I’m writing from next to a campfire today. We’ve gone proper girl scout for the days we’ve spent north of Adelaide: campsites with no shower, a long drop toilet, and fire pits. As it turns out, there isn’t much demand for camp spots off the backpacker trail in the middle of winter, so we’ve had pretty much free rein to do whatever we want. Inevitably, we have been sleeping in the car (it’s warmer) and drinking terrible terrible boxed wine (it’s cheap).
We spent one night in the intriguingly named Mount Remarkable National Park, and two nights in the Flinders Ranges. We’ve encountered very few other people. Those we have seen have largely been old rich people in comfy-looking 4x4s, and park rangers. Our camp spot just outside of Mt. Remarkable was shared with just one other vehicle: an elderly couple in a cosy caravan, which they neglected to invite us into.
It’s been good to finally get going properly. Somewhat unbelievably, it’s already been two weeks since we first set off from Melbourne, and most of the distance we’ve covered so far has pretty much been in the wrong direction.
At least we managed to set off from Adelaide on time this time.
We didn’t have far to go (in Australia terms): Mt Remarkable is only about three and a half hours from Adelaide. We had picked out a place called Alligator Gorge as a spot to stop off at – largely based on curiosity. It actually turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip so far.
Not entirely sure what to expect, we drove up along the coast and around to the national park entrance. On being confronted with a sign telling us to pay a fee online, we made a half-hearted attempt to do so, but when faced with failure decided that we’d just go ahead anyway like the rebels we are. The road soon turned a bit dodgy but we powered on – this was to be the first of many slightly stressful drives. We crawled along for the last half an hour, the ditches in the road intent on scraping our bumper, and eventually made it to a car park full of abandoned tour buses.
Eager to stretch our legs, we hopped out the car and went to both of the lookouts, from which a lot of red cliffs and trees could be seen. Echoing footsteps and chatter from below gave us the motivation we needed to head down into the gorge and follow the river bed along on what ended up being an accidentally very very long (and very enjoyable) walk.
Encroaching darkness and a dodgy, unfamiliar road won’t deter us from exploring, no siree.
After walking several kilometres more than planned, we emerged back to the car park, not entirely sure how the route had taken us back there, but altogether pleased that we had found it. Back up the windy, bumpy road we drove, and out of the park to our camp spot for the night: essentially a patch of grass by the side of the road.
The following day we pushed on to the Flinders Ranges National Park. Passing through Hawker, the creepiest ghost town ever (and a lot of the towns in Australia’s interior are eerie at best), we topped up with some inordinately expensive fuel, and continued on to Wilpena Pound. Wilpena Pound is essentially the hub of the Flinders Ranges. A lot of the hikes and walks start from there, and it offers by far the largest and most varied accommodation option in the park.
Inevitably, we opted for the cheaper, less frequented campsite further north (though we did sneak into Wilpena for a shower on our way out).
After consulting with THE most unhelpful tourist information guy ever, we discovered not an awful lot, but did successfully pay for two nights camping and a national park pass. Even this we later regretted, as we were not once visited by anyone of authority (or indeed anyone at all) to ask for our tickets.
From Wilpena Pound, we went on an enjoyable stroll to the Wangarra Lookouts, through forest which could very well have been somewhere in the south of England. After ascending to the top of a fairly steep hill we were greeted with a slightly underwhelming view: as it turns out Wilpena Pound is not particularly spectacular; it’s largely just trees as far as the eye can see.
Clearly I have been spoilt by New Zealand’s uncountable amazing panoramas, as well as our recent trip along the Great Ocean Road and up to the Grampians. Still, driving around offered epic views in itself. It’s the kind of place where your driving becomes more than a little haphazard, because of the constant need to admire your surroundings. You actually get excited for each hill you’re about to crest, because you just know that the imminent view is going to be incredible.
As we still had some time to kill before it got dark, we decided to go and visit the intriguingly named Sacred Canyon, to take a look at the aboriginal carvings in its rocks. Having been reassured by aforementioned useless tourist information guy that all roads in the Flinders Ranges are fine for a regular two-wheel drive car, we blithely took the turnoff and spent the next hour cursing him as we juddered over gravel and grit and worried often about whether our tyres could take it.
Sacred Canyon was nice enough, but the journey there was not. Not really worth it unless you have a nice reliable 4×4 (we have spent much of the past two weeks fantasising about how much more comfortable this trip would be if we had a 4×4, a campervan, a few extra layers of blankets… the list goes on). It was pretty cool to see these ancient carvings etched into rock, but it took all of five minutes to take a look, and their mystique was somewhat lessened by the numerous idiots who thought it was a brilliant idea to carve “TH loves AC” and “Ed was here” alongside them.
Slightly disgruntled, we made the long, slow drive back up the road, and then headed over to our campsite for the night, which greatly improved our mood. We had the place to ourselves, so we built up an excellent campfire (if I do say so myself), cracked open the wine, admired the sunset, cooked up some gourmet(ish) food, and played the speaker on loud. It was the first time we have spent an evening actually being warm (thanks to the camp fire), instead of just trying to prevent our fingers from developing a layer of frost.
Unfortunately, all of our clothes now smell of smoke.
The next day we were planning to do a big hike… but it didn’t work out as well as expected. We picked a walk essentially at random, off a leaflet with florid descriptions of what we could expect to see on the hikes, while failing to inform us of how long they were, or how difficult it was to reach them.
So, off we went to search for the Wilkawillina Gorge.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
It was not.
The road there was a traumatic hour and half drive down what was unquestionably a 4wd track, with frequent stops to discuss whether car would physically make it across that gravel pit, that rock-strewn stretch, that craggy, bumpy, slope. Should we turn back? Should we turn back?
We didn’t turn back. The road got progressively worse, but with each section that we successfully passed it seemed ever more ludicrous to waste all of that effort by turning around. Plus, the road was only as wide as the car – there wasn’t any room to do a three-point turn.
We made it, though. Not quite to the end – we left the car a few kilometres prior, at the first opportunity we got, and walked the rest of the way to the start of the track.
Exhausted from the drive, we were a bit over the whole idea before we even began the walk, but we duly set off into the dust.
The road made the whole endeavour probably not worth it. But it was still kind of cool, that day.
It was ridiculous and more than a little bit dumb, and we genuinely could have been stuck pretty much in the outback with a burst tyre and no phone signal. But actually, we ended up hiking through scenery that was sort of beautiful in its own stark, uncompromising way; exploring the solitude of the gorge, encircled by red rocks; eating our picnic perched on a large boulder and watching swallows chase around us. We walked alongside emus, spotted falcons feasting on roadkill, lost count of the vast numbers of kangaroos who looked up, inquisitive, as our little car crawled along the road.
It was an experience, I will say that.
The hour and a half back to the road though, that was a killer.
We returned to our campsite with more than a little bit of relief: here was something familiar, something we knew how to deal with. With great relish we settled back into our camping chairs, stoked up a fire, and put on several episodes of Desert Island Discs to while away the evening (we have become super middle class – or maybe Desert Island Discs just transcends all divisions).
As we were feeling particularly intrepid, we decided to try a bit of campfire cooking. With limited success. The toasties we made were excellent, cooked in a dry pan in the smouldering embers of the fire, and ingeniously pressed with the box of wine (well done Meg). However, less impressive was our attempt at the simple task of boiling water. It genuinely took us over an hour to manage it without getting a fine coating of ash floating unappealingly on top.
I don’t think it has ever taken anyone so long to make a Cup-a-Soup.
That unusually late dinner concluded our time in the Flinders Ranges. It had been eventful, to say the least, and we were more than eager to get going again: back to civilisation, with phone signal and internet and a landscape with more than endless scrubby trees and rust-red rocks.
On our way out of the park, as we high-tailed it towards the coast, we passed a whole caravan of caravans going in the opposite direction. We’d been so disengaged from the rest world that we hadn’t realised why our time in the Flinders Ranges had been so solitary: we were leaving just as the weekend was beginning.
But then, who really cared? We were on the road again, and heading west, at last.