‘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.
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. I thought Doug was joking.
Our guide, commentator, driver AND Arkaroola’s most wanted man (if the caption under the photo of his younger self in the dining room spoke the truth), Doug rocked the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary’s ultimate 4WD adventure Ridge-Top Tour and elevated it from excellent to extraordinary.
If mining company Exoil hadn’t followed up on the wartime uranium exploration in this area (with the only radioactive spring in the world!), and ‘developed’ this ‘road’ in the late 1960s, 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.
Scarily, carving – and then USING – this rugged road from the edge of civilisation into the ragged mountain range wilderness was logical to someone.
Even more scary, 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.
And scariest of all? $AUD120 gets you a berth on the 4WD bus.
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.
Not the best choice of tour 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 …
As our vehicle shuddered over a particularly large rock, the seatbelt round my waist 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 that morning walk of several kilometres if I’d known just sitting in the back of the truck on THIS tour would give me a full body workout!
As an added bonus, being the odd ones out in our two-vehicle convoy with a 10-camper group who must have vowed never to be separated by more than 100 metres at any given time made each stop an fascinating anthropological experiment. But I didn’t need the childish thrill I got from wandering into random strangers’ group photos.
Because travelling through the stunning scenery, varied land forms, unusual rock formations and unique vegetation in these wild mountains provided 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. Why bother building a road in lazy curves when perpendicular gets you 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 overlooking the rugged grandeur of the Freeling Heights that 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 – with 20 years experience of regularly making this drive twice a day – as we enjoyed an Aussie lamington for afternoon tea.
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 the pedantic would call it a paddock just became commonplace. Ho hum, another minute, another sheer wash-away. Or descent down a rock wall. Or major wheel-wrenching boulder slick …
So, the 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 …
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 Ridge-Top 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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