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4WD camping adventure in Gawler Ranges, South Australia

  • By Tim O'Brien
  • 1 June 2018
  • 22 min read
  • 4 Four day trip
    Road Trip: Gawler Ranges – the magical gateway to 'the West'
  • Medium
    Hard-packed sand, slight to medium hills with minor obstacles in all weather.
  • 4 Four day trip
    Road Trip: Gawler Ranges – the magical gateway to 'the West'
  • Medium
    Hard-packed sand, slight to medium hills with minor obstacles in all weather.

To best understand the Gawler Ranges, and to uncover all of the reasons why you're here, stand on a sand dune at dawn and watch as the sun turns the misty outback haze into an ethereal glowing shower of light.

Colours emerge as if from nowhere, clouds turn supernatural, and fingers of sacred light – like finely drawn rays – outline the fractured escarpments into perfectly etched blocks of ochre and rust.

The fingers join into a line of strengthening light that catches the tops of hills, then creeps down their sides in a slow awakening descent. Its path lights the greys, greens and shimmering silver of spinifex, scrub and mallee bush before settling in a flood of morning sunshine, setting the red earth ablaze in the vast plains below.

Birdsong rises with the strengthening light, and, like pedestrians walking half-asleep into a town square, kangaroos and euros tentatively lift their heads above the saltbush and push slowly into the warmth of the morning.

It's a long trip, but a good one. (image: Thomas Wielecki) It's a long trip, but a good one. (image: Thomas Wielecki)

Then, the sun fully risen, the sky radiates like a cathedral.

Out here, the sense of desolation and isolation, and of your total insignificance in the vast timeline that made this place, is palpable, and perfect. There is nothing like an outback dawn.

This is what it's like here. The outback can change you. And if you haven't been to such a place, maybe it's time you visited.

While the town of Gawler may be the 'winery gate' to the Barossa Valley, the Gawler Ranges, far distant to the west, stand as the gateway to the Nullarbor and the arid north.

The outback explorer, Edward John Eyre, named the ranges after the second colonial Governor of South Australia, Lieutenant-Colonel George Gawler (appointed 1838), after whom the town is also named.

Eyre figures large in South Australia's colonial history. Lake Eyre, and the Eyre Peninsula immediately south of the Ranges, recognise his place in its story.

He also lends his name to the long highway connecting Adelaide to Perth in recognition of his crossing of the Nullarbor in 1841, and on which nearly every visitor to the Gawler Ranges will travel. (His later career as Governor of Jamaica is vastly less celebrated.)

The ancient landscapes of the breathtaking Gawler Ranges. (image: Tim O'Brien) The ancient landscapes of the breathtaking Gawler Ranges. (image: Tim O'Brien)

Of course, like every corner of this country, this starkly beautiful range of domed volcanic hills, busted rocky outcrops and vast plains of red-oxide earth already had a number of names, a little fact commonly overlooked by European explorers like Eyre. It is the ancestral homelands of the Barngarla, Kokatha and Wirangu people.

Proclaimed a national park in 2002, the Gawler Ranges are geologically ancient, having been formed more than 1500 million years ago. They are also, most years and at most times of the year, as dry as a dingo's throat.

Even if setting off from Adelaide, prepare for a long trip. It's at least a seven-hour drive, longer if factoring in food, comfort and fuel stops.

Leaving Adelaide, take the A1 (the Port Wakefield Road and Augusta Highway) to Port Augusta – 310 kilometres, around four hours. From Port Augusta, staying on the A1, this leg of the journey – 247 kilometres – offers a good run on the Eyre Highway across the top of Spencer Gulf to the Eyre Peninsula and to Wudinna.

Getting to the Gawler Ranges from Adelaide. Getting to the Gawler Ranges from Adelaide.

From there, there are a number of gravel roads heading north from the highway into the national park. (It's around 40 kilometres due north from both Wudinna and Minnipa.)

Once into the national park, there are no services. Fuel, water, food and sleeping gear needs to be carried in, and carried out. (The "carrying out" includes your rubbish.) There are some toilet and washing facilities – but we're talking 'long drop' composting toilets and bore water.

South Australian Parks advises that "Campfires are allowed from May to October but gas or fuel stoves are preferred. Camping fees apply, payable at self-registration stations".

If your travel plans involve getting deep into the park and exploring its rocky iron-oxide crags and vast red dust valleys, you will need the right car.

The climate here can be extreme. In summer it can be dangerously hot; not a place to find yourself beside the road with a poorly prepared or unsuitable vehicle. Roads can also quickly become impassable. A heavy fall of desert rain can rapidly turn red sand into deep slippery glue and present a challenge for even a modern 4x4.

The climate here can be extreme. In summer it can be dangerously hot. (image: Thomas Wielecki) The climate here can be extreme. In summer it can be dangerously hot. (image: Thomas Wielecki)

While many of the main gravel roads are well-maintained, particularly in the months from Autumn to Spring, few of the roads and tracks around the park are suitable for a conventional 2WD.

A lighter-duty SUV, with 2WD or AWD, with good ground clearance, will take you into the park without too much trouble. But, if straying from graded gravel roads, you will need to pick your way carefully if it is not to suffer damage to the sump and undersides from the many large rocks exposed on weathered tracks.

Many of the roads in the park are sign-posted '4WD only'. (image: Thomas Wielecki) Many of the roads in the park are sign-posted '4WD only'. (image: Thomas Wielecki)

It will also need the right tyres. The jagged edges of those same rocks can quickly shred a soft sidewall when protruding from the edges of deep wheel ruts or washouts. And there is no shortage of rocks with murderous intent on tracks like these.

Many of the roads in the park however are sign-posted '4WD only'. Some, like Sturt's Track, involve long, soft-sand climbs where low range and a diff-lock may need to be called into play; conditions like this are not suited to a lighter-duty SUV. We ran 18psi for this climb.

Many of the roads in the park however are sign-posted '4WD only'. (image: Thomas Wielecki) Many of the roads in the park however are sign-posted '4WD only'. (image: Thomas Wielecki)

In reality, for the best experience and to really explore all that the national park has to offer, a proper 4WD is the tool you need for this kind of driving.

We're here in the new-look Mazda BT-50, supplied by Mazda Australia as part of its model release.

This BT-50 comes with a spanking new nose, courtesy of Mazda Australia's penmanship and Brisbane-based EGR Group. The new nose is designed to not scare the kiddies quite so much as the old (or at least to look a little less like it's wearing a nosebag), and, yes, the new lines give the BT-50 more of the conventional style of a smart SUV.

We're driving the top-of-the-range BT-50 3.2-litre Dual Cab GT 4X4 with six-speed auto. (image: Tim O'Brien) We're driving the top-of-the-range BT-50 3.2-litre Dual Cab GT 4X4 with six-speed auto. (image: Tim O'Brien)

We're driving the top-of-the-range BT-50 3.2-litre Dual Cab GT 4X4 with six-speed auto. With a proper low-range 4x4 capability, a very potent five-cylinder 3.2-litre diesel engine under the bonnet (offering 147kW and 470Nm) and a 3500kg braked towing capacity, the BT-50 is a genuine contender for those who may have otherwise been looking at a LandCruiser or Prado to tow the van on a lap of the country.

We do like the leather seats of the GT and the features it has - such as reverse camera (standard across the BT-50 range), power windows and mirrors, air-conditioning, cruise control, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Alpine sound system (with 8.0-inch screen), steering wheel-mounted audio controls, rear-view mirror auto dimming, and sat-nav with live traffic updates and off-road maps.

For towing, it also comes with trailer sway control, among a suite of dynamic safety features.

On road and off it, the big Mazda is comfortable and quiet. (image: Tim O'Brien) On road and off it, the big Mazda is comfortable and quiet. (image: Tim O'Brien)

Its driveaway price is just $51,990 which is a considerable saving on a similarly-equipped Ford Ranger, and cheaper even than Mitsubishi's Triton Exceed, which has long been one of the price leaders in the segment.

And, on road and off it, the big Mazda is comfortable and quiet and more than capable of tackling the relatively easy tracks and trails dissecting the Gawler Ranges.

From Wudinna, we set off west along the Eyre Highway, turning right into Kammermann Road (watch when crossing the railway line), then heading due north to Agar's Lakes Road, diverging briefly to Agar's Lake. This part of the journey is on well-maintained gravel, but with soft sandy edges to catch the unwary.

Trek One: from Wudinna to Sturt's Lake. Trek One: from Wudinna to Sturt's Lake.

When on these roads, it pays to be alert to oncoming traffic, in particular to road plant, like the large grader we met, and trucks. It is easy to get complacent on gravel roads with little traffic and to occupy more of the middle where the surface is firmer.

When on these roads, it pays to be alert to oncoming traffic. (image: Tim O'Brien) When on these roads, it pays to be alert to oncoming traffic. (image: Tim O'Brien)

Meeting oncoming traffic on corners hidden by low bushes and deep banks will quickly shake you out of that practice.

From there, we took Lakes Road to Barns road, before turning west across the top of Sturt's Lake. (The explorer Charles Sturt, incidentally, lends his name to the floral emblem of South Australia, Sturt's Desert Pea.)

Sturt's Lake, its damp salt surface shimmering a pearlescent glassy blue, is incredibly beautiful and a place to leave the car and explore on foot. The shoreline is rimmed with pastel-coloured stunted gums, wildflowers and wildlife.

While many of the salt lakes can be driven on when dry, beware of getting too close to the edges of the lake after rain, as we found on the day we visited.

They can be incredibly soft and, should you stray beyond the shoreline in a loaded-up 4x4, you will quickly find it sitting in mud up to its axles. Having to dig the car out of soft, salty glue is not a great way to start the holiday.

Sturt's Track, running due north from the mid-point of Sturt's Lake, climbs through a series of sand hills before intersecting with Dog Fence Track.

Trek Two: from Sturt's Lake to Pondanna Outstation. Trek Two: from Sturt's Lake to Pondanna Outstation.

It's a slow climb with long stretches of soft sand, rising high above Sturt's Lake retreating into the rear-view mirror.

It's a slow climb with long stretches of soft sand. (image: Tim O'Brien) It's a slow climb with long stretches of soft sand. (image: Tim O'Brien)

Turning west, we followed Dog Fence Track until briefly hitting the Old Paney Scenic Route and Pondanna Outstation. Along this track, the country changes with each low crest, turning from white sand, to red bulldust, to stony gravel.

This part of the road is well-maintained and can be traversed safely reasonably quickly. But, as with anywhere in the park, wildlife is an ever-present hazard. The Gawler Ranges teem with euro and grey kangaroos (and the occasional big red roo). They are also home to the rare South Australian hairy-nosed wombat, and to large groups of emus.

Along this track, the country changes with each low crest, turning from white sand, to red bulldust, to stony gravel. (image: Tim O'Brien) Along this track, the country changes with each low crest, turning from white sand, to red bulldust, to stony gravel. (image: Tim O'Brien)

Kangaroos and emus, in particular, move considerable distances in seeking out food and water, and when shadows begin to lengthen in the afternoon, can suddenly appear at the road verges. Cars and wildlife, of course, don't mix, so care and good sense is needed.

Pondanna Outstation, restored by The Friends of the Gawler Ranges National Park, was first farmed as part of a pastoral lease in 1868. Now an attractive stone colonial farmhouse, it offers holiday accommodation for visitors, offering four bedrooms, a country style kitchen and bathroom, and absolute peace and tranquillity.

To book, search for Pondanna Outstation – it's a two-hour direct drive from Wudinna, 4WD only.

Pondanna Outstation – the old chaff-cutting shed. (image: Tim O'Brien) Pondanna Outstation – the old chaff-cutting shed. (image: Tim O'Brien)

The chaff-cutting shed nearby, now in some disrepair, echoes the hard and unforgiving pastoral history of much of the arid semi-desert areas of South Australia. The folly in the colonial belief that "the rain will follow the plough", is seen in the granite and sandstone remains of abandoned farmhouses and settlements dotted through the mid-north of South Australia.

Some unusually wet seasons in the 1850s and '60s, and colonial policies of extending settlement through pastoral leases, lured farmers north to places, such as Pondanna Outstation. But the weather is nothing if not duplicitous, and when paddocks turned to dust, the dreams of the farmers followed.

Barely 10km west of Pondanna Outstation, heading over the Paney-Yardea Gate, is Yandinga Camp Ground. It's 4WD only, as the road – more a narrow track – is littered with large stones on the climb up from Pondanna Outstation, and over the spur.

Trek Three: from Pondanna to Yandinga Camp Ground. Trek Three: from Pondanna to Yandinga Camp Ground.

From the lookout at the Gate, the valley below has all the colours and forms of a Namatjira Hermannsburg watercolour.

And from up high, one of the highest points of the drive, the horizon stretches forever. From here, you can gaze unobstructed to a distant horizon to all four points of the compass.

Horizons that stretch forever, and the soft pinks, blues and rust of a Hermannsburg watercolour. (image: Thomas Wielecki) Horizons that stretch forever, and the soft pinks, blues and rust of a Hermannsburg watercolour. (image: Thomas Wielecki)

Heading down, we rejoined Yardea Road before diverging to Yandinga Camp Ground (well sign-posted).

The camping area (with a rudimentary shower and long drop toilet), sits nestled in the valley below Yandinga Falls – which, when the rains come to the Gawler Ranges, flow between a spectacular 'organ pipe' outcrop of volcanic stone.

(With darkness impending, and an early start planned the following day, we didn't get to the Falls.)

Taking Yardea Road, the drive out of the national park to Minnipa on the Eyre Highway, is an easy 50km. If you're looking for some creature comforts when you hit the town – like a good shower and cosy bed – Minnipa Hotel offers motel-style accommodation.

Trek Four: from Yandinga to Wudinna. Trek Four: from Yandinga to Wudinna.

Minnipa is otherwise dominated by its huge silos, giant reminders of its own pastoral history and proximity to the vast broadacre grain cropping of the nearby Eyre Peninsula.

The drive from Minnipa to Wudinna is just 30 minutes east. (image: Thomas Wielecki) The drive from Minnipa to Wudinna is just 30 minutes east. (image: Thomas Wielecki)

Completing the circle, the drive from Minnipa to Wudinna is just 30 minutes east.

Our BT-50 proved the perfect companion for a tour like this. Its 4WD capability, and generous ground clearance, will take you a long way off road – get you there, and get you back.

For the greater part of the drive, we returned an average of 11.2L/100km, only rising to 13.2L/100km in the soft sand of Sturt's Track.

To be sure, the Gawler Ranges are best appreciated with a capable 4x4. Because getting deep into the vast isolation of this ancient landscape, is what it's all about. Perhaps you should check it out.

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