Refreshing, goosebump-evoking, revitalising … who would have thought that a simple chilled, wet towel wiped over a sweaty face and hot neck could give so much pleasure? But after hours of walking in muggy heat, that soaked, ice-cold cotton cloth becomes an item of utter luxury. It is day three on the Arkaba Walk. A day the temperature reached at least 35 degrees in the sheltered sections of thedry river bed of Slaty Creek. Long sections follow this typical Flinders Ranges watercourse. The creek, lined by age-old river red gums that have stood sentinel over countless raging floods and many years of drought, winds through weather-worn hills. Even the birds stopped singing that hot day and yet there were signs of life – a bobtail lizard soaking up the heat, droppings from grey kangaroos and stocky euros, a glimpse of a fleeing emu and a nest of irritated inch ants.
After hours of walking, the surrounding hills finally open up and the landscape starts to expand. This is where Stuart Dan, one of Arkaba’s guides on camp duty, comes rushing towards us with a wooden bowl in his hands. Contained within, the wet chilled towels. The four-day Arkaba Walk leads predominantly through private land on historic Arkaba Station in the Flinders Ranges. The 24,000-hectare sheep station, established in 1851, has undergone an astonishing transformation in the past few years. Once severely degraded by overstocking, exaggerated by years of drought, the now almost destocked land has bounced back, partly thanks to abundant rain in recent years but mainly because of a concerted conservation effort. The new owners set aside 16,000 hectares as a wilderness sanctuary. After the eradication of almost all feral animals, the rare yellow-footed rock wallaby has returned, the number of reptiles increased dramatically and an already impressive bird list gets added to continuously.
The Arkaba Walk is a fully guided and catered walk sometimes dubbed as luxurious. This overused adjective can be misleading, however. Yes, walkers get pampered along the way, but the walk still has grit. This you have to keep in mind when considering taking it on. Most of it is off track and demands ankle-high boots. Uneven terrain, loose rocks and long traverses can take their toll if you’re not equipped with the right foot gear. Showing up in the right gear is your decision; everything else is in the hands of experienced guides including Kat Mee and Brendan Bevan. Part of the package is a tour of the property as a fitting introduction to the grand nature of this particular section of the Flinders Ranges. The safari-style 4WD excursion follows the top of a ridge, revealing the dramatic landscape in which we will walk for the next four days.
It is exceptionally cool the day we start the walk at Wilpena, the touristy epicentre of the Flinders Ranges National Park. After storms and showers the afternoon before, cold moist air has moved over the ranges. The crossing of its showpiece, the Wilpena Pound with its flat, park-like interior, is a perfect warm-up. We ease ourselves away from civilisation and slowly climb towards Bridal Gap, a saddle in the Wilpena Range. This is a place of grand vistas. The view expands across undulating hills towards the rugged Elder Range, the dominating landmark of the entire walk from now on. Then the walk shows its teeth for the first time. The descent from the pound’s rim is steep and rocky, the track in sections not very well defined.
In the afternoon we reach Black Gap Camp at the foot of the Bunbinyunna Range. Here we are introduced to a very different aspect of the walk. Besides the cold wet towel, a jug of rehydrating fluid and a tray of nibbles greets us … camembert, crackers, spinach pesto with pine nuts and semi-dried tomatoes. Then there are the showers, rustic constructions made of corrugated iron with no roof or door — but with a large bucket and a shower head full of warm water to wash off sweat and dust. Later the low sun peaks through gaps in the grey cloud cover and puts on a colourful display, pouring rich and warm light over the serrated chain of steep peaks of the Wilpena Range. While busy recuperating, Stuart is sweating at the fire pit, creating sustenance in camp ovens. With temperatures dropping rapidly at nightfall, our private decks equipped with double swags are alluring.
When I crawl into my swag that night, I find a hot water bottle that Stuart had snuck in earlier to take the chill off. Day two is clearly the show-off day. The cold front with its grey clouds has moved on and is replaced by almost cloudless skies and a visibility only possible after rain. We are walking through a landscape reminiscent of an IMAX movie in panoramic format and Technicolor. We are also walking off-track. Now on Arkaba Station land, we leave the marked track and go cross country. Past the wounds of an old barite mine, we climb a nameless hill, on the topographic map marked as rocky outcrops.
Below us is Moralana Creek, lined with magnificent river gums. In the distance the banded cliffs of the Elder Range dominate and dwarf the Red Range before it. Lunch is at a bore along Moralana Creek, in the shade of an age-old river gum. Then it is uphill again. The Arkaba Walk now climbs up onto a ridge with more sweeping views until descending into a gorge-like gap in the ranges. This section is the most scenic of the entire walk. Near the second camp, an impressive hill — part of the Red Range — promises breathtaking views.
The climb is well worth the extra sweat. A forest of stunted grass trees flourishes on top, creating a stark landscape bordered by abruptly dropping cliffs. The view back to the Wilpena Range is breathtaking. And just below us is Elder Camp. Blue smoke curling up from the trees marks its location. There the decks with the deluxe swags are spaced out under mature cypress pines, facing the dramatic rock faces of the Elder Range.
Arriving at the camp, Stuart is already at work at the fire pit. His creation for tonight’s dinner is marinated pork belly skewers for entrée, enormous steaks wrapped in prosciutto and marinated in olive oil for four days with vegetables and tomato salad and a most evil chocolate cake for dessert. Ultimately responsible for the culinary component of the walk is Kiwi chef Richard Corcoran from Wanganui. He describes himself as an old-style chef, meaning that everything is made from scratch. He bakes his own bread, makes his own yoghurt, pasta and mayonnaise. A good bottle of red and the hypnotic beauty of the old bush TV, the campfire, round off the day. I fall asleep listening to the wind whispering in the cypress pines. Stars sparkle and every now and then an owl calls.
The second last day begins with a glorious sunrise. The quartzite rampart of the Elder Range changes colour from boysenberry to maroon to burnt orange. It is a nature documentary in Attenborough quality and 3D, projected onto a gigantic flat screen. And we didn’t even have to get up for the show. All but one swag deck faces the abruptly rising cliffs and walls of the range. Today’s route leads through low hills between the Red and the Elder Ranges, covered in thick stands of mallee in full bloom. The scent of honey is heavy in the air. Bees are buzzing; the melodic song of the elusive Rufus Whistler accompanies us. The temperature keeps rising steadily throughout the day and it becomes slightly oppressive. Eventually we descend into Slaty Creek. The last night at Mern Merna Camp, clouds move in from the north and the temperature stays uncomfortably warm.
A trough is moving in. Rain threatens but luckily for us it stays dry. Setting up tents in the middle of the night wouldn’t have been much fun for Kat, Brendan and Stuart. On the way to Arkaba homestead on the last day we once again scale the Red Range before descending towards Arkaba Creek with its permanent waterholes and abundant bird life. On the way, the walk crosses a shallow valley where we surprise emus, grey kangaroos, flocks of noisy galahs and corellas. It is like walking through an open air zoo. A grove of neatly clipped bullock bush reminds us that sheep once ruled this landscape. Now native animals are claiming back lost ground. As we walk along Arkaba Creek, we spot a Nankeen Night Heron, another new candidate for Arkaba’s growing list of birds. Then, in sight of the homestead, my mind again turns to something simple but very pleasurable: a chilled, wet towel.
For more information visit www.arkabawalk.com and www.arkabastation.com or head to our shopper’s website to pick up the 2014 October issue – available for order and online now.
Words & Photography Don Fuchs