Heysen Trail: Hiking the painted trail

By Quentin Chester 3 August 2009
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The 1200 km Heysen Trail follows the vivid spirit of Sir Hans Heysen’s art from the Fleurieu Peninsula to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia.

SENIOR RANGER VOLKER SCHOLZ is bending with his arms outstretched, like a surfer riding a wave. “Look at this surface,” he says, his hands dipping and rising through the air. “See how it’s shaped, how it falls and rolls – it’s beautifully done.” We’re looking not at a piece of sculpture but at a walking track in Deep Creek Conservation Park on the coast south of Adelaide. Nevertheless, for Volker, this corridor through coastal mallee and grass trees has the power of art.

“Now here the track gives you a different view,” he says a few strides later, pointing down the valley to where the Southern Ocean suddenly appears between two ridges. “That’s the beauty of it – you want to keep going, you want to see what’s around the next bend.”

As well as a weave of scrub abuzz with chattering wrens, the next bend reveals a small wooden post bearing a sign no bigger than a playing card. Two words announce that we’re not on a planned road, nor any ordinary track, but one of Australia’s greatest walking journeys, the Heysen Trail.

Over the next 60 km these signs usher walkers along the wild southern flank of the Fleurieu Peninsula, a coast of ravines, isolated beaches and ink-black cliffs plunging into the ocean swell. Continue another 120 km along the track and you’ll have trekked north among farms and forests to the tall timber of the Mount Lofty Ranges where, as it happens, the Heysen follows the creek at the end of my home street. And if you still have spring in your step, the trail markers will guide you onwards for another 1000 km, through the vineyards of the Barossa Valley and rambling hills and paddocks to the rugged splendour of the South Flinders Ranges, where the track ends in Parachilna Gorge.

At first glance, the Heysen Trail is a disarmingly simple idea: a footpath linking 25 parks and reserves – via public and private lands – along SA’s ancient mountain backbone. However, bringing this idea to life took 24 years of committees and cajoling, and countless dogged months of track building in the field. By 1993, when the Heysen Trail emerged as a complete entity – an epic 1200 km coast-to-outback adventure – there were new throngs of walkers eager to pull on a proper pair of boots and take the next step.

While many are drawn to the trail for a day’s outing with friends, or a quick dose of the freedom that only nature can give, a surprising number are in it for the long haul. Although there’s no formal register, Julian Monfries of the Friends of the Heysen Trail estimates that some 300 trekkers have completed the entire end-to-end journey. “And in our group alone there are another 80 or so on their way,” he says. “Most people take about 57 days, usually spread over four or five years of weekend trips.”

On paper the Heysen Trail is just a line on a map. But up close it’s a different story. Bump into a party of walkers strutting their stuff and before long you’ll hear tales of creek crossings and ridge scrambles, of sudden squalls, heart-stopping views and surprising wildlife. All of this mingling of banter and memories echoes the wonderfully informal spirit the journey fosters. As new walkers get involved every year and add to this flow of experience, so the Heysen Trail grows in stature. It has become not just a route to follow, but a shared pathway of striving and feeling.

Growing up a son of post-war German immigrants in Port Lincoln, Volker Scholz admits bushwalking wasn’t on his radar: “Back then you were into surfing or cars, that was it.” But through his 26-year involvement with Deep Creek he became a convert. “It used to be a bit of a macho thing – you know, climb every mountain, ford every steam. Now it’s all about families, and grey nomads too. It’s terrific stuff.”

At the same time, the Heysen itself is constantly changing. Where once the track used to charge down slippery Tapanappa Hill, the detour Volker’s guiding me along descends gently to Boat Harbor Beach. It’s a far cry from the tracks I had to bash through during my university days. Volker’s deservedly proud of helping to conceive a path that’s both kinder to the terrain and opens up the experience to a wider audience. “I just love it, to be able to play on it and work on it – it’s a good gig,” he says, as we sit watching waves lollop onto the shingle beach below. As it is for many devoted bushwalkers, for Volker the experience of the trail has become indivisible from his life’s journey. “I tell you what, being able to walk this thing keeps me going. You’re part of it.”

View the the Heysen Trail map

The Heysen Trail: Building on strengths

Sir Hans Heysen, another son of German immigrants, would have understood such an unbreakable bond with nature. It’s impossible to imagine any other whitefella name more fitting for the track. As one of Australia’s best-loved artists, Heysen was the first to reveal this countryside in its true light. He cherished his lifelong intimacy with the bush. In 1922 he  wrote: “I cannot help feeling that my heart lies with these men who see intense and almost religious beauty in simple Nature that surrounds us – in the beauty of the skies and the mysteries of the earth.” Among the priceless gifts of the Heysen Trail are the moments when it’s possible to feel not just as if you’re stepping into one of the great man’s paintings, but also somehow peering into his very soul.

C. (Charles) Warren Bonython, SA’s bushwalker extraordinaire, suggested that the track’s name honour Sir Hans. Now aged 92, Warren admits his knees are a bit creaky for extended wanders but he still keeps a keen eye on the Heysen’s progress. “It was very gratifying to see it completed,” he says. “And the fact that it’s so popular gives me a bit of a warm glow.” He first proposed the idea of a walking track along the length of SA’s high country at a National Trust gathering in July 1969. Eight years and 39 committee meetings later, there was precious little track established. To Warren’s chagrin his dream appeared stalled.

Then, in 1978, responsibility for the track passed to the Office for Recreation and Sport, where Terry Lavender, knockabout English outdoorsman, promised to deliver his Minister a 50 km trial stretch in three months. Terry and a small team launched into the project with gusto and on 19 November 1978 the first stage of the Heysen Trail, from Mount Lofty to Mount Magnificent, was formally opened by a delighted Warren.

The key to Terry’s success was his willingness to meet face-to-face with farmers, council members and others. The aim was to extract voluntary agreements for the track to proceed across people’s land, rather than the original move to impose government ownership of the route. At times gruff but always practical and good-natured, Terry’s deep love of the fresh-air life and his determination to complete the job are legendary. It took 15 years, 12,000 way markers, 4500 stiles, 8000 signs and, toughest of all, negotiations with hundreds of wary farmers and land-holders, yet piece by piece the puzzle that was the Heysen Trail gradually fell into place.

As well as the route itself, Terry’s legacy (he died aged 63 in 2004) included an ethos that encouraged walkers to value their rural landscapes, national parks and wilderness areas. Just as Warren was inspired by long-distance trails in Europe and North America, so Terry brought the character of an English countryside ramble to the track. That meant enjoying the bush, but also engaging with towns and local history – not to mention ending a day with a beer and a few yarns at a nearby pub.

Alas, pubs are scarce along the wild south-coast leg of the Heysen. But the views are tonic aplenty. Headlands cloaked in coastal bush drop abruptly to the waters of Backstairs Passage, the narrow strait separating the mainland and Kangaroo Island on the south-western horizon. Offshore lies The Pages, two low granite islands that figure in the Dreaming of the local Ngarrindjeri. The islands are also strongholds of Australian sea lions and walkers are often treated to glimpses of seals in the surf, pods of dolphins and, in winter, southern right whales.

The Heysen Trail: Friends, roamers and countrymen

Absorbing the sites and rhythms of life along this coast, you could be forgiven for believing the Heysen Trail has always been – and always will be – part of our cultural landscape. In truth, it owes its existence to the remarkable volunteer effort of the Friends of the Heysen Trail and other groups who help maintain the track. Meanwhile, since 1998, SA’s Department for Environment and Heritage has overseen the track’s management and the other critical ingredient for its survival: the support of local communities and landowners.

That means keeping in the good books of blokes such as Brenton Lush, whose family has been farming on the Fleurieu Peninsula for more than a century. Beyond Deep Creek Conservation Park and Tunkalilla Beach, the Heysen Trail ducks inland before rejoining the coast via Coolawang Creek. That’s smack bang in the middle of Mt Scrub, the sheep and cattle property that’s home to Brenton and his young family.

Like most farmers, Brenton seems too preoccupied for idle sightseeing but he admits there are moments that stop him in his tracks. “One day we had this pair of eagles above the cliff top having a real go at each other, locking their talons and falling through the air,” he says. “It was pretty spectacular. I forgot about the sheep for a while.”

The Lush family were on-side with the Heysen Trail from day one. That’s been good news for walkers as the Coolawang has one of the biggest catchments on the peninsula and its vista to the coast is breathtaking. “To be honest, we don’t have too many problems with the walkers,” Brenton says. “I guess we’re just happy to share the place.”

From the mouth of the Coolawang the route hugs the coast, traversing long surf beaches on its way to Newland Head Conservation Park. Then the coast track hauls up to scramble along the edge of the Waitpinga cliffs, where sheer 100 m high walls are stacked in layers against the shoreline like colossal dinner plates in a rack. It’s a thrilling, atmospheric walk. For me it’s also an eerie reminder of distant days when I was brave and reckless enough to rock climb on the dark, wave-lashed walls below.

The Heysen Trail: Hale and heartfelt

Sidling along the lonely cliff top with only the vastness of the ocean beyond, I find it hard to believe that in the late 1990s landowners, bushwalking groups and conservationists were at loggerheads over this narrow strip of scrub. At the centre of the debate was passage of the Heysen Trail and the right of way of its walkers. In the end the State government stepped in and purchased sufficient land to secure the rim of coastline as an extension of Newland Head Conservation Park.

The park’s Friends group is now busily rehabilitating and revegetating this precious sliver of coast. The value of protecting this corridor for wildlife, including birds of prey, has also come to the fore with sightings of threatened species, such as peregrine falcons and white-bellied sea-eagles. 

This is gratifying for conservationist, bird-lover and cliff-top resident Elizabeth Steele-Collins. She and her husband Doug moved from Adelaide in 2000 because of her health issues and multiple chemical sensitivity – in essence she needs the cleanest air she can find. Elizabeth now embraces the Heysen Trail every day as part of her precious home patch. “I can’t leave here without medical consequences,” she says. “But the birds and wildlife have opened up a life for me. I’m blessed to live here but it’s too beautiful not to share and too rare not to protect.” 

As the coastline swings east it drops down until the cliffs end at King Head and its crescent beach. Here the Heysen farewells the coast, striking north to begin its mighty trek to the outback. Just beyond King Beach stands Rosetta Head – known to many as The Bluff. It’s worth making a side trip to the grassy saddle just below this dome-shaped landmark. The view back along the coast to the beach and the distant cliffs of Waitpinga is magificent.

You don’t necessarily need to walk the Heysen Trail to enjoy the scenery. But if you trek all the way from Cape Jervis, it changes forever how you feel about this view. Every stride along the track adds another brushstroke to your picture of the place and the life that unfolds here. In the same spirit, walking in the footsteps of legends such as Terry Lavender, Warren Bonython and thousands of others, colours this picture with a vivid palette of shared stories. As Warren says: “All those who walk the trail take part in a continuing celebration.”

On a bright August morning in 1925, Heysen sat on the saddle below The Bluff,  sketching the view. As it happens he wasn’t celebrating but grieving; only days earlier his beloved third daughter Lillian had died of meningitis, just shy of her 16th birthday. Yet somehow from his deep love of nature he found the strength to keep working and in the months ahead he  completed a major oil painting of the scene. The South Coast is a beautiful, uplifting picture of crisp winter light with green hills and lines of surf breaking on the rocky shore.

Heysen never got the chance to walk the track that bears his name. Yet, from the coast to the hills to the startling outback, he showed us the way. The paintings live on, just as now his track keeps going, beckoning us to add our own story to a wonderful walk in progress.

SOURCE:  Australian Geographic  Issue 95 (Oct – Dec) Click here to subscribe at Magshop.