Few travellers crossing Australia enter the realm where Arkaroo squeezed earth to rock, five hundred million years ago. No bus routes splice the backdrop built by the Water Snake, the Flinders Ranges, to South Australia’s roads. But if you’re Geraed Wusthof, Dutch wizard with Rubrix cubes, you’ll soon get past the Lochiel monster, and find someone who wants to spend a day in the Ranges as much as you do!
The Prado took twenty minutes to traverse Port Augusta and a road through saltbush and Stirling North. It wriggled through the wooded rock walls and blue bends of the Pichi Richi Pass. The pass dropped it into Quorn, a tiny town of stone buildings wearing old badges. Modern signs saying “art gallery” sprouted between fading signs bearing faded words in old fonts. In addition to an “emporium” or two, once there had been a flour mill, three hotels with guestrooms above their bars, and a steam train service.
Sometimes a steam train staffed by volunteers still tootled into the low stone station, but most station visitors come in cars. They pulled up beside a picnic area and a childrens’ playground. To the north the tarmac turned to rolled and graded yellow stone. It swished smooth through dusty straights and bends.
Somewhere in the sky the spirits of Seven Sisters watched the westward ridges. From these ridges they had travelled Umeewarra, the road to the stars, and regrouped as a blue-white constellation, the Plaeides. There they had matured, to middle-aged stars, still hot.
A side track left west towards their ridges, a snake wriggling up a creek. Its scales corrugated the surface. Kangaroos slept on it, in the shade of low eucalyptus trees with several stems. The snake’s head flattened into a car park, at the foot of a walking trail, shimmering in the heat. Two people standing beside a car looked at the mirages. They made no move towards them.
To one side, on a small knoll, metal formed the words The Dutchman, framed by a high crest in the distance. Mapping Australia’s coast, for 18th century Mother England, Matthew Flinders had been struck by the same mountain, from its seaward side. To him it shaped the distictive stern of a ship from the ports of the Netherlands. And Geraed hailed from Rotterham, the Dutch port Flinders would have remembered when he named this outback mountain.
“Please can you take my picture under it?” Out came a mobile phone. On its screen, a smiling Dutchman appeared beneath another Dutchman, one large and immobile. Further on another track curled up another creek. Green rushes marked the way of water. Crowded in winter, in the height of summer Warren Gorge was as devoid of walkers as water.
Geraed picked up a square kangaroo dropping and shook it at the flies surrounding him. “Why aren’t you interested in this!”
The yellow road north wandered still deeper into the plain. Once, the low, hard mountains to either side were floors of valleys. Mountains had applied pressure to them, before eroding around them, and levelling into orange clay. The yellow road north played on their last remains.
A side road led to a lookout with information about the council and councillors who built it, and the cost. Further on, it simply ended, leaving no way to go but back. “They tell you the cost. They don’t tell you the road does not go anywhere,” said the logical Dutchman.
The road forward crossed white crust in a dry streambed. It was not salt but caustic.
The road to nowhere was bending east. Going north was following ruts pressed by in orange clay through thin drying grasses and low succulent silver saltbush. The huge landscape hid gutters as large as cars ripping the clay apart. Sometimes shrubs lined them, more often slight changes in ground colour warned of them. The car disappeared into the ground, and rose again.
Now and again, rusty wire gates barred the way. Geraed quickly solved the puzzles presented by wires, hooks, and chains, but other puzzles were harder. “Why are there fences when there are no animals?”
There were animals, but this country supported few of them. A red kangaroo doe quickly hopped out of camera range. Kilometres on, beef cows wandered around a roofless wooden byre once topped by long rotted grass thatch. Others looked from windows in an abandoned house of stone. One stood beside a more recent trough and tank. Blades of a small windmill pumped underground water to them.
Not far ahead the track came to a T-junction at a floodway. Sheets of water one hundred meters wide had bored through the clay towards a distant salt lake. Remnants of huge red gum trees greyed in its dry wake.
Another stone road led to a highway, and the miniature town of Hawker. “I’ve never been to another town where scenic flights are the first thing you see,” said the Dutchman. At the airstrip, there did not seem to be any takers for them. The plane stood idle and alone in the face of the high quartzite walls of Wilpena Pound.
Twin peaks to the south looked much more interesting than the native pines hiding the views, walking trails and resorts around the Pound. They marked an ancient ceremonial ground of the Adnyamathanha people, for thousands of years sole custodians of Arkaroo’s ranges. For those with eyes to see, an old man turned to stone still watches over these sacred places. Geraed’s eyes were sharp.
A trail led to caves. From the air conditioning in the car, it looked like an easy traipse through the heat of a sun at its summer height. A last swig of water, and the Dutchman was under way. Flies soon crawled on his face, his hands, his hair.
The shadows of native pines cooled the air as the rock scrambling began. A wallaby peeped down at the trail. A flock of galahs finishing a feast of grass seeds ignored everything else around them. Small lizards, skinks, darted away.
Near the top, at the foot of a stairway into rocks, an educational board explained how to interpret images painted directly on the rock with charcoal and ochre. Many of the symbols depicted things seen from above. Kangaroos hopped in pairs of parallel lines. Emus left three pointed tracks. Meeting places formed circles. Other symbols told of ceremonies long ended.
Thousands of years had passed since the red, white and black ochre stories began to be told on the rock canvasses of the caves. No-one lived here now, but the stories of the ochring lived on, three hours by car to the north, in the place of the Native Orange Trees, the Adnyamathanha cultural and tour centre Iga Warta. And further afield, in Melbourne, the Australian Rock Art Research Association recorded their stories in ink as well as ochre.
When Geraed came down the stairs from the caves, he raised his camera phone before the sign again. “I will carry this with me. With understanding paintings have meaning.” He was right. He would see other paintings. Many symbols in them would be the same.
The sun was dropping now. One last fly from the hordes that accompanied Geraed to the caves found its way inside the car, and buzzed annoyingly around him. “Time for you to find new friends!” Geraed exclaimed, as he rolled down the window. The wind sucked his unwanted guest away.
It was time to go back. The car was a speck on a blue thread on the Willochra plain. It passed through Quorn, then Port Augusta. Here, a green sign separated the road to Darwin, 2000 miles ahead, from roads to Perth and Sydney, two cities long left half a continent behind.
And all of them were a very long way from I.T. B chasing Emerald Buddhas around the diamond walled temples of Kampaengphet!