Last Updated on May 6, 2021 by Red Nomad OZ
‘Now we’ll see some REAL scenery!’ Doug announced, herding us away from the spectacular outlook from Coulthard’s Lookout towards our convoy of two vehicles. The Arkaroola Ridgetop tour was well underway.
But I was sceptical.
The ragged mountain ranges (yes, I’m channelling Aussie poet Dorothea Mackellar*) glistened and glowed in a glorious 360° panorama in the perfection of a clear Outback day.
Could it really get any better? I thought Doug was joking.
Our guide, commentator and driver was Arkaroola’s most wanted man. That’s if the caption under the photo of his younger self in the dining room spoke the truth, anyway. Doug was rocking the Arkaroola Ridgetop Tour – the Wilderness Sanctuary’s ultimate 4WD adventure, and elevated it from excellent to extraordinary.
Building the Road
Luckily, mining company Exoil followed up on the wartime uranium exploration in this area, and ‘developed’ this ‘road’ in the late 1960s. Otherwise, it’s unlikely we’d have been jolting our way deep into the otherwise trackless wilderness through this more remote, wild and sensationally beautiful South Australian landscape.
Carving this rugged road from the edge of civilisation into the ragged mountain range wilderness was logical to further investigate the uranium mining option.
Luckily for us, once the uranium exploration was done it was logical to someone else to turn this rugged road into a tourist drive! Despite the $AUD40,000 it costs to restore the track after each of the 1-5 washouts it gets each year.
The Arkaroola Ridgetop Tour
$AUD120 gets you a berth on the purpose-built 4WD bus.
Yes, tourists actually pay for the privilege of 4 hours of jolting in an open tray-top. The track has near-vertical climbs and plunges across sheer rock seams interspersed with creek beds full of boulders. It’s got wheel ruts the size of irrigation drains and ridge-tops so exposed the strong gusts of wind could suck the unwary into oblivion.
That means the tour isn’t necessarily the best choice for acrophobics, back-seat drivers or vertigo-sufferers! And if wide-open spaces give you the heebie-jeebies? Maybe you’re better off on an air-conditioned bus …
Tour? Or Gym??
As our vehicle shuddered over a particularly large rock, the seatbelt round my waist was the only thing preventing an ungraceful slide into the tailgate – or beyond. My experimental photography technique – developed especially for this tour – was working surprisingly well, all things considered.
But I wouldn’t have taken a several-kilometre morning walk if I’d known just sitting in the back of the truck would give me a full body workout!
As an added bonus, we were the odd ones out in our two-vehicle convoy. A 10-camper group made up the rest of the tour. They must have vowed never to be separated by more than 100 metres at any given time, which made each stop an fascinating anthropological experiment.
I didn’t need the childish thrill I got from wandering into random strangers’ group photos. But I took it anyway!
Travelling through the stunning scenery, varied land forms, unusual rock formations and unique vegetation in these wild mountains provides enough thrills for a lifetime. But following the track past the imposing Mt Painter, and Mt Gee – composed of quartz crystals – was gasp-inducing on several levels. These aren’t even particularly high mountains, even by Australian standards.
The road-builders clearly couldn’t be bothered building a road in lazy curves when perpendicular obviously got them there faster.
After an ascent so steep I was starting to think we couldn’t possibly return this way without dropping off the face of the earth, we reached the final climb to the ultimate pinnacle of the tour – Sillers Lookout. Named, as I should have guessed, for then-chairman of Exoil.
Luckily, Doug could turn the vehicle on a dime because the ‘space’ on top of the lookout left no margin for error. High atop a rocky knoll, we overlooked the rugged grandeur of the Freeling Heights. They drop suddenly and completely away to a “vision splendid of sunlit plains extended” (AB Paterson said it first and best**) WAY out across Yudnamutana Gorge to the vast salty expanse of Lake Frome. I leaned against the (thank god someone built one) fence feeling a little weak at the knees. Strangely not from the hair-raising ride, but from the vista of such awesome and utter FAAAAABULOUSNESS. I was struck by the uncharacteristic feeling of being lost for words.
‘Does the drive ever make you nervous?’ I inanely asked the driver of the 2nd vehicle as we enjoyed an Aussie lamington for afternoon tea. He’d had 20 years experience of regularly making this drive twice a day.
He looked at me with a strange mixture of confusion and pity that clearly indicated nervousness wasn’t part of his psyche.
‘Sometimes it’s difficult when it’s wet,’ he conceded.
Wet? People drove on this road when it was WET?
But, after establishing there was no alternative route back, I realised being scared witless was pointless.
Blasé was WAY better.
After a while, negotiating steep slopes, deep ruts, sheer rock surfaces and a road surface so uneven it seemed more like a paddock just became commonplace. Ho hum, another minute, another sheer wash-away. Or descent down a rock wall. Or major wheel-wrenching boulder pile …
So, the Arkaroola Ridgetop tour return trip became uneventful, unless you count the strong gust of wind that lifted Pilchard’s hat giving us both a nasty Green Island flashback. Oops, it was happening again. But this time, the chin strap caught and held. Now all he had to worry about was whether saving the hat was worth being garrotted by the strap …
After calling in at Mt Gee to view a selection of minerals and an unscheduled stop to admire Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby, we arrived back at Arkaroola Village exhausted AND exhilarated by our extreme 4WD adventure.
South Australia is often overlooked as an Aussie tourist destination in favour of better known natural attractions like … well, YOU know.
But for the ultimate, jaw-dropping, unforgettable, super-sublime Aussie adventure? Trust me – and take the Arkaroola Ridgetop Tour***!
* Dorothea Mackellar’s great Aussie love-poem My Country
** Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s classic Aussie lament Clancy of the Overflow
*** Yes, I’m still struggling with appropriate superlatives. No, they’re not paying me. More’s the pity. But if they did, I’d trade it in for another go at the tour. Yes, it really IS that good!
Read AND See MORE:
See it LIVE on YouTube —> Final ascent to Sillers Lookout
Arkaroola Dreaming – my Flickr photographic fantasy
@Cathy – I’ll forgive it being unforgiving (if that makes sense) when it looks this good!! Even for me this was amazing …
@Chris – This is a fairly uncommon wallaby … and MORE than happy to be in someone else’s vehicle 🙂 We managed to keep all 4 tyres intact, which is apparently quite rare in this part of OZ!
The Wallaby!!!!! Nice find!!! Those drives are some of the most fun when it’s with someone else’s vehicle:) We did one recently like that where we blew out our tire! But like you’ve written, the views are goreous….fabulous….exciting!!!!
You really capture the heart of the outback Red (but wait … no loos?!!) I could feel your trepidation and sympathised with the feeling you had that to be blase is better than fearful. I have done some pretty rugged African tracks when things fly off the back of the Bakkie – “Eggs, oh what eggs? Um, was that my guitar I just saw flying through the sky in the rear view mirror?” – when really I am trying hard to control my hysteria. Your story today was beautiful, and I loved the references to poets and poems. Keep on truckin’
Your photos are great, OZ! I’m always amazed by your spectacular landscape and its vivid colors. I bet it can be unforgiving when it wants to be. That must have been one bumpy ride.
@George – I’m sure the tour drivers think of people like me as utter drama queens. They’re probably right … but SO glad I did it, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat!
@TFG – My first foray into the world of extreme 4WD (by my definitions, anyway). Will it be the last? Wait & see!
@FigMince – Us South Aussies get a bit starved for green after long, hot & dry summers like we’ve just had. But I LOVE the Outback colours!
@Karen – I can’t believe so few people I know have even heard of it, let alone done it!
@Jo – HAhahaha … my only tour regret was the absence of ANY loo, let alone a scenic one!!! And after awhile I was more concerned about getting some good shots than what the road looked like! Our guide was an awesome driver, so I left it up to him without doing the back-seat thing!!
@Image Bloke – Thank you & have a great weekend!
@Go Camping – The tour is the only way we would have seen the lookout! And the campers were travelling in a pack – they sure didn’t like being split into two vehicles!! Call me crazy, but I didn’t get why that’d be a problem … we’ve come across these groups before – it’s all about being together, doesn’t really matter where they are!
@MJWC – Hahaha!! Can’t believe this tour’s got something in common with Atlantic City!!! That’s hilarious!!!
@Arija – Thank you for whetting my appetite for more (not that I really needed any further enticement to return)! We have left quite a lot to do for next time – but we’ll probably need a different vehicle for most of it. I’ve just read Griselda’s book & it’s AMAZING! Can’t wait to see some of the places you’ve recommended that we didn’t get to this time!! I think we’ll just have to stay WAY longer than 4 nights next time …
@ladyfi – Thank you!! I was lucky with the wallaby. Lucky the truck actually stopped, that is!!
@PDP – And I’m VERY happy to be your guide!! But isn’t the possibility of FAAAAAABULOUS photos enough to entice you??
I see why you reacted to the green elsewhere. But that’s beautiful country, and a beautiful post about it.
Wow! Excellent photos! I lived in SA for a while. Took the Arkaroola tour, amazing place!
Still a great adventure. Thanks for your comment on my Who’s Signs. Would have loved to photograph them at night, but unfortunately didn’t get back there after dark. I’m sure the signs still work.
WOW!! That’s all I can say about both the scenery and your description of your adventure. I would truly love to take that tour, but I’m not sure I’m brave enough to do so. I’m delighted you are so brave and got these fabulous photos to share with us.
Have wondered about the paid 4WD adventures and it sounds like it gives an experience to remember (one that I couldn’t do with my driving skills). But the 4 hours of bumps certainly seems worth it judging by the photos, though your companions with fear of separation, intrigue me!
I’m ‘blase’ about so many things Red, but as I have all three of the above mentioned phobias, methinks I may be unable to rustle up any extra 🙂 I am very happy to b an armchair outback traveller with you as my guide!
Stunning views of your world. And I love that wallaby shot.
Thanks for taking me back to one my all time favourite place in S.A. We have been friends with the Spriggs since the year dot. I’ve been on the Ridge Top tour quite a few times, in the ‘official’ vehicle, in our own 4×4 as well as Reg Sprigg’s who lent it to us for the few days we had flown Peter’s mother up there for a visit. Mostly now, when I go up, I tend to go to the places the tourists don’t frequent. The Freeling Heights and Yudnamutna where I feel deeply at home.
I can never get my fill of the N.Flinders Ranges.
Did you do the Observatory lecture? When Doug does it you get completely fired up about astronomy. He is such an enthusiastic person.
What a beautiful tour. Your tour truck sounds like when we go to Atlantic City and take the Jitney from casino to casino. My back is usually out of place by the time we get to the first one.
@River – This is unbelievable country! So different to the rest of SA, let alone the rest of OZ! I’m sure you could find a tour from Adelaide that includes the ridge-top tour – but be warned! Your back may never be the same again!
@SFlaGuy – Haha, the only trouble with a zip line would be working out which breathtaking drop-off to start it from!! I’d got over it on the way back … but NOTHING would induce me to take up the driver’s offer to sit up front and see the steep bits close up! Ignorance is bliss!!
What a great place for a zip line. I would love to take that road once but maybe not twice in the opposite direction.
I’m very proud to live in a state that has some of the world’s most stunning wilderness. Do I have to be in Arkaroola to start that tour? Or do tours begin in Adelaide? I’ll have to get researching…..
@LONDONLULU – Oops! Sorry I missed you above … couldn’t believe that the scenery just kept getting better & better! But my superlatives haven’t come back yet – it was AWESOME!
@GL – Well, as you can see, words didn’t exactly fail me, I just ran out of superlatives … although I didn’t have a problem with expletives on the tour!!
@Jill – If you really CAN’T make it this time (it’s not THAT far from the Flinders Ranges) then make sure it’s on the ‘Must Do’ list for next time!
@Andrew – ‘Yellow’ & ‘foot’ are clearly euphemisms in this case – it can’t POSSIBLY be the poor quality of my photo, can it? CAN IT???
@Beach Bum – Hahaha! But I bet you didn’t have as much fun as I did …
@TMWH – Maybe the fresh air counteracted any suspicion of motion sickness?!?!?! And spare a thought for the driver who does it twice a day!
@Iris – Hahaha, but I actually PAID to sit in the back of the open tray. Although it DID have seats on it … After awhile I didn’t even notice the jolting – the scenery was SO AWESOME!
@eileeninmd – Haha, I wondered why they didn’t let you drive yourself on this tour!! Now I know!!
@FruitCake – The invertebrates would at least have been spared the bump & grind!!! Arkaroola itself was a revelation – where the uninspiring bits of SA get left far FAR behind!
@TFG – Feet, legs – what’s a few inches between friends, huh?!?!
@Fun60 – Much as I loathe the WAAAAY overused ‘Awesome’, it really IS the best way to describe the whole experience!
@Rose – Those Aussie poets really are the business, aren’t they?!?! When I visit places like this & words fail me, I know EXACTLY where to turn …
@Sallie – It IS exercise, I swear!!! The hanging-on, bracing, wedging, balancing and neck-swivel muscles will never be the same again …
@Carole M – If this is what happens whenever I get out of my chair, I’ll die happy!!
$AUD40,000 each year, by golly!
We hitchhiked on Fraser Island in the back of an open 4WD (on the load floor), boy I nearly fell out several times, that was a workout, too 😉 A frightening one!
Sillers Lookout is nothing for me, I nearly faded here on my chair in front of the PC!
Oh my goodness! My kidneys hurt just reading this, just imagining the rough road. Did they have car sick bags, or did people just lean out the ‘window’? Sounds like an adventure!
unfortunately Arkaroola is a bit far off our radar for our trip later this year Red – but WOW what a landscape! It certainly doesn’t look like a place the faint-hearted should be driving. Thanks for taking us along Red with your wonderful writing style and fabulous photos.
🙂 I was with you all the way Red; much easier from my swivel chair and a mug of caffeine in my veins. I missed out on the lamington though. Thrills, no spills, you did good to have taken on another thrilling Aussie adventure. Also loved that rock wallaby.
Beautiful 4WD country…but that’s a looooong time to bounce! (I am quite positive that it serves as exercise, I know just how you felt from the shorter drives we’ve taken. Our youngest son, the real Jeep guy of the family, would LOVE this place.
Yes, tourists actually pay for the privilege of 4 hours of jolting in an open tray-top on this track with its near-vertical climbs and plunges across sheer rock seams interspersed with creek beds full of boulders, wheel ruts the size of irrigation drains and ridge-tops so exposed the strong gusts of wind could suck the unwary into oblivion.
I joined the United States Army back in the 1980’s and did the same thing and got paid for it!
Wow what amazing scenery. Don’t think I could have kept the contents of my stomach to myself though.
He wasn’t joking in the least, wow! Love the scenery and looks like an amazing time was had by all. The wallaby is precious:)
Try some proper English this time. Spectacular, but about the yellow footed rock wallaby? Beautiful markings but I am not seeing yellow.
Great scenic photos of a fine adventure. Does not look like a place you want to run out of water, food, or fuel. Great panorama and wallaby, but I can clearly see it doesn’t have yellow feet.
See! I’ve telling you for years (well, two anyway) how spectacular that trip is and that it is an absolute MUST for anyone with the love of the outdoors in their soul. And, you’ve done a superb job of communicating the drive to others. All I do is rave about it, but you’ve crystallised and distilled the essence for all to see and read.
Just for once, words almost fail me! Definitely the drive to beat all drives.
G’day Red. Well really, aren’t the vistas, colours, and wildlife of this amazing country just jolly awesome!? And you left me with two of my all-time fav poems!
Have the best week M & P!
Ah, Arkaroola! In my youth I spent a great deal of time driving between Port Lincoln and Adelaide and I must say there is a vast expanse of South Australia that is not overly exciting. Arkaroola, though it looks at first glance like it might be “more of the same” was a revelation. You’ve done a good job of capturing the subtly impressive colour which is almost unique to the place. And thank you both from the bottom of my stomach – oops, heart – for allowing me to take that ride by proxy.
Inveterate but not invertebrate, eh?
What a way to explore the wilderness and the outback. Looks like a bumpy ride. Love the cute wallaby! Great post and photos!