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The Wonders of Wilpena Pound

South Australia’s Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park is home to one of Australia’s most remarkable landforms. Lee Atkinson reveals the wonders of Wilpena Pound.

The weathered peaks, red rock gorges and dry creek beds lined with majestic white-barked river gums of the Flinders Ranges in central South Australia, about 500 kilometres north of Adelaide, make for one of the country’s most picture-perfect landscapes.

Inspiring Landscapes

If the countryside seems oddly familiar, chances are you’ve seen it hanging on a wall somewhere. Immortalised by one of Australia’s best-known landscape painters, Hans Heysen– the Heysen Range in Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park is named after him – the rocky ranges and monumental gums that he painted are quintessentially Australian and instantly recognisable. Gazing out across the smudged purple peaks from one of the many roadside lookouts, it can sometimes feel like you have slipped inside one of the painter’s famous watercolours.
Driving through the Flinders Range on a 4WD tour bus
Heysen’s landscapes may be timeless, but the countryside is one of the oldest on earth: geologists believe that the mountains are more than 800 million years old and were once higher than the Himalayas. The centrepiece is Wilpena Pound, a huge circle of saw-toothed rocky ridges that rise sharply from the surrounding dusty plains. Covering 83 square kilometres, from the air it looks like an enormous meteorite crater but the rim is actually the eroded stumps of massive ‘ mountains. 
Aerial view of the rolling hills of Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia
The interior of the pound, which is flat and accessible through just one gorge, is eight kilometres long and four kilometres across, and while it’s easy enough to follow one of the walking tracks inside, the best way to really see the distinctive shape is from the air. Take off on an optional scenic flight to see the region from the air on the 7 Day Lake Eyre and Flinders Ranges tour.
Aerial view across a wide open barren landscape, South Australia

History of Wilpena Pound

The first European settlers in the area were farmers who established sheep runs inside the Pound in the 1850s. The word “pound” was added because the farmers were struck by its resemblance to the enclosures for keeping sheep, which at that time were called pounds. But farming out here, on the edge of the outback where rain is scarce and most waterways are perennially dry, was harder than it looked, and the national park is littered with the crumbling ruins of abandoned stone farmhouses, shearing sheds and lonely graves
The most intact is Old Wilpena Station, not far from the national park visitor centre at Wilpena Pound. Established in 1851, it was a working station until the 1980s and, on a tour, you can see storyboards and displays that bring the pastoral heritage of the area to life
View of Flinders Ranges and red gum tree
Just down the road is one of Australia’s most famous trees, the red river gum that featured in an image called the Spirit of Endurance by renowned photographer Harold Cazneaux in 1937, who described it as his “most Australian picture”. Now known as the Cazneaux Tree, it’s a must-see when visiting the national park, although to be honest, just about every other tree in the park is as impressive. 
Before the artists, farmers and photographers, the rugged ranges and Wilpena Pound – Ikara – were the homelands of the Adnyamathanha people. Today, they co-manage the national park and still use the area for cultural ceremonies. The Aboriginal Dreamtime stories that are woven around the creation of these ancient landforms and gorges have been passed on for more than 40,000 years and there are a number of ancient rock art sites through the park, including Chambers Gorge, a waterhole with a stunning gallery of Aboriginal engravings carved into the red rock walls. Go in the late afternoon when the setting sun lights up the rock face.

Spotting Wildlife

Wildlife is prolific in the park – expect to see lots of kangaroos, reptiles, emus, eagles and other birdlife. If you visit Brachina Gorge, there’s a good chance you might spot a rare yellow-footed rock-wallaby – the scree slopes are a refuge for the endangered marsupials and you can often see them perched on rocky outcrops.
If you’re interested in geology, you’ll love the signposts along the way that point out the geological age of the rocks, which are mind-bogglingly old. 
View of Rock Wallaby
Lastly, don’t leave the Flinders without a stop at Parachilna’s Prairie Hotel. It’s famous for its “Feral Mixed Grill” of barbecued kangaroo, emu and camel, marinated in bush herbs and native spices and slathered in wild bush tomato chutney, served in a rustic, art-filled dining room. The hotel is also a favourite with visiting movie stars, here for films that use the Flinders as a backdrop, so you never know who you might see. Picture-perfect indeed. 
Enjoy two nights at the Wilpena Pound Resort. With relaxing views of the bush, it is the perfect base for exploring Wilpena Pound.
Wilpena Pound Ikara Tented Accommodation at Dusk