Arkaba Station looks smaller than it does in photographs, a white dot set against the vast red earth, but then anything built by man is made puny by these Valley of the Gods surroundings. Flinders Ranges is Australia’s largest stretch of mountains – 450 km of scorched, craggy peaks forged by hundreds of millions of years of geological push and shove and the occasional tectonic upheaval.
It’s a barren landscape , equally seductive as it is sinister and the sheer size of it messes with your sense of scale and distance. What appears to be flat, walkable land, as far as the eye can see, turns out to be ground furrowed by steep gorges and dry creek beds. As with all deserts, it exudes a hypnotic pull that invites you to step into the unknown and keep going until every drop of life has been sucked out of you. This was aboriginal territory until the Europeans moved in around the mid 19c . Back then Arkaba was one of a number of sheep shearing stations, but lack of water, transport and mind numbing loneliness conspired to break the spirit of many pastoralists and even the miners who came after them . Still, Arkaba has remained operational, one of a handful of survivors.
It’s late afternoon by the time I rumble down the narrow track of the drive. The landscape is softened by a pale pink heat haze which will soon turn into a blood red sunset. As soon as I draw up, Brendon, Arkaba’s uber courteous front of house man appears with a glass of chilled juice and the offer of a tour.
This original old stone homestead property has been unpretentiously renovated into a five bedroomed lodge with leather-chaired library and a simple open plan kitchen/dining room where, Brendon informs me, supper will be served as soon as the other guests return from their hiking/petroglyph viewing/hot air ballooning/bird twitching activities. I get a quick glimpse of my bedroom, a wooden floored suite decorated with watercolours of parrots before he departs, foolishly leaving me on a verandah next to a fridge full of wine, presumably to dull the pain of three days without cell or wi-fi coverage.
Being a loner, or, just plain unfriendly, I am daunted by the prospect of a communal dinner, infinitely preferring to spend the evening in my room with supper on a tray and sulking about my speeding ticket, but in the end, I’m glad I don’t. The station’s fellow guests, two charming English couples soon appear and after some mutual sniffing out, we all sit down to dinner hosted by Brendon – whoah! Not polite at all, but an evil and entertaining subversive.
Resident chef, Richard, a cross between a Tasmanian devil and Oliver Twist’s Mr. Bumble, stands over us, wooden spoon gripped in over- sized paw, waiting for quiet in order to inform us of what’s on tonight’s menu. Having eaten nothing all day but three gas station chocolate ice-creams, it’s hard to concentrate on anything other than the orchestral maneovers of my stomach. I vaguely catch something about kangaroo and saltbush before a lot of quite strange looking food appears, all of it delicious.
Arkaba keeps safari hours, so it’s lights out at 9.30 and a knock on the door at some ungodly hour the next morning. I roll out of bed to dark skies and the chill of dawn. Normally I can’t keep down breakfast before 10 a.m. but the smell of fresh baked bread is too much and merely a prelude to porridge, bacon, fruit salad and fresh squeezed juice. Sometime during this feeding frenzy our guide appears and eventually to the soporiphic chirp of birds, we are settled into a funkily kitted out jeep and plied with apples and blankets.
I am growing increasingly grouchy. For someone suffering from severe ADT , a day of snail’s pace driving in order to admire far-away things through binoculars is not my idea of adventure. Moreover, having spent the last forty- eight hours in a car, my brain is close to atrophying. I’d been looking forward to something more along the lines of a full day’s hiking, a compass accidentally smashed, leading to some energetic bushwacking , accompanied by the inevitable ‘which way’ arguments of the guests. After thirty miles of stumbling around in blister inducing circles, there would be much enjoyable recrimination and blame as the bonds of politeness snap – signaling the onset of dangerous dehydration, which would , with any luck , lead to violence culminating in one of the guests ( preferably not me) stumbling backwards , tumbling into a gorge and sustaining oh dear! a serious head injury, compounded by a bite from the snake onto which they were unfortunate enough to land - all of which would necessitate the use of morse code and/or carrier parrot dispatched to the unlicensed pilot ( possibly drunk and played by Ed Harris in the movie) of an overhead Cessna, which would lead to a thrilling rescue and return to base camp just in time for canapés and sundowners.
When it becomes clear that today’s clock is not to be set to my speed, I come over all Randle McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, inciting the inmates of the Oregon state insane asylum to riot.
Our guide, Kat , however, turns out to be no Nurse Ratchett. A Scots adventuress with enviably good skin, she pays little attention to my petty insubordinations which include leaping out of the still moving vehicle and stalking off down the track while she’s in mid-flow.
The reason she can afford to ignore my childish displays of temper is because she knows that knowledge is power. Kat is a splendidly well informed geek whose head is a veritable almanac of flora, and fauna , the minutiae of bird behaviour and the life and loves of insects. No tiny green shoot is left un admired, no animal dropping unprodded and this, contrary to expectation, turns out to be more therapeutic to the brain than any amount of electro shock therapy. Kat’s enthusiasm is infectious and so I abandon my disturbed patient behavior and start paying attention instead . We learn how to differentiate wallahs from gallahs, identify the laugh of the kukabara and build a nest that any wedge tailed eagle would be happy to call home. If you’re a twitcher , this is quality ornithological porn and after four or five hours, we’ve barely covered a fraction of Kat’s internal data base. ‘ See this innocuous little brown pod?’ She pounces on what appears to be a grain of dirt. ‘It’s called wattle.’ she holds it up admiringly, ‘ and these seeds inside were collected then ground by the aborigines to make flour and bread.’
‘Oh for a wattle bottle right now,’ I whisper pitifully and almost as soon as the words are out of my mouth, a vehicle is spotted in the distance, rumbling towards us with a cargo of freshly baked muffins and hot tea.
Turns out there’s plenty of adventure to be had at Arkaba. Those who talk the talk are invited to do the walk: four days of hiking and sleeping out under the stars. Sadly, there’s no time this trip and stormy weather puts paid to my plan B of scrambling up one of the peaks, but no matter – with 60,000 acres of land and only ten guests with the right to roam it, there’s no shortage of exploring .
In the afternoon we trip off to the wool shed, a beautiful stone and wood building, constructed from a mid-western American kit and still very much in use for shearing and the occasional local hooly. The rest of the time is spent admiring the gnarly river red gums which line the creek beds, identifying the carcasses of dead things …
or scaring the poor ridiculous emu into picking up their feather skirts and making their inelegant dash across the high ground .
Wildlife here is flourishing largely due to a policy of rigorous culling, or as Brendon and Kat somewhat gleefully call it, Arkaba’s ‘feral ops.’ Animals, not indigenous to Australia are unprotected which means that cats, foxes, goats, and certain high maintenance guests better be on their guard. This culling, whether shooting, trapping, poisoning or warren ripping is a painstaking and not always pleasant task, Brendon and Kat claim, but none of us miss the flash of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett in their eyes, a suspicion which increases when they suggest driving us an hour and half deeper into the outback to sample the ahem…notoriously good meat pies of the Prairie Restaurant in Parachilna.
In the end, Arkaba isn’t about the thread count of sheets or the fluffiness of towels, even though it has all these things. This is a lovely place, romantic, bleak , defiantly wild. With its constantly changing light and colours, Flinders Ranges is one of those corners of the world – and they’re getting fewer, which still has the ability to creep into your soul and take up permanent residence there.
As I turn out of the drive and head south to Adelaide, I spot a bird balancing on a tree.
“Oh look,” I say to myself, ”a variegated fairy wren on a harlequin emu bush.”
NB . Any decent photos on this blog were taken by Philip Currie or Slawek Czuprynski, both of whom actually understood how to use their cameras.