The country around Arkaroola in the Vulkathunya – Gammon Ranges National Park is packed with ancient geology. The Adnyamanthanha called it ‘sick country’. It was University of Adelaide professor and explorer Douglas Mawson and Sir Mark Oliphant, the nuclear physicist who recognised the potential mineral importance of the area, including deposits of torbernite, a compound similar to uranium. It was Mawson’s pupil, Reg Sprigg who took out the lease on what is now the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary.
We arrived late in the afternoon and were settled for the night in Mawson Lodge. Janine had promised we would see a display of the rare yellow footed rock wallaby and sure enough at sunset, three appeared. They are Australia’s largest wallaby, but are under threat from goats, feral cats and foxes. They appeared quite tame, given they had an audience of humans, including a crying baby. We had earlier sighted the wallabies in the Brachina Gorge but trying to get close-up photos was impossible, as their habitat is confined to rock ledges and outcrops. At Arkaroola we sat patiently as they climbed over rocks close by and nibbled the food set out by a local ecologist, who gave us a running commentary on their habits.
In the evening we were treated to an astronomy display. Arkaroola sports three observatories and the remote location and low light policy allows visitors to see constellations with the naked eye as well as through telescope. We were fortunate to have a lesson from Mark, a retired science teacher who pointed out the constellations in our night sky with a laser and later, the barman Tristan, miraculously transformed into an astronomer, who showed us the planets close up via the digital telescope.
Next morning, we set off on our ridge top tour in three 4WD vehicles. Nine of us were sandwiched into each jeep which soon became bucking broncos as we traversed what were once geological survey tracks.
Andrew, our driver gave us a running commentary about the Sprigg family who had taken out a pastoral lease in 1956 in an attempt to protect the geological and environmental heritage. Reg Sprigg’s interest in rocks had begun as a child but he had excellent mentors in Oliphant and Mawson at the University of Adelaide where he studied geology. Radium had been discovered at Mt Painter in the early 1900’s but it was never mined due to a reduction in its commercial value in the early part of the 20th century. Sprigg, as the government geologist, was sent during the second world war years to source uranium. Even then the British were planning to build a bomb.
A memorial cairn is dedicated to Reg, who managed to protect the pristine environment from pastoralist and mining developers. We stopped at Split Rock for a view of Mt Painter and then carried on for another hour till we reached Sillers Lockout.
Siller was a bulldozer driver who agreed to put in a road to the lookout when building the survey roads, as long as it bore his name. Trying to imagine a bulldozer on the treacherous ascent was almost as impossible as trying to find a bush for us ladies to relieve ourselves, after our bladders had endured the 3 hour shake up of a lifetime.
We looked out over Freeling Heights to the north and over the Yudnamatana Gorge and the sheer white expanse of Lake Frome to the east. A cup of tea and a lamington did not go astray. On our return, Andrew pointed out saltbush, bush tomato, quandong and xanthorea clinging to rock ledges. It is an austere but beautiful landscape.
After lunch, we proceeded west past Leigh Creek to Lyndhurst where the Strzelecki Track begins and had a quick stop in Farina (Latin for ‘flour’), a ghost town which is being transformed by grey nomad volunteers. All these towns were originally springs or wells along the Old Ghan railway, which relied on water to service their steam engines. Farina has an underground Scotch oven, which for three weeks of the year produces the best scones for 100’s of miles around, all prepared by volunteers. They sell out in minutes and volunteers have to be rostered. The town is making a comeback!
Eventually we arrived in Marree.