Flinders Ranges: history, culture, beauty

By Kris Madden 23 August 2010
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Explore a fossil-rich, historically important place of magnificent beauty.

IT’S HARD TO imagine that 120 million years ago most of the sun-burnt continent of Australia was under water. Even harder to imagine is a time 800 million years ago when the Flinders Ranges in South Australia were created.

At this time, great forces of nature lifted the entire east coast of Australia clear out of the sea creating a deep inland hollow. Over the next several million years, the sea flooded in, depositing huge amounts of rock and debris, and leaving behind a fractured, furrowed landscape characterised by deep valleys, rippled sea floors and the fossils of countless sea creatures.

So unique are the fossils found in this landscape, that geologists had to revise the geologic time-line of the Earth’s history, identifying a new era called the Ediacaran period. It’s no surprise why this environment, one of the oldest surviving on Earth, has been nominated as one of Australia’s ‘National Landscapes’.

The Flinders Ranges stretch from Crystal Brook near Port Pirie in southern South Australia more than 400 km to Arkaroola in the north. If you haven’t visited the outback before, photographs might give the impression that this is a desolate landscape; but in truth, this timeless land is very much alive.

The more you explore these enigmatic gorges, the more secrets they reveal, providing a glimpse into the history of time. Thousands of years of rich Aboriginal heritage give a spiritual meaning to the surrounding physical features. A rustle in the bushes may reveal an elusive and endangered Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby or an emu leading its chicks to the creek bed. It’s an ideal spot for soaking up a piece of Australia, capped off with some bush tucker and a pot of billy tea.

Flinders Ranges three distict regions

The Flinders Ranges can be divided into three distinct regions each offering different experiences, and can easily be reached by 4WD from South Australia’s capital in Adelaide. In just three hours you’ll reach the Mount Remarkable National Park in the Southern Flinders Ranges.

This is a good place to stop and stretch the legs as the park’s bushwalking and cycling trails are some of the best in South Australia. They vary in length from casual family-style walks to long-distance trails for the serious adventurer. If you haven’t brought your bike, there are many places throughout the region where you can hire one.

This is also one of the entry points for two of South Australia’s best-known trails – the Heysen walking trail and the Mawson off-road riding trail. For a shorter (but still steep!) walk, climb to the peak of Mount Remarkable, where you’ll be rewarded with amazing views across the valleys. Wirrabara and Bundaleer forests also have excellent recreational trails.

You can also find a very different type of trail in the south. The Southern Flinders Ranges Heritage Trail of the region’s museums and colonial buildings will give you an insight into the region’s recent past.

Food lovers should not miss the gourmet experience of the Southern Flinders Flavours Trail, touring local food and wine producers. Here you can sample everything from gourmet meats and olive products to honey and seafood. Make sure to visit the Flinder’s first cellar door at Remarkable View Wines and don’t miss the delicious local ice cream at Laura.

The perfect appetiser to the Central Flinders Ranges is the Wadlata Outback Interpretive Centre in Port Augusta. Here hands-on displays cast a fascinating light on everything from Aboriginal legends to pioneering feats and the history of the landscape. Botanical buffs shouldn’t miss Port Augusta’s award-winning Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden, with more than 10 kilometres of walking tracks displaying amazing flora that grows nowhere else in the world.

A touch of history on the Flinders Ranges

South Australia’s country towns ooze history, the tiny township of Quorn is no exception. Not only does it boast a majestic old pub on every corner, but historic old railway town is home to the Pichi Richi Railway, a volunteer-run train system that is one of Australia’s greatest heritage train journeys. The railway, which was once lifeline to early pioneers, follows in the tracks of the Old Ghan to Port Augusta.

A more luxurious way to explore this remote landscape by rail is on board the new trains that ply the tracks today. The Ghan leaves from Adelaide on a two-day, 3000 km journey from Alice Springs to Darwin, with opportunities to jump off board and explore Port Augusta and the famous underground opal mining town of Coober Pedy along the way. The Indian Pacific also stops at Adelaide and Port Augusta on its epic journey across the country from Sydney to Perth.

The Flinders Ranges is also an excellent place to explore from the saddle. Home of the ‘Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive’, this is where you can star in your own scene from the movie ‘Australia’ and try your hand at living the life of a drover for a week.

At the heart of the Flinders Ranges National Park, and a must for every visitor to South Australia’s big backyard, is the awesome amphitheatre of Wilpena Pound. The Yura Muda Aboriginal legend tells how Wilpena Pound was formed by the bodies of two giant serpents that could not move after eating the people who had gathered there for a ceremony. St Mary Peak forms the head of the male serpent, while Beatrice Hill forms the head of the female.

The unique Wilpena Pound Resort is a good base from which to explore this diverse region and its numerous walking, 4WD and mountain bike trails. To fully appreciate the view, take a scenic flight over the area and watch as the ranges take on a dazzling array of hues as the sun shifts overhead.

Indigenous legends of the Flinders

According to another Aboriginal legend, the rocky Northern Flinders Ranges was formed by an argument between two kangaroos and was separated from Lake Frome by the sweep of a kangaroo’s tail. It’s here that you’ll really feel that you’re beginning to get into the outback.

While it’s possible to explore the Flinders Ranges on your own, and the two-day self-drive Aboriginal Dreaming Trail that visits the Aboriginal communities of Nepabunna and Iga Warta, makes it easy to do; you’ll gain a greater understanding of the significance of this land on one of the guided walks, overnight camps and cultural tours offered by one of the local Aboriginal operators, who will reveal the tens of thousands of years of history and mythology in the ancient cave paintings, song lines and sacred sites found here.

Accommodation in this region ranges from five-star world-class eco-lodges to five million star scenic campgrounds under five million stars. The Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary is one of the unique properties to stay.

Purchased by the Sprigg family in the 1960s with the intent to return a farming property to its original state, the family still runs the lodge today. A highlight is the famous observatory, one of the best places on the planet to observe the southern sky.

The Flinders Ranges may have appeared barren to early colonial observers such as the Surveyor General, Colonel Edward Charles Frome, who in the 1840s said: “A more barren sterile country could not be imagined”.

But take the time to explore this vast rugged terrain and it will be sure to capture your imagination with its countless stories of life on Earth.

Kris Madden is an award-winning journalist specialising in eco and sustainable tourism. Her work has appeared in publications including The Australian, Australian Geographic and the Sydney Morning Herald. This is an edited version of an article first published by Tourism Australia.