Flinders Ranges Trip

March 2018

After weeks of careful planning, studying the Flinders Ranges HEMA map, organising accommodation either for camp sites, camp cottages, self-catering cottages or motels, stocking up with fresh vegetables, frozen meat, pre-cooked meat-balls, vegetable salads and a range of tinned and packaged foods, we packed the camping gear, managed to shut Jeeplet's doors (just), and took off on Thursday 8 March. The timing of the trip was meant to help us avoid the worst of the heat, but more importantly, the South Australian school holidays that started at Easter.
Our first photo was of the last of the Blue Mountains as we descended the Victoria Pass into Hartley Vale, a pass designed and built by Mitchell. Our route was through Lithgow, Bathurst, Orange, Dubbo, and finally to Nyngan (471 k and about 6 hours with thermos coffee breaks). Driving west we witnessed the change from dense eucalypt bush and high mountains to increasingly lower ranges, less bush and ultimately flat and dry flood planes. The drive was made bearable as we listened to the "History of East Asian Civilization", a 48 by 30 minute Great Courses lecture series that helped make the long road stretches throughout the trip bearable.
In Nyngan, we stayed in the Riverside Tourist Park on the Bogan River in a lovely large cabin with a huge fridge and freezer. We consumed meat balls and pre-cooked vegies on our first night, and were able to keep everything frozen or refrigerated, allowing us to have fresh food for the next two nights, when we camped at "Warrawong on the Darling" just outside of Wilcannia.
The trip from Nyngan to Wilcannia allowed enough time for a visit to an enormous solar power station in the middle of nowhere, and a brief exploration of Kobar, a classic mining town, still in business.
We set up our tent in the heat at "Warrawong on the Darling" (no need for the fly) in an iconic spot overlooking a billabong lined with red river gums with lots of birds. We were the only folk in a tent - everyone else had flash caravans or RVs. This meant we were able to isolate ourselves while still being in walking distance of the facilities - just.
As we spent two nights at "Warrawong on the Darling" we had a day for a hike - long, hot and dusty to what our hosts on their 'mud map' called "Bondi Beach" a section of the Darling River on their property.
Tim was able to walk across the river illustrating how dry it was, although the river red gums show the water course and seem healthy. The Darling River is one of the two main Australian river arteries, catching water from deep inside Queensland, throughout the outback of NSW, and joining the Murray River near Mildura before disgorging itself (or not as the case may be) near Adelaide. In recent months the media has covered purported 'theft' of water from the Darling and Murray Rivers, which of course means that South Australia - the end of the line - has little left.
Wilcannia sports lovely old stone buildings, many no longer in use, but some of which used to house goods brought up the river systems from Melbourne. Even in early white settlement days it is apparent that the Darling River often ran dry.
We visited the Menindee Lakes (a water system on the Darling River about 150 k south of Wilcannia) driving via an iconic red earth dirt road before joining a sealed road to Broken Hill.
Menindee Lake was almost bone dry, Emu Lake was dry, and the only lake with water was Pamaroo Lake, fed in part by Tandure Lake which was in effect kept in water by the main weir, essential as Broken Hill, one of the largest outback cities, is dependent on water piped from this dam or weir, although there is discussion of piping water from the Murray which might be more secure although costly.
We witnessed a very fast Ghan train passing through while exploring the lookout over Menindee Lake.
Broken Hill was surprisingly pleasant. We visited the stone sculpture park in the short time we had, and ate out at the hotel, enjoying what turned out to be the only restaurant meal on the trip worth mentioning. We plan to use our senior's travel card to revisit Broken Hill and explore further. Train travel should be better than the demanding road trip.
Broken Hill is on South Australian time, even though it is in NSW (half an hour difference). One had the sense that the locals all looked to Adelaide and Port Augusta for sustenance, not Sydney. We were told at the pub that rail timetabling was the reason for the anomaly. Our electronic systems (mobiles, car and fit bit) finally caught up with time changes when we crossed into South Australia. The electronic systems obviously did not know about special train timetable arrangements.
The drive from Broken Hill to Wilpena Pound was comparatively easy. Our remaining fresh fruit and vegies had to be binned (fruit fly control) so we stocked up in Peterborough.
The Flinders Ranges did provide a more interesting outlook than the long flat and dry flood plains that were features of our earlier travel for most of the trip West of Orange. Around the Ikara Flinders Rangers National Park we were amazed at the road kill (mostly kangaroos) with wedge tailed eagles and ravens enjoying the messy outcomes.
We set up camp for four nights at Wilpena Pound, and again we were the only ones in a tent so were able to isolate ourselves among the stunted northern cypress pines that provided a touch of shade although more would have been welcome.
The Flinders Ranges have an interesting geological origin. About 800 million years ago a deep trough was formed (the Adelaide geosyncline) near a weakness in the Earth's crust, and this filled with marine sediments so parts of the region were once a vast flat body of water (explaining the marine fossils). Subsequently this trough was uplifted to create a mass of twisting and turning rocks lying at all angles, with alternating uplifting and weathering resulting in different colours depending on how much weathering has occurred (ABC Range Quartzite at the top, with Umberatana Group Appila Tillate, Rhynie Sandstone, and Callana Group rocks at various levels below).
The 'Welcome to Country' given by an Adnymanthanha elder at Wilpena Pound and various information boards highlighted the importance of the ranges to Indigenous Australians.
Over the three days we hiked and explored the area. On day one we visited the old homestead and lookout, and then hiked across Wilpena Pound itself (long, flat, hot and dry), up to Mount St Mary (highest in the Flinders Ranges) returning on the outside track down tricky rocks (18.9 km, 7 hours, altitude change from 407 to 974 meters with 880 m ascent and 725 descent).
The track coincides with the Heysen Trail occasionally, a 1200 k trail that runs from Cape Jervis (Fleurieu Peninsula) to the Parachilna Gorge. One can do small sections of the Heysen in summer but it only opens in full when the weather is cooler, fire danger is reduced and more water is available.
On day two we climbed Ohlssen Bagge (12.8 k, 5.5 hours, altitude change from 534 to 951 meters with a total climb of 568 m). The views from various points in the climb made it all worthwhile, as did the range of rock formations and faces.
On day three, we hiked to the Indigenous Art Caves, and observed a kangaroo taking on a herd of goats as they all tried to gain access to a diminishing small pool of water.
We also took a tourist drive on dirt roads through several gorges and hiked along the dry river courses including bits of the Heysen Trail (Bunyeroo Gorge).
On Friday 16th March, we packed up the tent and headed to Blinman, just north of the Ikara Flinders Ranges National Park.
The self-catering beautifully restored Blinman Cottage was a joy after four days of camping. Emus and kangaroos lingering in the shade of the pepper trees in the garden welcomed us. In the Cottage we were able to use a washing machine, dry our clothes on a fence, and purchase cold drinks at the pub. Fresh food was not available in Blinman, so it was non-perishable tins of lentils, beans etc., and packet curry meals.
Our arrival around mid-day meant that we were able to sign up for the Blinman Mine tour in the afternoon - we were alone so had a wonderfully personalised tour, a highlight of our trip. It is an old copper mine that the local community have turned into a major tourist attraction. The conditions under which the Cornish miners worked, the challenges of extracting and then hauling the ore to the surface became real as one wandered through the underground tunnels. They worked in family teams, good insurance as one always needed someone to 'watch one’s back'.
On our one spare day at Blinman, we used the opportunity to hike the well known Blinman Pools trail which was fun as there was actually some water in a few of the pools in the gorge, although the running water often just disappeared underground, sometimes resurfacing. We suffered a bit from excessive heat with no shade, but it was a hike that had to be done.
On Sunday 18th March we drove from Blinman to Leigh Creek stopping at Parachilna for coffee at the Prairie Hotel - the best we had on the trip.
Jane and Ross Fargher own the Prairie Hotel as well as Nilpena Station, where Ross Fargher found an important palaeontology marine fossil. The area is a palaeontology minefield, and is located close to the Ediacara Hills that also host marine organisms from the Ediacaran period. The websites below give a bit of background.
Nilpena Fossils
We chatted to Jane Fargher who is planning to set up an education centre and find a way of preserving their treasures while also opening it up to visitors.
On the way to Leigh Creek we stopped at Beltana, a semi-ghost town, known for continuing to exist long after the reasons for its existence had ceased. The town's history began in the 1870s with the advent of copper mining in the area, construction of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line and The Ghan railroad and began to decline in 1941 with the beginning of coal mining at Leigh Creek. The fortune of the town was sealed by the 1983 realignment of the main road away from the town. Beltana has important links with the overland telegraph, transcontinental railway, mining, outback services, Australian Inland Mission and a past as a camel-based transport centre. A well remains as a monument to the Afghan camel herders.
Leigh Creek was educational, highlighting the ebb and flow of mining towns. It was planned along the Burley Griffin mould (lots of roundabouts with no straight streets) and purpose built to service the large local coal mine. It was host to about 550 people in 2001, according to the census, but only 27 remained when we visited it, the decline in population obviously a result of the closure of the mine. All the houses (in unbelievably good condition) look the same, although there are apparently about 5 different versions. It has a huge green and well-kept playing field, large sporting complex, swimming pool, gym, shopping centre etc., obviously all provided by the mine owners for staff when everything was buzzing.
When we visited we were the only customers at the Leigh Creek Outback Resort, which was huge. It felt like a ghost town. One can only hope that someone will think creatively of a way to make use of the extensive infrastructure, well supplied with water from the Aroona Dam (very attractive) also built for the mine. Leigh Creek is currently up for sale (according to the internet).
But, one is reminded that mining towns come and go. The Wolgan Valley (close to the Blue Mountains, and one of our favourite camping and hiking sites) is a case in point. It was once a thriving village, but when the mine closed early in the 20th Century, the houses were pulled down brick by brick, with the bricks used elsewhere. All that remains now are the fascinating old workings of the shale mine and associated manufacturing facilities for shale oil products, and camping and hiking opportunities in the World Heritage Wollemi National Park.
We had hoped to spend a few days in the Vulkathunha Gammon Ranges National Park (Northern end of the Flinders Ranges), but all South Australian National Parks were closed for pest control and goat reduction on the days we could have been there so we headed south and spent three nights on Catninga Station, near Mt Brown, just east of Port Augusta and the Spencer Gulf. Goats, in particular, are a major environmental hazard, and we saw evidence of their destructive paths in all the areas we hiked, but there are also feral cats and foxes.
On the way from Leigh Creek to Catninga we explored the Moralana Scenic drive across the South of Milpena Pound, and hiked for a couple of hours from Black Gap to Brindle Gap, a section of the Heysen Trail providing the back route into Wilpena Pound. Once again, the goat tracks are readily visible on the hillside.
The latter part of the trip from Leigh Creek took us through the Pichi Richi Pass that is the home to a narrow-gauge railway line - very popular with the grey nomads.
After checking in at the Catninga homestead, we were taken to our very remote camp site about 3 k from the homestead. The only luxury was a long drop toilet, so we had to borrow a 5 litre container for water. If one wanted a shower, it was necessary to drive to the homestead where they did have an outdoor shower and toilet. The site was fun, and we coped well with the first night. On day one we attempted to hike Mt Brown, but misread their 'mud map' (our fault for assuming that it was to scale), so ended up climbing the wrong mountain. We retraced our steps and finally found the correct path up a rather special gully, but we had left it too late to reach the top of Mt Brown.
The wind had crept up while we were walking, and after a shower on our way back to the tent we arrived to find it almost flattened, but fortunately held down with our goods inside. We should have anticipated the wind when we saw the wind farms near the Spencer Gulf. With considerable difficulty, we managed to pack everything up and load the car before returning the water container to the homestead where we indicated that we were heading to Port Augusta for a couple of nights. Beryl tried calling a few motels etc for accommodation, but it seemed booked out. Fortunately our hosts at Catninga realised our problem and offered us the use of their B&B, an old carriage converted into a self-catering facility. We gladly accepted, and happily paid the difference between the price of a tent site and the more stable and reliable carriage. That night the wind was horrific so we were pleased with our decision.
On day two we did manage to hike Mt Brown, and made a GPS trace that we used to include times and distances on our host's mud map (10.7 k, 5.5 hours, altitude change from 326 to 982, but with 811 ascent). The hike was long and hot, but the top of the mountain offered wonderful grass trees (yakka) and 360 degree views. Part of the hike was on the Heysen Trail.
Given our upgraded status from camping to self-catering we were invited to have 'sundowners' with the owners on the veranda of their lovely homestead. It is a working station, but increasingly they are catering for campers and caravans - they were expecting a full complement over Easter.
The closure of the National Parks gave us an excuse to spend two nights in the Clare Valley, a wine region specialising in Riesling. We had booked accommodation through AirBnB that turned out to be more luxurious than we needed or really enjoyed - three bedrooms, huge kitchen, shower, jacuzi, and most importantly a washing machine with a hills hoist to dry clothes. We spent a bit of time trying to sort out a few business issues, but frustratingly found out that we would have to wait for our return to Sydney to complete matters. In between whiles we visited the local wetlands looking for birds.
Bikes were on hire in the building next to our accommodation, so we rented those for half a day and biked on the Riesling Trail, visiting only one winery, the oldest, Seven Hills, owned and operated by the Jesuits. They are known for their sparkling Riesling and fortified wines. Their fortified altar wines are exported widely to boost congregations.
The last part of our time in the Flinders Ranges was spent exploring the Mt Remarkable National Park. We had booked a camp cabin in Mambray Creek for three nights, and self-catering accommodation on the Eastern side of the park for 2 nights. This was fortunate, as we were unsure whether our tent was structurally damaged. The drive from Clare Valley to Mambray Creek was not long, but given 38 degree heat, we did not do much.
On day one in Mount Remarkable National Park we completed what we considered the most enjoyable hike of the trip into the Hidden Gorge, really difficult to capture in photos.
Although the hike was long (18.8 k, only 354 m at the highest point, about 6 hours), it was not challenging by Blue Mountains standards, but enjoyable because of the different scenery and vegetation. Mount Remarkable National Park consists of a maze of gorges but with large side faces of erosion resistant rock, mostly red, The rock faces have apparently been ground away to 50% of their original height. The gorges host pebbled river beds (dry when we were there, but showing evidence of turbulent water) and many different trees, mainly Red River gums, but also Northern Cypress Pine, a form of She Oak.
Mambray Creek, where we stayed in the cottage is located on the first of the gorges we explored.
On day two we were planning to drive to Alligator Gorge in the Northern part of the park, but noticed that Jeeplet's dashboard highlighted low pressure on the right front tyre. We were miles away from a petrol station, so drove through to Port Augusta where we were able to pump the tyre, check the spare, and fill up before retracing our steps to Alligator Gorge.
On day 3, we noticed the same problem, so drove to Port Pirie before heading to Melrose on the East side of Mt Remarkable, via Port Germein with a 1.6 km long jetty for grain trading in a shallow bay.
At Port Pirie we purchased a tyre gauge at Super Cheap Auto (which confirmed that it was a real problem not just a sensor issue), so we had the tyre checked and fixed at Beau Repairs, which they did quickly, and only charged us $25! It was a small nail. Finally, on to Melrose.
At Mambray Creek we experienced the flock behaviour of the galahs that roosted in the trees just above our cabin. At Melrose, the Corellas had taken over the camping ground, and we observed their morning and evening movement and screeching. Fortunately our accommodation (Under the Mount) was just off their flight path. Our room had an en suite, but we shared the kitchen facilities with a few others, a small road and fencing gang and an interesting stone mason who was repairing one of the old buildings.
The village is historic, one of the oldest in the area, with lovely stone buildings, and an excellent bike and coffee shop. We did eat out one night at a classic pub. Melrose is a mountain cycling centre, and they were planning to host a tennis tournament over Easter (there were about 8 tennis courts).
As planned we hiked up Mt Remarkable (16.8 k, 5 hours 18 minutes, elevation change from 318 to 972 m, 591 m ascent). The path was easy and made use of many 'switch backs' to reduce the gradient. Traversing the quartzite scree slopes, often several times at different elevations, was a major feature of the hike. We saw the wreckage of a small plane (apparently downed in the 1980s) on one of the scree slopes.
Finally, the long three-day trip back to Lawson, with the first night in Mildura, and the second night in Griffith. Mildura is on the Murray River, and it is apparent everywhere the difference that water makes. The area is a food bowl for Sydney providing vegies, fruit etc. They also grow rice and cotton , which does seem a bit of a waste given how precious water is. Griffith is also a thriving town, with water channelled from the Murrumbidgee River to irrigate a range of crops.
We were able to make thermos coffee each morning for the trip, which was essential as not much was open over Easter, and the stretches of road between civilization are long.
Back in Lawson we cleaned up, checked that the tent was structurally sound (which it is), and hiked our regular Leura Forest aerobic track where we were most excited to see the red bellied black snake (we have had 3 previous sightings in the same spot over the last 8 years), obviously somewhat sluggish as it tried to digest its meal.

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On 17 Apr 2018, 09:03.