Charms of the serpent

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Max Anderson can only marvel at the geology but is enthralled by ancient tales of a scaly-backed landform.

'What is it?" Maria from Sydney, freshly disembarked from a Cessna light aircraft, asks the question all guides in the Flinders Ranges must dread.

Wilpena Pound is one of Australia's most striking yet little-known natural wonders, looking like a volcanic crater rising out of the South Australian desert. And it's a bugger of a thing to explain.

"Well, it's not a volcano and it's not a crater," says the owner of Rawnsley Park Station, Tony Smith, who is a pastoralist and pioneer of tourism in the region. He's been showing visitors around the formation for 35 years and, like the huge outback horizons, he's quiet and dry: "It'd be easier for me if it was a volcano ..."

To get your head around the "giant geosyncline", it helps to have a Cessna. From above, the Pound looks like a shallow cauldron of rock. The rim is a coronet of thousand-metre peaks and bluffs, half as high again as Uluru, enclosing a smooth saucer of land. This elevated depression is seven kilometres wide and 17 kilometeres long, one-and-a-half times bigger than Sydney Harbour, and carpeted by bushland in a Lost World sort of way.

But the Pound is just as impressive at ground level. "You're actually looking at an ancient seabed that was uplifted," Smith says. "The outer parts of the fold have been eroded; the edges of the Pound are remnant stumps of this huge fold."

Because there are no geologists in the group, elevated seabeds and eroded folds make no sense whatsoever. So we simply lean back and enjoy the view from Rawnsley Park, an 11,700-hectare working sheep station and one of two resorts on the fringes of the Pound.

Rawnsley Park is on the southern rim, looking up at great ramparts of bonney sandstone that obligingly flush with colour at sunset or silhouette sweetly under moon and stars.

Campers and caravanners watch while clutching cold beers or hugging crackling campfires. Residents of the $350-a-night straw-bale eco-villas take to their private verandahs to do pretty much the same, though they have recourse to air-conditioning, large baths, plasma-screen TVs and music systems that serenade the euros and kangaroos nibbling shoots among the shadows.

Because this is bush-walking country, people follow the Pound's many trails, traversing its gaps and climbing its peaks, including St Mary's, the highest at 1188 metres. When you breast the rim, the winds are warm and the wheeling wedge-tails look ominously close; the smooth bowl of the Pound rolls away beneath, quite unlike anything you've seen before. It seems to belong in Africa rather than Australia.

But this is not the Ngorongoro, it's the Pound - and only colonial Australians could come up with such an ugly name for so exotic a landform. A pound is an old English word for animal enclosure and Wilpena was the perfect place for cattle thieves to stash unbranded calves. Something very similar to the Pound appears in Robbery Under Arms; the movie of the same name used it as a location.

"The Adnyamathanha people call it 'Ikara'," says tour guide Haydyn Bromley. "Ikara is the name for the Pound itself - the space in the middle - and it means meeting place or the place where you sit."

Bromley is well-known in Adelaide for his indigenous tours, especially for his bush-tucker tour of the city's most Victorian of installations, the Adelaide Botanic Garden. But his heritage, as well as his heart, is in the Flinders Ranges.

There's a thoughtful monument to the Adnyamathanha at the old Wilpena homestead on the northern rim. Quotes from local Aborigines are carved into a sandstone floor evoking histories good and bad; overlaid are a pair of horseshoes, a length of barbed wire and a steel crucifix. Bromley uses it to draw a full picture of where the culture is today.

"In the 1940s, missionaries convinced the elders to abandon their traditional ways, so there was less and less story-telling and story-telling was vital to our culture. But no culture is static - it evolves," he says.

Perhaps as part of that evolution, Bromley tells stories to non-Aboriginal visitors. He takes the group on an hour's walk up Moonarie Gap to see cave paintings in the mouth of a huge head-shaped rock. There are crosses in ochre and groups of digit-sized people daubed in pipe-clay - groups of Adnyamathanha ancestors at Ikara where two giant serpents have circled, poised to gobble them up.

"The dreaming says these two 'Akurra' serpents formed the walls of the Pound. This rock we're sitting at," he says as he points to lobes of sandstone hanging like fangs from the ceiling, "is the head of a serpent."

Bromley introduces the Adnyamathanha elder Joe McKenzie, who has been in the area for all of his 51 years, and the talk turns to the local language that also attempts to describe Wilpena Pound. "St Mary's Peak is called Ngarri-Mudlanha," McKenzie says. "Ngarri means 'mind', Mudlanha means 'waiting'. We're never allowed to go up there because it's Ngarri-Mudlanha - 'waiting to take your mind'. The elders were warning us that it was high, that we'd get dizzy and disoriented and we'd be lost."

The elders were probably right. People have died in Wilpena, including the brother of the former South Australian premier, John Bannon. Lost in 1959, the boy's skeleton was found 18 months later. And even though we're a long way from scaling the rim, the exertion of the walk overcomes one of our party.

Next morning, we're introduced to a gentler way of sizing up Wilpena Pound. Before light cracks over the back of the ramparts, the stars are bright, the air is cold. Ian Hogben fires salvos of light, heat and gas into the collapsed envelope of his balloon: by 7.30am the air is crystal clear for take-off and aircraft VH-RAB, swollen with 1½ tonnes of hot air, lifts our creaking wicker basket into the sky. "We're at the mercy of the wind," Hogben says, "but I hope we'll be drifting eight kilometres to the south." He fires off another roaring salvo overhead. "It's more sailing than flying."

As we rise in eerie silence, the seemingly arid plains around Rawnsley become intense visions of colour and texture, disclosing thick arteries of greenery, fickle watercourses and complex weaves left by contour ploughing. And at 760 metres, the Pound's ramparts start to show their form.

As to the question, "what is it?" Well, it's clearly the ancient heave of the Earth's crust. And it's quite obviously the scaly back of an encircling serpent. It's also strange and enthralling and, in the warm robes of a Flinders dawn, it's undeniably beautiful.

Max Anderson travelled courtesy of South Australian Tourism Commission.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Qantas flies nonstop (80min) from Melbourne for about $103 and from Sydney (2hr 10min) for about $138. Fares are one way, including tax. Jetstar and Virgin Blue fly from both cities while Tiger flies from Melbourne only. Fares start at $38 one way with Tiger Airways.

Staying there Rawnsley Park Station's eco-villas cost from $350 a couple. Rawnsley has also opened Arkapena Homestead, a refurbished 1950s building. The luxury property has a pool and a verandah looking to the Pound. Cost: $490 a night for two adults ($590 for four), including continental breakfast provisions.

Caravan sites, a bunkhouse and 3½-star motel accommodation are also available, costing $20-$95 a person, a day.

If you're not self-catering, Rawnsley's Woolshed Restaurant is a great place to recover from a day around the Pound. It serves sizzling flame-grilled steaks, roast lamb and specially bottled Dusty Dog wine.

See rawnsleypark.com.au.

Touring there Haydyn Bromley's Bookabee Tours: chauffeured four-wheel-drive tours into the Flinders Ranges can be booked ex-Adelaide. Lasting two to five days, these cultural experiences are all-inclusive and cost from $995 a person twin share. See bookabee.com.au.

Goldrush Ballooning offers Flinders Ranges flights from July to September. Flights cost $330 a person and include post-flight champagne and breakfast at Rawnsley's Woolshed Restaurant. See www.goldrushballooning.com.au.

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