Holidays don’t come around very often when you’re working hard as a PhD student, so when they do you grab them by the horns and just run with them. ANZAC day is a big public holiday in Australia and New Zealand, so it meant another session of packing my bags and heading off somewhere new, this time to the Flinders Ranges. Located north of Adelaide, they cover about 430km, making them the largest mountain range within South Australia. It’s a hotspot for those who love hiking, vast undulating hilly scenery, and camping. So in true explorer fashion, four of us hired a car and drove the distance.
After 5 hours driving, we arrived at Wilpena Pound in the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, and it is probably the most well-known spot to camp. You have to pay to stay in the park but it’s cheap. At $26 a night per unpowered site, camping is decent, with showers and drinking water available. It even has a camp store, cabins (for those who don’t fancy the idea of sleeping on the ground), and a restaurant (bit pricey but the food smelled good). Because it was ANZAC weekend, it was rather busy, but finding a spot to pitch camp didn’t prove to be too difficult. The first mistake cropped up when we realised what we had thought were cooking facilities on the map, were in fact cabins. Of course, for dinner we had planned to cook. It was already starting to get dark, and having pitched the tents, we rushed to the camp store to see if they had any cooking pots. The only thing we could find was a coffee pot.
Thankfully, wood was provided and soon enough we had a decent fire. Only problem was we waited over 2 hours to cook simple veggie pasta. Hunger drove us to drink ‘vegetable tea’ – water used to boil the veggies. Quite satisfying actually.
The best thing about being surrounded by nature in the quiet and stillness of the night is the stars. They were simply magnificent. Pictures do not do it justice. Without the light pollution so obvious in the cities, the Milky Way was clearly visible, with millions upon millions of specs of light filling my vision every way I turned. I could stand and gaze up forever, even with my neck at an awkward angle. I even saw a shooting star every night. Traipsing to the bathrooms in the night, we saw kangaroos play-boxing with each other and munching on bush. Not something you see everyday!
Another beautiful attraction of Wilpena Pound is that it is the easiest place to start a hike up St Mary Peak. This was the main reason for our visit. Being the highest point in the Flinders Ranges, it is not a challenge for the fainthearted. The receptionist/guide at the campsite visitor centre reckoned we were fit enough to complete the hike in half the recommended time. Food, water and suncream at the ready and we skipped along to the starting point. The hike starts off pretty relaxed, with a very gradual incline. Keep looking up once in awhile and the peak looks like it’s not that far away. But then the distance never seems to decrease. No matter how far you’ve walked. About halfway, we lost the path. The little blue arrows became lost in the scrubland and rocks, so we spent about half an hour scrambling over rocks and through bushes trying to find a semblance of a path again. We even picked up a lost wanderer too. Soon after regaining the path, things started to get steep. This was when we realised we were walking in the midday sun, with half our water already gone. And we weren’t even close to reaching the peak, much less getting back to camp. Like naïve tourists, we had believed him. It was too late to turn back, and I’m not much of a quitter so we started rationing water. We even started rationing the salad, never thought lettuce could be so satisfying. Breathing heavily, sweating, thirsty, whilst watching youngsters and their parents traipse down the peak towards camp having already completed their morning hike. Eventually the path started getting steeper and walking turned into climbing. And then we lost the trail again.
“I think it’s this way, I see a blue arrow”, “No, that’s pointing down”, “Maybe we can go around these rocks”, “Um that’s a sheer cliff we can’t scale that” You get the jist.
Just when I was starting to lose hope that we would have to call it quits there without reaching the peak’s summit, someone found a precious upwards-pointing blue arrow. An hour later we made it! Very dehydrated, tired and hungry, but that was semi-forgotten once I saw the views. Spectacular.
Of course the trek down wasn’t without its problems. One member took a tumble and almost fell down the mountainside. Thankfully, the only injuries were a few cuts and bruises. We inevitably got lost twice, with more members falling over rocks. (How did those kids manage?) Six and a half hours later we limped into camp, the sun already in bed. Only then did we notice the signs saying “bring 4L of water per person”. Water never tasted so good. But was it worth the feeling of cottonmouth, wobbly muscles and a few precarious tumbles down the mountainside? I’d do it again tomorrow if I could. The views from the top were breathtaking, and it really reminded me how diverse and extreme Australia can be. Even within 400km of a major city.
In my opinion, it is possibly one of the best places to disconnect from the outside world. It gave me space to take a breather and forget about life in Adelaide. I loved sitting around a fire, cooking up a storm in a coffee pot, and surround myself with red dirt, sky and glimpses of the Milky Way.