An oasis in the spectacular northern Flinders Ranges with plenty to delight photographers.
Arkaroola has often been described as a geological wonderland where visitors can see magnificent rock formations, rugged peaks, razor-back ridges and the remains of ancient seabeds. At night, the clear, unpolluted sky displays an unparalleled array of stars, with the Milky Way clearly visible.
There are three fully-equipped astronomical observatories at Arkaroola, two of them with Celestron 14-inch (360 mm) Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes and the other with three ‘Star Chairs’ and three 5-inch (125 mm) Meade ETX-125, computer-controlled Maksutov-Cassegrain telescopes, as well as spare piers and wedges for ‘BYO’ telescopes. Tours of these facilities are run on most nights.
Where is it?
The Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary is located near the eastern border of central South Australia, 600km north of Adelaide and 130km east-north-east of Leigh Creek on the Stuart Highway. Covering 610 square kilometres of hilly country with plains to its east and west, it includes some of Australia’s most spectacular mountain views, punctuated with striking gorges and secluded waterholes.
Over the past few decades, Arkaroola has become a mecca for bushwalkers and four wheel drivers. Facilities include the Arkaroola Village area with motel-style suites in three lodges, three self-contained cottages and cabins, and bunkhouse-style accommodation in the caravan park. An in-ground swimming pool and adjacent barbecue area is provided, along with a licensed bar.
The caravan park contains 50 powered sites, gas barbecues and laundry and ablution facilities. There are also several camping areas in the bush around the central facilities. Camping in other areas of Arkaroola is not permitted because of the impact it can have on the wilderness.
Getting There/Getting Around
Most visitors tend to travel to Arkaroola via Leigh Creek and Copley, a distance of about 130km. The road from Copley is unsealed but in dry conditions is suitable for normal vehicles and caravans. Expect to take between two and three hours.
A panoramic view looking east from Siller’s Lookout with Lake Frome on the horizon. This image was stitched together from eight frames shot with the camera held vertically.
There’s also a coach service from the Central Bus Station in Adelaide for passenger and freight pick up and drop off. Details of organised coach tours can be obtained from most travel agents. Facilities are available for people visiting by private aircraft.
Many of the roads within Arkaroola are only suitable for 4WD vehicles, although some can be negotiated by SUVs. However, most of the best places for photography can be reached on foot or by taking one of the tours organised from the main facility. ‘Tag along’ and self-guided tours for owners of 4WD vehicles can also be arranged.
When to go
Winter is generally considered the best time to visit this area, although the nights can be very cold, with a mean minimum of around 3.2 degrees Celsius. Day temperatures are usually between 12 and 20 degrees from May to August. Arkaroola averages fewer than seven cloudy days per month throughout the year, with the highest incidence of cloud between May and July.
In summer (December, January and February) day temperatures often rise above 35 degrees but the humidity is typically below 40%, compared to nearly 70% in Sydney during this period. March and April typically have fewer than five cloudy days and average maximum temperatures between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius, while night temperatures average between 7 and 12 degrees.
What Gear to Take
The equipment you take will depend on how much you are prepared to carry and whether you will be travelling alone or in a group. If you choose to take any of the organised tours you should restrict the amount of equipment you take because of the limited space in the vehicles. In addition, the rough roads can damage delicate equipment that is not well protected.
Reflections in water in the Bararrana Gorge.
A well-made camera bag is essential, whether you decide to see the area via the organised tours or strike out on your own. Make sure it offers adequate protection against dust as this will be the main threat to your equipment. (Take care when changing lenses.)
In most situations, wide-angle lenses will provide the best coverage of the scenery and we suggest you include at least one lens that can encompass an angle of view equivalent to 24mm on a 35mm camera. Short zooms (24-70mm equivalent for full frame, 17-55mm for APS-C or 12-50mm for M4/3) are light and compact enough and an excellent choice if you want to take only one lens. The standard 18-55mm lens for APS-C DSLRs or 14-42mm lens for M4/3 cameras will also provide adequate coverage.
A long telephoto lens could be added on the off-chance that you might see some interesting wildlife. Arkaroola is home to the endangered Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby as well as several other kangaroos and more than 160 species of birds. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times for seeing and photographing these creatures and you will require a lens of at least 200mm (300mm for APS-C or 400mm for M4/3) to stand any chance of obtaining good photographs.
A tripod can be useful for photographing wildlife, although a monopod can be substituted if you need to minimise weight when photographing wildlife. For night photography, a sturdy tripod is essential. To get the best pictures of the night sky you will need to find a place where your views are uninterrupted by people and lights.
Guided tours from the central facility take visitors to areas frequented by the rock wallabies and the special ‘bat boxes’ that have been set up to encourage native bats. Whether you can obtain good photographs on these tours will depend on how many people are on the tour and the guide’s sensitivity to photographers’ needs. If you can return to these places alone and sit and wait, you may enjoy some success.
Walking towards the Sitting Bull rock (named by Douglas Mawson in 1945), one of the eroded volcanic plugs on the Mawson/Spriggina trail.
Specific Places to Visit
The Ridgetop Tour is considered ‘one of Australia’s great guided four-wheel-drive journeys’ by the RAA. This 42-kilometre return trip departs from the village twice daily at 8am and 1pm during most of the year, with slight adjustments during the summer months. It takes you into areas that can’t be visited otherwise and lasts for roughly four hours.
A special open-top 4WD vehicle is required to negotiate the roads (you can’t take your own vehicle). As a bonus, you will learn about the area’s 1600-million year geological history and can stop to take photographs at some of the best viewing places along the way.
The first stop is Coulthard’s Lookout, which provides views of the Gammon Ranges National Park and Lake Frome. From there, the tour passes Mount Painter and Mount Gee, Split Rock and the Armchair as it winds its way upwards. There’s a wonderful 360-degree panorama at Siller’s Lookout (where you stop for morning or afternoon tea) where you can gaze out over the eastern plains and see Lake Frome in the distance.
The Mawson/Spriggina trail combines two separate walking trails that enable visitors to see some of the most photogenic parts of the area and appreciate the work of two geologists long associated with the northern Flinders Ranges. The Mawson trail is named for Douglas Mawson, who studied the area in the 1940s. It begins at the Village and continues for approximately eight kilometres, ending at a road that covers the remaining half a kilometre distance back to the village.
The grades are mostly moderate, with only a short (200 metre) steep section on the old road at 5.8km from the trailhead. Most of the path is easy to negotiate, although it’s not wheelchair friendly. Highlights for photography include Sitting Bull, The Pinnacles and The Needles, all of them eroded remnants of volcanic plugs composed of crystalline feldspar and quartz. The largest of The Pinnacles has a colony of Yellow-footed Rock wallabies living on it in good seasons.
From the Pinnacles car park you join the Spriggina trail, named for geologist, Reg Sprigg, who discovered the famous fossils of the Ediacara fauna. Looking down from the ridge on this track, you can see on the valley floor a ‘landscape’ model of Spriggina, one of the fossilised segmented flatworms discovered by Sprigg.
Allow approximately five hours for the Acacia Ridge trail, which runs for 5.6 kilometres along the ridge overlooking the road into the Village and the nearby Griselda Hill, which also can be climbed (it takes about an hour). You can arrange with the village staff to be taken to the Arkaroola Station trailhead so you can walk back to the village along the ridge.
Looking back towards Arkaroola Village from the start of the Mawson Trail. Griselda Hill can be seen in the background.
The trail covers an altitude range of almost 300 metres and some parts are quite steep. It provides panoramic views over undulating ridges to the distant plains on the horizon and great views over the road. Some interesting plants can be seen along the track, including Mulga and Black Oak groves, Purple Mulla Mulla, Coolibah trees and Grass trees.
The Bararranna bush walk is a 6.8 kilometre circuit that starts and ends at the Welcome Mine, which is roughly 10km from the village and usually accessible by two-wheel-drive vehicles. Noteworthy for its rock formations, this trail passes along the Arkaroola Creek and has side tracks into the Tillite and Bararrana Gorges.
There are opportunities to photograph waterholes, which retain water through most of the year, as well as near-vertical cliff faces and enormous boulders that were dropped into sea-floor mud at the end of the Ice Age. Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies can sometimes be seen on the rock walls near the junction of Arkaroola Creek and Tillite Gorge as well as near the Bararrana Waterhole. Peregrine falcons may also be seen on the cliff faces, their nesting sites indicated by white patches on the rocks.
First published (with additional images) in Photo Review Magazine Issue 61
Subscribe to Photo Review Magazine