The hike into the heart of the majestic Flinders Ranges takes six days — but it carries Brian Johnston back millions of years.
For a long while, we drive across an ironed-flat land before the faintest of rumples appears. With every passing kilometre, the countryside buckles and ages, wizened into silver-green. Creeks meander like veins, and the bones of old mountains lie exposed.
The tarmac road that leads into the Flinders Ranges is an act of defiance, slashed across a landscape 800 million years in the making. As we turn into Moralana Scenic Drive, it fades to dirt amid undulating hills dotted with callitris pines.
Almost immediately the scenery is beautiful, but Ben Griffiths calls this merely the soft sell of the Flinders. "The landscape becomes more aggressive the further you penetrate into the mountains," he says with pride. "And I love the way it changes throughout the day. Once the sun moves, you'll feel you aren't looking at the same scenery."
Griffiths is the head guide of Australian Walking Tours, a specialist company that provides soft adventure with creature comforts and efficient organisation. Its recently launched, six-day Fabulous Flinders tour takes in remote trails. The walks often start and finish in different locations, making them difficult for individuals to organise.
On our first day in the Flinders, we park at Black Gap under a blue dream of sky. As we hike up the western flank of Wilpena Pound, a pop-up geography book emerges in riverbeds, rounded hills and the rocky outcrops of the Elder Range.
"What I like about the Elders are the way they seem to rise up with you, revealing themselves slowly as you climb the Pound," Griffiths says. The current Flinders are a newer, recycled version of a much more ancient range, of which the Elders are the remaining edge, he explains.
There's something about walking that fosters an easy camaraderie. Griffiths has sailed and skied the world and has a hoard of dry-humoured, unlikely yarns. Yet his greatest enthusiasm is South Australian geology. At the slightest encouragement, he whips a geology guide from his knapsack and regales us with the tortured history of the Adelaide Geosyncline and Ediacara fossils, pointing to pictures of Cambrian rocks I haven't seen since my school days.
We pass through bands of red sandstone and white quartzite before stopping at Bridle Gap.
After a scenic lunch looking towards the Elder Range, we descend into the centre of Wilpena Pound via a rough track through bonsai-twisted eucalypts.
Eventually we reach expanses of flat grass. Kangaroos sulk in the shade and flocks of galahs swirl like pink confetti between massive red river gums.
"There are some amazing trees around here," I offer.
"They're all bloody ripper, mate," Griffith replies.
Wilpena Pound Resort, on the eastern side of Wilpena Pound, is our destination. We've walked a little more than 11 kilometres, a reasonable hike and not unduly strenuous. Some of the week's walks will be longer, some more demanding, but Australian Walking Tours doesn't aim to create feats of endurance and we're never made to feel hurried or unfit.
The walks are also well timed to finish just before the late-afternoon light makes the scenery glow. Next day, after a stiff walk that brings us to St Mary Peak, we're driven through the Bunyeroo Valley and to Razorback Lookout, one of the classic Flinders viewpoints.
"Can you feel the landscape grow on you?" Griffiths asks.
I can. After all, mountains have always been associated with gods, hermits and monks. There's poetry in peaks, and I find the Flinders Ranges deeply moving.
Along the geological trail in the east of the national park, strange boulders are coloured blue, the earth orange, trunks of giant gum trees discotheque silver, beautiful as modern sculptures against purple hills. As the track winds through Brachina Gorge, rare yellow-footed rock wallabies loiter. Huge crumbled cliffs are banded with ancient deposits, virulent pink in the last of the sun.
As darkness descends, the gorge finally coughs us onto a vast plain. Eventually, a radio mast emerges by the Parachilna roadside, along with a few camper vans, huddled into a kraal in the emptiness.
Nearby stands the Prairie Hotel, which owners Jane and Ross Fargher have turned into something of a legend in the course of 20 years.
"When they took over, it was just a country pub, and now the restaurant has $200,000 of art hanging on the walls," Griffiths says.
"They definitely have their finger on the pulse of what people want."
What I want after a day's hiking is a good shower followed by a hearty dinner and a decent bed. I'm not disappointed. Rooms aren't glamorous but the water is hot and dinner is, indeed, hearty. I tuck in to delicious camel sausages with mash, followed by a quandong crumble in a dining room hung with landscape paintings in great slashes of colour.
Within minutes of hitting the road next morning, we're in Parachilna Gorge, passing campers yawning in their pyjamas.
We drift through Blinman, an outback town with clapboard cottages, forlorn chimney stacks and dogs lolling on dusty verandahs. Then we're heading across highlands enclosed by serrated blue ridges. Emus flee across the grass. "I love emus, the way they run reminds me of John Cleese," Griffiths says. He seems prone to whimsical statements and unexpected tastes (Chinese movies, the tragedies of Aeschylus, spearmint tea).
Today, we're tackling a 16-kilometre walk that begins with a meander through Mount Billy Creek, whose bullock trees look uncannily like the olive groves of Greece. Kangaroos swivel their ears as we pass, mighty white gums are stark against orange rock.
We can't resist cooeeing at red cliffs. Great bands of uplifted rock are evidence of massive tectonic forces but even more impressive in this semi-arid landscape is the power of water, evidenced by thick layers of conglomerate and scalloped riverbanks.
By lunchtime we've reached the entrance to Wilkawillina Gorge, where we picnic among Mount Lofty grass trees and tumbled blue and red boulders. The river is a mere stream between looming cliffs: shadowed limestone on one side, sunny, scarlet sandstone on the other.
We scramble along the bottom of the gorge, past boulders the size of caravans. As we leave the canyon, the scenery transforms to hills dotted with hardy corkbark and contoured by feral goat tracks. I reach the top of the Bunker Ranges, panting, and I feel like a prophet offered temptation from the devil: vast plains below stretch to distant mountains in a great canvas of violet and cadmium yellow.
Exhilarated by this jumble of geology, we fling ourselves into our van and race to Brachina Lookout. The sky is turning yellow on the horizon, burning into orange like an edge of paper held to flames, before exploding into fiery red and mauve as the sun slips down behind the horizon.
The staggering stars of remote Australia are overhead when we arrive at the Prairie Hotel. Outside the pub a fire crackles in a brazier and travellers have gathered to hear local musician John O'Dea sing Jimmy Barnes covers and a melancholic Waltzing Matilda.
Ahead lies the best shower west of the Murray, a rabbit-and-shiraz pie and more days of magnificent walking. As Griffith might say, it's all bloody ripper, mate.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Australian Walking Tours and the South Australian Tourism Commission.
From Adelaide, Australian Walking Tours provides airport transfers and return road transportation to the Flinders Ranges (5hr total but with a stop at the Clare Valley and overnight in Melrose on the way).
Australian Walking Tours' six-day "Fabulous Flinders" tour costs $2850 a person, including five nights' twin-share accommodation, all meals, transport, national parks fees and walking guide. Minimum group size six, maximum 12, with monthly departures May to October. Phone (03) 5364 2977, see australianwalkingtours.com.au.
Prairie Hotel at Parachilna has a choice of accommodation, including deluxe rooms from $225 and executive rooms from $320. Phone (08) 8648 4844, see prairiehotel.com.au.
Wilpena Pound Resort, phone (08) 8648 0004, wilpenapound.com.au.