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Flinders Ranges

rain 10 °C

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As the Flinders Range approached I was looking forward to mountains and some elevation after the weeks of flat outback desert. The weather was improving and this morning presented clear skies. After the last few days of rain, mud and slush and extremely difficult driving conditions it was a relief, although large trenches of water still existed in places, overall it was drying out a bit. The lovely new red brick paint job I’d acquired on the Strzelecki track was taking on new hues as it dried and the packs of dust, sand and stone plastered around the wheel rims and side steps has started to form a conglomerate like concrete.

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As I approached the Flinders from the North the magnificently stark and torn rocks rise out of the harsh dry desert quite suddenly. The North Flinders have the oldest rocks and some exposed layers date back 1600 million years (1.6 billion). The landscape is also very arid and bare, in fact the North Flinders has less water than the surrounding desert because it doesn’t enjoy the many springs and bores that tap into the Artesian Basin as the basin doesn’t extend down this far. The unique geology of these mountains has attracted scientists and artists in equal numbers for over 100 years. The most well known Australian to study the Flinders was Sir Douglas Mawson of Antarctica fame, who coined the phrase when describing these mountains as “…the bones of nature laid bare…”, which I thought was an excellent description.

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Some more history – Most of the Flinders are developed on folded sedimentary rock which was laid down in the sea some 500 – 1600 million years ago. This huge wedge of sediment was later compressed, buckled and thrust upwards and was once the size of the Himalayas! The evidence suggests that the mountains were upthrust over 500 million years ago and consequently worn down until the land was relatively flat. About 60 million years ago, further earth movement began thrusting up the present mountain chains. These mountains developed continuously up until several million years ago, forming a high plateau. The force of weathering and strong erosion have now sculpted the features we can recognise today.

The North Flinders is the most rugged and is rich in minerals and consists mainly of heavily dissected granites and allied rocks that were formed 1600 million years ago. The rocks predate the formation of the mountains in places and the effects of intense heat and pressure upon the rocks can be seen everywhere.

Arkaroola village

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I drove into the Flinders and entered the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges national park which covers the centre area of the far North Flinders range, at the parks heart is the small village of Arkaroola and the only place with fuel and supplies.

It was getting late by the time I entered the park so I decided to camp somewhere for the night and then drive up to Arkaroola in the next day. I spotted designated bush camping grounds 5km off the road in Weetootla Gorge (it's also marked on my Hema 4WD map). The road ends at the start of the gorge and has camping spaces beside a dry creek with a small toilet block. I paid $10 in the self-pay box at bottom of track for a nights camping. This gorge is popular with artist and hikers alike and has several marked walking tracks starting off up the gorge.

I had the place to myself again that night and awoke to drizzle and overcast skies again. After packing up camp I headed out to Arkaroola.
The rain started to get heavier and the skies darker, which disappointed me a bit as the light wasn’t great for photography. But, as I found out later, it rarely rains in the Flinders so to see like this is very rare indeed.

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I filled up with fuel and spent sometime in the café at Arkaroola. The village is very much centred on tourism and offers many adventure trip, some taking you on the hairy 4WD tracks along ridges in the area. The village also has an “Ark-Henge’’ of stones with labelling of all the different rock types found in the area which was quite interesting (there are more photos of this henge in the gallery).

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My plan from here was to take a 4WD track up into the mountains and through Umberatana Station which will eventually bring me out near the centre of the Flinders Ranges. The park is surrounded by big stations which have recently opened up their land for 4WD tourism and I was planning to follow a well-marked route on the Hema 4WD atlas. There are loads of other interesting tracks too but many of them need permission and permits from the station owners.

There is a rather exposed caravan park here too which I used to top up my water supplies, in the rain it looked like a rather wet and chilly place to stay. Water here is rather hard to come by, in fact harder than the surrounding desert due to lack of reliable bores and rainfall.

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Heading out of Arkaroola the scenery was amazing, contorted and twisted rocks bared themselves everywhere and the flora growing on them was no less craggy.

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The rain carried on as I took a short detour to “The Pinnacles”, two prominent alkaline granitic pegmatite outcrops which are reached by road up to a parking spot or by foot on a designated track from Arkaroola. The Pinnacles are a series of pegmatite plugs looking like they have been upthrust against the surrounding landscape, but in fact the rest of the landscape has eroded away around them.

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I cracked open my walking boots for the first time on this journey and hiked some of the trails around the Pinnacles. It was nice to have some exercise, even in the wet!

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I met a troop of tourists who all fell out of this large 4WD adventure truck to take a look at the Pinnacles. Apparently the rain was taking its toll on the rough tracks and someone mentioned tracks may close soon… well I’ve been in this situation before, and predictably I decided to carry on, cautiously of course :)

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As I re-joined the 4WD track and headed further up into the mountains the track was indeed in a pretty bad state, I had seen no vehicles for the rest of the afternoon and the track got decidedly stony and muddy in places, in some places where the water ran across the track it gouged out deep ditches which caught my tail end a few times crossing but these were the most difficult obstacles so far. I’d kept the tyres at 20psi hot and they would stay at that pressure through the Flinders giving the tyres extra protection against the sharp stones and in places I was down to low box 1st gear crawling over large boulders in dry creek beds, and yes the creek beds where mainly dry still. It was another hard day in the office for the Landcruiser, but nothing it wasn’t used to.

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The rain continued and I carried on very slowly and just after dusk I made it to the Wheal Turner mine, an old set of mines with smelters dotted around.

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I was quite high up on this lonely track and hadn’t seen anyone all day, probably because the track would be officially closed now and certainly parts I had encountered driving up here would warrant that status. The sun was setting and suddenly the rain stopped and the sun came out for a brief period before dusk.

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I camped the night just passed the mines in a sheltered flat area just off the track, I’d noticed an old fireplace there so decided it was probably safe to camp the night, I was mainly keen to avoid any sort creek or potential land slide spots given the rain.

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Umberatana Station

It was a cold night indeed, high up here and nearly in Winter now. I ran the engine several times during the night to keep warm.
The overcast rainy skies soon cleared to crystal blue skies and the temperature rose quickly, from one extreme to the other I thought. I packed up camp and carried on.

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The landscape flattened out a bit and the track got a lot better, I was still high up on a plateau and had now entered Umberatana Station. Mainly cattle grassing up here but it was still arid and bare, not much for the cattle to munch I thought.

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The mammals and birds of the Flinders are representative of the semi-arid country surrounding the ranges. Unfortunately a lot of the native animals were driven to extinction with the coming of cats, foxes and goats brought by Europeans but protection in the last 30 years and a concentrated effort to eradicate these animals has seen an explosion of native animals return, particularly the Yellow-footed rock wallaby. These animals were once widespread across inland Australia and nearly went extinct but now have a stronghold in the Flinders. They have adapted to the terrain and can often be seen jumping in groups up the steep rocky slopes.

Unfortunately the recent European arrivals are eradicated by poison which is laid out all over the Flinders, there are warnings signs everywhere not to take your dog into the Flinders due to the poison everywhere.

The Rock Wallabies are shy and if it’s quiet you often come upon groups of them grassing on the rocky slopes. Startled they will start hopping up the slopes in packs, quite a sight to see.

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Another numerous animal is the Emu, they are everywhere in the Flinders, packs of them roaming everywhere. These big flightless birds are very amusing to watch when they get startled and it doesn’t take much to startle them, as soon as they spot you they go into panic mode and start running, doesn’t matter in which direction even if it’s in front of oncoming vehicles. You don’t want to hit one as they are big and they run very fast indeed, their long spindly legs carrying their large shaggy feathered bodies at terrific speeds.

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After couple hours slow driving I reached Umberatana Station itself, a collection of houses and sheds with a prominent sheering barn with ‘Umberatana’ ‘written in red on the roof , I realised this was for aircraft landing at the nearby airstrip.

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The place seemed deserted and quiet so I carried on through a couple of gates down the track.
I spent another 3 hours driving with the track getting progressively better as it passed more Stations until I finally came out on the main road to Leigh Creek, I say main road of course it’s still a gravel track but wide and graded and seemed like a motorway to me!

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Chambers Gorge

I drove across the Flinders again from west to east to follow a track which would take me down to central Flinders and Wilpena a small village at the centre of the Flinders famous for its dramatic quartzite and granite Pound. But that would be tomorrow, I needed somewhere to sleep tonight on the way so referenced the map and found a free bush camping site in Chambers Gorge overlooked by Mount Chambers. The mountain stands alone east of the Flinders and rises up out of the surrounding country with sheer rock faces and is a place of great cultural significance to the Indigenous Adnyamathanha people. It is featured in a number of their ‘dreaming tracks’ which run through the Ranges.

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The mountain looks magnificent as you approached and about 10km driving off the main gravel road brings you to a lovely set of completely free camping spots along the side of a dry creek in the gorge underneath the mountain.

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I spent a good night under the large rock and the place felt nice, I was accompanied by several more 4WD campers later that evening and we had a blissful night under the full moon. I only spent 1 night there as I was keen to press on but would highly recommend it as a splendid free camping spot and you can hike the mountain if the fancy takes you.

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Wilpena Pound

In the morning I packed up and headed south west to Wilpena Pound. As you approach sealed roads start. Wilpenia is right in the centre of the flinders and sealed roads come all the way up from Adelaide on the coast 430km south. The Pound is the most northern point with access via a sealed road, mainly I judged to bring tourists up to the Pound which is quite an attraction.

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The Pound is a natural amphitheatre of mountains in the heart of the Flinders. It was called ‘The Pound’ by early pioneers as it resembled a stock enclosure, or ‘pound’ as graziers of the day termed them. Indeed it was actually used as an enclosure to keep stock in – at one stage 8000 cattle and many more sheep roamed the natural enclosure. Wilpena is an Aboriginal word meaning the place of bent fingers or cupped hands.

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Covering an area of 55 sq km, its 11km long by 5km wide and the highest point is St Mary Peak at 1170 metres high. Two creeks flow out of the Pound. One, Wilpenia Creek is used to gain access into the amphitheatre.

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I parked at the Tourist Centre and hiked into the Pound along one of the many designated walking tracks. After about 5km of walking you enter the Pound. I took a side track up to a viewing spot to try and get some photos. Most of the basin is full of large spectacular white gums rimmed by red rocks and is quite a sight, well worth the hike if you get a chance.

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Well now it was time to head south to Adelaide. There is far more to explore here and I’ve only really touched the far North and Wilpenia in the centre, although they are the most dramatic and geologically interesting there are many more landscapes to explore here including the South Flinders. Alas another day that will have to be, I need to head south now, it’s still a very long drive to Sydney.

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For a good while as I drove South from Wilpena I was overshadowed by the sheer outer rock faces of the Pound, spectacular in the late afternoon sun. The following day I drove the 400km down to the Adelaide hills and experienced a dramatic change of landscape. After weeks of dry desert you almost suddenly fall into the lush green rolling hills of Adelaide, with the many European trees and vine yards all turning colour in the Autumn chill… amazing!

Posted by Logan Crerar 17:59 Archived in Australia

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