The Gammon Ranges – Vulkathunha National Park in the Northern Flinders Ranges has much to offer, its plateau, deep chasms, steep sided gorges, tree lined creeks, pounds and most importantly to me, remoteness and wild beauty. Its been on my mind for a while years now as a place I want to walk in and discover for myself, though for one reason or another it remained out of reach until this spring.
The Park offers a handful of marked trails but for the most part this country can be approached any way you choose. Wherever you go, access to water is essential. Other than what you can carry with you the only sources of water are a handful of natural springs located throughout the park. Carrying water for multiple days becomes arduous so we built our trip around the springs, having first checked with the ranger which ones were flowing.
Our way in was to enter via Italowie Creek in the south, then make our way westwards up Ampitheatre Creek. I was struck by the creek’s width and how within them elongated islands are formed. Around the islands narrower, deeper creek beds are shaped by the water, drifting apart and coming together, the interweaving gestures of waters response to lands resistance. The creek beds themselves are a jumble of rounded rocks which makes walking in them a challenge, as it requires that each foot be placed consciously to avoid stumbling. The going is much easier on the islands as here, above the waters usual passage the sand, soil and plant litter is settled and compacted forming a flat surface underfoot. Not unlike the water though our route went this way and that as we were forced to go around the resistance of scrub.
Rain had fallen in the weeks prior to our trip and water still flowed, though not always consistently. I like the ease of walking on the islands yet I feel drawn to walking next to the water wherever it bubbles along, glistening in the sun light, incessantly chatting. The waters babble changes as its momentum increasing or slowing, its urgency gathering over falls, subsiding in pools. And so our way went like this, speeding up and slowing down, against the flow of the water, looking for a place to make camp.
Our intention was to make a base camp in close proximity to running water from which we could explore the surrounding creeks and without the need to carry water and gear. Turning a bend in the creek we find ourselves gazing upwards up at a massive arcing wall of orange-red rock which glows warmly in the afternoons light. For me the rock had an effect not unlike being in the front row of a movie theatre so dominant is its effect, yet it is clear that this is the best seat in the house so we make camp. This would be our home for the next few days, the place from where we would further explore the surrounding creeks as they narrow towards their origin.
When I got back into bush walking a few years ago one of my aims was to walk long distances. And so the Wollemi’s initial walks on the Southern legs of the Heysen Trail were full day affairs, starting early and finishing as the sun got low. Breaks were often, by necessity, short as time was needed to get to the end. Our multi-day trips followed a similar form, though this time with heavy packs, lugged up and down, day after day. These walks are a physical challenge, requiring stamina, but the rewards at days end are good as camp is discovered, packs put down and the body stretched out next to a warming fire where dinner is cooking.
Our base camp opened up the possibility of walking without the heavy encumbrance of a pack. Our particular location put us in reach of a number of features frequently sought after by walkers and so I had vision of us moving lightly to these places and bagging a number of them before we needed to head home. How differently it turned out.
As we began our first exploratory walk deeper into the creek-world around us it became clear that we were in no hurry. Instead of the usual fixed intent of getting to our destination, our destination seemed to be whatever place we found ourselves in at any given time. With a slower pace and a heightened sense awareness a space opened up in which our attention was more finely in tune with the life of the habitat around us. I felt a sense of aliveness, intimacy, possibly even enchantment.
On the two full days we had to explore we reach Rover Rock Hole, and the confluence of Junction Creek and Streak Gorge. On our ambles too and from these places there are so many aspects that capture my attention. Of the many a significant one is my contemplation of the grand incremental process of erosion taking place in these ranges. This can be seen in the transformative journey of rock. From its place embedded in the rock-mass singular pieces or great chunks fall away and tumble down to the creek below. From here it gives up the defined angular form it held for millennia as water repeatadly rolls and rounds it. Colour change is also evident. From the outside the rock appears in varying tones of red, orange and brown depending on its exposure to weather. But when it falls away from the rock-mass the hitherto unexposed face is pale and almost white. Once in the creek and depending on where it comes to rest it may retain some of its lightness or become entirely darker. Its about change, albeit at a slow pace.
This process of change may take thousands of years which seems like nought when placed within the context of the Flinders Ranges overall tranformative journey through time which spans into the millennia. It is often emphasised that the Flinders Ranges were once part of a great seabed that stretched inland towards the centre of Australia. Gradually this seabed was pushed upwards forming great ranges, in some instances said to be as high as the Himalayas. The ranges that we now see are but knuckles compared to their previous stature. But here and there you can find reminders of that journey in the form of fossilised seabed which has been aged at over 500 million years.
With this knowledge in mind, walking through this land has a humbling effect on me. This is further enhanced when looking up to the nights vast, starry expanse of space. Bring to this the rounding of rocks, springs delicate blossoms, the airy flight and chirrup of bird, the alert darting of lizards, the clouds of pollen exploding from the Callitris, a clutch of abandoned emu eggs, the lines of receding water, and the wet footprints of walkers and I find myself in awe, at wonder. All around is impossible age and fleeting moments. In all impermanence is everywhere, only the scale is different.
On the sixth day we pack up and begin our walk out via McKinlay Bluff. The climb is steep and sweaty though at times it offers us spectacular views across the park and we can orientate the landscape to the map. At one point I am able to identify the creek from where we came but the view is from high above and I am not able to see any of the features that have impressed themselves upon me. Until I return there, they will have to live inside me. Now we were in the world of the eagle. One flies close to our eye level whilst we rest for lunch. We watch it climb the heights on the curling thermals. So graceful compared to our trudge with pack up the goat track to the summit.
At the top we have to navigate our way through fairly thick scrub that regularly blocks our way. It is frustrating and I quickly become irritable. This only changes when I stop reacting to this challenge and start adapting to the circumstances, learning to move with and not against the bush. I am reminded how this scenario is a metaphor for the choices I have when facing challenges in everyday life. I push on happily. Despite a navigational error we make it off the range, thirsty, sore, exhausted but safe and spend the night camped in a basin to the south. There’s no water here and we are forced to ration what we have. There are also flies and mozzies, prickly ground and a warm wind and I don’t feel as sheltered as I did in the creeks.
At the beginning of our trip I felt that we had so much time before us. Even the days that passed seemed to do so slowly. All that time I hardly thought about elsewhere, I felt present to where I was and that could have lasted forever as far as I was concerned. But then on the morning of the last day something shifts internally and I feel a pull from home. After a brisk hike we were all of a sudden upon the road and at the car and travelling south at 100km per hour. In retrospect our departure came too soon and I would have liked a longer walk on that last morning.
We made it to Hawker by 4pm where we learned that thunderstorms and significant rain were due across the state. We had planned to spend a night in the bush along the way and so break the long drive, but despite the late hour we elected to drive home and I made it to mine by 11:30pm. Laying in my own bed as midnight passed I find it difficult to reconcile that that very morning I had woken in my tent to the still air of Vulkathunha. To get here we had driven over 700km through scenic country, thunderous rains and finally the urban sprawl of Adelaide. I felt yanked out of one reality and into another and it took me a few days to overcome the reluctance of needing to re-engage with my everyday life with all of its demands. On occasion I just wanted to be back in the Flinders, free from needing to do anything other than Be. I have subsequently characterised that Being as a feeling akin to Bliss and I am deeply grateful for having it.
I learned that Vulkathunha means Old Lady. I find that comforting, and that’s because for me, the hills and rocks of the Flinders Ranges represent Elders. They have been around a long time. They may be eroding but they still stand firm and retain an essence, a certainty, possibly an inherent wisdom which I realise I have looked for throughout my life. I find it in those Rangescertain and I find it in people here and there. Furthermore, I realise that when I am grounded I can embody that quality too.