The game of car packing Tetris never changes. Camping trips are always different and I don’t think we’ll ever have a big enough car. We’ll just bring more stuff to fill it.
While packing the car on Monday night I told the girls we’d have to leave about nine the next morning, but I really need to start factoring in the getting all the last-minute stuff together. We left at ten thirty, on a showery and windy morning.
If you want it to rain somewhere, all you have to do is invite me. Thankfully the skies had started to clear by the time we almost rushed right through Penwortham and I spotted the corrugated statue of a man and a camel. Penwortham is one of a chain of towns you pass through on the way up the Clare Valley. A land where rusty autumn vineyards crowd in and around woody green hills and chimneys wisp smoke into the clear air. I’ve written about John Horrocks and his camel before. He was a pioneer explorer of the mid and far north of SA, and the first white man to settle in the area. While on expedition and preparing to shoot a bird for his collection, his camel moved and Horrocks was injured by his own rifle. The first camel to reach Australia was a hard worker and lucky to survive the long voyage, but was shot at Horrocks request before he succumbed to his injuries in Penwortham.
Not many shops are open out here on a public holiday.
We reached Clare at about one and were happy to see a large chain of petrol station/convenience stores open. Not many shops are open out here on a public holiday like Anzac Day. By now it was probably good to confirm where we were sleeping that night so we rang Merna Mora station. We booked a powered site, grabbed ice for the esky then headed north past the lazy rolling hills around Spalding. After Jamestown you hit the plains and it’s an easy ride to Orroroo.
It always looks like nothing is open in Orroroo.
Despite the obvious evidence of the well-attended dawn service at the war memorial, Orroroo looked like a film set on a day off. Only a brave coffee shop and two pubs dared open, which was fitting for Anzac Day. The Lions Club picnic ground at Pekina Creek is a great spot for lunch. It’s just out of town across the golf course. It’s well built, peaceful and pretty and has tables, shelters, BBQ’s, a grassed area, a duck pond, and a walking trail with some interesting history. We managed to hold the gregarious country geese off and eat our sandwiches, packed from home in the morning. Emma has a penchant for naming animals we stumble upon…there was Sarah the Cat, then Speenach and Cupid the ducks, and so on. Emma named these two Jedi and Killus, probably because that’s what the geese looked like they would do if we didn’t feed them. I took a few photos of the creek but I had the camera on some dark setting. I’m a writer not a photographer.
Heading north from Orroroo the land changes from wheat crops to sheep stations as the road to Hawker climbs into the ranges. It’s a lonely stretch only broken by tiny settlements and feels like the outback…open country with sweeping highway corners, crumbling stone huts, dry creek bed crossings and the wide blue sky stretches almost 360 degrees.
By the time we got to Hawker, the girls hadn’t eaten everything yet…
But we did need fuel. Definitely fill up the petrol tank here because there’s only a few petrol bowsers in this part of the world. It’s a cool outback roadhouse that sells everything, including some supermarket stuff. If you want hot food, the deli across the road, and the pub down the road, both do meals. There’s a historical display up the back of the shop, and a seismograph and a site for measuring earthquakes around the world. If you’re a train nerd like I am, they’ve got a cool collection of old-school railway history books. The old Alice Springs Railway (The ORIGINAL Ghan) trundled its way through here in 1980. The impressive old Hawker station just up the road is the only (impressive) sign it was ever here. We got our petrol and dodged the caravans out to head up the ‘fast track’ to Lyndhurst and Marree.
A lookout not far from Merna Mora is the extent of the mobile phone coverage.
Except small patches at Wilpena and Parachilna. I’d forgot to mention this before now and the girls freaked out a little…Once V had sent her ‘proof of life’ text and we headed into wi-fi free territory, all our devices became compact alarm clocks.
We arrived at the entrance to Morna Mera station at four o’clock. The road in to the station is a rough and corrugated five kilometres. Corrugated roads always add new rattles to bits of the car. We parked at the station gate as signposted and I walked past the cabin blocks and the ‘Torrens Room’ dorm style hall to a small office just off the central station building. The owners are really friendly and gave us the choice of the empty camp sites. We chose not to set up right next to the RV which parked next to the shower block like it owned the place. They’d just have to put up with us tromping past their door all night. We chose the nice little corner at the front of the powered sites where there’s tall windbreaking pines behind, and stout olive trees protecting the front.
Getting away from mobile coverage is important to temper our wi-fi addictions and from the moment we started to unpack we began to engage with each other more. As the girls get older they can pitch in and help more now (thank god). We were all set up with tent, tables, esky, lights, beds, and cooking gear by 5.30 when the sunset retreated from a fiery display into dusk. We hadn’t yet completely escaped the reach of technology, as we still needed a powered site to charge everyone’s devices, but Ash and Em were both saying how cool it was not having the internet and just hanging out with the family.
The campfire and BBQ area at Merna Mora is awesome, it’s got two huge firepit areas, picnic tables, and outdoor lighting. Ash and I headed over to start the fire and V and Em got the dinner stuff ready. There was a pile of larger wood already on hand so Ash and I collected the bits and pieces to start it with. As always with Ash I had to show her that it takes more than seven twigs and thirty seconds for it to work…and how to use a can of degreaser carefully as an excellent fire-starter. We had a roaring fire going in no time. Get campfire gloves from camping shops not oven mitts, nothing else will cut it when you’re moving hot coals and wood around the fire, and it saves a lot of poking around with sticks by just using your hands. When our fire had created enough coals, we put our foil wrapped potatoes in amongst them. Later I used the gloves to put the camp grill over the coals to cook sausages. Some sausage sandwiches, a simple salad, baked potatoes with melted cheese and butter is easy camp meal. It was a still night and not too cold yet. The sounds of crickets chirping and sausages sizzling over a crackling campfire had the girls keen to sing silly songs and toast marshmallows. After the long day and having fun around the fire,we could still shower and make hot milo in the camp kitchen for the girls. It’s civilised and happy.
The slowly leaking airbed.
I’d found the puncture in our queen airbed at home (it had a slow leak for a while) and tried to repair it. V wouldn’t be happy with waking up on the ground and it was a hundred-odd dollar airbed. At least the leak seemed slower after the ‘repair’. When I came to bed I thought I might try to just top the airbed, so I unplugged the valve…maybe I should have asked v to get off first! I stemmed the now rapidly deflating airbed with our 240v air pump and with an ever-growing whining noise, it began to put air in. Suddenly, it made a cracking noise and the fan smashed with the pressure. We had a half-filled airbed and no pump at ten pm in the middle of nowhere. Oops. With both of us on the airbed it just managed to make it through until morning without us ending up on the ground. The girl’s airbeds were fine, and once we were comfortable we slept in silence only broken by the pine fir falling on the tent like drizzle, and in the morning, the odd chook pecking around the tent.
It was about seven-thirty when a passing flock of Corella’s made me finally roll out of bed. My alarm clock in the eighties sounded better than a passing flock of Corella’s. I always keep an enamel billy with water and mugs ready to go just outside the tent door for a quick cup of instant coffee before I actually do anything. We just turn the knob to light the stove and there’s boiling water for coffee in a few minutes. We’ve got a good two burner stove and all the gear to make breakfast in the tent but this morning we chose the camp kitchen. Its got a toaster, stovetop and sink, it’s just easier. We accidentally set the smoke alarm off in there with bacon smoke. Oops.
Once awake, fed, and refreshed, we headed east out of the station across the main road and onto the Moralana scenic drive. There’d been heavy rain in the days before so when we arrived I checked with the station owners which tracks were open. I ‘d love to drive west from the station out to Lake Torrens one day but it was closed today.
The Moralana track winds through remote station country.
It’s a rough track with wild and wide open views to ancient ranges and rugged escarpments, but two-wheel drives, sedans, and caravans should be able to do it. At the end of the thirty kilometre drive you come through the otherworldly Arkaba hills and onto the Wilpena-Hawker road. It’s on my list as the best introduction drive to Flinders National Park. Ash watched a DVD in the back, while Emma took photos and merrily edited her imovie as we went.
We found the bitumen again, turned left and headed north up past Rawnsley Bluff. Flinders Ranges National park is one of the last parks you can pay your entry fees offline at the entry in cash! Wilpena Resort inside the park has been rebuilt and while still a piece modern civilisation in the middle of nowhere, it’s suffered a bit under the weight of its popularity and its isolation. We bought a 12v air pump…ignored the souvenirs, and headed off. Even though it’s a great shop, getting a coffee is sometimes hard and it’s even harder when a busload of pensioners just ordered ten and there’s one machine. It’s still a great place to stop at, or to stay at, it’s got resort rooms, a huge camping area, and iconic walks.
Just after the turn out of Wilpena is the photogenic and iconic Cazneaux Tree. It’s worth stopping to walk out to the tree and soak up its harsh and beautiful environment. From there the remote stretch of bitumen to Blinman is pure tourist gold and showcases the iconic landscapes and vistas of the Flinders ranges. As a bonus after good rain, it’s really green! We climbed some rough dirt tracks up the hills to the lookouts which are worth seeing. We passed a Wedgetail Eagle and its companion cadre of Crows hanging around a roo carcass. I turned around to get a closer look, but the Eagle flew back about fifty metres to wait until we’d gone. It’s the biggest flying bird in Australia. I’ve only seen a couple in the wild and this was the closest I’d been to one. Emu’s are much bigger, but they don’t fly, and there’s no shortage of Emu’s here.
We arrived in Blinman to the sound of banjos playing in our heads.
There’s not even any normal car radio out here so it felt like we arrived in Blinman to the sound of banjos…but it is a one street, one pub…settlement. Except the pub’s closed…some kind of nasty accountant kind of business by the looks. The only shop in town, the Quandong Café, was like a buzzing honeypot when we arrived. In some great work under pressure in the middle of nowhere they managed two excellent ham, cheese, and pineapple toasted sandwiches, and a burger and chips. Shame their coffee was terrible. We headed out of Blinman for the Parachilna Gorge road but were forced to deal with a child revolt in the backseat over hunger (we’d just eaten lunch…ikr). After threats and counter threats, we achieved a détente with rice crackers and set off.
It’s a windy and tight classic outback dirt road through the ranges to Angorichina Village, another iconic flinders outpost worth stopping at. We parked and walked the start of the Blinman Pools walk down into the gorge (see my article about that here) and explored the creek. We had to buy a packet of Yo Yo biscuits as part of the earlier peace deal so it’s good that the shop there is open until five every day and it’s got everything!
The best free bush camping area ever.
Beyond Angorichina, throughout Parachilna Gorge until the plains, is the best free bush camping area ever. Yes, you can just pitch your tent anywhere in there. Huge cliffs hem in an ancient and stony riverbed. The creek flows above ground and then disappears underground and reappears above ground. There’s seven water crossings in the seven kilometers through the gorge and it’s all completely safe and adventurous enough for V and the girls. Not sure I’d drive a sedan through it and although we did see one, it’s not a great place to bring a Yaris… The adventurous bit is over too soon! Before long you’re on a long straight stretch of wide dirt road, shooting across the open plains to Parachilna.
Prairie Hotel – Parachilna
We’d booked dinner here for tonight but it was still only two thirty….enough time to head north to Lyndhurst and get back to Parachilna, but we decided to drive back to Merna Mora and just hang out for a while. It’s sixty kilometres along an almost straight road that locals call the fast track (presumably because it’s the quick way up to the Northern Flinders and the outback tracks) so it’s only half an hour back to camp. It’s such amazing Australian scenery that I don’t mind driving. Because of the DVD player the girls really don’t care too much about long distance driving as long as the batteries in their headphones work.
Meanwhile back at the ranch.
The girls had an afternoon nap and I went exploring to nearby Moralana Creek. It’s a broad, flat stony riverbed…evoking thoughts of ancient rivers long gone. These ‘creeks’ still flow occasionally with such force that huge boulders just get rolled long and undermine the hundred-year-old old gum trees that line the banks. We may not ever live to see it but that’s why there’s no bridges out here, only fords. If the road’s closed, it’s closed.
I got some firewood together for the after dinner marshmallow toasting campfire and we all got cleaned up as if we were going for dinner in the city! The RV that owned the shower block was still there, but really we had the by now refreshed facilities to ourselves. After a quick walk to show the girls the creek and soak up the clear and sunny afternoon we loaded ourselves back in the car and headed back to Parachilna. I’m a city boy and love the country and i’m a bit of a country boy stuck in the city. I love to mash the worlds together… We’ve paid more for busier, and less well kept places. It’s places like Merna Mora station that make heading off the mainstream track worthwhile.
The drive back to Parachilna isn’t hard as the prairie sunset fires up land and sky in kaleidoscopes of burning colour. Parachilna consists of the Prairie Hotel and its accommodation, an old school and a long rundown railway hut. The accommodation consists of modern luxury room attached to the hotel and some ATCO miners huts across the road. The Prairie is an appropriate name for the pace. The wide plains extend to the horizon all around, bound only by the dramatic ranges to the East.
Iconic outback pub.
The Prairie hotel is an iconic outback pub with a classic pub verandah, a tiny front bar, and a surprising restaurant. The restaurant space in the Prairie Hotel speaks of hard won and civilised history. Aboriginal art, contemporary art and photography have their own wall, it’s warm, cosy and candle lit, and the service is excellent. The family that own and run the Prairie are an old and well known Flinders family. Emma had a bit of a melt- down in the beginning because there was no pasta on the kid’s menu, but after some clever re-programming she relented.
Feral mixed grill.
The feral mixed grill, along with the all day feral antipasto platter are iconic ‘must-try’s’ if you find your way all the way here. It was all well executed and cooked but I didn’t like the camel. That’s just my taste. The bacon wrapped emu mignon was tasty. It was an emu pattie so I’m not sure how much Emu was in it. The kangaroo was a really tender and well-cooked cut of meat.. The smashed roast potato and roast tomato sufficed as the veg. It’s almost forty bucks but it’s an opportunity to say you’ve tried them all, properly prepared…by someone else.
V and I had a bottle of Rose from the Clare Valley just to round out the regional theme. We shared a serve of Quandong pie for desert. Quandong is a sweet bush fruit and tastes like rhubarb. With ice cream and cream it’s bloody good! I must admit we didn’t try their coffee but if it’s like the rest of the menu it’ll be good enough.
Feeling happy and full, we wandered back out to the car and headed off into the enveloping blackness of the plains back to the camp. It takes longer to get back because it’s a wildlife park out there at night. We spotted about thirty roos next to the road in sixty kilometres. But, if you do end up here…stop to look at the stars. The whole span of millions of stars is splashed across the sky and out here you can see the nebulae (clouds of stars) and the dark spaces inside them. It’s a chance to teach the kids that there’s an endless realm of possibility laying out there despite all the noise and pollution.
The crusty burnt bit on the outside makes marshmallows nicer.
We got back to camp about eight thirty and toasted marshmallows. Although the girls preferred to set fire to them and then blow them out. Apparently, the crusty burnt bit on the outside makes marshmallows nicer. After the girls went to sleep I hung around to make sure the fire was out and took some night sky photos. Before bed of course we dragged the airbed out to the car to give it a last inflate, and we were done.
This morning we decided to not set off the smoke alarm in the dorm and cooked bacon and eggs on the stove under the tent annexe. After deflating what air was left in the airbed and chucking it in the bin, packing up with the girls was easy. Although no one ever helps me roll up the mud-covered tent floor for some reason, but it’s ok, packing up is always such sweet (and dirty) sorrow. When we get home we always find a dry place to unravel the tent to dry it out. Sometimes we set up the two-pole centre room to sweep it out and brush it down. You can see my first ever attempt at video editing, while I pack up a tent, here on You tube. It’s amazing how much less stuff you have to pack for the return trip, but somehow it only just fits in the car again. Our Tetris game is always better at home but somehow, we managed to fit it all in. We were pretty much just jamming stuff in by the end.
Merna Mora station is an amazing place to pitch a tent.
We felt like we’d stumbled on a secret. The weather was picture perfect. I don’t think I’d tire of the view of the ranges as you rattle along the track out of the station. We took some photos, then turned and headed back down the fast track to Hawker.
Heritage and rail history.
Watch out for the entrance to Surveyors Lookout nearby, there’s only one small sign at the turnoff. You’ll see where drivers have to do do u-turns because they missed it!
As usual, it’s only me who gets out of the car and starts poking around some place the girls find incredibly boring. I’d say ‘look! Those poles are the same as the ones they used on the Overland Telegraph in the 1800’s!’ Sometimes I’d even get a reaction.
We needed petrol again at Hawker and you’ll probably need it too by now. The drive across the Willochra plain from Hawker to Quorn is a forty-five-minute dash back across true blue-sky country while dodging RV’s and caravans. In Quorn you can’t miss the railway heritage of the region. It’s still a true outback railway town because the Pichi Richi Railway has its depot there.
Hearing a steam train whistle off in the distance while we ate lunch woke me to the fact that they run a lot of trains in the school holidays and we managed to find ourselves there again as one arrived at Quorn. I like to get up close to the engine and feel the earth rumble as it huffs and grinds past. That’s just me though.
To get back to Adelaide, we drove down the middle of the two usual routes back to Adelaide down through Wilmington, Melrose and Gladstone (we re-joined the original route we took on the way up at Clare), and you can tell this route has been off the main track for a while. The towns are quiet and run down places but they all show signs of heydays long passed. Snack bars and old servo’s sit closed and empty while their fifty-year-old paint jobs slowly dry up and peel away. This did help us maintain the illusion of not having mobile coverage for the girls, so we could talk to them and extend the quality time without mobile distraction. Laura (the home of the only ice cream that deserves the name – Golden North) and Melrose are both towns that have revived somewhat in modern times thanks to ice cream and mountain bikes. They also have mobile coverage, but don’t tell the kids.
Happy, well fed, tired and smelling like campfire smoke.
We got home just before dinnertime, and had the car unpacked (with the girls help) in under an hour. We were happy, well fed, tired and smelling like campfire smoke… and that’s a great way to be.
How much did it all cost?
Petrol – $180 (Three full tanks of fuel – at: Adelaide, Hawker x 2)
Accomodation – $66 Two nights powered site at Merna Mora Station with two adults and two kids
Food – $60 (incl snacks, breakfast, packed lunches, drinks)
Takeaway and eating out – $185 Prairie Hotel, $40 lunch at Blinman Store, $12 pasties at Quorn
Park entry fee – Flinders Ranges National Park -$10
This is a really cheap (and really comfortable) ‘camping in the outback’ kinda holiday with kids.
Some places in Australia deserve more recognition. This is one of them.
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