My cousin’s a geologist. He emigrated to Australia in the 1970s and has dedicated his career to the pursuit of diamonds. Not big shiny ones, but small muddy ones, which in theory should lead to bigger, shinier ones. During his search around Australia’s vast, ancient, uncharted wilderness, he’s found iron, zinc and gold deposits. But those enchanting little sparklers remain elusive.
By a generational quirk, Kevin’s 30 years older than me, so back when I was mastering my tricycle he was thundering around the Outback in a Land Cruiser, mapping mineral deposits and whatever else field geologists do. Much of his exploration was in the rusty, dried out mountain chains of South Australia – so when he offered to take me on a ‘bush bashing’ tour north from his home in Adelaide to the Flinders Ranges, I was in.
One of the best things about Adelaide, one could argue, is leaving it. The South Australian capital is surrounded by lush winelands, and our route took us through the undulating Adelaide Hills before tracking north to the world-famous Barossa Valley and cosily gorgeous Clare Valley. There are diamonds in the Adelaide Hills too, Kevin tells me, but no one’s sure where. They did find gold, though, and the Bird in Hand winery was actually named after the mine that once operated nearby. It was too early for tastings, but we drove a circuit past picture perfect Shaw & Smith, with its neat rows of vines, and Bridgewater Mill, famed for its restaurant.
It was a different story by the time we reached Angaston, the gateway to the Barossa Valley. Jacob’s Creek, Penfolds, Peter Lehmann and Henschke are among the iconic names operating in this renowned wine region, justly famous for its robust reds. The valley is just 25km long, yet it produces 21 per cent of Australia’s wine. It was also one of the first areas where vines were introduced – by German settlers in the 1840s. Clare is quieter by comparison, a skinny, sun-baked valley with a gaggle of wineries along its length. The Riesling Trail – a cycle and walking track along a disused railway line – is a good option for exploring the area and its cellar doors. But Kevin has commendably devoted similar dedication to his study of Australia’s wines as the country’s mineral wealth, and we’re booked for lunch on the verandah at Skillogalee. Afterwards we meet the owner, who allows me to help stir a vat of what will be their 2010 Shiraz.
It’s the next day that our roadtrip proper begins. Gradually the rolling wheat fields give way to arid sheep stations, baking under the glaring yellow sun. Purple silhouettes loom on the horizon, the foothills of the Flinders Ranges coming into view. The parched earth turns a ruddy brown, the middle distance a deeper shade of pink. The road ahead shimmers in the heat haze.
We stop to refuel in Hawker, at Kevin’s favourite petrol station. Kevin has seen a lot of petrol stations, and I’m inclined to agree that this one, which also acts as a tourist information centre, is fabulous, with stacks of beguilingly empty maps alongside the sunscreen and Australiana. Around the corner is the Wilpena Panorama – a sneak preview of the formation we’ve come to see, exquisitely painted by a local artist from the vantage point of St Mary Peak. Chuffed with his purchase – a map of the Flinders Ranges National Park – Kevin spots an unsealed tourist route on our way to Rawnsley Station, one of the two resorts at Wilpena Pound.
Turning off the highway onto Moralana Scenic Drive, I’m overcome by the staggering beauty of the place. Gracious red river gums cluster along the banks of a dry creek bed, their drooping olive leaves a counterpoint to the patterned bark of their gnarled, twisting trunks. The orange earth is punctuated by skeletal twigs bleached bone white by the sun. Looming in the background, the serrated ridges of the Elder Range lumber hazily into the distance, 500 million years of the earth’s history etched into their craggy bulk. Backdropped by an empty, acid blue sky, it’s a postcard view that epitomises Outback Australia.
Later, we take a scenic flight over Wilpena Pound. The sandstone amphitheatre is even more impressive from above, its elliptical ridges framing the natural basin inside. Kevin listens intently to the commentary, explaining how the sedimentary rock was uplifted then subsided to create the formation. But I’m more convinced by the Aboriginal legend, which says the Pound was created by two coiled snakes. Certainly from the air the ridges look like vertebrae rising from the desert floor.
On our return journey, Kevin switches into four-wheel drive and heads cross country on a lonely sheep station. After a bone-shaking hour’s drive bumping across creek beds and corrugations, he pulls up beside a small earthwork – the most recent site for diamond exploration in the area.
Outside the Land Cruiser it’s scorching hot, and the uncanny silence of the Outback is deafening. I stand drinking in the view of nothing – no telegraph poles, no aeroplane trails, no sign of human life but us and this grid of holes in the ground.
Reaching into his pocket Kevin hands me a small jewellery box, which contains a single rough diamond, glowing pinkly in the sunshine. It’s the biggest to have been found here, and too small to make a mine viable. But somewhere in those ancient, quietly slumbering hills, there are more.
The Flinders Ranges are on the long road from nowhere to somewhere unspecific, so if you want to see them you’ll need to put in the drive time. We passed plenty of aspiring campervanners on our trip, eagerly fuelling up to hit the Outback dirt. Our meandering route from Adelaide took us west through the Adelaide Hills, then on a boomerang curve north to the Clare Valley via the Barossa. We drove back along the Spencer Gulf coast road from Port Augusta.
If you continue north from the Flinders Ranges, you hit the Outback proper. The Oodnadatta Track skirts the south of Lake Eyre before snaking towards Coober Pedy and the baking dunes of the Simpson Desert. Beyond here the Stuart Highway heads straight for Darwin, via Alice Springs.If you want to experience the big skies, expansive vistas and arid isolation of the Red Centre, South Australia is the place to start. Most tours between Alice Springs and Adelaide stop at Wilpena Pound.