Get well off the beaten track in the Gawler Ranges in central-western SA.
As we drove through the station gate, the low line of hills around us formed the northern-most vestiges of the Gawler Ranges as they petered out into the seemingly limitless saltbush plains of the SA outback. We were heading towards the vast, normally dry salt bed of Lake Gairdner, SA’s second-largest salt lake (after Lake Eyre, the country’s biggest). It sprawls across 4350sq km and, with the nearby lakes Everard and Harris, makes up Lake Gairdner National Park.
If you are lucky enough to be here after local rain like we were, the lake with its dramatic reflections of sky and neighbouring hills could even be called ‘beautiful’.
Situated on Mount Ive Station, the lake is probably more famous these days for the annual Speed Week, which sees high-speed cars from all over Australia and the USA gather to strut their stuff on the saltpan. Back in 1994, Rosco McGlashan set an Australian speed record here of 801km/h (he clocked an astonishing 1026km/h two years later but couldn’t do the required return run to set a new record), but most participants are just trying to get their creations to speeds of 300-400km/h.
The best access to the lake is the route we had chosen across Mount Ive Station, with a key for the gate available from the homestead about 20km south of the lake itself. But Mount Ive has a lot more to offer that just access to the lake.
We had visited this property many years ago and even back then there was a small camping area and accommodation. Now with the place is much better set up with powered sites, a range of different accommodation, good facilities, a store selling basic supplies, beer and fuel, along with a number of 4WD tracks that take visitors to points of interest on the property.
There are countless places to enjoy the view or get out for a short walk. One not to miss is the 500m walk to Peter’s Pillars, the best and most easily accessible organ pipe formations anywhere in the Gawler Ranges. They’re an indication of the volcanic landscape that helped form the present landscape some 1500 million years ago.
After a couple of days at Mount Ive (you could easily spend longer) we headed north on the main dirt road. This route starts near Iron Knob on the Eyre Highway about 70km west of Port Augusta and passes Siam homestead before getting to Mount Ive, 125km north of the blacktop. From there the road skirts Lake Gairdner and continues north, meeting with the next major route north through the ranges at Skull Tank.
This water point was established for the old Stock Route No 15 that once cut through the Gawler Ranges to Kingoonya and beyond. Lacking good underground water, rain tanks or ‘dew tanks’ were built to catch any of the infrequent rain that fell, the trapped water being stored in a number of water tanks under the large corrugated iron roof. We were surprised to find many of the tanks full, but we weren’t game to taste any!
That evening we spent at Kingoonya and enjoyed the hospitality of the Kingoonya Waterhole Hotel. Opened first in the early 1930s to service the railway and the ever growing number of people travelling the embryonic Stuart Highway, the pub closed its doors in 1982. A few years previously the sealed Stuart Highway had been re-routed via Glendambo to bypass the town, which soon had a lot more buildings than people.
The hotel was reopened in 2006 with a friendly welcome, cold beer, good food and basic but clean rooms to enjoy. The famous cricket match, which was played every year on the local pitch – the only one in Australia that is in the middle of the main road – has been revived and is run on the first Sunday in November when a couple of hundred people flood into town (today’s normal population is just ten).
GAWLER RANGES NP
Next morning we backtracked, the road south-west from Skull Tank leading through a very picturesque section of the Gawler Ranges. This route also leads to the Eyre Highway near Wirrulla, about 105km east of Ceduna, and is a useful short-cut to or from the Stuart Highway at Glendambo.
We diverted into the Gawler Ranges National Park. Because of recent rain, rich green growth covered the valley floors and plains, with the red rocks of the hills standing out in stark contrast. Western grey kangaroos grazed everywhere in small mobs among the hills, while solitary euros, or hill wallaroos, stayed closer to their rocky bastions.
We checked out some other Organ Pipes but decided those on Mount Ive were better and then headed east to Old Paney HS in the heart of the national park. This was the original homestead of the Paney pastoral lease, which was one of the properties taken over when the park was established in 2002. The old homestead was built during the 1880s and at one time housed a family of 13. A short distance away a couple of graves date back to the 1860s.
At the Kolay Mirica Falls, in the north-east of the park, water was trickling from a cliff-lined pool at the top of the cascades to a larger, more open pond at the base of the rocks. With the sun making fast tracks to the western horizon and casting a golden glow, it was a picturesque scene.
For a complete change of scenery, we headed past the ranger base at the sprawling Paney homestead and then Mount Allalone to the boundary of the park, where we picked up the southern end of the Sturt Track.
This one-way 4WD route passes through sand dune country that is much more akin to the adjoining Pinkawillinie Conservation Park. The route winds through low sand ridges before coming to the shores of some un-named saltpans. Here along the edge of the lakes the country is more open with the mallee trees much taller and stouter. There are some good bush camps through here. North of the saltpans the dunes become much bigger and much more heavily vegetated before breaking out into open saltbush country south of the Old Paney homestead.
WUDINNA AND MINIPPA
South of the national park are more attractions and spots to camp. Around Wudinna and Minnipa (small hamlets on the Eyre Highway) are some great granite tors that are worth a visit. Mount Wudinna, 11km north-east of Wudinna, is the largest exposed monolith in SA, with great views of the surrounding area. Nearby Polda Dam, at the base of Polda Rock, offers very pleasant picnicking, walking and birdwatching.
Pildappa Rock, north-east of Minnipa, is considered by many to be more impressive than WA’s Wave Rock. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the base of the rock and its immediate surroundings offers very pleasant camping, while the animal and birdwatching is an easy way to pass a day or two.
For those with a more adventurous streak, the Buckleboo Stock Route and the Woolford Track, north of Kyancutta and Wudinna, offer enjoyable offroading and some remote camping. Further west – and a great way to get to Kingooya – is Googs Track, a two to three-day 4WD adventure that is one of the best desert trips available in Australia today.