AT reader Fay Prideaux packs her courage and takes a 4WD track that winds through the back of Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary in the Flinders Ranges, SA. Dick Smith calls it one of Australia’s finest arid landscapes, and Sir Douglas Mawson was a regular visitor. With a love of remote places and an interest in seeing what all the fuss is about, we arm ourselves with a 4WD campervan and drive the 600-plus kilometres north of Adelaide to Arkaroola, a privately owned and operated wilderness sanctuary in the northern Flinders Ranges.
The property promises one of the world’s best 4WD experiences, the Ridgetop Tour. It is the only Arkaroola track off-limits to self-drive tourists, so day one sees me squeezed into the back of an open-air troop carrier with nine others for the four-hour expedition. Peter, our driver and guide, expertly negotiates the rocky track while delivering a detailed commentary on the flora, fauna, geology and history of the property, including its link with Sir Douglas Mawson, who regularly brought his Adelaide University students here on field trips.
One of those students was Reg Sprigg, founder of Geosurveys Australia, the first geological consulting company in the country. A career involving mining did not dampen Reg’s enthusiasm to preserve the Arkaroola area; he became a passionate conservationist, constantly lobbying the South Australian government to protect the resident yellow-footed wallaby, which was being hunted to cater to the European fur market. Reg decided the women didn’t look as good in the pelts as the wallabies did, and when their numbers dropped to 40, he bought the property himself to preserve both the flora and fauna.
Reg and his Scottish wife Griselda set about clearing sheep and feral creatures from the old Arkaroola Station and created the wildlife sanctuary that their children Doug and Margaret operate today.
When we stop at Coulthard’s Lookout I begin to understand Reg’s passion. The landscape is dimension-defying; open, arid and beautiful. It’s a photographer’s dream, with foregrounds of native grass trees, wildflowers and flowering natives against backgrounds of rugged granite.
At the second lookout, Split Rock, I experience an increasing desire to be left alone to soak up the scenery and preserve the imagery; the company and conversation of others is suddenly an intrusion. I’m tempted to say, “Leave me here and pick me up on the way back,” but the highlight of the tour is next, so it’s back on board.
Siller’s Lookout is at the top of a steep,
one-way track, with sheer drops on either side. We watch as the lead vehicle makes it to the top, does a three-point turn and leaves space for us. Then it’s our turn. We rattle and rumble up the steep track, applauding Peter as he reaches the top and parks on a postage stamp of available space.
We’re rewarded with a 360-degree view, one rarely seen by anyone other than the odd prospector or geologist. Behind us, the track is an orange ribbon cutting and weaving its way along the ridgetop. Ahead of us a panorama of plains stretches all the way to Lake Frome, the fourth-largest salt lake in the country.
Sipping on Milo and munching on lamingtons we gaze out over this ancient land, humbled by its scale, its harsh terrain and its isolation. It has only taken a couple of hours, but the tour has endeared the landscape to me and to those who have had a hand in its preservation.
Keen to see more, we embark on the Echo Camp Backtrack in our own vehicle the next morning. We sign a waiver clearing the property owners of any liability should we come to grief, pay a $40 fee to use the track and take possession of a key to unlock two gates en route. A return time is filled in. If we don’t turn up, they’ll come looking for us.
There’s a tinge of apprehension, but I remind myself of tour guide Peter’s advice; stay in first gear on steep ascents and descents and you won’t have any problems. On the first crest, the steepest descent on the property, I can’t see the track over the bonnet. Closing my eyes and hoping for the best isn’t an option, but accepting the role of navigator from then on is, and I gladly relinquish the wheel.
The featured stops are diverse and spectacular: Paralana Hot Springs, where you are advised against drinking the water as it is slightly radioactive; Bararrana Gorge, where upturned ancient seabeds reveal pink and turquoise rock formations; the Ochre Wall’s rich layers of colour; and Arkaroola Waterhole, home to the yellow-footed wallaby.
It takes us all day to wind our way through the wilderness and we’re the last vehicle back. Celebratory drinks are the finishing touches to an amazing day out.
I’m content. I know what all the fuss is about.
The details // Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary is located in the Flinders Ranges, SA.
(08) 8648 4848; arkaroola.com.au