Part 1. Travelling to the Flinders Ranges. September 1987
The second story in my series of ‘rocky’ adventures is to be an account of my exploration of the Flinders Ranges in1987. It follows after my journey to the Boulder opal fields in 1986,
Having made my choice I promptly contacted my friend Georgie – we had kept in touch over the years – and asked if she would like to help refresh my memory while I poured through my diaries and looked over the photos she had already given me of our trip, and her generous response was to write fragments of what came to mind for her which all proved very helpful.
A wonderful opportunity had come my way in 1987 when she invited me to join on a journey with her and 16 year old son Nigel, and a group made up of members of the National Parks Association, mainly school teachers. They planned to spend their September school holidays, free of children, travelling by bus from Sydney to South Australia to explore the mountains and gorges, the valleys and caves of the magnificent Flinders Ranges.
A free space on the bus came up when Georgie’s partner had to pull out at the last moment. I was free to accept at the time and I happily agreed to join the venture, little anticipating what a potent experience lay ahead!
On Saturday morning Sept.26th after lots of preparation, I set off from my home in Bellingen, called in at Macksville to pick up Georgie and Nigel, and we then drove south along the Pacific Highway to Sydney, arriving in time for a late dinner and a good night’s sleep at my daughter Chrissy’s home in Balmain.
The next morning she drove us to Liverpool Station to rendezvous with our fellow travellers. WE waited there in the heat before the little bus turned up. Next followed all the introductions, then came to agreement on a few more itinerary details, and finally it was all aboard and by 10 am we were off!
It was a long and familiar drive south down the Hume Highway till we reached Wagga Wagga on the Murrumbidgee, where I had lived for many years.
It was a good trip in spite of the little kids on board becoming rather strung out by the time we arrived about 5 pm. The countryside was a little greener than I remember it, with some fine boulders along a new stretch near Yass. Large stretches of the old highway had been cut out and some towns bypassed.
On arrival the three of us were free to take a break from the bus and visit my good friend Libby who offered for us to stay at her home for the night, then drove us round town, first to ‘The Lookout’ at Willans Hill where she pointed out Wagga city’s Bicentennial improvements – an outdoor entertainment bowl, yet one more church and a pretty Chinese Garden added to the town park.
After that, for old times sake we took a quick look at three of the homes I had lived in in Wagga over time – one with my parents and two during my marriage.
I was finding returning to Wagga quite challenging. My last few years there held lots of tough memories, but we had time for a good talk through old times, and I was grateful to Libby when she spoke generously of my courage and strength during that time and it had a healing effect that left me feeling good about returning there.
After a good night’s sleep and a generous breakfast we were ready to set out west next morning, feeling less apprehensive about being confined across the full length of the Sturt Highway to South Australia with sick kids and several angry adults on board.
We passed through long stretches of flat farming and grazing country, Narrandera, and the lower end of the M.I.A, the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.
This is where rice, citrus and stone fruits are cultivated – originally created by diverting water from the Murrumbidgee, and whose waters were fed again when the Lachlan river joined it further down before reaching Balranald.
We arrived at Hay around midday where we were able to cross the river by punt and stop there for lunch. The tiny town had become a busy stopover junction during a gold rush period in the mid-18oos. It had its own Cobb and Co. depot , and consisted of a river port, railway and highway junctions. Cattle herded there from the north to supply food for the gold diggers also crossed the river by punt.
I spied a miner’s pick while at the general store after lunch and bought it for ten dollars with the hope of finding rocks and crystals along the way to add to my collection !
Then it was on through Balranald to Robinvale, passing the Mallee Cliffs National Park winding up the day at Mildura near the Sth. Australian border where we set up camp in the town caravan park. After pitching our tents and having showers there was time to sit and watch a beautiful sunset and we were graced by rainbow as well.
Before tucking into my sleeping bag, I recorded some very encouraging guidance I received into my journal, I wrote:
” that It would come from the arch-angelic devas who surround the plateau that you will rise up and rest upon during your sleep state this night.
” that their voices are multiple sounds of vibrating light which resonate to the vibrations of the planetary spheres to which each of you is attuned.
Through this connection you are each able to hear that which your heart prompts you to do in order to establish harmonious resonance with your environment.
Ask for their help in attuning to the group while in the wilderness. You may not feel able to travel without first giving time to attuning to the group and to the energy of the day.”
This was already promising to be quite an adventure in all sorts of ways! I felt reassured and slept well in spite of traffic noise and rain and woke to a clear sparkly sunny day.
We had a brief look around Mildura which seemed like a pleasant prosperous town. It was set in semi-arid Mallee country but had been transformed by irrigation and was surrounded by vineyards and orchards with quite a variety of fruits including citrus.
After we left Mildura we headed down past where the Darling River joined up with the Murrumbidgee, giving birth to the great Murray river where the red-gums grow, and which, I must say was looking rather muddier than I expected.
We parted company from the Murray at Renmark – she had heard the call of the southern Ocean and made off south towards Victor Harbour, and we continued west towards the little town of Clare.
Years ago I had memorized all these river systems in geography class yet without understanding how they all connected, and in so doing, determined the changes in environment along the way, as well as the blossoming of the towns and farming settlements that they nurtured! And without actually planning it, our route since leaving Wagga had followed the courses of these major rivers of south eastern Australia.
As the day lengthened the countryside we were driving through had turned to rolling hills dotted with wineries and happy looking vineyards. There were several stops made along the way to take on a supply of food including Renmark and Robinvale, and we seemed to lose lots of time organizing it all.
The bus finally pulled in by evening at a pretty caravan park in the Clare Valley situated amidst large red river gums just a little way out of town. Unfortunately we were being tested again on arrival by more rain and a swift drop in temperature as we went about organizing tents, showers and supper.
By now we are all gradually getting to know one another better, with some personalities amongst our travelling companions starting to stand out. The task of holding the purse strings for us fell to Anne – she was a kind hearted woman from the suburbs who sometimes had difficulty with what she regarded as our little group’s rather ‘hippy ways’!
Dennis, an American high school teacher with a gentle sense of humour was soon happy to be a bit of an outsider with us. His one eccentricity was a huge thirst for Coca-Cola which meant rushing to the nearest café to replenish his stock whenever we stopped along the way.
Then there was Pat – a tough, no nonsense nurse who seemed to find most of us difficult and preferred to be alone rather than deal with all the pettiness. And I remember English Mary well – a good mum and strong worker who liked a few drinks and would tell tales against us occasionally when she thought we weren’t doing our bit!
There was time next morning to take a quick look around Clare, a pleasant town with several fine old sandstone public buildings along its main street. One little idiosyncrasy of its town plan was having two of its streets end at a cliff face and take off again down below! – apparently drawn up in Adelaide by a town planner who had never checked the local geography!
The original village was named by an Irish farmer in the 1840s after his home county of Clare. He had begun with a sheep station and farming grew rapidly as supplies were needed by the many copper mines that sprang up, but finally the soil became exhausted and farms failed. Later in the early 1900s, the area came alive again when vineyards replaced the wheat fields.
Once on the road again the scenery changed as we approached the Southern Flinders area – we passed by sheep farms and paddocks dotted with wild flowers and occasional tiny towns, and my excitement grew exponentially as the mountains came into view . I had been mountain deprived during my early years, having spent most of it amid the plains of the Riverina in southern New South Wales.
We were now travelling up the Great North road alongside the Rocky River. Our next destination was the town of Wilmington just north of Mt Remarkable.
The early settlers once called Wilmington “Happy Valley.” It had a population of about 200 and has become a popular base from for exploring the Mt. Remarkable National Park which is at the southern end of the Flinders ranges. There are three separate reserves within the park the including Alligator Gorge, and Mt. Remarkable itself.
It was good to set up camp there with the prospect of staying put for at least a couple of days, giving each of us a chance to set off independently and explore the Park and surrounding walks, and give those in the party who needed to rest up the time needed to recuperate. – By now two of the teachers, first Rebecca and then Judy had become ill and the little kids certainly needed to run wild a little.
We were now about 200 kms north of Adelaide, and from there the whole of the Flinders extended a good 400 km northwards. – Imagine such a magnificent series of ranges at least 50 million years old. Over aeons the softer rocks of the mountain tops had weathered down, creating high peaks and deep gorges, caves and valleys, including its grand centrepiece, Wilpena Pound, which had formed into a natural amphitheatre of mountains on the lower eastern side of the Flinders Ranges National Park and the splendid Arkaroola wilderness at the very northern end of the ranges .
The tiny town of Melrose that sits beneath the eastern slopes of Mt. Remarkable was the first stop on our way there.
It is said to be South Australia’s oldest town with several delightful well-preserved buildings surviving from the 1850s. There was the tall old brewery built in strong red brick, and the Mt Remarkable Hotel and the Melrose Inn which together served to distribute the brew!
Happily it was wild flower season in the paddocks , including pretty sweeps of purple Salvation Jane. We know it as Patterson’s Curse in N.S.Wales. Here in Sth. Australia it provides back-up food for grazing animals in very dry times, though it is only the ruminant animals that are not upset by it.
The day after we settled in at the Wilmington campsite Georgie and I made the Alligator George the first area to explore within the park. We began by viewing it from above. It was a beautiful sight, not very long and quite narrow with high, layered, ochre-red rock walls soaring up along either side.
Over time the waters of Alligator Creek had cut through the quartzite rocks breaking it down layer by layer, encouraging mosses and bush orchids to push out from the crevices and creating strong colour contrasts with greys and rich ochres of the rock walls. Tall slim eucalypts and native pines had occasionally forced their way up through the rocky puddles along the creek bed.
We were in no hurry to get from end to end of a two kilometre walk. It was a joy just to linger and soon became aware of being in the company of the ancient spirit beings of this special place, Toning sounds expressing my awe and gratitude for being welcomed into this beautiful place surged up through me.
There was time as well to spend attempting to capture the scene in my sketching pad. After a picnic we became sleepy, found a soft dry grassy strip beside the creek and rested awhile. Georgie dozed and I noticed a light brown snake weaving along towards us sliding by the full length of Georgie’s sleeping body without so much as a nod in our direction! Quite a positive omen, I thought.
Other memories had surfaced for Georgie:- She recorded that, emerging from the path ahead as we walked along the river bed together, we heard sounds resembling Native American chanting tones. A white skinned family appeared with one coloured child in their midst and it was he who was singing. He felt to her like a Spirit Child, an elemental joining along with the family!
She also wrote that: “Further along from there Elizabeth and I decided to rest by the creek bed and I fell asleep. When I awoke, she told me that a long brown snake had coiled its way along beside me but she chose not to wake me for fear of alarming the snake! I believed it to be a Spirit Snake affirming our place there and the work we were undertaking for the Dreaming, the Medicine and the rocks and choosing to show themselves to us at this time and place. it was here I remember taking a photo of Elizabeth toning with arms raised up towards the cliff face above. ”
The next day we were more adventurous, exploring several delightful walking tracks around the rim of the gorge. After that it was time for a siesta and then some general food shopping at Wilmington general store, ready for a gradual trip north.
We went up through Quorn – once an important railway junction for the Pizzi Rizzi service to the north. It is set in a pretty valley within the Flinders Ranges between Devil’s Peak in the Mt. Brown Conservation park and Dutchman’s Stern to its north.
We then stopped off a little further along what had been the great north railway route to view what was left of the Kanyaka settlement and its main homestead – the first and largest sheep station in the area settled in 1840 between Quorn and Hawker. Up to 70 people had made their living there till the area was struck by devastating drought from 1864 to 67 and 20,000 sheep were lost. After that it was divided into small holdings but the homestead was finally abandoned in 1888, largely because of the vagaries of drought and the transport difficulties incurred in maintaining supplies to the settlement.
We continued on and soon the mountains of the Flinders Ranges National Park came into view and we could just see its highest mountain, St. Mary’s Peak – 1170 metres – as we drove along its western side.
The Stokes Hill Lookout just off the highway provided a wide overview towards Wilpena Pound and other nearby ranges, but we all agreed to wait to explore it on the way back down from Arkaroola.
We were making good headway and the tiny town of Blinman, said to be the highest town in South Australia nestling deep in the central Flinders, was just the place to pull in in time for lunch. it had the requisite general store, post office and pub. These days it boasted very few permanent residents but in the past had had its start when copper was discovered there in 1859 and became a centre for the pastoralists as well, and an important stopover on the way north to Arkaroola.
A little way along the Blinman road was a turn off to a small canyon – a sacred site of the Adnyamathanya tribe. Their name means hill or rock people.
We walked in along the creek lined by majestic red gums and entered the canyon to view the ancient rock carvings on the sandstone walls which the Aboriginals believe were the work of the ancients of the Dream time.
A further 60 miles on, north of the old Wilpena Homestead, we came upon Sliding Rock. A large deposit of copper was discovered there in 1869 and shares were raised to set up a mining settlement and a town grew as the mine was established.
Learning its history shed light on yet another challenging effort by the early settlers arriving in South Australia to carve out a living in an environment so vastly different from the old country.
Mining in a rough wilderness was a tough life and the diggers had to make do with dugouts and make-shift canvas shelters to live in along the Sliding Rock Creek.
The mining site was often subjected to flash flooding and periods when water seeped up from below-ground, preventing the miners from reaching the copper ore.
Supplies had to be brought in from Blinman and Beltana through difficult terrain, and ironically in this area it was the unrelenting water problems that finally brought everything undone rather than drought.
Sudden heavy rains struck in 1887, 88, and 1901 and the struggle to bring up enough copper in between the flash flooding was insufficient to maintain the enterprise.
Here the main cause was flooding rather than drought and only the sliding rocks remain. Altogether 25,ooo mines scattered through the mineral rich and tempting wilderness were abandoned over the period from 1838 onwards.
The early pioneers from the northern hemisphere had no recourse for predicting weather patterns to guide them, just lots of courage and determination to test the odds! And often it was Mother Nature who won the day.
After a brief pause at Beltana excitement started to build. We were finally approaching the Northern Flinders, and arriving first at the large coalmining town of Leigh Creek, then the tiny town of Copley, just to its north.
I made a quick visit to my friend Susanna who was living at Copley and from there it was full steam ahead, bound for Arkaroola, 130 kms. north- east along a rough but very scenic route through pastoral properties and indigenous communities across the Gammon Ranges National Park and through the Muntalinna Valley, finally arriving late afternoon in time to settle in at the Arkaroola Wildlife Sanctuary Village. Alleluia!!
What a joy and a relief it was to wake up on Thursday morning , five days after setting out in the bus from Sydney, and find ourselves safely settled in a comfortable caravan park in the very heart of this formidable wilderness, with time to get our breath back and free to start exploring at our leisure for the next couple of days at Arkaroola and concluding at Wilpena Pound!
Some of the experiences that followed went way beyond my wildest expectations. I am still struggling how best to recount them and preserve my credibility! – once that is overcome the story will be complete, and will appear as ‘Part. 2 The Arkaroola Experience.’ as part of the ‘Embracing the Mineral/Crystal Kingdom’ series.
To be continued.