All you need is two feet and a heartbeat, says Clementine Ford.
It doesn’t begin well. Despite being some 60,000 acres large, Arkaba Station – the starting point for this week’s sojourn – is proving rather difficult to locate. (Hint – if you’ve driven to the town of Wilpena, you’ve gone 30km too far.) By the time I arrive, tour guide Cat is not interested in my apologies.
“Are you walking in those?” she asks, interrupting my excuses with a look at my shoes.
I can’t be certain, because I’ve only just met her, but it sounds a lot like there’s a bit of disdain in her voice.
“Oh,” I reply, looking down at my sneakers. “I thought these would…be okay.” As excuses go, it carries about as much weight as my day pack, which is also starting to look suspiciously undersized compared to the rest of the bags waiting by the 4WD.
“Didn’t you read the itinerary and packing list?” she asks, looking somewhat incredulously at me as I sheepishly pull on a second pair of socks. Of course I had. But the recommendation – ‘bring walking shoes’ – sounded a lot like ‘bring sneakers’. Doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, I can’t even get the other walkers to agree with me. Two of them, Elaine and her husband Frank, are fully kitted out in expensive stretchy lycra and hiking boots, with brand new walking poles and the sort of flash sunglasses preferred by athletes to match.
They’ve been on walks all around the globe, they tell me – a far cry from my level of experience, which consists mainly of walking around my neighbourhood a few times a week. And their walking shoes look highly specialised. What have I gotten myself into?
A walk in the park?
It’s a shaky start, but I’m determined not to let the side down. And so, as our motley group of six enters the Flinders National Park, I do my best to mimic the even strides of my companions, engaging in the polite chit chat familiar to early-stage tour groups. In addition to Elaine and Frank, we’re joined by Robert and Marie, who’ve been married for 42 years and will, as the days progress, variously inspire laughter and affection in me at the ease of their companionship.
Over the next four days, we’ll traverse around 50km of South Australian wilderness in the majestic Flinders Ranges, completely isolated from the trappings of modern life – no mobile phones, no internet, no urban humdrum.
Crossing through the publicly accessible Flinders National Park on the walk’s first day, we’ll pass into the private land of Arkaba Station – a sprawling former sheep-farming acreage and one of the country’s most photographed rural properties.
Characterised by craggy sandstone ridges, speckled empty creek beds and breathtaking river red gums lifted straight out of a traditional Australian bush painting, this is an Australia most of us never get to enjoy.
Venturing into the land around the station is like stepping sideways through time. Thankfully, it’s not entirely a departure from modern conveniences – hot, outdoor showers, crisp sheets and a very organised (and very indulgent) kitchen system take care of that – but there’s a distinct lack of artificial luxury here, affording no distractions from the natural environment.
The elation of strolling into camp at the end of day one is still to come, however. For now, we’re tackling the first leg of what will prove a challenging yet thrilling adventure – the kind that has you rubbing your feet with satisfaction at the day’s end, the fire warming your legs while a robust glass of South Australian wine warms your soul.
Within the first two hours, we’ve scaled the area’s most popular ascent to Wangarra Lookout, providing panoramic views over Wilpena Pound. The Pound – surely one of Australia’s most underrated natural wonders – is a majestic range of mountains which form a near-perfect oval, and as Cat points to the path ahead I actually feel a little shiver of excitement. We might not be scaling rock faces with our bare hands here, but I’m doing something I never imagined I’d ever have the chance to.
Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so daunting – it’s just me, my thoughts and the meditative step-by-step rhythm I’ve fallen into.
Indeed, there’s something about stripping away the trappings of modernity – the phones, the computers, the endless social networking – that’s as rejuvenating as a bath that never grows cold, or a sweet cup of tea at the end of a long day. The final push on our first day takes us over the high craggy ridge of the pound and into Black’s Gap.
We’re officially on private land now – the rest of the trip will take us towards the Arkaba homestead, through thick Mallee forests, slate gorges, winding country lanes brought to life by field daisies and hills whose compensation for the climb is well rewarded by 360 degree panoramic views.
At night, I wander into camp with tired legs and a hungry stomach, but also with a warmth in my chest that is part appreciation for my surrounds, and part thrill at discovering new physical capabilities.
This is luxury, yes – but it’s something more. It’s peace.
Rhythm and rebirth
Somewhere on day three, I realise I’ve established an easy rhythm. I’m pounding up hills and scrabbling down the sides, and all the while carrying on a comfortable conversation with myself and occasionally my companions.
Cat’s enthusiasm for the environment is infectious – she seems impossibly knowledgeable about the area for a woman from the east coast of Scotland, who began a two-week stint with Wild Bush Luxury six years ago and never left. Actually, Cat’s expertise elevates our experience into something quite transformative.
With her seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the flora, fauna and legends that crackle through the Flinders Ranges, I find myself spotting birds flitting in the trees without being urged to look, and identifying the calls of the Boobook owl as it twoots around our campfire. These are the things I didn’t expect – that subtle way the landscape creeps under your skin, and calls to you to embrace it. No wonder Cat decided to stay.
Perhaps it’s the novelty of sleeping the way nature intended, with the rise and fall of the sun, but somehow I feel reborn. Not in a weird, woo-woo sense, but as a human revitalised. I haven’t slept so well since… well, ever. My energy levels are brimming.
As we pull into the camp on our last night, I decide to tackle the big ridge looming over the site by myself. Cat, whose good favour I have hopefully won by now, cheerfully sends me off with a two-way radio, and I begin my scrambling ascent to the top.
As each promised summit reveals yet another, I almost turn around. But this is my achievement trip now, and I want to challenge myself not to give up. After what seems like the fifth summit, I stumble out into a clearing only to hear a rustling sound and the noise of footsteps.
If there’s one thing you don’t want to hear when you’re walking by yourself in the bush with nowhere to go but down, it’s that – the sound of something with two legs. But it turns out that I’ve merely startled an emu. In his fear, he goes hurtling off across the saddle of the ridge, his feathered tutu bopping behind him. I realise that he’s left behind a nest of eggs – giant polished ovals of an inky green, laying there waiting to hatch and enter the great circle of life teeming in the station.
It’s one of the most marvellous things I’ve ever seen. And because I’m witnessing it alone, it feels special – like the land has arranged it just for me. I continue on contemplating how such an unextraordinary event can be so extraordinary. That there are hidden things we don’t get to see in our own urban jungles. The feeling is immense.
I am thrilled and ever so slightly sad that my time here is drawing to a close; that the next day, I’ll be heading back to the city, where sighting birds isn’t seen as a remarkable thing, where silence never really sounds as it should and stars never look as they are.
This time tomorrow, I’ll be back at the homestead having a piping hot shower and preparing to head back to reality. But for now, I have just one night left in this magical escape.
I pick myself up, cast another look back across our weathered path, and make my way down the hill. Ratty shoes and all.
If you fly into Port Augusta from Adelaide, we recommend staying there overnight – there are a lot of kangaroos on the roads at nighttime on the drive from Port Augusta to Hawker. Try the Acacia Ridge Motel (acaciaridgemotorinn.com.au) just off the Port Augusta highway.
Bear in mind you need to be at the homestead by 10am on the day of the walk, and it takes 90 minutes to drive from Port Augusta to the homestead.
If driving from Adelaide, you can take the scenic route through the Clare Valley and straight through to Hawker. Leave about five hours and aim to stay in Hawker overnight.
Hot tip – stop off at Orroroo on the way, for lunch at Maggie’s Rendezvous Café (08 8658 1391). The food here is the best around for miles, and the café itself is filled with great little trinkets to buy (or just gape at).
For four days and three nights (including one overnight stay in the luxury homestead), guests pay $2000 each. This includes all food, camping equipment and a selection of fine wines and beers.
Need to know
• It’s incredibly dry in the Flinders Ranges. Make sure you bring a heavy duty moisturiser and some lipbalm with SPF. Your skin will thank us for it.
• The Arkaba walk is described as ‘moderate to challenging’, and while you don’t need previous trekking experience you’ll need to be fit enough to walk between six and 15 kilometres per day, over all types of terrain – from flat, grassy plains to steep, rocky hills.
• Don’t make the same mistake we did – walking boots are a much better idea than sneakers!
• As of 14 March this year, the third and final night of the itinerary will be spent sleeping at the Arkaba Homestead, rather than under the stars as we did. Don’t worry – you won’t be missing out. The homestead is a high-ceilinged, gorgeous old house that’s been carefully redeveloped with plenty of creature comforts in mind… except phone reception. How nice.