Have you ever heard Wilpena Pound?
Well nor had I, but that was our next destination in Victoria. It was a huge ampitheatre of mountains, forming part of the Flinders Ranges National Park, which is only accessible through a narrow gorge, Wilpena Gap, which follows the path of the Wilpena Creek. Jim wondered if it might have been formed by an ancient volcano. But we leave that debate to the serious geologists.
(Alternatively it is a steep scramble up the sides of St Mary’s Peak - not to be recommended if troubled by heights and precipitous drops).
Wilpena Pound from Space, courtesy of Wikipedia.
To reach Wilpena from fertile Barrosa and all the amazing vineyards, we had motored purposely North through Clare Valley and another batch of well known vineyards including driving across a very dry Jacobs Creek! Yes it was that Jacob’s Creek.
Before long, we were passing more infrequent and increasingly tiny settlements including the tiny towns of Melrose and Quorn.
Here we imagined Anthony Radford, (he of the Have Stethoscope will Travel variety), dropping in and working as a locum GP, to cover local doctors, who occasionally had a holiday.
Melrose, nestled under ‘Remarkable Mountain’ was tiny but big enough to have a thriving cafe and a small community hall with a yoga teacher and two customers!
There was an old coaching inn which was probably still operational, but welcoming passing Utes, and the new offices of the ‘Mount Remarkable’ District Council.
Opposite the Mount Remarkable Council offices, was a thriving bike shop which rented and repaired mountain bikes. The Remarkable mountain obviously was replete with Remarkable bike tracks and footpaths, which we might have explored if we were not on a mission.
Adjoining the bike shop, there was a very passable coffee shop ‘Over the Edge’. Racks of trendy bike gear were arranged behind a few comfy sofas and we were delighted to find we could pop onto their wifi and sort out a few chores for an hour.
We left lovely little Melrose after coffee and motored on for nearby Quorn for lunch! (Hard life).
We were told to stock up on food here as things would become more tricky as we approached Wilpena Pound, in the Flinders Ranges, a popular mountainous beauty spot. Jim says I should write about the difficulty we had even finding a loaf of bread. What is true is that we saw more empty bread-shops over the next few hundred kilometres than loaves!
Quorn, with a population of circa 1,300 people, was in a well preserved time warp. Nothing had really changed here for the last 70 years, although the paintwork on the historic buildings looked new. It owes much of its grandeur and existence to the now defunct railway.
Quorns’ railway history dates back to the opening of the Great Northern Railway in the 1870’s - later called the Ghan.
The first section of the railway line opened to Quorn in 1879, linking Quorn to Port Augusta on the coast and opening up important transport links to rural outback. To this day the volunteer enthusiasts utilise both Steam and Diesel engines on track between Port Augusta and Quorn and it is a bit of a draw.
The line was eventually extended to Oodnadatta by 1891 through the Flinders Ranges and then work ground to a halt and the planned extension to Alice Springs was only completed in 1929.
The line was busy during the war effort and as many as 56 trains passed through a week. However, in later years, the water that had been the lifeblood to the early explorers along this route, became a menace to the line. And following a series of bridge collapses and strandings, the narrow gauge, single track line was abandoned in 1980.
The Great Northern Railway was built with the assistance of Cameleers.
These men and their camels were largely recruited from Afghanistan. They transported materials to assist in the construction of the railway lines and stations. Each camel train had up to 70 camels, with one man leading up to 7-8 camels, strung together, carrying loads of up to 300/400 kilos each. They were brought in by Thomas Elder because they could travel for days without water and were more efficient therefore than horses or bullocks who required more frequent watering points.
As a result of their contribution, the Railway line became colloquially named the Ghan railway as a fitting tribute to these men so far away from home. Without wives, they married local Europeans or Aboriginal women and I guess their ancestors live on today.
The preserved line is the last remaining section of original track. The Ghan railway passed through the Pichi Richi pass. Now the Pichi Richi Railway preservation society manage the track, the engines and the rolling stock.
Anthony’s book reveals that the stone railway bridges had been constructed by Cornish and Welsh stonemasons, and the 200 labourers were indentured from China!
Sadly the Ghan railway has long gone and has been replaced by a line that by-passed the town, and now the pretty station and railway line has been left in the hands of railway enthusiasts who operated the track and restored the rolling stock on high days and holidays.
The wide streets and grand buildings were now very quiet and probably only livened up when film Producers and their crews were in town, leaving behind memories and fresh paint.
There were a couple of cafes and on Anthony’s recommendation, we opted for Emily’s Bistro.A Bistro it was not, but a delight nonetheless.
The building had once been some kind of Emporium or department store. Now it was a bit of a museum and cafe.
All the old hardwood display cabinets and counters were still in situ around the edge of a substantial space now filled with random tables.
The old wooden cash office structure was intact, as were the criss cross wires and shuttles that sent invoices and cash through to the cashier and change and receipts back to the customer. These were enthusiastically demonstrated by our waitress, and a customer close to the cash office had to duck smartly!
We managed to buy some bread, soup and a pie, all self service. The very cheery waitress, although not serving lunch, happily brought us laminated photos of the store in its heyday.
She also told us that very recently Michael Portillo (yes our very own Michael Portillo) had been by with a TV crew filming a Railway story.
She was also delighted to report that she had also met Russell Crowe who had filmed in Quorn and she had been able to earn a few bob as an extra.
We did find a general store that sold basic provisions, but we had not really grasped how little there was beyond this point!
Thank goodness I had purchased a loaf, some ham, milk, tea, eggs, tinned soups etc. Or we could have been a bit short over the coming days.
We were pleased to see that we were going to make Wilpena Pound, up in the hills, before the campsite offices closed at 6pm and we were delighted with the route up to the spot and the whole area. There are stories to tell and walks aplenty.
In the National Park Offices and the adjoining shop, one large indigenous family appeared to be employed alongside an Indian woman, complete with red dye on her brow.
The indigenous staff we spoke to were delighted to be working on their land. The Adnyamathanha aboriginals were the original inhabitants of Wilpena Pound. The Adnyamathanha translate Pound to mean 'meeting' or 'initiation place' in their own language. The Yura Muda (collection of language and culture of the Adnyamathanha) passed down the story of how Wilpena Peak was formed, in which two Akurras (dreaming serpents) ate a large number of people gathered for a celebration, which caused the serpents to be unable to move from their eating grounds. The head of the male and female serpents formed St. Mary Peak and Beatrice Hill, respectively.
However, one of the staff we spoke to, looked forward to the Government restricting access to the whole area on the grounds that the land was sacred. I am not sure they had thought through the economics of the position. I guess this is a debate that is still on-going.
The busy Wilpena campsite was full of walkers and people who enjoyed the great outdoors. The kangaroos were well used to walkers!
Many people had fires burning outside their camps in the chilly evenings. These careful fires all had to be licensed by the park authorities. We were surprised at how cold the nights were now and how hard it was to leap out of bed on those chilly mornings before the sun had risen in the sky.
With our lack of food, Jim in particular, was delighted to discover a proper bar and restaurant as part of the Wilpena Resort complex. This resort franchise had some more expensive cabins for those without motorhomes or other upmarket camping gear.
Landy was quite conspicuous alongside the Aussie gear and we were approached by many campers, half of whom were Europeans yomping around Australia in rented motorhomes. Others were friendly Aussies impressed with our journey, if not our gear!
We also met Lyn and Beckie, from the UK, touring Australia on two bikes on a shoestring and industrial quantities of cake!
These amazing women were largely managing on $70 a week or less and their stay at Wilpena was a short extravagance before embarking on the Outback Highway which was a vast expanse of very little of anything but desert scrub, not helped by months of drought. Good luck to them with the next stretch!
We chatted happily reminiscing about our travels over the cheap Happy Hour beers and discovered that they knew about Blanca, (Blanca on a bike), our friend from Charlton who was circumnavigating the African continent on her bike Foxtrot.
We left Wilpena, still heading North and we wended our way through the beautiful Flinders Ranges National Park northwards and crossed through Brachina Gorge Road aka dirt tracks and were rewarded with great rock formations and neatly labelled scenic gullies.
Here by the road we saw quite a few Emus, but it was difficult to photograph them as they ran away if the car stopped. (Probably sensible as there were Emu steaks on the menu at Wilpena!)
When we emerged back onto the main road, we were still heading North and I was surprised to find ourselves on the Outback Highway which took us through mile after mile of largely featureless scrubby dessert.
The sealed road surfaces gradually stopped and we parked up at Leigh Creek where the camping was almost free and the locals were having a knees up in the community room adjoining the hot showers.
The following day eventually, beyond Marree, we reached the legendary Oodnadatta track, which ran parallel to the now defunct Ghan railway and is also broadly the route of the Stuart Highway, which links the South Coast of Australia, to Darwin via Alice Springs.
As the sun set, the highway deteriorated into black dirt tracks with corrugations at least as bad if not much worse than those we came across in the Pamirs. Occasionally an intrepid 4x4 would pass the other way and we would then be enveloped in a dust cloud for several seconds. As I write my eyes still feel quite gritty from the dusty lung filling onslaught.
Also try to drive on that with the sun direct onto the windscreen obliterating any visibility. That evening we pulled in briefly at the Mutinia Sculpture Park to clean the windscreen and photographed Planehenge!
That night, not being able to drive in the dark, as the sun set, we pulled off the road to wild camp. We had a bottle of Jacobs Creek Rosé, soup and stale bread as the sun disappeared on the dessert horizon and the cloudless sky gradually became full of stars in antipodean positions that we did not recognise.
The destination tomorrow will be Coober Pedy, (kupa - whiteman, piti -hole) the site of a 100 year old Opal mining village. More of that later.