First there's the fetid pong of decay, then the grisly discovery of the dead. Kangaroos in various states of decomposition have turned the dry creek bed into a mortuary of marsupials. Some are little more than polished bones glinting in the sun. Others, a mess of ribcages, shrivelled fur and exposed teeth. Occasionally there are fresh ones – bloated grey sacks sleeping with eyes open in a tree's hollow.
I'm hiking with my eight-year-old daughter in South Australia's remote Flinders Ranges and had anticipated challenges: tired legs, sore feet, tree-wee woes. But I wasn't prepared for any existential discussions about life, death and – soon to come – reproduction. We are on a two-day trek for families at Arkaba, a 25,000-hectare wildlife conservancy. A sprinkling of autumn rain has given parts of the landscape an emerald sheen, but it's dry. Brutally dry.
Our guide Charlie Eager, a ginger-bearded bloke sporting an eagle feather in his Akubra hat, says the last good downpour was in 2016; thirsty wildlife come to the creek beds looking for water and some don't make it out. It's a harsh lesson on the realities of life and death in the outback. But far from being repulsed by the kanga carcasses, the kids are mostly revelling in the gore and adventure of it all. There are four of them, all roughly the same age – sisters Scarlett and Maddie, from Sydney, and Cameron and Amelie, my daughter, from Melbourne. When the kids aren't poking around dead roos (Cameron has made counting them his mission), they're seeking out live creatures, climbing into tree cavities and analysing wildlife scat.
The prized find comes when we stumble upon a clutch of emu eggs; 11 of them, bright white and perfectly formed like exhibits in a Jurassic theme park. They've been abandoned, and an eagle nest in the branches of a nearby tree might explain why. But Amelie wants to know if there are chicks inside and will they hatch? A conversation ensues about fertilisation, incubation periods and female emu promiscuity that is best left to Charlie.
Curiosities run deep in the outback and, for city slickers, Arkaba is a bridge into another world. The journey starts with a flight to Port Augusta. Soon we're tiptoeing around ant nests, treading over rock-strewn creek beds and climbing a craggy hill. At the summit, we unpack lunchboxes and nibble on smoked chicken rolls, tied with string, and homemade muesli slice. The ridge line of Wilpena Pound looms on the horizon to the north, Elder Range to the south; the panorama a striking contrast of red earth and cobalt sky.
Day one is a seven-kilometre warm up, and we arrive at Black's Gap Camp to warm flannels, cold beer and a hot bush shower. The kids cook damper on the campfire and disappear to explore – head torches blipping like fireflies. After a bellyful of hearty tucker, we retreat to bed – swags on raised platforms, warmed with hot water bottles – and drift off to sleep under a star-dimpled sky.
Day two is a 15-kilometre trek to the foothills of Elder Range. The terrain is diverse: from creek beds lined with river red gums, to canyons of sedimentary rock, to hillsides dotted with native cypress pine, acacia and saltbush, to red scree so fine it resembles en tout cas clay. Everywhere is peppered with kangaroo pellets.
After more than 150 years of sheep grazing, the land here is slowly starting to rehabilitate. This year marks a decade since Arkaba became a private nature conservancy, free of livestock. In that time, thousands of pests – foxes, rabbits, goats, feral cats – have been removed and native species reintroduced.
On the final push to the summit of Red Range before we descend into camp, Amelie stops to survey the striking landscape. "Wow, you've got the best backyard in the world," she gushes to Charlie. "There's a lot of dead things in it though," says Cameron.
Catherine Best was a guest of Wild Bush Luxury
Wild Bush Luxury has three-night "Just for Families" hikes at Arkaba, including two nights bush camping and a night at Arkaba Homestead. From $2900 a person, all-inclusive, including air and road transfers from Adelaide. One child (8-16) travels free with two paying adults. See arkabaconservancy.com/just-for-families