When heading on a hike into the wilderness it’s always a good idea to phone ahead to ascertain up-to-date track conditions and to check whether water supplies are available, accessible and above all, not radioactive.
The last one isn’t usually on the checklist but it suddenly became very relevant during a phone call to a kindly guide on a recent trip to Arkaroola who informed us (in a classic outback drawl) that yes, the Mt Painter Well did likely have water in it, but we probably shouldn’t drink that water on account of the well being sunk into the middle of a massive uranium deposit. Fortunately, there is water on the surface that isn’t radioactive and four-wheel drive tours can drop off supplies to remote parts of the property, but this was our first clue that even on a continent full of amazing bushwalking destinations, Arkaroola is different.
Situated at the far northern end of South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, the privately-owned Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary covers 61,000 hectares of rugged Mountains, dry creekbeds and some of the most fascinating geology to be found anywhere. Saved for the public by geologist Reginald Sprigg – who is most famous for discovering the world’s oldest animal fossils in the nearby Ediacara Hills – the sanctuary was also a favourite of Sir Douglas Mawson (yes, that Sir Douglas Mawson) who declared to Sprigg his hope that Arkaroola and its 1800-million-year-old rocks one day “be recognised as one great natural museum, one protected into posterity from over-development, vermin and vandalism.” In 2012 his vision finally became reality, with the South Australian Government declaring the rich mineral resources of Arkaroola off-limits to mining after a protracted conservation battle.
Most visitors who travel this way see the area via four-wheel drive. However, trekking the area on foot provides a whole new perspective on the landscape and an unforgettable experience. Just check before you drink the water.
The following notes are for a five-day walk but it can easily be shortened by a day or two if required. The days are not long but campsites are limited and the rough terrain and lack of formed tracks and water make it prudent to be conservative in planning. It also allows you to soak up a unique wild landscape.
Day 1: Arkaroola Resort to Echo Waterhole
Before starting off it is highly recommended to talk to the friendly staff at the wilderness lodge about getting a helping hand with supplies – they can be persuaded to drop off water at the campsite at the base of Mt Gee which is on the popular Ridgetop Tour.
Start the hike by following the gravel track north from the resort towards Arkaroola Waterhole. The wide road climbs to follow an exposed ridgetop with views of the surrounding hills. Pass a helipad and, after about 3km, a cairn opposite Mt Oliphant which explains the mountain’s history (it was named after Sir Marcus Laurence Elwin Oliphant, a famous South Australian physicist, state governor and friend of the Sprigg family).
From here the road heads downhill – ignore turnoffs to the left to Arkaroola Waterhole and then the Ridgetop Track, taking the right fork towards Echo Waterhole. The road circles around the south-eastern side of Dinnertime Hill before a clear junction is reached. Turn right following the signs to Echo Camp backtrack and follow the rough road behind a rocky ridge for about 1km to arrive at Echo Camp Waterhole, where there are numerous spots to pitch a tent beside a wide section of Arkaroola Creek. If you’re lucky, the creek may even have water in it – although it should always be boiled before drinking.
Day 2: Echo Waterhole to Painter Pound
Retrace your steps along the Echo Waterhole backtrack to the junction and turn right. After about 500 metres the track swings around the east then north before petering out in a large dry creek junction. This is where Radium Creek from the north meets Arkaroola Creek – on the eastern side of the junction is a cairn marking the old Echo campsite.
From here the route follows the dry creekbed north. Initially the creek is wide and easy to follow but in sections the creek splits and it is necessary to find the best way through the dry, and often prickly, undergrowth. For most of the way there is little shade.
After about 1km the creek passes through American Gap, where red cliffs close in from both sides. This is a good spot to look for endangered yellow-footed rock wallabies, which can sometimes be seen hopping up and down the cliffs.
After American Gap the creek becomes overgrown and less defined as it winds north-west. There is some relief from the scrub-bashing when the four-wheel drive Ridgetop Track descends to the creekbed and runs along the sand for a short distance. Continue along the creek, crossing the vehicle track one more time before running into a dry waterfall on the southern side of Mt Gee. Climb around the waterfall (the Ridgetop Track is about 50m to the right if needed) and continue north to a junction of four-wheel drive tracks, where the Ridgetop Track turns sharply right next to the creek. About 50m north is an old wooden weather station. Find a spot to pitch a tent – and hopefully water which has been dropped off for you – here (if you’re short for time you can hitch a ride on the Ridgetop Tour and camp here before hiking out, but be sure to book early).
Day 3: Day trips to Mt Gee, Mt Painter and The Armchair
The country around Painter Pound is well worth exploring, and there is easily enough to see to occupy a full day without full packs. If you don’t have an extra day it is recommended to do at least one of these trips in the evening or early morning.
Mt Gee: 1 hour return
Mt Gee was a favourite of Sir Douglas Mawson, who dubbed it the Crystal Candy Mountain. The name unfortunately didn’t stick, but it is easy to see where he got the idea. More than a billion years ago the area was home to a rich network of geysers and hot springs, and as the boiling water circulated underground it deposited quartz crystals which today make up much of the mountain. From the campsite follow the four-wheel drive track north for 50 metres then turn left onto a rough vehicle track which heads steeply uphill then begins to level off as it contours along the slope of the ridge. Leave it at this point and scramble to the top, heading left along the crest of the ridge to the summit of Mt Gee from which there are great views of Mt Painter and the surrounding landscape.
Mt Painter: 3 hours return
From the campsite head south and uphill along Ridgetop Track for a few hundred metres until you reach a knoll where the road starts to descend to Radium Creek. Leave the track here and cut across two shallow saddles to the ridge leading east from the summit of Mt Painter. Follow the ridge uphill as it climbs steadily to the base of red cliffs – there are several spots on the way that afford excellent views. At the base of the cliffs head left to sidle around the bluffs, climbing steadily. A steep climb up a scree slope then leads to a final scramble over boulders to the summit ridge, which is marked by numerous grass trees.
Pick a route across the rocks to a cairn marking the summit – the highest point in this section of Arkaroola. The views in all directions are simply sensational. Take care retracing your steps to the campsite, especially on the scree slope.
The Armchair: 3 hours return
The most distinctive peak in Arkaroola is the massive lump of granite known as The Armchair. Follow the four-wheel drive track north from the campsite, ignoring the rough vehicle track which heads left up Mt Gee. The track peters out after a while but continue in the same direction, climbing to reach a wide saddle – if the scrub gets too thick detour slightly up the slope and it quickly opens up. The Armchair appears right ahead; walk straight to the base. It looks unclimbable but an ascent is possible for those with a head for heights.
Follow the gully from the base on the left hand side then climb the rocky ramp up other ‘arm’ of the chair to zig-zag up the southern face. The final section is a hair-raising scramble to the top. You can vary the return trip by combining this walk with Mt Gee – when you get to the broad saddle head right and uphill. The next high point is the junction of Radium Ridge and an unnamed ridge to Mt Gee, turn south and follow this to the summit (avoid the next valley as this is the location of the Mount Painter Well and the aforementioned radioactivity!).
Day 4: Painter Pound to Arkaroola Creek
From the campsite return south along Radium Creek – avoid the dry waterfall by following the Ridgetop Track for the first 1km or so until it crosses the creek. Turn left here and follow the creek bed back to American Gap, where there is some shade, making a good lunch spot.
The campsite for the night is less than 1km south – continue along Radium Creek to the wide sandy junction with Arkaroola Creek (marked by the old Echo Camp cairn). The flats on the riverbank just south of the cairn make an excellent campsite, just take care not to camp too close to any of the giant river red gums that are known to drop branches without warning, or in the creekbed itself which can flash flood on the rare occasions when it rains in this part of the world.
Day 5: Arkaroola Creek to Arkaroola Resort
After packing up camp walk downstream down Arkaroola creek for 20 metres, looking for a vehicle track that runs into the creekbed from the south (traversed in the other direction on day one). It can take some finding, if in doubt head south towards the rocky knoll directly ahead. If you don’t stumble across it on the way a short scramble up the slope will be enough to locate the track.
Pick up the road and head west before the track curves south to meet the junction with the Echo Camp Backtrack. From this point retrace your steps from day one back to Arkaroola – if you have spare change a cold drink at the café is an excellent way to end the trip.
NEED TO KNOW
This is the desert – don’t take it lightly. In summer it is usually at least 35 degrees during the day – not great for walking. Better to visit from May-September when the mercury is around the 20-degree mark. Always take plenty of water wherever you go and let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return; don’t expect much in the way of mobile phone reception. It’s a good idea to wear gaiters to protect against the prickly spinifex and the danger of snakebite – the snakes here are not any worse than other places in Australia but if you do get bitten it will be quite an effort for help to get you out.
Arkaroola is 700km north of Adelaide. From Port Augusta drive 107km north to Hawker then continue on the Leigh Creek Rd, ignoring the turn-off to Wilpena Pound on the right, and drive north along a very flat, straight highway along the western edge of the Flinders Ranges. Leigh Creek itself is 155km further on and represents a rare opportunity to fill up on petrol and basic supplies at a roadhouse. For a distance the road runs parallel to the Adelaide-Alice Springs rail line – you might be overtaken by The Ghan. A few kilometres past Leigh Creek take the major turn-off to the right on what is initially called the Balcoona Road. The road soons become dry gravel (easily navigable in a two-wheel drive vehicle) for a 150km westward journey cutting through the gap between the Flinders and Gammon Ranges. At the other end turn left on to Arkaroola Road and follow the signs to the eco-lodge.
The area is home to plentiful native animals but due to the heat you aren’t likely to encounter many of them, although you might catch a prized sighting of the endangered yellow-footed rock wallaby – keep your eyes peeled on the rocky cliffs and river banks. Reptiles including the colourful painted dragon are also common and there are more than 160 recorded bird species in the sanctuary.
The area of the hike is covered on the Wooltana and Yudnamutana 1:50,000 topographic series (you’ll need both). The Arkaroola resort usually has maps available but can’t be relied upon, best to pick them up before you leave home. This applies to all hiking equipment.
OTHER THINGS TO SEE AND DO
There are several day walks from the eco lodge that you can undertake yourself or join one of the guided tours. Once you get beyond the immediate surrounds of the accommodation there aren’t many marked trails, although four-wheel drive tracks criss-cross the ranges – the resort runs a number of day trips including the famous Ridgetop Tour or you can venture out in your own vehicle. Mountain biking is also popular and with only five cloudy days a year this is also one of Australia’s best stargazing destinations.
ACCOMMODATION AND SUPPLIES
Arkaroola has accommodation to suit most budgets from hotel-style rooms to a bunkhouse and camping area with powered and unpowered sites for caravans and tents. The campground has a laundry with basic facilities, showers, toilets and gas barbecues and a cafe that sells cold drinks to weary walkers. Bush campsites are also abundant.
For info on the sanctuary and walks see www.arkaroola.com.au or call (08) 8648 4848.