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Andrew Bain takes a luxury guided walk in the Flinders Ranges, where the stops are as important as the steps.
In a dry creek bed in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, heat is radiating in waves from the walls of the gorge. River red gums provide rare moments of shade, but still the sweat pours from my body. I’ve been bushwalking through this rough, tough country for three days and, mercifully, I won’t be straggling into camp to boil up the camper’s staple of pasta or rice.
Instead, a chilled towel will be handed to me when I reach camp. There will be a choice of wine and beer, a brie that’s softened to perfection, a three-course dinner and a hot-water bottle slipped into my swag.
I’m on the Arkaba Walk, the newest of a small but growing number of luxury guided walks in Australia. This one is through an ancient landscape, beginning in Wilpena Pound and traversing the 24,000-hectare Arkaba Station at the Pound’s southern edge. With the rust-red Elder Range as a continuous backdrop, every day is like stepping into a Hans Heysen painting. Emus scurry, looking like hedges on legs. Euros watch incuriously as we pass. Classic outback gorges slice through rock-tipped ranges and the shrubbery is dotted across the slopes as though painted into the scene.
For all that, one of the great appeals of walking here is that most of the rugged edges of bushwalking life have been smoothed. Walkers carry light loads, with their main packs transported between camps each day, and there’s an emphasis on fine food, wine and camp comforts.
‘‘The fundamentals are about the walk, about the environment and the habitat that people will be seeing,’’ says Charlie Carlow, the chief executive of Wild Bush Luxury, the owner of Arkaba Station. ‘‘Then it’s just underpinning that experience with a few key luxury standards and, basically, those are that you need to eat well, drink well and sleep well at the end of the day.’’
The Arkaba Walk has been operating since April 2011 and though it’s one of the first of its kind on the Australian mainland, the concept isn’t new to the country. Luxury private walks have been operating in Tasmania for more than two decades, from their beginnings with Cradle Mountain Huts in the late 1980s to the award-winning Maria Island Walk, which began in 2003.
It was an idea that was a long time coming for Australia, with inspiration drawn from global sources: the long-running private operation on New Zealand’s Milford Track and the opulence of African nature safaris.
‘‘Australia is to some extent playing a bit of catch-up,’’ Carlow says. ‘‘People have had great nature experiences elsewhere in the world where they’ve had some of these softer, luxury touches, which is what we’re now trying to do.’’
Walking across Arkaba, we meander more than the ephemeral creeks. One of the joys of bushwalking through this open land is that there’s no need to follow trails — we follow instead the lay of the land, walking below escarpments, atop escarpments, along ridges and across scree-like slopes. A couple of times we climb to places even our guide, the manager of Arkaba, Brendan Bevan, has never stepped. It feels exploratory and adventurous, even if there is someone ahead chilling beer and towels.
‘‘The thing in the forefront of everyone’s mind is that we’re not just trying to bring New Zealand or Africa to Australia,’’ Bevan says. ‘‘We aren’t trying to replicate anywhere else. We’re softening the roughing and toughing element, but you’re walking the same areas and seeing the same things.’’
Where the experience differs from an old-school, self-sufficient bushwalk isn’t so much in the steps as the stops. Accommodation on luxury guided walks ranges from private huts along the Overland Track and the timber-and-glass Bay of Fires Lodge to purpose-built wooden ‘‘tents’’ on Maria Island and swags with a view on Arkaba. Views and seclusion are paramount, complemented by restaurant-class menus featuring produce and wine as local as the scenery.
‘‘Somebody once wrote an article saying it was a scientific fact that food tastes better when you’re bushwalking and I think that’s quite possibly true,’’ the operator of Maria Island Walk, Ian Johnstone, says.
‘‘I think people are coming more for the whole experience rather than specifically for the food and wine, but the food certainly rounds the experience off. That’s why people think they’re getting value for money.’’
On Maria Island Walk’s roster of 25 guides, up to 30 per cent of staff have worked elsewhere as chefs or cooks. All guides receive instruction from Paul Challen, who has worked in kitchens in Switzerland and London.
On the Arkaba Walk, meals are prepared by chef Richard Corcoran at the station homestead and then cooked over an open fire at camp, bringing dishes such as chicken ragout with roast beetroot salad, or fillet steak wrapped in prosciutto, to the outback table.
If it seems a vast departure from the typical bushwalking victuals of pasta and packet sauce washed down with treated water, it’s meant to be. Luxury-walk operators aren’t targeting seasoned bushwalkers. Focusing on low volume and small groups – Johnstone says only about 2000 walkers are needed each season to make such a business viable – clients are more likely to be people whose wish to experience the outdoors isn’t equalled by their confidence.
‘‘It’s about walking but not having the fearful psychology of walking something like the Kokoda,’’ Bevan says, as we stand atop the rocky spine of a small ridge, wedged between Wilpena Pound’s southern wall and the layered slopes of the Elder Range. ‘‘We’re definitely seeing people who aren’t trekkers. The barriers are dropping away.’’
Johnstone agrees: ‘‘It’s really providing a niche for those who love the outdoors but haven’t done it before. Most of them don’t see themselves as hardened bushwalkers. They’re more involved in sporting clubs – golf clubs, sailing clubs.
‘‘It’s for the 90 per cent of the population who for a holiday think, ‘I’ve worked really hard, so I want to recharge my batteries’. The last thing they want to do is go off on something they think is going to be a slog, whereas a holiday like this is a really rejuvenating experience.’’
Emphasis is also placed on information and interpretation, giving guests a grounding of knowledge they could never attain walking on their own. For the four days I walk through Arkaba Station, Bevan is continually reading and deciphering the land – from the ancient rock, to recent floods, to hours-old animal activity. For Carlow, this kind of intuitive guiding is even more crucial to the walking experience than a good shiraz or steak.
‘‘Guides are the fundamental thing,’’ he says. ‘‘Guides that have the knowledge and the passion and the ability to communicate and get the guests inspired. And guides who can genuinely interpret country, so it’s not just regurgitating the spiel they’ve learnt in some corporate training thing. They’re reading and understanding what they might see, and constantly learning from the time they spend in the bush.’’
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Arkaba Walk.
Arkaba Walk, South Australia A four-day walk starting and ending at Arkaba Station. The walk operates mid-March to November and costs from $2000 a person. See arkabawalk.com.
Cradle Mountain Huts, Tasmania This four- to six-day walk along the Overland Track operates October-April and costs from $2850 a person; cradlehuts.com.au.
Bay of Fires Walk, Tasmania A four-day walk beginning at Stumpys Bay in Mount William National Park and ending with a kayak trip on Ansons River. Operates October-April, costs $2125 a person; bayoffires.com.au.
Maria Island Walk, Tasmania This four-day walk spans Maria Island’s west coast. Operates October-April, $2150 a person; mariaislandwalk.com.au.
Freycinet Experience Walk, Tasmania This four-day walk begins on Schouten Island and traverses much of the Freycinet Peninsula. Operates November-April, costs $2175 a person; freycinet.com.au.
Best foot forward
LUXURY guided walks are a small but growing business in Australia. In Tasmania, plans are in place for a 68-kilometre Three Capes Track on the Tasman Peninsula that, like the Overland and Milford tracks, will be frequented by independent walkers and a hut-based guided operation. It is being developed by the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service and is expected to open by the end of 2014.
On the mainland, there are also plans for new experiences. ‘‘What we have now could be the tip of the iceberg, since we have such a range of varied habitat around the country,’’ says Charlie Carlow, of Wild Bush Luxury, who suggests Arkaba Station’s parent company is considering similar walks on its other properties, including Sal Salis, near Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, and Bamurru Plains, on the edge of Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.
Ian Johnstone, of Maria Island Walk, says he also foresees new ventures on the mainland.
‘‘Based on what we’ve done in Tassie, there’s been a push to try to replicate that on the mainland,’’ he says. ‘‘There’s talk about doing one on Fraser Island.
‘‘The risk with some of the outback is that it’s beautiful, but you can feel like you’re walking through dusty lands with flies buzzing around your face. You need the right setting, where it’s a joy to be there. A place like Fraser Island would be great.’’