A five day walk in the northern Flinders Ranges.
Words by Bruce and Alistair Paton
When heading into the wilderness it’s always a good idea to ascertain up-to-date track conditions and to check whether water supplies are available, accessible and above all, not radioactive.
The last one isn’t usually on the checklist but it became very relevant during a phone call to a kindly guide at Arkaroola, who informed us (in a class ic outback drawl) that yes, the Mount Painter Well did likely have water in it, but we probably shouldn’t drink that water on account of the well being sunk into the middle of a massive uranium deposit.
Fortunately, there is water on the surface that isn’t radioactive and 4WD tours can drop off supplies to remote parts of the property, but this was our first clue that, even on a continent full of amazing bushwalking destinations, Arkaroola is different Situated at the far northern end of South Australia ‘s Flinders Ranges, the privately owned Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary covers 61,000 hectares of rugged mountains, dry creek beds and some of the most fascinating geology to be found anywhere.
Saved for the public by geologist Reginald Sprigg-who is most famous for discovering the world’s oldest animal fossils in the nearby Ediacara Hills-the sanctuary was also a favourite of Sir Douglas Mawson (yes, that Sir Douglas Mawson) who declared to Sprigg his hope that Arkaroola and its 1,800 million-year -old rocks one day “be recognised as one great natural museum, one protected into posterity from over-development, vermin and vandalism: In 2012 his vision finally became reality, with the South Australian Government declaring the rich mineral resources of Arkaroola off-limits to mining after a protracted conservation battle.
Most visitors who travel this way see the area via 4WD, usually on one of the tours operated by the Arkaroola ecotourism resort . However, trekking the area on foot provides a whole new perspective on the landscape and an unforgettable experience .
The following notes are for a five-day walk but this could easily be shortened by a day or two. The days are not long but campsites are limited and the rough terrain, and lack of formed tracks and water, make it prudent to be conservative in planning. It also allows you to soak up a unique wild landscape. Just check before you drink the water.
When to go
Year round is possible.
Bring your Tent.
Arkaroola is 700 kilometres north of Adelaide. From Port Augusta drive 107 kilometres north to Hawker then continue on the Leigh Creek Road, ignoring the turn-off to Wilpena Pound on the right, and drive north along a very flat and straight highway that follows the western edge of the Flinders Ranges.
For a distance the road runs parallel to the Adelaide-Alice Springs rail line so The Ghan might overtake you. Leigh Creek is 155 kilometres further on and represents a rare opportunity to fill up on petrol and basic supplies at a roadhouse.
A few kilometres past Leigh Creek, take the major turn-off to the right on what is initially called the Balcoona Road. The road soon becomes dry gravel (easily passable in a two-wheel drive vehicle) for a 150-kilometre eastward journey cutting through the gap between the Flinders and Gammon Ranges. At the other end, turn left on to Arkaroola Road and follow the signs to the lodge.
Hot and dry. In summer it is usually at least 35 degrees during the day, so not great for walking. Better to visit from May-September when the mercury is around the 20-degree mark. Year-round there are only about five cloudy days a month, which explains why this is one of Australia’s premier astronomy destinations.
Flora and Fauna
The area is home to plentiful native animals but due to the heat you aren’t likely to encounter many of them , though you might catch a prized sighting of the endangered yellow-footed rock wallaby (keep your eyes peeled on the rocky cliffs and riverbanks). Reptiles including the colourful painted dragon are also common and there are more than 160 recorded bird species in the sanctuary.
Be prepared for a lot of grass trees and spinifex, iconic Australian plants of the dry bushland and desert that intersect in the ranges. Both thrive in the dry, nutrient-poor soils of the northern Flinders Ranges. Around Mount Painter the spinifex clumps are home to an important population of the short-tailed grasswren, which nest in the base of the hummocks and move between plants to feed. The most prominent larger tree is the river red gum, which lines most of the dry creekbeds.
Camping and accommodation
Bush campsites are abundant and Arkaroola has accommodation to suit most budgets, from hotel-style rooms to a bunkhouse and camping area with powered and unpowered sites. The campground has a laundry with basic facilities, showers, toilets and gas barbecues. arkaroola.com.au
This is the desert, don’t take it lightly. Always take plenty of water and let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return. An emergency beacon is recommended as there is no mobile phone reception . It’s a good idea to wear gaiters to protect against the prickly spinifex and the danger of snakebite.
There are several day walks from the lodge that you can undertake yourself or on a guided tour. Once you get beyond the immediate surrounds of the accommodation there aren’t many marked trails, though 4WD tracks criss-cross the ranges. Experience in off-track navigation and sturdy boots to negotiate tough , rocky terrain, are essential.
The hike is covered by 1 :50 ,000 maps for Wooltana and Yudnamutana (you’ll need both). The resort usually has maps available but can’t be relied upon; best to pick them up before you leave home, as with all bushwalking equipment.