Follow the tracks of Australia's unusual new star

Her name is Mona and she has the presence of a movie star. She walks with head held high, oblivious to everyday concern. Her screen double walks beside her, and a string of assistants trail along behind.

Mona is a camel, but she is also one of the stars of the recent movie Tracks, the story of Robyn Davidson's 1977 camel-accompanied journey on foot from Alice Springs to the west coast. Much of the movie was shot in South Australia's northern Flinders Ranges, less than 50 kilometres from where we are now walking.

For five days we will trek through the dry creek beds and arid mountain lands north of Blinman​. With us are seven camels, loaded up with almost everything we will need – water, food, clothing and swags.

We are travelling in the style of Tracks, conversely through country where there are almost no tracks.

Instead, the lines we're following are the ephemeral creek beds that vein the land, occasionally flourishing into gorges. At night the beds become literal as we unroll our swags on their soft sand beneath skies like tinsel.

Packing a camel for travel is an acquired art. On the first morning, at the Blinman home of our guides Ryan and Natalie, the task is painstakingly slow as we learn to fit the camels with their various saddlebags and boxes. Taipan grunts his displeasure as 160 litres of water goes onto his back, and as we finally set out mid-morning I feel decidedly pathetic in comparison, walking with just a daypack on my back.

We begin on station vehicle tracks running below the hills that back the once-rich copper-mining town of Blinman. After a couple of kilometres we turn off the tracks. It will be the last we see of them for days.

Without tracks, the trekking group fans out across this most open and sparse of landscapes, no longer bound by lines scratched into the dust. It is freedom. 

The camels amble beside us in a train, and Ryan walks at their head, steering them down slopes and settling loads as they adjust around the bodies of the animals on this first morning. Kangaroos, emus and wild goats scatter at our approach, and wedge-tailed eagles circle overhead.

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"The eagles follow us because the camels stir up rabbits," Natalie says.

This night, like all others to come, we make camp in the bend of a creek, and the nightly routine begins. We unsaddle the camels and they roam away, up and over a hill in search of trees to graze. A fire is lit, warming us as night falls and dinner cooks on the coals.

As dusk approaches, I follow the camels out of camp, climbing to a nearby hilltop, from where the view is vast and the silence is heavy.

There are popular tourist sites throughout the Flinders Ranges – the likes of Wilpena Pound and Bunyeroo Gorge – but none of them are out here. Around me instead is a slice of beauty so few get to see – an ancient, rocky landscape that's part mountains and part desert, now reddening with the sinking sun. The creek in which we're camped below has no name, and a long-forgotten windmill groans in the breeze. It feels like we've stepped off the map.

Over the coming days we will meander like the creeks themselves through this landscape. Intermittently, springs appear in the creek beds, painting cooling patches of green into the arid picture. Wedge-tailed eagle nests as large as rafts balance in the forks of the river red gums that overhang the creeks.

"When I think of the Australian outback, this is exactly how I picture it," says fellow trekker Sue as we turn up Oretunga Creek beneath a natural archway of red gums. For another trekker, Mike, the landscape has more specific evocations: "This is Tom Roberts to me," he says.

Intermittently, the creeks bend and buckle into gorges, and the way underfoot turns rocky. Bars of bedrock intrude across the creek beds, and boulders litter the way. 

Through these rocky barriers, Ryan is the camels' guide as much as our own, leading them around and through obstacles, their feet so enormous and flat they look like Frisbees strapped to the ends of their legs.

For Ryan, camel trekking is a labour of love. Twelve years ago, while working at Arkaroola​ in the far northern Flinders Ranges, he talked his way into assisting on a desert camel trek. It was a life-changing moment.

Today, Ryan and Natalie own seven camels, with five calves soon to come into work. Together, they'll often spend weeks and months trekking across the deserts of South Australia. Four of the camels, including Mona and her calf Mindie, appeared in Tracks, with Ryan and Natalie also employed as cameleers for the movie.

The most difficult animal on the movie set, they're quick to point out, was the dog. Camels get a bum rap, they say, and after a few days in the animals' company, it's hard not to agree. 

You hear that camels spit, fart, bite, grumble and groan. But over the course of the days trekking through the Flinders Ranges, almost everybody in the group comes to bond with a favourite camel … usually Victor, the bull captured wild in the Great Sandy Desert but now the most placid camel in the string.

"After several days with the camels we hope people see the different temperaments and personalities, and fall in love with them like we have," Ryan says.

The camels aren't the only point of difference on this trek. Unlike most treks, we have no geographic goal – there are no summits and no base camps on the agenda. It's overland travel, pure and simple, just threading through the country. It becomes strangely meditative being this uncluttered by ambition, without our minds cast ahead.

But while the route might feel random, it's not. The ranges here are broken by few gorges, which, for the camels, are the only way through the mountains. Each step, even as we cut away from the creeks at times, following fence lines as unfailing as compasses, is pointing us towards these gorges chipped into the mountains.

The most spectacular of the gorges comes on the third day as we cross the vast lands of Angorichina Station. With its slanting red cliffs dotted with spinifex clumps, Nildottie Gap resembles a piece of the Pilbara transplanted into South Australia. River red gums line its entrance like an avenue of honour, and the creek bed is a mosaic of purple, pink and white pebbles. Pools of water sit inside the gap where a spring seeps to the surface.

Beyond Nildottie Gap, we enter country that's new to everybody, even Ryan and Natalie. Ahead now are two days of unknowns as we begin to veer back towards Blinman.

All we know of the country is what can be read from a map – that we will cross a low mountain pass, into more creek beds, and another gorge and spring. It no longer feels just like freedom, it also feels like exploration.

As we descend from the pass the next morning, the sky is like a whirlpool as seven wedge-tailed eagles turn circles on the thermals. Downstream, the dry waterway wiggles into a stunning gorge, where red rock walls angle down to a grey creek bed.

It's the kind of gorge that's prime habitat for the yellow-footed rock wallaby, a fine-featured species commonly described as the prettiest of all wallabies and kangaroos. We scan the cliffs as we walk, looking for wallabies, but all that moves are wild goats, the camels and our feet.

A cave peeps down from the cliffs and I climb to its entrance, where I find the mummified skin of a rock wallaby, its head resting on its front paws as though it had simply fallen asleep and died.

At the gorge's end we turn into the wider Eregunda Creek, where maps futilely suggest waterfalls pouring from the cliffs around us. In reality the falls are as dry as the paper of the map, but soon the largest of the springs we'll pass is trickling across the sand beside us. Just looking at it in the dry heat of the Flinders Ranges is cooling.

We are now nearing the trek's end, just a day of walking ahead, but the only tracks here are still the camels' and our own.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

southaustralia.com/en/places-to-go/flinders-ranges-and-outback

GETTING THERE

Virgin Australia, Qantas and Jetstar have several daily flights to Adelaide from Sydney and Melbourne. Blinman is a six-hour drive from Adelaide.

TREKKING THERE

World Expeditions runs a seven-day Remote Northern Flinders Camel Trek, starting and ending in Adelaide. Trips operate from around April to September and cost $2260. See worldexpeditions.com.

FIVE OTHER CAMEL EXPERIENCES

CABLE BEACH WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Broome's signature moment, riding a camel along the sands of Cable Beach.

PUSHKAR CAMEL FAIR INDIA 

Mingle with thousands of camels as they are bought and sold in a festival atmosphere at the world's largest gathering of camels.

PYRAMIDS OF GIZA EGYPT 

Approach Cairo's pyramids in the classic style – atop a camel at sunset.

WADI RUM JORDAN 

Go all Lawrence of Arabia, following in the camel footsteps of TE Lawrence across this desert in southern Jordan.

SAHARA DESERT MOROCCO

  Take a short tour or a week-long epic aboard a "ship of the desert" into the largest desert of all.

* For information on camel trips and animal welfare, see right-tourism.com.

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of World Expeditions and the South Australian Tourism Commission.

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