Food Drop Day

Any long distance walk requires a certain degree of planning, and this was no exception. Our "base" was to be Angorichina Tourist Village, located in the more arid northern end of the Flinders Ranges near the end of the Heysen Trail. We had arranged to leave our car there for the period of the walk and get transport with the village manager down to Old Wonoka Homestead, near Hawker. from where we would walk back northwards on the Heysen Trail over several days.

Looking back over the Elder Range

Emus - some of the more common Flinders wildlife

The three basic needs of any walking trip are food, water and shelter. We had divided our food into three lots, one to carry on the first stage and two to be left as food drops to replenish supplies en route and reduce the overall weight of our packs. There are a number of campsites and huts along this section of the Heysen Trail and all bar one have rain water tanks. However, rainfall in this region can be problematic, so as well as making the food drops, we wanted to check out the water levels in the campsite tanks. Thus, today involved a slow trip from Hawker to Angorichina, cutting into the ranges along dirt side roads to visit places where the walking track intersected these or used some of the National Park campsites accessible by road.

The lush green growth suggested that the Flinders had received more than an average winter and spring rainfall and that water wouldn't be a problem - this proved to be the case with plenty of water in the tanks and even some in the frequently dry creek beds.

We hid one food and water cache at Black Gap, not far from the one campsite without a water source and left the other at Wilpena Pound resort, where we planning to spend a couple of days midway through the walk. This would supply the last four days.

Food drop - now you see it ......

..... now you don't

Looking down the Bunyeroo Valley to the Heysen Range

It was a good day, not only because it gave us a preview of the spectacular landscapes that we were about to walk through, but also because we now knew that we would be spending our nights at very pleasant campsites ... without the need to carry extra water. It whet our appetites for the walk to come.

Day 1 - Dairy Farm Road to Mayo Hut (12 km - 40m ascent - 90m descent)

I am sitting outside Mayo Hut, a wonderfully restored stone cottage high on the bank of Wonoka Creek. As I sip my coffee in the warm afternoon sun, the birds in the river red gums that lie scattered along the creek are singing and the maroon rocks that line the sandy bend in the creek seem to glow in the sunlight.

Only one thing spoils this idyllic scene - flies! The dung beetles seem to have taken the season off and bushflies are about in abundance. Still, this is a great place to be. For once, the Fair Nello's fly veil seemed an object to be coveted and not laughed at.

Dave, from Angorichina Tourist Village to the north, had dropped us off at Dairy Farm Road earlier this morning. It is where the Heysen Trail crosses the main road north of Hawker and from where we planned to walk back to the northern trailhead at Parachilna over the next several days. We said goodbye to Dave and, after a few minor adjustments to packs and gear, set off northwards on a dirt vehicle track. The wedge-tailed eagle soaring high above seemed to be a good omen for the walk ahead.

At the start of our northern Heysen Trail walk

The ruins of Old Wonoka Homestead

The track led us through flat scrubby country, past the nearby ruins of Old Wonoka Homestead and then down into the dry sand and stone covered bed of Wonoka Creek. Here we left the road to follow our main route northwards - the creek itself, lined with gnarled old river red gums and alive to the sound of corellas screeching and the occasional piping of a ring-neck parrot.

On the dry bed of Wonoka Creek

Parrots of Wonoka Creek

Red clay cliffs on a creek bend

At times walking along the low grass-and shrub-carpeted banks, at times following the creek itself and at times, cutting the odd corner by heading across the flat and open saltbush country, we pushed slowly on. Curving slowly to the east, we came across several kangaroos and a flock of emus who had been feeding in the vicinity of a series of picturesque water holes on a bend in the creek. The scrubby and rocky heights of Wonoka Hill formed a backdrop to this, as we headed on.

A series of waterholes backed by Wonoka Hill

Heading towards the ranges

Climbing back out of the creek bed, we picked up a local 4WD track, that led us easily north and gave us views of the more rugged ranges ahead. Paralleling the creek, the track led us on towards the current Wonoka homestead before turning off into a paddock containing a herd o grazing camels (what will we see next?). We left it to follow the creek, stopping for lunch beneath the shade of a large and gnarled old red gum in the river bed.

Saltbush-covered flats of Wonoka Creek

No, not a mirage .... real camels on Wonoka Station

Heavily eroded side-creek

Then a bit more cross-country walking cut out the next corner of the creek as we pushed on by the slopes of the Wide Range. We regained the creek by following a deeply eroded sidestream back into it. The creekbed seemed to be widening out here and ahead lay a big bend to the west. From the map, I recognised it as the bend before Mayo Hut, so we again climbed up the western bank to cut across one more corner and reach the hut from on top. It was only after we got there, that we appreciated what lovely views there were up the creek from its shady front.

Mayo Hut on the banks of Wonoka Creek

The interior of Mayo Hut

As the afternoon passed lazily by, we watched the slow passage of life from the stone terrace of Mayo Hut. The small flock of sheep grazing the green pick in the creek below moved slowly by and, as the evening shadows lengthened across the low hills opposite, kangaroos came down to enjoy the lusher creek vegetation. Swallows swept by the hut, hawking insects (bushflies, we hoped) as the sun set behind the hut. It was time to play "find the space objects".

After five satellites and two meteorites we gave up and went to bed. With this pleasant weather and great hut, we were feeling very content with our first day out on the famous Heysen Trail.

Day 2 - Mayo Hut to Red Range Shelter (16.5 km - 280m ascent - 80m descent)

Leaving Mayo Hut

After a pleasant breakfast in the early morning sunshine on the terrace of Mayo Hut, we packed our bags and headed off beneath a clear blue sky. Dropping down to sidle across the sandy parts of the creek bed, we followed the eastern bank along. The track (be it stock pad or Heysen Trail) led us back down into the creek and to a set of pools beneath the red-walled hillside. It was clear where the sheep had been heading yesterday afternoon. The pools where surrounded by reeds and we picked our way across the swampy ground to reach the junction of Mernmerna Creek.

Reed-fringed wetland near Mayo Gap

Ahead, Wonoka Creek continued its way through the Mayo Gap, but it was time for us to bid it farewell and start heading up Mernmerna. We cut across the flattish countryside on its southern bank, following various foot and hoof pads, before finally descending into the broad stony creekbed itself and using that as our way forward. The big river red gums on the side provided the occasional pleasant shade and the black snake that crossed our paths on the stony river bed provided the bit of surprise.

Wonoka is a working sheep station

An unexpected fellow traveller

One of many superb red gums lining Mernmerna Creek

Mernmerna Creek clearly doesn't flow very often and, at times, it seemed more a long grassy ribbon than a creek. We wandered past bends with high maroon and reddish walls, reaching a point where map and compass had a disagreement. We had started to take the sweeping right hand bend of the river as shown on the map, but that seemed to make us diverge from the track on my GPS. I have always had faith in the GPS, so we allowed it to lead us across a low hill. Sure enough, there was a track marker and a stile crossing the fence from Wonoka to Arkaba stations. I suspect this may be the hard-to-find track re-route that was the source of some negativity in the Mayo hut book.

The broad gravelly bed of Mernmerna Creek

Climbing up to the pass

It was a nice re-route though, as we climbed up beside the fenceline into the surrounding hills. As we pushed through the low scrubby vegetation, clouds of locusts flitted up ahead of us and a grand view of the ranges to the west emerged behind us.

Euro watching us pass

Silver mulla mulla covered slopes of the pass

The saddle was a lovely place for a break - a cool breeze was blowing across it and we found ourselves sitting in the shade of cypress-pine, surrounded by a hill-slope covered in silver mulla mulla. Heading off, we picked our way down through the low shrubs to join up with an old 4WD track. We were definitely in a different valley system now, as we wandered beneath the desert cypress-pine, the lush green groundcover tinged with the blue of forget-me-nots.

Crossing the open cypress-pine woodland

Landscape at Mernmerna Gap

The track led us past Mernmerna Gap and over these richly forested rolling slopes. Eventually, we parted company with the 4WD track as it headed into the hills and we angled down to the bed of Slaty Creek. For several kilometres, we followed the bed of this lovely creek along as it wound its way northwards, meandering past maroon and red rock cuttings, beneath huge and ancient river gums and across the grassy inside bends.

Old man emu and his chicks

Maroon slate bank on Slaty Creek

Heading up the creek bed

A big red gum in Slaty Creek

Eventually we left the creek once again as it headed off to take a couple of bigger meanders. Our route was more direct, up and over the rolling side slopes covered in a cypress-pine woodland - it was a pleasant change of scenery. Tracks came and vanished and for the second time we had to rely on my GPS to keep us on course until we eventually descended to Slaty Creek yet again.

Red cliffs on a bend of Slaty Creek

Cypress-pine woodland

One last meander up the creek bed, then one last wander through the cypress-pine woodland brought us out at Red Range Shelter, another idyllic site on the Heysen Trail. No hut this time, just a very small shelter and a rain tank. The tank was very low, but still enough for us and a few more bushwalkers to come. That said, the creek just below where we pitched our tent had water pools in it at the time, but Red Range is a place that might be problematic for water in drier weather. The shelter roof is only about four square metres and the toilet roof even less, so not a very big catchment for rain water. This is not meant as a criticism, as we were really pleased to have the shelter, tank and brand new toilet here.

Outstation ruin at Red Range

Pleasant campsite next to Slaty Creek

Red Range Shelter

Anyway, the Fair Nello has given in to her pyromania and started a nice campfire and the sun is setting behind the Elder Range - time to go and join her for a cup of steaming hot soup.

Day 3 - Red Range Shelter to Bridal Gap (19 km - 510m ascent - 260m descent)

We woke to a different morning - low clouds were moving swiftly across the sky, driven by a fresh and cold southerly wind. However, as we ate our breakfast, they began to gradually clear. Bidding farewell to the shelter's red robin, we crossed the creek (now a very small creek indeed) and headed off up a faint footpath on the western bank.

The footpath criss-crossed the creek a few times to keep to the most level side. At its upper end, Slaty Creek had created a ribbon of gnarly-trunked red gums that meandered up through the cypress-pine woodland. Some of the cypress-pine were carrying heavy loads of pollen, giving them an orange fringe, and the occasional gusts of southerly wind that broke through would send clouds of pollen floating into the cool morning air - magical, orange fairy-dust.

Setting out across the cypress-pine woodland

Orange cypress-pine pollen

A glimpse of the Elder Range through the trees

Our pleasant morning promenade continued - we had set out in jackets, but they soon came off as the air warmed. A little ahead, we suddenly picked up the first human voices (other than our own) that we had heard since setting out - a group of people staying at Arkaba Station were out on a guided day-walk.

First good look at the superbly rugged Elder Range

Occasional glimpses of the ridge line of the Elder Range appeared through the cypress-pine, until finally after crossing a stony hilltop, we reached a clearing where they were revealed in full splendour - a magnificently rugged line of tortured rock strata towering above green forest beneath. This superb range, red in the morning sun, would accompany us, nearer and further, for the rest of the day.

Nello crosses the fence stile

A purple haze of Paterson's Curse beneath the pines

The gradual climb up Slaty Creek had ended and, on crossing a 4WD track, we began the gradual northward descent of Beatrice Creek. This was a different landscape, with Beatrice Creek cutting its way deeply through steep-sided slopes covered in a denser, shorter cypress-pine scrub. After crossing several dry side-streams, the track led us up a small hill for the grand panorama of the Elder Range - a good place to have a break and enjoy.

Rough country in Beatrice Creek catchment

The twisted strata of the Elder Range

Continuing our descent of Beatrice Creek, we crossed open ground where a flock of emus bolted at first sight (none of the animals here seem to have a good impression of humans). The track here was at times indistinct and the track markers seemed to vary between feast and famine, but, with a few minor GPS adjustments, we picked our way across to the very open lands near the ruins of Umberutna Outstation. You could see why they built it here, backed by the red walls of the Elder Range and looking out over silver mulla mulla and cypress-pine to the distance ramparts of Wilpena Pound. It was good to see our destination.

The ruins of Umberutna Outstation


First good look at the south-western rim of Wilpena Pound

Silver mulla mulla and cypress-pine

The track crossed Beatrice Creek and led us out of this valley system, climbing over a low saddle below Mt Ide (more hill than mountain). It was a good place to take in the all-round views, before descending into the next valley system. Crossing a creek, a fence style and passing a bore that was home to a flock of screeching corellas, we were now following the fenceline across the dense pasture grasses of Arkaba Station - which meant two things, lots of grass seeds to pick out of our socks at our creekside lunch break, and lots of flies to ensure that we didn't take too long in doing so.

Mt Ide bore and tank

Big old red gums in Moralana Creek

Crossing the low point for the day at Moralana Creek with its superb red gums, we began a gradual climb up along the Arkaba fenceline to the broad dirt Moralana Tourist Road. After a very short stretch along it, the track led us up the dirt road towards Black Gap. When the road started to climb, the Heysen Trail took the sensible option and led us down into a deep walled creek that flowed out of Black Gap. We followed its rocky course upwards, passing several water pools and a small dry three-tiered cascade. A little further on we found what we were looking for - a particular river red gum and, hidden beneath some rocks and bark litter, a small white plastic tub. It was our food and water cache for Bridal Gap.

Crossing the pastures of Arkaba Station
Entering Black Gap

The red gums lining Black Gap Creek

Bridal Gap itself lay 2.5 km away and 300m higher, on the rim of Wilpena Pound - a nice place to camp, but not one where you would find water. So, after a pleasant half hour in the shady hollow of Black Gap to re-organise our packs with the new supplies (and the tub) we set off for the long climb. With seven kilos of water on board, plus a day's worth of food, our packs felt very heavy.

We followed the now dry creek bed a little further and then emerged to climb towards Bridal Gap - gently at first and then steeply over an intermediate saddle. It was an unpleasant surprise to lose some of this height gain before again climbing upwards. A steep path took us up to the rock face, where we clambered directly (but slowly) up a boulder-covered red rock spur.

View back to Black Gap and the Elder Range

Climbing up to the southern rim of Wilpena Pound

After a bit of relief on a flattish ridge, we made one last push up the steep and rocky track to reach the rim of Wilpena Pound and the boundary of Flinders National Park. The views westward from here back over the now distant Elder Range were superb. The cold southerly wind that had been a cooling ally all day, however, was now strong and icy, gusting through the gap.

View south from Bridal Gap - back towards the Elder Range

Bridal Gap sunset

We have done much steeper and higher climbs, but with those extra kilos of water on board, this had been one of the harder ones. We hurried on a few hundred metres to find the campsite and, after a bit of scouting, the Fair Nello found a more-sheltered spot off to the west surrounded by scrubby mallee. We quickly set up camp and got the billy boiling for a warming cuppa. It was a pleasant enough spot, but from the comforts of Mayo Hut to the good facilities at Red Range, we had definitely slipped another notch. This was not only a place where you had to bring your own water, it was orange plastic spade country (with quite compact soil at that).

We didn't stay up very late - a quick return to Bridal Gap to watch the sun set, a quick meal and quickly into our sleeping bags in the tent. An icy southerly wind can certainly stop you from dithering.

Day 4 - Bridal Gap to Wilpena Pound Resort (9.5 km - 10m ascent - 290m descent)

The cold southerly that whipped through the Gap yesterday evening had abated considerably by morning. The unfortunately named peak of Dick Nob was glowing in the early morning sun as we ate our breakfast, broke camp and drank the last of the water that we had hauled up from Black Gap yesterday. Allowing for a litre each for the easy walk to Wilpena Pound Resort today, we had judged the quantity needed pretty well.

Campsite at Black Gap


Wilpena Pound Resort lay just under 10km away, just outside of the pound. The pound itself lay ahead and the track made a bee-line directly across it. Contrary to the exterior walls, the interior of Wilpena Pound sloped gently downwards. We followed the stony red footpath down through a dense eucalyptus mallee, which, apart from the odd gap, obscured views of the pound itself.

Soon, mallee scrubland changed to shrubby acacias and then to cypress-pine woodland and green grassy groundcover as we reached the flat central basin. From here it was a pleasant stroll across these woodlands, with grass (and weed) covered clearings providing views of the rocky eastern walls.

View across the Pound floor to its rim

Clearing inside the Pound

Along the way, we passed our very first Heysen Trail walker - Joel was on his fifth day of a solo journey from Parachilna to Cape Jervis. Half an hour later, we passed Gary and Jackie also heading south on an end-to-end adventure. Twelve hundred kilometres and some 60 plus days to walk, the Heysen Trail in its full length requires considerable stamina. May the god of walkers be with you folks.

Approaching the gap out of Wilpena

Restored 19th century Hill's Homestead

The pound floor traverse ended as we reached a clearing where large gum trees started to appear amongst the cypress-pine. Ahead the dark walls of the rim parted to form Sliding Rock Gap and, just to north of the track, lay the restored early 19th century Hill's Homestead - where the Hill family once lived as they tried to run sheep and then grow wheat inside the pound. Both ventures failed - the first because of drought and the second because of flash flooding. This country is not meant for the exploitation of man.

From the numbers of day visitors appearing out of Sliding Rock Gap, we were not far from civilisation and, after a pleasant break beneath the gums, we set out to leave Wilpena Pound. The exit route was out through the lushly vegetated gap, where large, densely canopied gum trees overhung the creek and an understorey of wattles bloomed golden.

Stroll into Wilpena Pound Resort

Water hole in Wilpena Creek

The shady track through Sliding Rock Gap

A couple of kilometres later, the buildings of the resort appeared and we crossed the creek to check in. In high contrast to last night, tonight's accommodation would be luxury - a comfortable bed, a hot shower, plus a cold beer and red wine for dinner to celebrate the halfway point of our Heysen North adventure. Tomorrow we would have a day off - well, not too much off as it was a chance to climb St Mary's Peak (the highest peak in South Australia) for the ultimate bird's-eye view over the pound ..... but that would be done without the weight of a heavy pack!