Let’s start with the view from the campsite: a 180-degree panorama of terrain shaped over millions of years. From this vantage point – a ridge of russet Rawnsley quartzite – I can see the barricade of time-worn rock faces known as the Elder Range. The other side is the sheer bluff of geological amphitheatre Wilpena Pound, one of South Australia’s most famous sites.
I could stare for hours but my guide, Tony Smith, has other ideas. “What we need, Jo, is firewood. Once we have a fire going, I’ll get you a glass of wine.”
I’m in the Flinders Ranges, about five hours drive north of Adelaide. This afternoon my husband and I spent the better part of an hour following Tony’s lead up a steep incline littered with sandstone rocks, pebbles and boulders. We picked our way across a scrubby ridge strewn with mallee gum, native pines and spinifex to arrive at this site on the western side of the Chace Range.
We’re on an overnight guided camping escape offered by Rawnsley Park Station, which is owned and run by Tony and his wife, Julie. The 12,000-hectare property features accommodation that spans from a powered campsite and practical cabins to luxury eco-villas, where we stayed last night. The station has a range of experiences: guided walks, 4WDing, bike trails and more. For the daring, there’s even an option to sleep out here alone.
Our journey has included a 20-minute 4WD trip from the main station, navigating through deep dry creek beds and past gnarled old gums; a flock of emus and skittish roos darting out of our way. We crossed a red alluvial field, Mars-like in its colour and barrenness. And then our walk up the steep incline. It’s been an immersive afternoon, close to nature. But there’s an adrenaline-lovers’ version, too: a helicopter ride to the top that affords some close- up views of the spectacular geological formations this region is renowned for.
“The Flinders has lots of these places,” says Tony of our campsite. “But they’re not very accessible; this is one you can experience without having to carry a large pack.” In our daypacks there’s water and a few warm layers for the night, which we expect to be chilly, given it’s late autumn. Most of what we need is on site already: swags, sleeping bags, camp stove, camp chairs, composting toilet and so on.
Tony has carried all the food – and wine. The only thing we don’t have? Firewood. And it seems a fair exchange: wine, a hearty two-course dinner and this view as reward for fetching a few bits of kindling. We follow Tony back into the bush.
In the distance, the lights at the main station flicker. Apart from that, there’s not another soul for miles, which in the wake of COVID-19 feels just about right. After months stuck inside, I want to be out in the world. This kind of minimal-contact, nature-driven exploration is what I’ve been craving. We’ve already unrolled our double swag (more like a mini-tent) and helped set up camp. As we gather firewood, I briefly imagine myself a pioneer or explorer.
Back at camp, we watch as the sun dips low in the sky and the Elder Range is backlit. The valley turns into a blazing spectrum of red, orange and purple and the clouds begin to glow just like the campfire that’s starting to burn behind me. The breeze rustles through the gums and Tony says, “How does a Barossa GSM sound?” I take a sip. Not so much a pioneer after all.
“I didn’t expect this,” says Tony, gesturing to the sunset. This morning, low-hanging clouds hid everything from view. We sat in the warmth of our villa drinking coffee and eating the croissants from our provisions pack, wondering if we’d even have the chance of fresh air. Our accommodation had a fully equipped kitchen, deep soaking bathtub and wide veranda, and Rawnsley Park also has a pool and restaurant; we would have made do.
But we would have missed the sunset and the stars. I glance up and see the dome of dark sky twinkling between passing clouds. Soon, after dinner and brownies, we’ll retire to our swag and tuck ourselves in. Tomorrow, we’ll watch the sunrise and have hot tea and toast before trekking back down the steep incline. But right now, I feel miles from anywhere yet more connected than I have in the past six months.