First-light is referred to in the picturesque Outback slang as ‘sparrow’s fart.’ It was not this, however, that greeted us as we stepped out of our cabin, but the cackling call of the kookaburra that is known as ‘the bushman’s clock.’ We’d cracked a few stubbies the night before and, as we started out towards a ridge that was just beginning to rear up against the paling sky, my usually tireless sidekick Crocodile Dougee was sporting eyes like the slits in Ned Kelly’s tin helmet.



A couple of emus watched us gawkily as we followed the trail into a dry gully where surprised kangaroos and the smaller euros bounded away ahead of us. We climbed quickly away from the few raggedy desert oaks and ghost gums that dotted the plains towards sparse forests of native pines and the sun was already burning fiercely by the time we reached the tree-line at Lone Pine lookout. From here we could see our cabin beyond the shearing sheds of Rawnsley Park Station and, farther off in the heat-haze, to where the burnt-yellow bush finally merged with the tricky mirages of the Outback horizon. We rested for a few minutes and then turned to walk up over the ridge to where a totally different view would greet us. An immense natural amphitheatre lay spread before us, with patches of eucalyptus shining silver in the clear morning light and sporadic water courses that were marked by marching lines of red river gums. It was easy to appreciate that this ‘lost world’ was part of one of the oldest landscapes on earth.


It is said that way back in the Dreamtime an Aboriginal hunting party was surrounded at a waterhole here by a pair of giant water-snakes, each twelve miles long and five hundred metres thick. After a long and desperate battle the hunters managed to kill the snakes and their bodies finally petrified to form the walls of one of the most spectacular and unspoilt jewels in Australia’s natural treasure trove. Geologists say that these twenty-five miles of abrupt walls are all that remains of an immense mountain that was worn down and hollowed out by the rainfall of countless millennia but, to the layman at least, the mind-boggling timescale needed for such an excavation serves to make this almost as unbelievable as the Aboriginal story.


Wilpena Pound, as this ‘lost world’ is now known, is the geological pride of South Australia. To the south it is a 280-miles drive to Adelaide, the state capital, and to the north there are 400 miles (as the wedge-tailed eagle flies - assuming even he could survive the journey) of lizard-baking ‘Red Centre’ before the Queensland border-town of Birdsville.


Because of this relative inaccessibility Wilpena Pound has managed to preserve a power and a beauty that frequently eludes visitors to that most famous of Outback icons in the Northern Territory, where thousands of tourists (known to the traditional owners as minga – ants) swarm over Uluru in defiance of polite requests by the Pitjanjatjara elders to refrain from climbing on their most sacred monument.


St Mary Peak, the highest point on the walls of Wilpena Pound, representing the head of the male water-snake, carries a similar power for the Adnyamathanha Aboriginals of the Flinders Range. Pauline Coulthard, an Adnyamathanha woman, explained the significance that the peak still holds for her people today: “As we were growing up we weren’t allowed to climb Ngarri Mudlanha (St Mary Peak). Ngarri Mudlanha means ‘the mind waits’ – the mind pauses and you can’t think straight. The Adnyamathanha people won’t climb the peak because of its religious power.”


Despite its incredible age the Flinders Range is still in the process of rearing higher above the sea and the area is prone to frequent earth tremors. As always the aboriginals have their own way to explain these vibrations; an Adnyamathanha legend tells of a monster called Kaddi-Kra who sought refuge in an underground cavern in Wilpena. The cavern caved in and the rumblings that can be felt today are attributed to the frantic attempts of Kaddi-Kra to claw his way out.


In 1851 a stockman called William Chace followed some Adnyamathanha hunters through Sliding Rock Gorge, the steep-sided gully that is still the only way into the crater, to become the first white man to enter the sacred world. The Aboriginals called it Wilpena, which means ‘Cupped Hands’ and possibly related to the way in which wildlife and nature seemed to have been scooped up and protected here. To Chace the high, regular walls resembled a gigantic cattle-pound and so the name developed.


It seems that Chace had arrived during a benevolent wet season and his report of the lushness and abundance of the area inspired many white settlers to move to the area. A decade later the unreliable rains dried up altogether and a third of the area’s sheep and half of the cattle died. Many of the Adnyamathanha population had starved by the times the heavens opened again three years later…with floods and bitterly cold winds that decimated the survivors still further.


The Adnyamathanha looked on these ‘heaven-sent’ calamities as punishment from the ancestor’s for allowing the invasion of sacred Wilpena by outsiders. From where Crocodile Dougee and I stood, on the back of the female snake, we could use St Mary Peak as a reference point to pick out the position of Hill’s Homestead where a pioneering family spent a futile twenty years trying to tame Wilpena. In 1904 The Hill brothers began work on the road through Sliding Rock Gorge that would finally allow them to get their wheat and wool to market. They were frequently endangered by the scrabbling of Kaddi-Kra and it took several years to complete, through a season of prolonged drought…but just a few short days for flash floods to demolish it. The Hills must at times have shared the opinion that their efforts were cursed by the spirits of Wilpena.


Today Wilpena Pound is one of Australia’s most pristine national parks and all that remain of those pioneering days is the old homestead and a few rusting iron tools that commemorate the tough pioneering spirit while simultaneously paying homage to the unconquerable toughness of the Australian Outback.