About 8km from the little township of Parachilna in the far north of South Australia is Parachilna Gorge. Parachilna Creek meanders through this part of the long chain of rugged mountains known as the Flinders Ranges. They were named by the English explorer Captain Matthew Flinders in 1802.
The creek has carved out a steep and rocky gorge through the mountains. Parachilna Gorge is one of the larger gorges in this chain of mountains. Normally the creek is a mere trickle of water easily stepped over in one stride. Several waist deep waterholes can be found in various places. In drier times, even this little trickle of water dries up. The stark red rocks of the gorge light up in the early morning or late afternoon sun and make excellent photographic subjects. The flat areas near the creek make excellent camping spots; we have camped there on a number of occasions. Many people also come here for picnics as it is a very pleasant spot to stop if travelling from other parts of the ranges.
While I was teaching at the nearby Parachilna Rural School in the late 1960s I also saw the other face of the Flinders Ranges. From my classroom I could see a long stretch of the range. Early mornings witnessed the soft blues of the hills and valleys, sometimes shrouded in mists. In the late afternoons the mountains become fiery battlements in the setting sun. Heavy rain in the ranges higher up would cause each creek to become a raging torrent of water, each emptying into the Parachilna Creek, the only way for the water to escape to the plains below. At these times the gentle trickle of water became a rampaging, runaway monster taking all before it. To see one of these creeks in flood is an awesome sight.
These thundering flood waters are capable of snapping off hundred year old eucalyptus trees and sending them tumbling downstream, tossing them around like toys in a bathtub. Large boulders can be moved downstream. In one famous downpour in 1955 a section of a railway bridge south of Parachilna at Hookina was washed away by floodwaters. On at least one occasion I camped overnight in the back of my car in Parachilna Gorge waiting for the waters to subside enough to complete the drive back to Parachilna.
The tiny township of Parachilna in the far north of South Australia is not strictly in the ranges. It is located about 8 kilometres west of Parachilna Gorge. This small community has never been huge with a population rarely exceeding 20 over the years. It was first surveyed in 1863 and was at its peak during the time that the nearby copper mine at Blinman was operational.
A Special Place
Parachilna has a special place in my life. In 1969 I was appointed as Head Teacher of the tiny Parachilna Rural School there. It was my first teaching appointment and a very rugged introduction to the profession. The school had a total enrolment of 12 students. During my two year appointment the total number never exceeded 14 students, and at one stage I had the grand sum of 4 – all from one family. I filled the role not only of teacher, but also that of Principal, cleaner, gardener, building maintenance officer, nurse, banker and many other menial but essential positions. I even had to be the presiding officer for a Federal Election, the school building being the only suitable polling booth for some 40km in any direction.
Today the school is closed and is used as a backpacker hostel. There are several houses in the little township and one hotel, the oddly named Prairie Hotel. When I first moved to Parachilna the hotel was my home for several months. There was no teacher housing provided because previous teachers had boarded at one of the nearby cattle stations and had provided the means to transport several students to the school each day. Eventually the Education Department, at my insistence, provided me with a new 8 metre long caravan to live in, complete with shower, toilet and washing machine. I still had to rely on power from the hotel’s generator.
In the late 1960s the Flinders Ranges as a tourist destination was just in its infancy. Today the area caters for hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. In those early days it was only a few thousand. A few years ago we visited both nearby Blinman and Parachilna for the first time in over 20 years. We were amazed at the changes that had occured, especially to the hotel. The vastly refurbished hotel now attracts tourists worldwide and boasts that it is Australia’s most awarded outback hotel. Check out its website for more.
Aroona Valley in the Flinders Ranges in northern South Australia is a tranquil, stunningly beautiful place to camp. Walls of towering rock faces to the west glow in the morning sun and are worthy of thousands of painitings and countless photographs. The great artist Sir Hans Heysen fell in love with this area many years ago. Photographers have produced whole books on this and other parts of the ranges.
As you drive through the valley to the ruins of the Aroona Homestead near the camping grounds, you marvel at the park-like nature of the slopes leading to the ranges to the east and to the west. Stately native pines (Callitris spp) clothe the slopes and flat areas. Old river red gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) line every creek bed and go meandering down the valley following their water source.
These days there is a basic camping ground at the site of the old homestead. The only facilities the last time we were there are pit toilets and plenty of space for bush camping. It is wise to carry all provisions, especially water. The first time we went camping there was for our honeymoon (nearly 40 years ago). We only saw one other car for the whole week. It’s a little busier these days, but still generally very peaceful. It is possible to wander off the track or along a ridge and find a spot just to yourself. It is a great place to totally unwind.
There are a number of tracks leading off from the camping ground. The Heysen Trail goes through this area and is worth following for the magnificent views of the ranges to the west. Maps of this walking track are available from various map shops. One can hike back south along the access road or follow the track running past the old ruins and north all the way to another beautiful spot, Parachilna Gorge.
The Small Things
One could be excused for only looking at the grandeur of the magnificent mountain ranges, the tall upright and regal native pines, the soaring Wedge-Tailed Eagles on high, the parading emus strutting through the bushes and the massive age-old river red gums. But learning to look for the small beauties of this place can bring many other delights. I delight to watch for the small bush birds, like the Red Capped Robin with his stop-light like forehead beaming out a signal for all to stop and admire. Yellow Rumped Thornbills zip in and out of the bushes or hop along in front of you, their bright golden tails lighting upo in the sunshine.
Walk slowly and carefully and you may come across a family of Western Grey Kangaroos grazing on the grass near a creek. Frogs and lizards are to be seen too, and delicate flowers adorn the slopes and line the creeks. After good rains the carpet of flowers can be almost overpowering, stretching out in front of you like a giant’s blanket throw recklessly here and there.
One of our favourite places in South Australia is Aroona Valley in the heart of the Flinders Ranges in northern South Australia. We have camped there on a number of occasions, the first time was during our honeymoon many years ago.
Aroona Valley is about five to six hours by road north of Adelaide. Except for the last section, the highway is now all sealed. When I first travelled there in the late 1960s about the last 100 kilometres was dirt road – and not in a very good condition either. It certainly was an adventure in those days, but I had to go there because my first teaching job was at nearby Parachilna Rural School.
One can take several routes from Adelaide to the Flinders Ranges.
- The main highway through Port Wakefield, Port Pirie, Port Augusta then Quorn and Hawker is the longest.
- Through Gawler, Clare Valley, Wilmington, Quorn then Hawker is the most picturesque but can be rather slow in parts because there are many interesting places to stop on the way.
- Another picturesque route is Gawler, Clare, Riverton, Burra, Peterborough, Orroroo then Hawker.
- The most direct route is Gawler, Clare, Jamestown, Orroroo and then Hawker.
From Hawker one has several choices to get to Aroona Valley and other parts of the ranges:
- Many people base themselves at Hawker, leaving their caravan there and driving through the various tracks north of there.
- Others take the route to Wilpena Pound and base themselves in the shady camping ground there.
- Yet others go only as far as the lovely caravan and camping ground at Rawnsley Park on the southern edge of Wilpena Pound.
- The other route is due north from Hawker towards Parachilna, turning off at the Brachina Gorge dirt track heading in towards the ranges.
Oh no, writing about such interesting and beautiful places makes me want to pack and leave immediately. This would make up for the disappointment of the last trip there a few years ago. We took our caravan to Rawnsley Park Caravan Park for ten days. On the way I was aware of having a sore throat. I then spent much of the next ten days coughing, wheezing, sniffing, sneezing and generally feeling miserable.
I spent some of the time huddled up in bed. This wasn’t as bad as it seems. I had a ten million dollar view of the ranges through the caravan window.