When I think of mountains I think of peaks that take a full day or more of trekking to reach, like the Santa Cruz Trek located in the Andes. There the thin air at 15,000 feet made breathing difficult and the elevation caused my stomach to feel queasy. The views were unparalleled. We trampled through snow and looked down on a lake so blue that all other blues seemed imitations.
A mountain to me has meant tall, rugged, and often cold. A mountain range is so great that it could take days even weeks to traverse them. Here in Australia the highest peak is less than half that size. Its air may not be thin or make my stomach roll, but the beauty is all its own with cliffs that display the power of forces unseen. My definition of a mountain is expanding.
The Great Dividing Range, Australia
Australia is the lowest and flattest continent. Many of the mountain ranges seem like islands on a plain. Some mountains stand alone without a range, monoliths in a sea of desert as if dropped there from on high. Some ranges like the Sterling Range fit within the width of the horizon as we approach it. When we drove through a narrow pass within the Sterling Range, Lil’Beaut didn’t even struggle. Lil’ Beaut has only four cylinders and weighs 3.5 tons. She struggles on some steep ascents but always gets us there.
Australia lays claim to the fifth-longest land-based range in the world. It is 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) long. This range called The Great Dividing Range is on the east coast. It contains the tallest peak* in Australia but it only reaches 2,228 meters (7,310 feet) above sea level. Within this range lay rain forests and blue mountains with their blue haze caused by the oils of the eucalyptus forests covering them.
The Great Dividing Range is what I think of when I think about mountains and ranges. But once we left this range, my definition began to expand. Australia does that with its new sights and sounds unique unto its own.
Small and Mighty Mountains of Australia
Our first exploration of mountains that would challenge our definition was The Grampians. Officially they are part of the Great Dividing mountain range but they are visibly separated by a large plain. They can be driven around within a day, but the incongruity they hold in the middle of a vast plain was part of their charm. Standing on a cliffside overlooking that plain was a unique experience.
Just east of Adelaide in South Australia is the Barossa Valley. It is called the “Garden of grapes and gums.” It is known for its red wine production primarily Shiraz, but among the vineyards are stands of red gum trees (eucalypti).
We stopped at the visitor center to learn more about the scenic drive through the valley. The lady at the visitor center in Barossa pointed to the map telling us about the highest peak in the area. She said from there we would be able to see the entire wine valley.
We followed her instructions and parked where the GPS indicated the Mengler’s Hill Lookout. Trin and I looked at each other and chuckled. We were on top of what we would call a small hill and were looking over a large plain of vineyards. “Valley” is a word we would never have thought to use to describe this.
Funny how our perceptions are so individual based on our personal experiences. Nonetheless, one’s perception and what one considers normal does not change the facts. We were standing on an elevated spot with mountains in the distance making this truly a valley, despite the fact that it felt like a plain. It was still beautiful.
We stopped at a few of the vineyards and did a wine tasting at Tscharke. I was a little disappointed with the experience. The last vineyard tour that we went on was in Mendoza, Argentina. I loved the education that came with it, the history of the place, the details about the grapes and the irrigation was fascinating.
Here it was “What wine do you want to taste next?” and “This is one of our best sellers.” The people were friendly but it lacked information that would make that specific vineyard special. It made the wine feel like it was just from a factory. They did have the coolest table in their cellar though.
Most travelers we meet rave about their experience in Barossa valley. Maybe we caught them on a bad day. It was also a very hot day and it did not go below 32 °C (90 °F) overnight.
Cooler days were predicted so we took the opportunity to head north into the Flinders range and just beyond for a taste of the outback.
Heading North into the Flinders
The road ahead of us stretched all the way to the horizon with seemingly no end, like many roads here, though none more so than the Nullarbor. On either side of the road lay a plain of desert dust dotted with willow-leaved wattle scrub brush. Small dust clouds rose into the air twisting around and moving across the plain. Piles of dry bones lay beside the road, some in heaps, some scattered, left behind after predators and the dry desert sun finished with the roadkill. A kangaroo hopped across the bitumen in front of us.
Most of the kangaroos and wallabies lay in tiny shade patches under the scrub brush. Every mile or so we passed a snub tailed lizard standing on the road, its tiny legs lifting a triangle-shaped head into the breeze.
Soon the Flinders mountains began rising to the sky to our left. The long narrow range and small rolling hills eventually morphed into rocky points as we progressed north.
The curious rocks
Then we saw something that broke the sameness. A few massive boulders oddly shaped with small windows stood by themselves on the plain. They were a curiosity that drew us near. We had to see more. We followed the dirt track towards them and studied the sharp edges and tiny cave-like openings carved by nature inside the rocks.
It wasn’t until we reached the rocks on foot that we saw the true treasure of this spot. Previously invisible from sight was a depression in the plain. It was lined with similar odd-shaped rocks that surrounded a watering hole. Here in the middle of the dry dusty desert was water.
It was as if the artist placed these curious rocks here like a beacon. Travelers who drew near would be rewarded with water that could sustain their life. They just had to be curious enough to explore. Seek, find.
We camped for the night just outside of the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park. In the distance, we could see the edges of the Wilpena Pound one of the unique formations that drew us this far north.
Pound is an old English term for a livestock enclosure usually surrounded by stone walls. Geologists use the term for rock formations that resemble such enclosures on a massive scale. (NASA)
The Wilpena Pound from the air looks as if a god pounded the ground with the side of his fist creating an oblong indentation in the earth. The earth escaping the punch slopes upward all around the point of impact. The outside edges all around the pound end abruptly into cliffs that separate the pound from the landscape around it.
As we approached the Pound we were fascinated by the cliff edges above us. From the entry point, it appeared like the sides of a large bowl looming over our heads.
The trail to the pound meanders through red gum (eucalypti) forest. The day was overcast and occasionally sprayed rain like mist. It was enough to keep us cooled down. Trin and I walked together through the gum tree forest, no one else seemed to be around today. Just before reaching the cliff we stopped to listen. We were surrounded by a flock of laughing, cackling kookaburras. It touched something deep inside and stirred joy.
Just below the cliff edge outside the pound are the ruins from the Hills Homestead. In 1888 the Hills family set up a homestead utilizing the Pound and worked it until their father passed away in 1906. “With natural towering walls, a permanent water supply, and only one entrance through the sliding rock gorge it seemed like a perfect place to hold stock,” said one of the information signs about life by the Wilpena Pound for the Hills family.
Formation of the Wilpena Pound
The formation of the Wilpena Pound is unique. Billboards nearby theorized how the Pound was formed but the theories didn’t seem to fit with commonly accepted origin theories or even the uncommonly accepted ones. It remains a mystery.
To the Aboriginal people, the Pound is a sacred place, a place where their ancestors came to worship. Their theory is that two gods got mad at the people and ate them all. Then feeling guilty they laid down and forced themselves to die their bodies creating the two sides of the pound. One can almost see the shape of the two gods laying down when the pound is viewed from high above. It is an interesting theory. I often wonder how many of the ancient societies seemed to have a firm grasp on aerial views. Things we only seem to know with our technology and yet we deem ourselves so advanced.
We climbed to the edge of the pound to see inside. We stood there looking into the large bowl and I tried to imagine how this piece of art was formed. The study of geology is so interesting and it is even more fascinating to observe it. I love science, the observed and repeated make irrefutable laws, but I don’t espouse its theories as a religion, they are to be questioned, therein lies the fun.
Our origin was not observed and theories of origin are just that, theories. The things we have learned as a result of scientific study are amazing, but we must still seek. When we blindly accept theories we cease to learn and we become like those in the dark ages who mocked any idea that questioned those in power. Back then it was the priest, today it is the scientist. Both at one time were given perceived immutable knowledge by the masses.
North of the Flinders
After exploring the Pound we headed to Blinman at the north end of the Flinders range. Along the way, we stopped at every viewpoint. The terrain turned a deep red. On top of Stokes Hill, we could see the entire valley stretched out ahead of us. It was red, just vast open red.
At the top of Stokes Hill, we met an Australian who has lived in every state and explored those states while living there. He picked up one of the snub tailed lizards that wandered by our feet as we were talking. The lizards seemed just as curious about us as we were of him. The lizard looks more like a short fat snake with tiny legs, but its scales are harder. He felt more like an alligator than a soft snake. Nature truly amazes me with its common similarities like the brush strokes of a Picasso painting so individual and unique in every iteration.
We camped in the bush just north of the Flinders. The following day we rounded the top of the mountain range and headed back towards the south coast on the opposite side of the Flinders range. A heatwave was coming and we did not want to be this far north in the winds that come from the oven of the Australian interior.
If we were to travel further north we would end up in the Simpson desert. From the beginning of December to mid-March the Simpson desert is closed due to the extreme heat. One website reported daytime temperatures above 61 °C, but they also listed the Eyre Lake as the largest in the world (there are a few much larger – the largest being the Bolivian Salt Flats). There is so much misinformation, checking references and validity is paramount.
Wikipedia reports the hottest recorded temperature on earth as 56.7 °C (134.1 °F) in Furnace Creek Ranch, California, located in the Death Valley desert in the United States, on July 10, 1913. And even that reading has been challenged.
Who knows how hot it actually gets, but what I can accurately report is that the heat is life-threatening. Heat, combined with utter remoteness, sudden sand storms, with no shade or water spells disaster. We would seek cooler temperatures by the coast.
Seek for your blue door, opportunity awaits.
*Mount Kosciuszko is the highest point on the continent of Australia. This does not include island territories or its claim on part of Antarctica (claims on Antarctica are not recognized internationally).