If you know only the premier league of Australian attractions, the name Wilpena Pound may be unfamiliar. It doesn’t figure next to Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef or the Great Ocean Road on the whistle-stop itinerary of first-time visitors. It remains distant and untrampled, an extraordinary landmark in an epic and strange setting. The long stony spine of the Flinders Ranges stretches north from Adelaide across South Australia. At the end, just as the bitumen road runs out, right on the lip of the outback proper, is the Pound, an oval of sandstone and quartzite cliffs covering nearly 80sq km and rising to almost 1,200m at St Mary’s Peak. From the window of a small Cessna, it looks like the crater left by the world’s biggest volcanic eruption. But you may prefer the Dreamtime tale: that it is the remains of two giant serpents atrophied in the act of devouring one another. In fact, it was created by millions of years of desert winds.
That Wilpena Pound is off the tourist track has something to do with its location in what Australians used to call the Dead Centre. From Adelaide, we’ve flown 550km north-west to a place called Olympic Dam, watching the landscape loosen from packed urban centre to sprawled-out suburb to isolated farmland, from bush to scrub to red desert dotted with spinifex. It feels like a good place to begin an outback adventure.
For Olympic Dam is hot. And I don’t just mean the usual high 20s/low 30s°C daily temperature. This place is also a hotspot of the new outback economy. BHP Billiton’s mine here has the fourth-biggest deposit of copper in the world. Its future is also hotly contested. The mine is already a rich source of wealth and employment, but it’s about to get a lot richer. Uranium oxide is found here in greater quantities than anywhere else on the globe; Olympic Dam is seeking to become the world’s nuclear larder – “the Saudi Arabia of Uranium” as it’s been dubbed. There is already Saudi-like money pouring into the neighbouring town of Roxby Downs, opened in 1988 to service the needs of the 3,000 employees and contractors who work at the mine.
At the airport, I retrieve my bags from the conveyor belt – the first alfresco luggage carousel I’ve ever seen, aware that I’m being watched. Tall, in blue shirt and denims, white hair and youthful features, like a beefier version of the actor Steve Martin, he stands laconically, with a posture only Australian males know how to strike. No handwritten sign for him. “Mark, is it?” he says. Big smile, bigger handshake. “I’m Trevor. The pilot.”
One meaning of laconic is “terse, short of words”, and as we walk to the Cessna away from the miners and their families, I wonder how much conversation I’m likely to get over the next couple of days as we tour the monumental, yet mostly unvisited landscapes of South Australia. Still, hours in the air with a strong, silent outback type should be nothing if not restful. How wrong that turns out to be.
Trevor Wright’s company, Wrightsair, has three Cessnas and takes small groups on big journeys to the very north of South Australia, the driest state in the driest continent. He is prospering as curiosity grows about this dramatically beautiful part of the country. It isn’t only the mining executives who bring good money down here. There are plenty of city types ready to spend several thousand dollars on one of Trevor’s customised tours. He knows this land, its people and, above all, the off-limits parts. He recently took a party of bankers from Sydney to meet a grazier family way up north. “They yarned and yarned,” says Trevor. “It’s amazing what people can learn from each other.” You want to meet an Aboriginal artist or the guy in charge of the goldmine? Or lean on a fence and yarn with a grazier, squat on the ground and yarn with an elder up in Arnhem Land, yarn with a bar owner in the middle of nowhere? Trevor can fix it. He is a broker for yarns.
We ascend above Olympic Dam, and as the ancient landscape unfolds, Trevor starts to talk. He is not a blether, as they call over-chatty types in Australia, though neither is he short of words. The way he sees it, talking is a skill as vital as navigation and the ability to spot a dust storm brewing. “Folks have got their guard down a bit out here and you get some good yarning from them,” he says. “You get this great interaction of ideas and cultures.” The Dead Centre is very much alive, Trevor reckons, far from empty and anything but lonely.
But sometimes you just want to sit back, balanced on the thermals a few hundred feet up and gaze on the patterns in the land. For mile after mile, hour after hour, the last thing you are conscious of out here is the presence of humanity.
First we make a detour away from the desert, south-east back into the Flinders Ranges in order to fly over Wilpena Pound. We also take a look at Rawnsley Park Station – “a holiday village and boutique eco retreat” – that affords a glimpse into the outback’s more recent past and, perhaps, its immediate future. The old 1960s chalets are basic units with corrugated-iron roofs, simple twin beds, somewhere to lay down your compass, boots, binoculars and weary head after a hard day’s pounding the Pound. The newest lodges have the polished-wood floors, flat-screen TVs and leather sofas of the better class of boutique hotel. There is a new breed of traveller venturing out here in the footsteps of 19th-century adventurers. The main Wilpena Pound Resort has just been taken over by the people who run Australia’s most fashionable eco-lodge, the Bay of Fires in Tasmania, and is about to become a landmark in rough-with-the-smooth adventure luxury. Trevor can talk about anything, just about, but the topic of soft furnishings defeats him. So we wish good day to Rawnsley’s owners, go back to the airstrip and fly on to lunch at the Mungerannie Hotel, which is a few hundred kilometres up the line.
Here there’s another example of a chic desert resort, with a pool, a golf course, a restaurant and an executive airstrip. Don’t expect the Sheraton or Four Seasons to make a move for Mungerannie just yet, however. The airstrip is a dirt track in the desert. So, for that matter, is the golf course. The hole is a dead tree stump planted in some slightly different coloured bit of desert. The hazards are the skeletons of old pick-up trucks. The pool is a glorified ditch fed by an artesian well.
It’s also hard to see the owner, Mungerannie Phil, in the suit and smart shoes of the average hotel general manager. Phil is mainly hair, beard, hat and shades. He would look underdressed at a ZZ Top convention. But his beer is cold, he has plenty of fuel, tyres and an inexhaustible fund of stories, mainly about spine-chilling encounters between his mates and various representatives of the outback wildlife. But too soon Trevor tells us to finish up our beers and put away the pitching wedge. We have to drop in at Lake Eyre.
Lake Eyre is a vast saltpan 12m below sea level, making it the lowest as well as the driest place in the driest state in the driest continent. The lake comes to life, Brigadoon-like, with once-a-decade floods. With unfortunate timing, Donald Campbell chose one of Eyre’s rare damp periods to attempt one of his speed records in 1962. Unfortunately, he was after the land-speed record, not the water one, and it wasn’t until 1964 that he and Bluebird managed the feat. During another wet period in the 1980s, a small plane landed there and half sank in the mushy earth. Trevor skims us down low over the cracked, concrete ground. A small speck of black gets bigger in the expanse of blinding whiteness. There is the plane’s skeleton. The cockpit is more or less intact, the electrical wiring hangs in desiccated tendrils where the tailfin had been. It doesn’t take long for human things to get turned into archaeology out here.
We drift dreamily over the Painted Hills, a sci-fi landscape of perfectly rounded hillocks tinted pink and rust by leaching iron ore. Then we land at a sci-fi town, at Coober Pedy, nearly 846km north of Adelaide, and it’s here that you realise tourism flowers in the most surreal places.
We stay overnight in the Desert Cave hotel, a place whose name does not deceive. The rooms are carved into the sandstone – most of the town has been built underground, so extreme are the temperatures here. And the décor is startling: I wake with a start in the night thinking I’ve been locked into a 1970s discotheque.
Things aren’t any less weird the next day. In 1915, a teenage boy stumbled across an opal field. Now the landscape of Coober Pedy is peppered with a thousand plots as individual prospectors – there is neither BHP nor Rio Tinto here – work their claims. Little multicoloured hills of excavated soil dot the desert like mounds. You walk gingerly around the mines: a step in the right direction and you unearth an opal; in the wrong direction, you fall down a disused shaft.
I take a Down ’n’ Dirty tour around the mines and the subterranean dwellings. In fact, you don’t get at all dirty, such is the tomb-like cleanliness of the shafts. Nor are you likely to stumble upon an opal. But you do encounter unexpected things in this Mad Max landscape (the movie was shot here), such as Tom & Mary’s Taverna owned by a Greek couple and a Serbian Orthodox church excavated into the rock.
The next day we fly on, this time to Trevor’s local, the William Creek Hotel, in Trevor’s home town, William Creek, which with a permanent population of 10 is also the smallest in South Australia. But these outback hotels are eclectic and multicultural places, bringing in every passing driver, flyer, biker, gap-year Swedish barmaid and Japanese camera crew for thousands of kilometres. The walls, doors and rafters are covered with hats, T-shirts, badges, beer mats, business cards, 1950s brewery signs, 1970s Polaroid party pictures and foreign banknotes, as if the tin shack were one huge magnet attracting passing detritus from decades and decades of big nights out.
We don’t stay the night, though the youth hostel-ish rooms were clean, bright and with handy signs identifying the local lethal snakes. Our taxi (another light aircraft) back to Adelaide, 800km south, is waiting on the runway. But at least we’d finished this driest trip in the driest state in the driest inhabited continent in the right place: the pub.