The safari Landcruiser crunches gravelled quartzite and whips spear grass as it carries us up the rise. At the top, we peer out into a seeming infinity. The storm clouds are stained pink now by a gumdrop sun; spinifex falls away from us like a shaken blanket; high above, a wedge-tailed eagle surfs the breeze.
"Look at all those green trees," says our wilderness guide Bruce Lawson. "That'll be a creek line. Dry river beds. Drainage lines. When you're up high and you look down, it's like a road map."
So dense is the ecosystem before us that we'd need a lifetime to appreciate its complexity. The only checklist that really matters is this: Binoculars? Check. Mosquito repellent? Check. Gin and tonics? Double – actually, triple – check.
Half a world away from the game parks of our mutual homeland, South Africa, and the spotting of the Big Five, it's a safari but not as Bruce has known it.
Here in South Australia's remote and untamed Flinders Ranges it's a foreign environment that presents exciting challenges for one of Southern Africa's most experienced wilderness guides.
The safari ends swiftly in these ranges. Storm clouds draw across the blue sky like curtains closing. It's the witching hour, when insects stir from their afternoon drowse and commence their collective chorus. This map delineates new territory for Lawson.
Over a three decade-long career Lawson has spent more than 20,000 hours guiding visitors through big game areas, and has mentored thousands of trainees in his role as a Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) assessor.
Along with his Australian wife, Dee Lawson, he relocated to the Flinders Ranges last year. Dee had been appointed general manager of Arkaba Conservancy, spread over the site of an erstwhile sheep station, after 13 years working in South Africa's safari industry.
The move gave Bruce the opportunity to adapt his skills to novel terrain; while he misses Africa's singular bushveld, he's enthused by the largely untapped potential contained within Australia's remarkable natural environment.
"In Australia you don't have the wild [big game] animals – you can just go onto a property and go for a walk. If you do that in South Africa you'll die," he says. "And you guys have got space.
"I mean 24,000 hectares, which is the size of this property, is kind of standard. In South Africa we've got properties that are 800 hectares and they've got a lodge, and they've got 20 field guides."
This potential is enhanced by Australia's growing, and some may say wildly overdue, commitment to conservation and the rewilding of fragmented habitat, coinciding, as it does, with the return of overseas tourists following the reopening of Australia's borders.
Unlike Africa, where conservation is a dangerous undertaking (most recently nine members of a conservation group were killed by insurgents in Benin's W National Park), "you're not fighting a war," Bruce says. "There's no fence between good and bad."
TAKE A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE
Exploring the Arkaba Conservancy, Flinders Ranges, South Australia. Photo: Richard Field
Nonetheless, the battle continues apace: though comparatively unaffected by poaching, Australia has the world's worst rate of mammal extinction, with koalas the latest animal to be declared endangered. Invasive species (such as feral cats, foxes and exotic plants), inappropriate fire regimes and habitat loss are the chief culprits, according to the Invasive Species Council; climate change is another ominous threat.
But there are efforts to rebalance our fraught ecosystems and engage the interest and support of wildlife-loving travellers.
One of the country's most striking contributions comes from the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) which, in partnership with Indigenous groups, pastoralists, national parks, scientific institutions and government, implements biodiversity programs across 6.5 million hectares – a cumulative landmass similar in size to Tasmania.
Most recently it has reintroduced locally-extinct red-tailed phascogales (tree-dwelling marsupials), woylies (brush-tailed bettongs) and numbats (a marsupial whose species is rarer than that of the giant panda) to Mallee Cliffs National Park.
These initiatives give visitors an opportunity to engage with wildlife found nowhere else on earth. Such access to the natural environment is prized by Australians: a 2020 report by Tourism Research Australia listed nature and wildlife as second in importance only to safety in travellers' choice of destination.
"There's no doubt we've seen a surge in Australians wanting to connect with our incredible natural landscapes and an increased appreciation of our ecosystems – both extremely positive trends," says John Daw, of Australian Wildlife Journeys, a not-for-profit alliance of wildlife tourism operators.
Rather than exploring the wilds alone, he says, Australians should consider taking a guided wildlife experience-based holiday – or, as Africans would say, a safari.
"You can never replace the local knowledge and first-hand understanding of our ecosystems that local wildlife guides have." Daw says. "This applies to whether travellers take a safari overseas or here in Australia.
FROM VELD TO OUTBACK: SOUTH AFRICA VERSUS AUSTRALIA
Wildlife on the Arkaba Conservancy, Flinders Ranges, South Australia.
Twenty years after my own move to Australia from South Africa, its native species continue to enthral me. To be sure, I was spoiled growing up in a country on a continent where wildlife is bred in the bone; my first "safari" was a primary school bus trip through the Kruger National Park.
But, for me, Australian wildlife is no less captivating: on family road trips we thrilled to the soft chomp of kangaroos grazing near our campsite on the banks of Nyngan's Bogan River; at Carnarvon Gorge we willed a platypus to emerge from a pond (alas, it never did); near Lake Eucumbene we were struck speechless as an echidna scuttled across our path like some mutant hedgehog.
An emu on the Arkaba Conservancy, Flinders Ranges, South Australia. Photo: Richard I'Anson
Now here I am on safari in the Flinders Ranges and Australia's most recognisable emblem is lumbering into view.
"Female red kangaroos right ahead," says wilderness guide Kat Bevan, pumping the brakes and cutting the engine. These are the biggest macropods – the females are grey, they're not red. But she's a beauty, that big one in the middle."
Bevan's Scottish accent is a little incongruous in the Australian outback but her knowledge of its every last inhabitant is encyclopaedic.
Trained under the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa program, she helped lay the groundwork for Arkaba's invasive species eradication program and its development as a safari destination with her South African husband Brendon, who managed the conservancy for nine years.
Now she's sharing her deep knowledge of this former sheep station – established in 1851 and recovering spectacularly from 150 years of grazing – with Lawson as he consolidates its wilderness programs.
"When we destocked [sheep] in 2013, within about five months a section on this track transformed entirely," she says, pointing to a glaucous sweep of saltbush.
"Our native plant species, when left to their own devices and not nibbled away, will out-compete the invasives. The chenopods are coming back – the soft first leaves were obviously nibbled straight away by the grazers."
OF SUNDOWNERS AND SLEEPY EUROS
Arkaba Conservancy, Flinders Ranges, South Australia.
This proliferation has, in turn, lured back native wildlife. Honeyeaters feast in the forests of flowering trees; kangaroos make their beds in the hollows of river red gums; frogs burble along the creek lines; euros (wallaroos) bed down beneath the mallees; echidnas tear greedily into termite mounds.
In her first two years here Bevan didn't see a single one of these egg-laying mammals; then a program to eradicate foxes – echidnas' chief predator – was implemented.
"In the third year's walking season alone we saw nine echidnas. Also that same year we had our first nightjar [medium-sized nocturnal birds] sightings – generally they're ground-nesting and predominantly ground-dwelling, hunting insects at night. Foxes being nocturnal too, this felt significant, even without scientific transects and data to confirm."
Now we can spy between the trees an adult emu shepherding his flock of nine chicks. They may not all belong to him, Bevan says; sometimes male emus – which incubate the eggs and do all the child-rearing – assemble a nursery of neighbourhood kids.
Earlier, Bevan had stopped the car so we could inspect emu tracks, stamped like fossils into the loose red sand; they were three-pronged, and dimpled like fingerprints.
On the rise we stop for sundowners – not that triple G&T, after all, but a fine South Australian pinot gris. Foothills buck and crest in waves all the way to the Elder Range and the walls of Ikara (Wilpena Pound). Mounds of mulla mulla glow like headlamps on the hillsides; shadows pool in the sandstone hollows; an elegant parrot's cry electrifies the dusk air.
This, to me, even with my South African heritage, is the quintessential safari experience, when darkness draws close and the bush quickens and we toast nature's existence. Bevan gazes out upon a landscape that's imprinted on her psyche; Bruce ponders the boundless possibilities. I raise my glass and salute Australia's extraordinary wilderness.
OUT OF AUSTRALIA: SAFARIS, DOWN-UNDER STYLE
Bamurru Plains, Northern Territory.
WITNESS OUR OWN GREAT MIGRATION
Around two million wildebeest follow the rains from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara each year during the treacherous wildebeest migration. The journey is no less urgent for Australia's giant cuttlefish; in the largest aggregation of its kind, thousands of these luminous, colour-changing creatures converge on the Upper Spencer Gulf Marine Park to mate. See puresa.com.au
DISCOVER THE DOWN UNDER BIG FIVE
Africa's Big Five are legendary: elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and black rhino. But Australia's Big Five are peerless: kangaroos, wombats, koalas, emus and platypuses are endemic to this country. If you're lucky you'll be able to spot all five of these iconic species on a day trip to the Southern Highlands, or on a multi-day tour of East Gippsland. See australianwildlifejourneys.com
TAKE A DEEPEST, DARKEST RAINFOREST JUNGLE TREK
The rainforests of central and West Africa are famed for their gorillas and chimpanzees but rare creatures reside in Australia's rainforests too: pint-sized tree kangaroos that forage for leaves and fruit in the canopies of Far North Queensland's wet tropics. Maximise your chances of spotting these shy nocturnal creatures on a wildlife and conservation safari with FNQ Nature Tours. See fnqnaturetours.com.au
CRUISE THE WILD DELTA OF THE TOP END
A canoeing safari through Botswana's flooded Okavango Delta affords water-level views of the floodplains' inhabitants: hippos, crocs and waterbirds.The experience at Bamurru Floodplains on the edge of Kakadu National Park in the NT is every bit as wild; here, visitors cruising the coastal waterways can expect to see saltwater crocs, waterbirds and buffaloes sloshing through the shallows. See bamurruplains.com
SPOT WILDLIFE FROM A HOT AIR BALLOON
Skimming the African savannah at dawn in a hot air balloon is a quintessential safari activity. This aerial excursion is a great way to locate Australian wildlife, too: as you rise above the desert oaks and mulga scrub in the Northern Territory's West MacDonnell Ranges, be sure to keep an eye out for native wildlife such as wallabies and red kangaroos. See spinifexballooning.com.au
IMMERSE YOURSELF IN A LIVING DESERT
Wedged between Western Australia's Great Sandy and Little Sandy deserts is Karlamilyi National Park, one of the world's remotest wilderness destinations and Western Australia's largest national park. The Rudall River's permanent pools provide an oasis for birdlife; guests on a Coates Wildlife Tours' expedition should also look out for reptiles such as Stimson's python and the gwardar snake and the spinifex hopping mouse. See coateswildlifetours.com.au
MARVEL AT WILD WONDERS IN THE TASMANIAN WILDERNESS
Tasmania is a sanctuary for endemic species including Tasmanian devils and the world's only egg-laying mammals, echidnas and platypuses. On Premier Travel Tasmania's exploration five-day Wilderness and Wildlife safari guests scour rainforest, coastlines and wetlands for these creatures as well as pademelons, quolls, little penguins and Australian fur seals. See premiertraveltasmania.com
BE BEDAZZLED BY BIRDLIFE ON A DESERT SAFARI
The parched bedrock of the Willandra Lakes Region in far-western NSW seems an unlikely habitat for jewel-coloured parrots and pink cockatoos, but you can expect to encounter these bright specimens along with wedge-tailed eagles, falcons, kestrels and emus, bearded dragons and shingleback lizards on Echidna Walkabout's privately-guided Mungo Outback Safari. See echidnawalkabout.com.au
GLIDE THROUGH THE WILDS OF THE MIGHTY MURRAY
Australia's unsung species provide a reel of entertainment on a Murray River Trails canoe safari: frogs, pelicans, migratory waders. You'll find an abundance of endemic birds here – crimson rosellas, rare regent parrots and Australian ringneck parrots; onshore look out for emus, koalas, echidnas, possums and red and grey kangaroos. See murrayrivertrails.com.au
SEE SHADES OF AFRICA IN PREHISTORIC AUSTRALIA
The safari bungalows at Mount Borradaile in West Arnhem Land are reminiscent of an African lodge, but the region's subtropical savannah, paperbark swamps, monsoonal rainforests and billabongs are uniquely Australian. Expect to see crocodiles, buffaloes, marsupials and a superfluity of birdlife during a visit with Davidson's Arnhemland Safaris or Lords Safaris. See arnhemland-safaris.com; lords-safaris.com
Arkaba's three-night Wild Bush Luxury experience starts from $2140 a person inclusive of two nights at Arkaba Homestead, one night at an outdoor camp, all meals and beverages, daily guided safaris, immersive bush walks and drives showcasing Arkaba's wildlife and conservation practices. Homestead-based stays are $1125 a person per night for a minimum two-night stay, including guided activities on the property, meals and beverages. See arkabaconservancy.com
The Australian Wildlife Conservancy offers a multitude of day visit and camping experiences at sanctuaries in Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and NSW. See australianwildlife.org. Australian Wildlife Journeys is a repository of wildlife tourism operators. See australianwildlifejourneys.com
Qantas operates regular flights to Adelaide from Sydney and Melbourne. Transfers from Adelaide to Arkaba Homestead start from $1600 by road for up to four guests, and from $2850 by air for up to four guests. See qantas.com.au.
Catherine Marshall was a guest of Luxury Lodges of Australia. See luxurylodgesofaustralia.com.au