After our adventure in Quorn (see "On the Road"), it was time to head for one of the most anticipated parts of our trip - Wilpena Pound. I had been wanting to see the Pound for years; as a keen enthusiast of all things geological, I couldn't wait to get to this ancient, and by all accounts spectacular, part of Australia. (Just type "Wilpena Pound" into Google Earth to get a good look at the remarkable landforms that make up this part of the Flinders - convoluted, twisted and folded sandstone plates that bend and snake their way into a tightly-packed mass of mountains, valleys and gorges. You can almost feel their age just by looking at a satellite photograph.)
It was about another 180 kilometres to the Pound, and along the way we fueled up at a little town called Hawker, where I went into the grocery store (the only food-vending establishment) to see if we could buy some steaks to barbecue for dinner. A middle-aged guy was behind the counter dealing with four or five little black kids who were taking an eternity to decide which lollies would get them their best value for a dollar. Satisfied, the kids ran out merrily into the afternoon sunshine. They were gorgeous.
"You wouldn't have any steaks or chops in the freezer, mate?" I enquired.
He looked at me balefully. "Nah."
"Is there a butcher's in town?" I pressed on.
"Nah." Progress was going to be slow; I could sense it. I looked around the shop; the shelves appeared to contain nothing but tinned food: Campbell's Chunky Steak and Kidney; Pea and Ham Soup, etc. etc. I went down the back, to the refrigerators, and found some acceptable cheese, some bacon rashers, and a couple of small bags of frozen vegetables. Back at the counter, the proprietor bagged them all up and charged me about the national debt of Tanzania.
"Well, so long," I said, "it's not too far to Wilpena from here, is it?"
"Did you get everything we needed?" asked Leigh, who'd been across the road fueling up.
The temperature outside was approaching forty as we drove northward. Pretty soon, we came to the foothills of one of the most intriguing, wonderful and spectacular mountain ranges on the planet. We were now well and truly into the heart of the Flinders Rangers, and on our left were the great escarpments of the Pound itself. It was breathtaking; in the afternoon sun the faces of gigantic sandstone buttresses arrogantly pushed their way out of the surrounding plain in a jigsaw of slanted and folded, red, yellow, orange, brown and black layers of ancient sediment. The walls of the Pound were littered with deep caves; stumpy eucalyptus struggled gallantly to find a toe-hold in the battered, weather-beaten rock. It was like nothing I have ever seen before, and we stopped, emerged from the car, and drank in this overwhelming sight for ten minutes before one of us could say a word.
How's that for two fairly-well educated blokes: reduced to monosyllabic profanities by nature itself. To give you a sense of scale, the Pound is about 22 kilometres long by about 8 kilometres wide, and if you take a look at the photograph, you'll get an idea of the size of the mountains surrounding its basin. St Mary's Peak, the tallest, is a little over 1300 metres - not huge, compared with elsewhere in the world (after all, this is the flattest continent by a long chalk), but you try climbing the bugger, as we did a couple of days later. Wilpena Pound was formed between one billion and 800 million years ago (I think just after God created Adam and Eve). It was all under water, at the time; no doubt Noah sailed straight over the top of it on his way to dropping off the hairy-nosed wombat in Tasmania.
The Pound is a syncline, an area of sedimentary rock that has been folded by continental drift, which is why its inner slopes gently rear up from the basin floor at an angle of about thirty degrees. All around its outer perimeter, though, are the magnificent, cliffed remnants of the rock that underwent the upthrust, and these tumble down in great, sheer, blocks of sandstone and limestone. It is an absolutely outstanding bit of handiwork by 'im upstairs, as a rabidly zealous psycho-jeezoid assured me while I was poking around in the visitors' centre. That's the trouble with these places - apart from normal, inquisitive souls, they attract the grand loonies seeking the assurance of some divine majesty. The next day we encountered the same drongo, exhausted, half-way up Mt Ohlsen-Bragg, whereupon Leigh suggested to him that the Almighty might have put a few chairlifts in, as He must have foreseen the opportunities for evangelical tourism years ago.
After paying the paltry sum of forty dollars to camp, we drove into the campsite proper. It was vast, and could cater for over six-hundred camping groups. It was probably only one quarter full, so we dawdled through, until we found a pretty little spot under a grove of desert gums. The local kangaroos thought that our campsite was good value, as well; they immediately came over to welcome us, and beg for food. I couldn't help but feel sorry for these poor, bedraggled creatures; the drought was obviously starting to take its toll, and one young mother, with a starved-looking joey in her pouch, hung around indolently while Leigh and I set up. We gave them nothing. You cant - it simply prolongs the inevitable. Life is tough, as we had to point out to a group of Spanish tourists, camped across the way, who were intent on feeding them.
Leigh cooked up a terrific little meal for us , and, as we were enjoying a post-prandial beer, a guy from another campsite wandered over.
"I've got a very nice scotch over at my campfire," he said by way of introduction. He was desperate for some male company, we figured, because he was here, from Adelaide, with his wife and two young daughters. We accepted his invitation, met his wife and the girls, who were lovely, and Jim (that was his name) proceeded to regale us with stories for the next couple of hours while he very liberally kept topping up our glasses. He was from a part of North Adelaide called Elizabeth, where many "ten-pound Poms" had settled after WWII, and we could detect a vaguely Lancashirean lilt in his voice, even though he was born here.
Later, I somehow managed to wrestle the zip of my tent fly open and collapse inside, only to be woken up after a dreamless coma by bright sunshine and squabbling crows. I was about to enjoy one of the best days of my life...