They say the fading sunlight hits Wilpena Pound just so here, momentarily turning the 560-million-year-old sandstone ridge blood red in a spectacle rarely seen elsewhere. But it’s cloudy today, the sun’s slipping to the west and the pound sits quiet, slowly darkening. “Unlucky,” we muse, though it’s hard to feel truly disappointed, for this enormous natural amphitheatre of mountains, the jewel of South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, is a marvel to behold regardless of the uncooperative weather.
Then, as though an invisible switch were suddenly flicked, nature launches her astonishing show. First, Chace Range to the east burns scarlet, the brilliant light moving visibly across the ridge face like a flame. Glancing north toward the pound, we watch the last streaks of winter sunlight paint a patchwork of shadow and red across Rawnsley Bluff’s rocky flank, too. Twice or thrice this otherworldly light fades, the performance apparently done, before returning for an unexpected encore that has us whooping in surprise once more.
Chace Range at sunset (photo: Koren Helbig)
Little could possibly top such a startling display of natural beauty; our trip’s highlight appears ticked off in our first hours of arrival. Until we retire to our accommodation, that is.
Rawnsley Park Station has been here since 1851, albeit originally as part of the far larger Arkaba Station, one of the first pastoral leases granted across “unoccupied wastelands” by the colony of South Australia. Those early farmers who battled drought, locusts and rabbits to eke out a difficult living running cattle and sheep across this arid and infertile land could never have imagined that tourists would one day flock to the area, offering an altogether different income stream.
The campers and caravaners came first; before a few savvy station owners threw open their doors, renting out old jackaroo huts or overseer’s cottages to visitors. With a campground, caravan park and holiday units, Rawnsley caters for all – but nothing quite matches the grandeur of the station’s eight eco villas, progressively opened from 2006.
Interior of an eco villa (Photo: Jacqui Way)
It’s the kind of luxury you’d never expect to find here in the Outback, about five hours’ drive north of Adelaide. For starters, each tasteful yet sustainable villa is made from rendered straw bales that provide excellent thermal insulation against the searing summer sun and chilly winter wind. Air conditioning vents punched through polished timber floorboards, laid over suspended concrete slabs, warm our entire villa within minutes – but the straw walls and double glazed windows are so effective that we sleep comfortably through the night with the heating switched off, even as temperatures outdoors dip below zero.
These Eco Tourism Australia-certified villas are the brainchild of Tony and Julieanne Smith, who took the property over from Tony’s father in 1985. Back then, Rawnsley was a small and struggling 3000ha sheep station; today the place has grown to 12,000ha and attracts more than 20,000 visitors each year.
“In the last 20 years, everything we’ve done has been designed with the idea that it would be sustainable, energy efficient and stand the test of time,” Tony, a fourth-generation Flinders resident, says. “The environment changes slowly here in the Outback. I’ve seen bushfires in Wilpena and watched as it takes 20 to 30 years for those shrubs to regenerate. When you see that slow recovery, it makes you think you shouldn’t damage anything.”
Tony and Julieanne Smith (photo: Randy Larcombe)
The Smiths now run only 2000 sheep to avoid the overgrazing mistakes of the past and even strategically placed their eco villas to avoid ripping out too much native sticky hop bush.
The next morning, ready to see it all for ourselves, we lace up the walking boots.
Seven walking trails are marked across Rawnsley Park Station, ranging from an easy 45-minute stroll to a five-hour trek up and into Wilpena Pound. Opting for the challenge of the latter, we follow a dry creek bed to the foothills of the main range until the trail steepens into a rocky climb that quickly sets the heart racing. It’s difficult but temporary; the track soon levels out again and we march on toward Rawnsley Bluff.
Our destination is announced by a stone survey cairn erected as a trigonometrical marker back in 1858, and a faded informational sign reveals the fabulous story of this bluff’s larrikin namesake. Back in 1850, Englishman HC Rawnsley falsely presented himself as a surveyor to the SA Governor and worked the job for three months before he was found out and fired for incompetence. More than a century later, his name lives on.
View from Rawnsley Bluff (photo: Koren Helbig)
Perched on rocks near the cairn, we pause to munch sandwiches as a wedge-tailed eagle soars overhead, the quiet rustlings of nature broken only periodically by the distant rumble of a little plane – tourists taking scenic flights from Rawnsley across to the nearby Bunyeroo and Brachina gorges or Lake Eyre.
Eventually we scuttle back, save for a quick detour down a 600-metre path to a lookout over the grand centre of Wilpena Pound itself. Feet aching and with the winter wind catching speed, we collapse gratefully into the comfort of our eco villa. Hot showers and warm dinners are not far away, and there’s not a tent in site.
(Header photo: Randy Larcombe)
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