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!
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