Following a burst of rain, a walk through Arkaba Station is a journey through a land transformed, through settler struggles and a recovering natural wonderland.
“There’s a lot of luck in walking,” says Jenny sagely, as she unglues her binoculars from her quick eyes and immediately replaces them with a digital SLR.
Minutes ago our party of seven had been abruptly halted by the sighting of a scarlet robin. It took a few minutes to lock my sluggish peepers on the diminutive bird, leading me to wonder if 20/20 vision might play a big part in that luck.
But when I eventually spotted the tiny creature flitting about with its proud, blood-red chest, I gasped; its iridescence was like an exclamation point in the undergrowth.
A bit of luck, then, that we had Jenny and her entomologist husband, Peter, both eager twitchers, to point out birdlife on our guided walk through Ikara (formerly Wilpena Pound) and the 25,900-hectare former sheep station, Arkaba, in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges.
Another bit of luck that our plane had managed to break through the rain to land in Port Augusta on its second attempt, rather than returning to Adelaide with its tail between its legs. And the rain itself, depending on your point of view, provided more luck still.
Rain is not usually welcome on a three-day hike. The Flinders copped a bit of it the week before we arrived and it’s still moodily drizzling as our guide, Tim Woods, leads us through Sliding Rock and into Ikara.
“I’ve been guiding here for a year, and I’ve never seen it like this,” he says, looking up at the leaking concrete sky and shaking his head in bewilderment. Rain makes few appearances in these parts and most people who join the walk will discover red, dusty landscapes with intermittent patches of khaki vegetation.
While dry, arid, outback is the usual headlining act, what we encounter is a swatchbook of every shade of green imaginable. Creeks trickle, sometimes even rush, with water; thick, furry moss covers the slate shards underfoot; and even the gums that are usually chalky-white from the trees’ natural sunblock look as though their top layer of bark has been scratched away to reveal trunks of precious emerald.
In some parts of the Arkaba property where rolling hills are covered in soft grasses, you could be forgiven for thinking you were roaming the English countryside. In other parts, you could be in a cypress forest in Southern Italy or Greece, until a gang of kangaroos bounding off in the distance breaks the illusion.
Through the Pound
With the robin sighted, photographed and ticked off Jenny’s list, we resume day one of the hike with Tim at the helm.
Recently having been restored to its original indigenous name, Ikara was once a meeting place for four different tribes. But when the settlers arrived, they dubbed the natural amphitheatre Wilpena Pound and exploited its enclosed structure to keep livestock.
Many people erroneously believe a meteorite resulted in the crater-like shape, but Tim assures us it was simply tectonic activity that thrust rock upwards from the Earth.
We are walking through what was once the east coast of Australia; the stratification layers in the surrounding ranges the result of a millennia of sediment in an ocean that is now long gone.
The evidence for this becomes clear as you study the angles and layers of the geology, it almost seems as though the almighty surge of rock has been paused mid-thrust, the ancient energy trapped in stone, waiting to be released so it can continue its ascent.
We silently tread through a cypress pine forest, pausing to identify birds, marvel at brilliant orange lichen, and watch roos observe us with vague interest.
It’s quiet, not just in Ikara but also in my mind, as if everyday life cannot penetrate the ancient walls. I’ve always failed at meditation, but here it’s easy to think of nothing more than your next step. Hours pass before I even consider checking the time.
The ascent to Bridle Gap
With a slight change in geology comes an enormous change in vegetation. Cypress give way to a forest of mallee eucalypts, which are all at once beautiful and a bit on the messy side. Their slender pink trunks clump together and their bark peels from the limbs, descending like streamers to the ground.
As far as the eye can see the effect of the trees is of a hundred abandoned birthday parties, as though the revellers left in a hurry without cleaning up after themselves.
Tim tells us the trees deliberately shed their bark to create a fuel-load, pleading for fire to ravage them. A super-high eucalyptus oil content also helps to incite flame, making them the pyromaniacs of the plant world.
Again, I find myself feeling lucky it’s raining. Yet despite the eucalypts’ efforts to court flame, a fire of any significance hasn’t torn through Ikara since 1988.
We continue on a mud pathway; by the time we reach the end I’ve acquired an extra three kilos in mud. After a quick mud-removal session, we’re off again to climb up and over Bridle Gap and down to our first camp.
Again we’re silent, but this time it’s not out of quiet reflection but necessity. We need our mouths to suck in as much air as possible on the steep climb, and our faculties to find sturdy footholds. If only the feral goats hadn’t been largely expelled from the land, I would’ve commandeered one to give me a ride.
Generations of degradation
Having survived the ascent to Bridle Gap without the aid of a goat, we’re rewarded with what would be described as a breathtaking view, had we not already lost ours getting here. Feeling we deserve a show for our efforts, the sun pushes past the clouds to illuminate the incredible landscape before us.
The ridges of the layered Elder Range rise up in the distance like a scene from Game of Thrones; I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a dragon swoop down into the gully below. Although that would be unfortunate considering that’s where our camp lies.
Surveying Ikara behind us and the Arkaba property ahead – which encompasses the magnificent Red Range and part of the Elder Range – it seems an odd place to dump a bunch of sheep and hope for the best.
Tim agrees: “I never understood why anyone thought they could raise livestock here, but seeing it in the rain, if they had arrived at this time, it makes sense.”
It would have been a terrifying realisation that the land was not suited to farming, as settlers watched things dry out and wither until the ground was restored to its usual parched state. Still, farmers persisted both in Ikara and on the Arkaba property, and many stubborn attempts were made to tame a landscape that flourished only with neglect.
First, in 1851, came the Brownes, who were both brothers and doctors. They claimed Arkaba, installed sheep and pastoral managers and had the gumption to see out The Great Drought.
In the 1890s the property changed hands a few times before landing under the care of Otto Bartholomaeus, who spent a great deal of money and effort fencing the property to protect his sheep from dingoes. The fences, Tim tells us, are soon to be removed as part of ongoing restoration of the land.
In 1984 the Rasheed family took on the property and began an ambitious campaign to expel rabbits with bulldozers and explosives. It worked, and the carrying capacity of sheep doubled.
By the time the property was bought by Charles Carlow of Wild Bush Luxury in 2009, the land was a veritable warzone having been assaulted by machinery, exotic vermin and livestock for more than a century.
Native wildlife, out-competed and menaced by introduced species, had dwindled significantly. The work done on the property to restore and conserve the environment has been enormous and is ongoing hand-in-hand with tourism, creating a self-sustaining model for both the environment and business.
A warm welcome
We make camp to find support guide Charlie Eager unmolested by dragons and offering up hot towels and a cheese spread. It’s the perfect welcome for weary walkers and the promise of a warm shower and a glass of wine puts wider smiles on an already elated bunch.
A three-course dinner gives us a chance to get to know each other a little better, and I learn my companions are all dedicated ramblers. I’m curious to know how such a diverse group all became addicted to walking.
John, who performs neurosurgery, finds throwing himself into nature to be the perfect antidote to the high pressures of his occupation. Helen, an Irish-born lawyer who’s lived in Australia for a few years, uses walking to see the country and make up a mental map of its landscapes. While Jenny and Peter, now with grown children, have found themselves with more time in recent years to enjoy nature and develop their birding hobby.
I look down at my first-ever pair of hiking boots, which just the day before I had derided for their anti-fashion functionality, and feel a new fondness toward them. These boots are made for walking, and maybe that’s just what I’ll continue to do.
Along the Heysen
The next morning we bid Charlie adieu and follow Tim out into Arkaba, making our way through creek beds, fields in the midst of rehabilitation following the removal of livestock, and more cypress groves.
The walk weaves on and off the Heysen Trail, an epic route anyone can join that meanders from Parachilna Gorge in the Flinders Ranges, all the way to the Fleurieu Peninsula.
In the dappled sunlight the landscape looks to be painted in watercolour, almost as if it might smudge if you were to get too close. Named after German-born Australian artist, Hans Heysen, who became famous for his watercolour depictions of the Flinders, following the trail is a bit like wandering through a gallery of Heysen’s works.
When your eyes aren’t trained on wedge-tailed eagles and ring-necked parrots, you get seriously left behind pondering the miniature details of plants and rocks. Bark itself comes in a dizzying array of colours and patterns, from pearlescent and silvery to gnarled versions that seems to swirl like eddies.
We pause our art appreciation tour while Tim checks one of the cameras the Arkaba guides use to monitor wildlife. The footage they collect enables them to keep an eye on the native species living in the area and any predators that might be of threat.
The conservation program has had great success with baiting foxes and rabbits, but feral cats are more cunning. They’re a big problem across Australia, with an estimated 20 million terrorising our native fauna.
“Cats out here can make up to seven kills a day. They don’t look like ordinary cats because they have to hunt, so they’re really muscular. They look like little staffies,” says Tim.
They sound like villainous gangsters. Luckily, again, we don’t see any on our walk, but I did spot one on our drive back to Adelaide days later. It looked like Garfield on performance-enhancing drugs.
Despite the ongoing cat problem, the wildlife on Arkaba is doing well. With all sheep having been removed by 2013 and continual efforts to exile pests such as foxes and goats, even the threatened yellow-footed rock-wallaby has made a triumphant return.
They’re now fighting fit in a 5000-strong population, up from as low as 60 individuals in the early ’90s. We spot a few among daily sightings of the more ubiquitous red, western grey and euro kangaroos, as well as their goofy coat-of-armour sidekick, the emu.
On a golden afternoon that would’ve had Hans Heysen bolting for his easel, our little party ascends a punishing hill to be welcomed by the sight of the Arkaba homestead below.
Suddenly I don’t feel as excited by the prospect of a long, hot shower and other creature comforts as I’d expected. It means I have to step out of my watercolour painting and back into the real world. We’re all quiet as we move toward the end of an incredible three-day journey.
With each foot forward, the veritable fairyland behind us fades a little and the realities of the everyday sharpen into focus. All too soon we’re at the back gate of the homestead, and there is a smiling Charlie waiting with those hot towels we’ve come to expect and warm cups of sweet, milky chai tea to soothe the transition between worlds.
Further soothing comes by way of fresh rock cakes with cream and homemade jams, then by a cosy fireplace with free-flowing whisky and, later, a chef-prepared three-course dinner followed by a luxuriously soft bed.
Alright then, the real world does have certain allures that one can get accustomed to. But I’ll tuck away a piece of the beauty and tranquility from the past few days somewhere in my mind for those times I need to remember that calm is often rewarded with a dazzling prize, like the scarlet chest of a robin, and that luck is sometimes just a matter of perspective.
Details: Arkaba Station walk
Getting there: Sharp Airlines flies from Adelaide to Port Augusta.
Playing there: Wild Bush Luxury run guided walks of Arkaba Station. From $2375 per person twin-share, including one-way flight and return road transfers.