Heysen Trail Prologue

Stretching 1200 km from Cape Jervis in the south to Parachilna Gorge in the north, the Heysen Trail is Australia's longest walking track. Named after the landscape artist, Hans Heysen, the trail passes through many of the landscapes that he has immortalised on canvas, on its way from the shores of the Southern Ocean to the semi-arid Flinders Ranges of inland South Australia. To walk it from end to end would take at least 60 days - we had a fortnight. Clearly, choices needed to be made.

On reading the guidebooks, it seemed to us that the two ends would provide both the most interesting sections of the walk and the two that most complemented one another. The northern end traverses some quite remote country as it winds its way alongside a series of rugged ranges that comprise the Flinders, crossing creek ridge and plain. We decided to do an 8-day walk over the last 125 km of the Trail, from just north of the town of Hawker to the Parachilna Gorge, crossing the iconic Wilpena Pound in the process.

The southern end is a classic coastal walk, following 75 km of cliffs and beaches, forests and creeks between the town of Victor Harbor and Cape Jervis, at the tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula. We would allow ourselves five days to to do this.

For weeks now, we have been setting aside dehydrated dinners, preparing food drops, and checking out our gear. All is ready and its time to go.

Waitpinga Cliffs on the southern end of the Heysen Trail

Flinders Ranges on the northern end of the Heysen Trail

Slow trip to the Flinders

We decided to do a slow drive from home to the Flinders Ranges and our first planned walk along the northern end of the Heysen Trail. In between lay a few of Australia's well-known landmarks and it was a chance to visit them. Thus after nine hours on the road, we found ourselves at Lake Mungo, 150 km north of Balranald at the end of a dirt road. Once a large and isolated sheep station on the edge of a dry lake bed, Mungo is now a world heritage listed archaeological site. In 1968, the discovery of the bones of Mungo man and woman transformed conceptions of human occupation of Australia.

Mungo woolshed

The Walls of China

In fact, being a sheep station is but a recent blip on the historic timescale of Mungo - 40,000 years ago aboriginal people lived on the fertile shorelines of a water-filled lake whose eastern shore formed a lunette of sand and clay dunes, now known as The Walls of China. Subsequent erosion of this dune system has unearthed not only the bones of these people, but artifacts and middens that tell us of their lives.

Sand dunes on the Mungo lunette

Nello crossing the dunes

Thus, we spent an easy day at Mungo getting a feel for its unusual landscapes - flat, dry lake beds covered in saltbush and bluebush, starkly eroded clay dunes, large drifting white sand dunes, and surrounding mallee bushland ..... and of course the reminder that Europeans have occupied this continent for barely more than 200 years and aboriginals for over 40,000 years - a bit of perspective for all.

Eroded clay outcrops above the flat dry bed of Lake Mungo

Leaving Mungo the next morning, we had an easy drive on mainly dirt road northwards along the eastern flatlands of the Darling River to reach Menindee. Here there is another system of lakes, similar to the system that includes Mungo with the exception that they still contain water and are an oasis for waterbirds. However, as we discovered after settling in to our room at the Old Shearers Quarters of Kinchega Station, the water-level fluctuates a lot. Full in 2011, the lakes were very low four years on. We spent part of the afternoon trying to find a lake shore with water, without success. Northwards, across the flat bed of Lake Menindee lay a distant silvery sheen - the current lake or just a mirage? We would check it out tomorrow as we headed off.

Old Kinchega homestead

Kinchega woolshed

In the end, we settled for an evening walk around the ruins of the the old Kinchega homestead and down to the steep banks of the Darling River where paddle steamers once hauled barge-loads of wool bales down the river. At least it was flowing southwards - they say that some years the irrigators to the north suck so much water out of the Darling system that it flows backwards! What a thirsty dry continent we live on.

Bend in the Darling River

After a windy night, listening to the steady squeaking of the windmill next to the shearer's quarters, we bade farewell to Kinchega station after checking out the old shearing sheds, where 6 million sheep were shorn over the years when the fleece almost was golden. We drove past the edges of Lake Menindee to a point overlooking where the channel flowed in from the north - the lake bed was dry as far as the eye could see. Despairing of seeing an actual lake we headed on towards the inland city of Broken Hill.

I was not thinking too clearly or I would have realised that the existence of a pipeline from this lake system to Broken Hill meant water was being drawn from somewhere. In fact, the smaller upper lakes are kept full by a set of weirs to manage the water supply and, amongst other purposes to keep water flowing to Broken Hill. The bigger southern lakes have been sacrificed to this aim and are currently as barren as Lake Mungo. We may not have seen the present lakes, but sadly I suspect that we have seen their future.

What's left of Lake

The remnants of Menindee Lake

An hour later we were in Broken Hill, a city found in the late 19th century on mining - the discovery of the then largest silver-lead-zinc lode in the world. It is the birthplace of the world's largest mining company (Broken Hill is the BH in BHP-Billiton), although that company has long forsaken its roots to become an international mining conglomerate. The population of this desert city peaked in the mid-twentieth century and has steadily declined as the mining has wound down. Today, it is trying to broaden its base into tourism and culture and seems to be succeeding, for we found it a cheerful and pleasant place to visit. The highlight for us was a visit to the Living Desert Sculpture Park, a collection of massive sandstone sculptures on a hill overlooking the desert landscape. Perhaps there is life for Broken Hill beyond mining and beyond continuous growth.

Modern art: Desert Sculpture Park - Broken Hill

Ancient art: 3000 year-old circular rock engraving at the Living Desert Sanctuary

Natural art - dragon posing on rock

But now it was time to move on to our destination in the Flinders Ranges. After an overnight stop at Hawker to finalise preparations for our walk along the northern sector of the Heysen Trail, we divided and loaded our food into three tubs and set off. The plan was to leave our car at Angorichina Village near the northern end of the Trail, get a lift by car back to Old Wonoka Station, near Hawker, and start walking northwards - one tub had the first few days of supplies, one would be buried near the most remote campsite and the third left at Wilpena Resort to be picked up on our way through. The logistics of walking in this remote area had taken a bit of planning, and it was time to see how well they would work.