The Australian Outback conjures up visions of desert, red sands, and starry skies framed by the Southern Cross constellation. I was pleasantly surprised to discover it is so much more!
For starters, “Outback” means any place outside of the main urban areas of Australia, but particularly remote areas. On a tour of the South Flinders Ranges last May, I came to admire the tenacity of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples and early European settlers, who survived in sometimes exceedingly harsh conditions.
May is an excellent time to visit the Outback in the state of South Australia, as the weather is mild but not cold (average temperature 18°C) and most tourist attractions are not crowded. I suggest a tour package from an experienced Australian operator. All the tough slogging is taken care of, including transportation, hotels, restaurants, and admission to fascinating attractions.
If you are lucky, you get gregarious tour operators such as Simon Taylor of Taylor Made Tours or Brett Parker of Aust-Wide Tours. Both have an incredibly in-depth knowledge of the country, and impart information effortlessly and at length in a charming and cheery Aussie fashion.
The rugged 42-kilometre tour afforded jaw-dropping vistas of the unbelievably vivid red hues of the South Flinders Ranges.
Camels, Burra, and the Old Ghan
My tour departed from Sydney. It was an hour and half plane trip to Adelaide, the scenic capital city of South Australia, 1150 kilometres to the west. We entered our comfortable coach and were off into the softly rolling countryside dotted by gum trees and slender evergreens.
One of our first stops brought us to picturesque ruins and preserved buildings in the heritage mining town of Burra. Copper was discovered here in 1845. By 1851 the area had 5,000 inhabitants, but most people left when the mine closed for the first time in 1877.
The muted greens and browns of gently rolling hills were a gorgeous background for the rich earthy tones of the stones found in clusters of long-dilapidated buildings.
We stayed overnight in Port Augusta, a small seaside city (population 10,000) with a natural harbour. From here you can take the heritage Richi Pichi Railway from the historic train station through the Richi Pichi Pass to Quorn, which we visited next morning.
The rural, historic railroad town of Quorn was established in 1878. Today, the town is graced by a restored railway station with a rustic stone outbuilding and a plaque commemorating the famed Old Ghan.
This narrow gauge railroad runs from Adelaide to Darwin and is named for the 19th century Afghani cameleers who explored the interior of Australia. The Pichi Richi Railway, part of the Old Ghan line, offers regular heritage train journeys from Quorn to Port Augusta. The railway is run by a group of dedicated volunteers.
The descendants of Afghani cameleers live in South Australia to this day. After the camels were no longer needed for exploring, building the railroad, or working in the mines, they were released into the wild. There are now more than a million wild camels in Australia.
The bloodlines of these animals are so pure that they are exported to the Middle East and around the world. There is controversy over whether these camels should be culled as they sometimes compete with native wildlife for scarce resources.
Arkaroola Wildlife Sanctuary
En route, the terrain became progressively rugged, rocky, and tinged with rusty red. As we approached the South Flinders Ranges, we began to glimpse wildlife such as euros (a small variety of kangaroo), gangly emus, and the odd shy, wild camel.
The Flinders are the largest mountain chain in South Australia and most of it has rocks with sediments that began accumulating more than an astonishing one billion years ago. I was so overcome by the sheer beauty of the South Flinders Ranges that tears welled up in my eyes on more than one occasion.
The range is named for Matthew Flinders. A distinguished cartographer and explorer who was the first to circumnavigate Australia and identify it as a continent, Flinders coined the term Australia. Flinders was an uncle by marriage to John Franklin, who perished in northern Canada in 1847 during an expedition looking for the Northwest Passage.
By afternoon, after a rough 120-kilometre journey on unsealed (unpaved) roads we arrived in beautiful Arkaroola Wildlife Sanctuary, set in the stunning red mountain terrain of the South Flinders Ranges.
The Arkaroola Village complex included the Arkaroola Wilderness Lodge; our comfortable cabins; accommodation for backpackers; as well as historic buildings, monuments, and memorabilia.
The surrounding area was explored by the mining industry beginning in the 1850s after copper and gemstones were discovered. In 1910 uranium was found in Arkaroola but eventually it was determined that retrieving it was not commercially viable.
The late geologist and conservationist Reginald Sprigg purchased Arkaroola and created the sanctuary in 1967. The Spriggs family remains involved in the operation of Arkaroola, which is preserved by legislation.
Arkhenge, an amusing send-up of England’s Stonehenge, consists of huge labelled standing stone slabs, samples of minerals found in the area. Reference to Antarctic explorer Sir George Mawson, who was also active in the Arkaroola area, adds to the historical mystique of this very special area. The comfortable cabins are named Mawson Lodge in his honour.
Arkaroola is also the perfect backdrop for a stunning large bas-relief sculpture carved from local stone depicting two Aborigines.
A Ridgetop Tour and Stargazing
Early next morning we were treated to a ridgetop tour conducted in four-wheel drive vehicles along steep, narrow dirt roads. The rugged 42-kilometre tour afforded jaw-dropping vistas of the unbelievably vivid red hues of the South Flinders Ranges. We marvelled at the dramatic, panoramic view from Sillers Lookout, one of the three lookouts we visited.
Our enthusiastic guide pointed out wildlife and ancient sea beds. The terrain was arid, although reportedly not as arid as it had been during the drought previous to 2010 when the landscape was largely “red dirt and sticks,” according to our guide.
In the evening we visited the Sir Mark Oliphant Observatory, one of three observatories nestled in the nearby hills. Sir Mark was a physicist, politician, and friend of the Sprigg family.
The isolated location made for great stargazing with or without magnification. We listened to an informative lecture and peered at the heavens through a 14-inch Celestron telescope.
One thing that many people are unaware of is that the moon looks different in Australian skies than it does in North America. Our “man in the moon” is simply not visible, as one views the moon from a vastly different angle and the craters form a different pattern.
While the Southern Cross constellation can be seen only in the Southern Hemisphere, constellations visible in North America such as Orion can be seen in Australia. Orion, however, is upside down from the way we are used to seeing it in Canada!
It was with great reluctance next day that I watched Arkaroola recede into the distance. We eagerly spotted more emus, kangaroos, and camels as we watched the landscape transition to flat, sparsely vegetated Outback.
After a pleasant lunch in the small town of Lyndhurst, we visited the nearby outdoor workshop of artist Talc Alf. Also known as Cornelius Alferink, Talc Alf is a sculptor of Dutch origin who came to Australia as a young man.
As his name suggests, Talc Alf favours working with the soft, white talc stone quarried nearby. Much of his work is executed in small bas relief tablets, incorporates symbolism based on his personal version of the alphabet and has a vaguely Egyptian look.Talc Alf was away but our tour group had permission to view his artwork and leave a donation. I was particularly impressed by three large sculptures of simple shapes near the entrance that dramatically contrasted with the flat, red sandy terrain.
We were soon on the road again heading to the fascinating Outback town of Marree, adjacent to the mighty salt lake, Lake Eyre.
This is Part 1 of a four-part series.
Joyce MacPhee is a writer and editor in Ottawa.
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