Looking back on the best moments of your life, you can, in a sense, break them down into a combination of ingredients. The first morning of our trip, on a summit in the southern Flinders Ranges, certainly brought together a formidable assortment.
The day prior, I’d flown from Melbourne to Adelaide, then driven five hours north. I was with my brother, who, now that I was living interstate, I missed like hell. He was off to backpack around Asia in a couple of weeks, indefinitely.
The afternoon before, we’d set off up this mountain. On the way up, there’d been no flat ground to pitch a tent; yet somehow, at the summit, there was a perfectly flat patch of clay, at the top of a cliff, overlooking a valley, with a range of immense hills opposite.
Now, after a windy night, we’d risen to find a dense cloudscape bottom-lit in bright colours. Like the final touch of coriander garnish, wedge-tailed eagles soared in the air above us, floating without effort, like stately guardians of the valley.
IN THE DEPTHS OF THE GORGE
As the sunrise lost its glow, we packed down and set off downhill. At the bottom, we spread out a map and considered our options. We both wanted to cram in as much action as possible, but were feeling fatigued. We’d have to preserve St Mary Peak, the 20km behemoth, for another day. Instead, we headed to Parachilna Gorge.
This is the endpoint of the Heysen Trail, that 1,200km epic spanning from Cape Jervis. After a much shorter walk, we weaved along the unsealed road of the gorge, looking for a campsite. We found a spot to pitch in the wide dry stony creekbed. On either side of us were old gnarled gumtrees, and wider afield, the steep, red slopes of the gorge.
We arranged some stones in a circle and got a fire going. Soon, we were submerged in the shadow of the valley, which then lapsed into night. Sitting around the roaring fire, as the stars brightened overhead, we found ourselves living over our adventures of old, back when it was so damn simple. It’s easy to become nostalgic too soon, and feel like a period of time, an arrangement of people and places, that you loved, is never to be again; that an era is over. In the past, I’ve tended to lapse into this attitude of helplessness. But nowadays I see that it’s about being proactive, about overcoming logistical hurdles and making a deliberate effort to keep alive the connections and experiences that make you most happy. If you can do that around a campfire, even better.
TO PARTS UNKNOWN
The next night, we camped at Wilpena Pound Resort – a farcry from the free camping of the previous two nights. But the resort positioned us perfectly for the St Mary Peak hike, which we were planning for the next day. Plus a hot shower was due. Perhaps overdue.
We decided to relax at the bistro on site, after our day’s hike in Wilkawillina Gorge. Well, it wasn’t all hiking. In the wide red dusty channel that is the gorge, we’d tried out a little bit of free climbing, more so bouldering, never higher than five or ten metres off the ground. My brother, who has experience as a scaffolder, positively flew up one climb, and I followed him up, a little more tentatively. My rockclimbing experience goes little beyond my playground days as a youngster.
The only issue was when we made it to the flat surface at the top, we realised downclimbing was a different proposition entirely, given the overhangs and need to position your feet in places you couldn’t see. Any pretensions I may have had to Honnoldesque grace under pressure soon evaporated. Despite not feeling consciously nervous, I found my right leg twitching uncontrollably.
So it was with great relish I necked a Heineken, as we sat around the firepit outside the bistro that night. We were soon joined by an indigenous man, who spread a Adnyamathanha flag on a nearby wall and sat down with us. We got to chatting and I mentioned our plans to hike St Mary tomorrow, making an absentminded gesture in the wrong direction when naming the peak.
“It’s over that way,” he said, laughing, pointing elsewhere. So it was. The whole episode was a great reminder that this is indigenous land, that indigenous folk know it best and that it is inherently theirs.
ST MARY SIGN-OFF
The lack of cloud cover allowed the heat to escape overnight. Near freezing, we set off at 6:30am, in the dark, along the deceptively flat start of the outside trail, through the forest at the base of the Pound’s exterior. The bluffs of the peaks, showing their steep side, soon glowed red through the trees, as our hands slowly thawed out, stinging.
The challenge of this hike is mostly its distance, particularly if made into a loop, featuring the home stretch through the Pound’s interior. At 21km, or 18km if you leave the summit out (as requested by the Adnyamathanha people), it’ll certainly test out the legs, particularly when you factor in the rock scrambling and the fact you’re bound to lose the track at one point – I have on the two occasions I’ve hiked it.
Near the top, the views are stunning. Outwards, you see ranges running almost perpendicular to you; to the side, in the far distance, the saltpan Lake Torrens; inwards, the flat centre of the pound and the distant peaks slanting away from you, then the ranges beyond.
It wouldn’t have been one of our trips if we hadn’t signed off with a hair’s breadth escape, the next morning. We managed to discover, despite limited phone reception, that 10 to 20mm of rain was inbound, starting at 3:30am. Not wanting to pack up drenched, we woke at 3am, rolled up our swags and hit the road.
It was weirdly warm, hot even, but there was a strange intensity in the air. And indeed, when a cold change came through, carried on the breeze which sent gushes of desert dust across the road, rain started to hammer down in earnest.
At the airport, later that day, I collected my bag out of the backseats and said a few parting words to my brother in the driver’s seat. Taking care not to rattle off any enthusiasm-killing safety preaching, I simply said, “Have a cracking time in Asia.”