We sat at our little camping table - me with coffee, Leigh drinking water (I can't for the life of me get him to enjoy the splendour of a good coffee) - and pondered our maps. We were on the eastern side of the Pound, and would need to walk about five ks through the only pass between the mountain chain in order to get into the basin proper.
"We could do that, Loz, or we could just climb this bloody mountain here," he stabbed his finger on the map, "and then we'd get a real sense of the lay of the land."
I looked at where he was pointing - "Mt Ohlsen-Bragg", the map said. It was about two and a half thousand feet of climbing. I smiled at Leigh.
"Are you up for it, mate?"
"Too right, Loz, let's go."
We set out along the first part of the track. Leigh was carrying the day pack with water and some dried fruit and nuts; I had all the camera gear. We meandered through the Wilpena Gorge, where the runoff from the Pound flows through Wilpena Creek (the original settlers were notoriously unimaginative with place-names), and marvelled at the magnificent stands of river red gums along the way. The walls of the gorge began to close in and become steeper as we progressed, with vast scree-slopes tumbling their way into the pass. A sign ushered us to the left, along a narrow track that snaked its way up a fairly steep slope of scree and larger boulders. The sign said "Mt Ohlsen-Bragg: 10k. Warning: Walkers should be physically fit. Take water."
"Well, at least we've got water," said Leigh. "I wonder how 'physically fit' they expect us to be?"
"We'll find out when we come across the bodies, mate."
We plunged up the track. Now, here's an interesting and handy tip when you go walking, especially when it involves some reasonably serious uphill work: take little steps. In his younger days, Leigh trekked nearly all the way to Everest base camp. The Sherpa guides showed him a technique that allows you to walk all day in any terrain. You just put one foot in front of the other, often taking little more than dolly-steps; that way, you conserve energy expenditure and prevent your muscles breaking down and producing so many waste products that they turn into an amorphous, jelly-like substance that would look good on an ebola patient.
And so, for the next hour or more, we dolly-stepped our way up and along a track that was only a foot or so wide, often clambering over larger boulders that had recently come crashing down from above. It really was a "tumbledown hill"; everywhere were the signs of this ancient escarpment gradually disintegrating under the force of sun, wind and temperature. Amazing that, according to our loony mate from the day before, it was only 4000 years old!
As we climbed, the vegetation became sparser, not because of the altitude, but because the escarpment started to thrust its way up more or less vertically above us. The loose stands of black boys, stringy eucalypts and tufted grasses hung on gamely to whatever crevices they could find. Looking out to the east and north, we began to get a grand view of the upper Flinders; they were a magnificent sight - I clicked away furiously at several points, but no photograph can do justice to what we were seeing. We were only about a third of the way to the top, and everywhere above us were enormous blocks of sandstone, precariously perched one upon the other, just waiting for the signal to come hurtling down the mountainside. It was inspiring, and somewhat threatening at the same time.
We came around a buttress to find a woman sitting on a rock. She was dressed in khaki shorts and shirt - the only thing missing was a pith helmet. Sweat was pouring from her body, and her face was the colour of the rocks around us. She was pooped, and the high-thirties temperature was obviously not to her liking.
"Gooday, there," said Leigh, "fairly warm day, isn't it."
"Oh, it is absolutely like a furnace," she replied in an unmistakable German accent. "My husband has climbed up this very steep rock, but I am afraid to go any further." She indicated a large, sheer plate of sandstone stretching about forty feet above us. It had a few little cracks and rills running through it, but although steep, it didn't seem like that much of an effort would get one to its top.
Leigh sized up the situation. "Don't worry - we'll give you a hand up. I'll go first, and you follow me. Put your hands and feet where I tell you. Laurie will come up behind and make sure all your footholds are good."
Both Leigh and I have plenty of rock-climbing experience, and the slope didn't appear to be more than a casual stroll, in my book. The woman was not looking anywhere near as sanguine about it, though. I took her day pack and slung it over my shoulder. Leigh started up, and the poor woman, before she knew it, was ten feet up the slab uttering little whimpers of fear. I couldn't blame her; here she was with two galahs she'd met about ten seconds ago, and was now attempting to conquer the Matterhorn.
In the end we arrived safely, and I could see that she was quietly pleased with herself. Her husband, while the mountaineering team had been hard at work, was sitting on a great big boulder with his legs dangling into space, admiring the view. Unfortunately, this boulder, which was about the size of half a house, was resting, with nothing else to support it, on a rock as big as a basketball. Sometime soon, in the next thirty days or three hundred years, that little rock was going to give up the ghost, with a spectacular result for anyone standing below it.
Leigh and I glanced at each other, and Leigh said "You know, madam, I'd encourage your husband to get off that rock and sit over here with us."
"What do you mean?" she asked with a re-elevated sense of imminent doom.
Leigh began a brief physics lesson, and as soon as Madam got the point she yelled "Dieter, oh Dieter! Get back here now," and continued frantically in German. Her husband, looking unconcerned, got up and jumped across to where we were. We shook hands all round, and sat down for some water and nibbles. It seemed like a good spot for a break.
Frida, the woman, told us that she and Dieter were here from Hamburg on a two-month holiday. They'd been to a few of our country's best places, including the Great Barrier Reef (traveller's tip: come and see it before it dies), and were about to go to Uluru.
"We saw a snake yesterday, Laurie, when we were up on the mountain on the other side of the valley, there," said Frida, "we don't have them in Germany, you know. Here, I have a photograph of it on my camera." She fiddled with the camera for a few seconds, then handed it to me. On the screen was a beautiful close-up of a king brown, its head raised above its coils, ready to assume the strike position.
"Er, how far away from it were you when you took this, Frida?" I asked.
"Oh, about," she stretched her arms out, "a metre, a metre and one half, maybe."
I passed the camera to Leigh. He emitted a low whistle. "Look, Frida, that is a king brown snake, probably the deadliest snake in the world. If that thing had bitten you - and they can strike faster than you can blink - you'd be dead. No question - nobody could save you. Jesus. If you see a snake, any snake, out here, stay at least twenty metres from it. OK?"
I looked back at Frida. From sandstone red, she had gone a ghastly shade of white, tinged with green. "Oh Dieter, Dieter," she shrieked, "we must go back to Adelaide and get on a plane back to Germany. This country is...is...impossible!"
After we'd taken leave of our friends and continued up the track for a few minutes, Leigh stopped. He turned around to me, following behind, and said "And to think they nearly won the war."
After climbing for two and a half hours, we reached the summit of Mt Ohlsen-Bragg, and peered into the majestic panorama of Wilpena Pound for the first time. The floor of the Pound was covered in a forest of stately eucalypts, that here and there gave way to expanses of grassland. Circling the basin were the tilted plates of sediment, so uniformly rising away from the base that the whole edifice looked remarkably like the world's biggest football stadium. It was not hard to see how someone, ignorant of tectonics, could simply throw up his hands and say "God must have done it." It had the feel of a majestically designed landscape. But it wasn't, of course; it was simply the result of blind energies working on a timescale so vast as to be imponderable.
We stood, transfixed, for an hour. If I never see an object in the natural world as stately, grand and alien again, I'll remain happy. (Although, if anything, my hunger for such experiences has grown immeasurably after Wilpena.)
The descent was agony. Unfortunately, there's no getting away from the fact that, once you've hit the mid-fifties, your knees are not what they used to be. Every steep step down thrust the entire weight of our bodies onto these ancient, creaking joints. By the time we got to the bottom, both of us were deliberately avoiding saying anything at all, in case the only thing that might issue from our mouths would be shrieks of pain.
At dusk, we hobbled back into our campsite, groaning. We both, immediately, collapsed on our chairs, and it was a scramble to see who could rip the top off the esky quick enough. Anaesthetic was called for, and plenty of it. The first six beers went straight down without touching the sides, and it was only then that our gasps of pain began to give way to murmurs of pleasure.
"That," opined Leigh as soon as he had recovered sufficiently, "was fucking brilliant, Loz!"
"Absolutely one of the best days I've ever had, Leigh," I replied, ignoring the dull throbbing occurring in every part of my body. "What do you reckon about tomorrow?"
"Well, mate," he replied ruminantly, "there's a couple of other of these big bastards we should knock over yet."