell to around 5 degrees Celsius and the prediction for the day was a maximum of 14. It was overcast and blustery.
From Yanyanna Hut the trail was loose and rocky underfoot, winding up a hill but soon flattening out to a walk along an exposed ridge with views back over the Ranges.
The cooler weather seemed to bring out the birds.
There were lots of parrots.
And some bronzewings.
After reaching Bunyeroo Gorge, a popular spot for day visitors, the track heads up and over a series of low hills with acacias and pines.
The track flattens out and the next 10kms is on fire trails. Easy walking, and with flowering fringe myrtle, it looked like it had been snowing.
Mid-afternoon we reached the edge of Wilpena Pound.
We hadn’t seen many kangaroos so far, but coming into the Pound we surprised a group that took flight at our sudden presence.
As noted in our post on the Larapinta Trail, a pound is a huge basin of flat land surrounded by mountains, and Australia has only 2 – Ormiston Pound in the Northern Territory and Wilpena Pound. The name ‘pound’ is an old English word for an animal enclosure.
Many people think they are the core of an old volcano but they are not. Wilpena Pound was formed by folding of the earth’s crust, not volcanic activity. The Pound covers an area of about 100 sq km.
The name Wilpena is said to be Aboriginal, meaning ‘place of bent fingers’, possibly because the mountains surrounding the pound are thought to resemble a cupped hand. But interestingly the traditional owners here, the Adnyamathanha have no such word in their language. They call this place Ikara, which means ‘meeting place’.
In the late 1800s the Pound was used as a huge corral for cattle and sheep. The ring of mountains surrounding it formed a natural fence. At its busiest the Pound was part of Wilpena Station which covered 2,000 sq km and ran around 33,000 sheep and 4,000 cattle. But over-stocking of what was only ever marginal country, coupled with a relentless string of droughts led to the demise of grazing in the area.
Wilpena Station was divided into four holdings and in 1899 the Pound was leased by the Hills family who tried to establish a wheat farm. Despite some early success the farm was ultimately destroyed in 1914 by, of all things, a flood. The land was sold back to the government and became a pastoral reserve.
From 1945 the tourism potential of the area began to be recognised. Today, a low density resort operates in the Pound itself, with areas for self-catering campers, some motel-style units and a recently constructed area of glamping tents. In pre-Covid times the resort attracted many visitors from overseas and from all over Australia as there are many bushwalking options as well as scenic flights, guided 4WD day trips to local places of interest and cultural experiences.
We stayed 2 nights in a glamping tent as we were doing the first of our circuit walks off the Heysen Trail the next day.
With a view of the bush, it was a great spot for a cold glass of Riesling in the late afternoon.
Total walk distance: 24km
Circuit Ascent of St Mary’s Peak
St Mary’s is the highest peak in the Pound, and also the highest in the Flinders Ranges. It is accessible via a circuit walk from the resort.
You can walk it in either direction, but anti-clockwise is best. This means ascending via the Outside Track. It is the shorter, steeper route and the last part has a couple of tricky vertical sections. It’s better to tackle this while you are fresh, and the vertical sections are easier to climb up than down. Once at the top, you descend via the Inside Track which is longer and more gradual.
The Outside Track is 4.4km in total. Initially it’s a broad, well defined path which is rocky but well compacted underfoot.
The Peak is clearly visible straight ahead.
The track narrows and starts to climb.
We took a few pictures once we reached above the tree line. So people would know how far we got if we fell off before we reached the top.
The climb has a reputation as a tough and challenging walk due to some rock climbing needed at the top. But actually the sections to be climbed are reasonably short, the rock is not slippery and the surface is solid. This was the worst of it, but even here it was possible to get good hand and foot holds to ascend safely.
And of course, the view from the top was worth it.
This climb brings you to Tanderra Saddle. It’s another 1.2km to the actual Peak, but the Adnyamathanha people request it not be climbed. Ngarri Mudlanha, as it is called in their language, is a sacred place for them.
From the saddle, the Outside Trail descends and then loops back to the Resort over a total distance of 11km. The descent isn’t as steep as the ascent on Inside Trail but it’s rather brutal underfoot. For several kilometres it is loose rocks and boulders.
Some lovely wildflowers though.
And the occasional wild creature. The area is well known for lizards and we spotted a few tree skinks.
Back on the flat we eventually reached Hills Homestead, the home of the family who had attempted to grow wheat here in the early 1900s. The homestead has been restored by the Friends of the Flinders Ranges National Park.
From there it was just a short walk back to the Resort.
Total walk distance: 15.4km
Wilpena Pound to Black Gap
Just a short walk today. Heading away from the Resort we took Sliding Rock Track where we passed a waterway with actual water in it. Unusual as all the creeks we’d seen so far had been bone dry.
The first part of the walk re-traced the final section of the walk back from St Mary’s Peak so we again passed Hills Homestead. The trail then headed across the Pound aiming for Bridle Gap.
It was flat, easy walking and we saw quite a few birds foraging in the grass. Lots of cockatoos.
Also some lovely flowering gums.
At the edge of the Pound a narrow rocky track wound its way up to a gap in the Pound wall. It was hot and dry and hard on the feet. In places the ground flattened out into open rocks and the track was difficult to find, but basically if you just keep heading up, and don’t mind a bit of bashing through the shrubs, the track becomes clear again.
It wasn’t a long climb up, but the views from the top of the Gap were spectacular, with the Chace Range to the left, the Red Range ahead and the Elder Range poking up behind. The name Bridle Gap refers to a belief by early pastoralists that this was the only place other than the gorge through which we entered the Pound two days earlier, where a horseman could ride into the Pound.
Over the pass, the track headed steeply down. Lots of loose rocks, so it was rather slow going. The ground flattened out and then we found ourselves crabbing around a hill.
Then we reached the open plain on the other side and the track was clear. Eventually it reached another creek which we followed to our pick up point at Black Gap.
We stayed again at Rawnsley Park Station. Originally settled in 1851 as part of one of the first pastoral leases in the Ranges, it was then split off in 1895 for wheat farming. Drought, grasshopper plagues and rabbits proved too much and it reverted to sheep farming in the 1920s. Today, it is still a working station of 29,000 acres running around 2,000 sheep but it’s main income is from tourism. It has a camping ground, self-contained units and some eco cabins, as well as an excellent restaurant specialising in lamb dishes. The sheep don’t seem to have realised this. They roam at will around the buildings, seemingly unaware they might be on the menu tomorrow!
Total walk distance: 11.4km
For our last day, we did an up-and-back hike up to the top of Rawnsley Bluff. The Bluff marks the southern tip of the Pound and is the highest peak on the southern rim. It was named after HC Rawnsley, a shady character from England who claimed to be a surveyor and was retained to survey the area to assist with settling conflicting land claims by 2 local pastoralists. Despite pocketing a controversially significant payment, he made it no further than an area already surveyed and achieved nothing useful to resolving the land claim. He was sacked by the government the following year but his name lives on. Locals named Rawnsley Bluff after him, perhaps in an ironic reference to his dubious claims of expertise.
As we started out, the rock was much redder than where we’d came from.
Parts of the trail were actually quite tough. Steep, loose, and in some places almost hands and feet climbing.
Up on the saddle, we did a short side walk to a viewing point where you can see the full expanse south-north across the Pound.
Then back to the main path and a final short climb to the top of the Bluff. From the size of the cairn it looks like lots of people have come before us!
The views out to the Ranges once again were stunning.
Total walk distance: 11.5km
Wrap-up: We had not intended to come back to South Australia so soon after our trip in May. Our intended destination was Western Australia but if we’d gone direct from Queensland we would have been required to do 14 days quarantine.
At the time, South Australia was taking a far more lenient approach and only required us to have 3 Covid tests over 14 days but no quarantine in between. And then, WA would let us in once we’d been out of Queensland for 14 days. So, 14 days in hotel quarantine in Perth or 14 days in SA hiking through the Flinders Ranges followed by a few days sipping rieslings in the Clare Valley and then quarantine-free arrival in Perth? It was a no brainer. And a truly enjoyable walk in its own right.
We did this as a self-guided walk with transport, accommodation, track notes etc provided by Auswalk, a walking company based in Melbourne. They were excellent and we’d highly recommend them.