Wednesday 12 December 2012

Walking conservation in outback Australia

I love the outback. The expansive spaciousness of it, the uncrowdedness, the seeming desolation which, if you pay attention, reveals itself to be rich with life. And who doesn't love a bit of emptiness to clear the head? Maybe some walking – to compensate for all the sitting-down work we do. The chance to sleep outside, under a blanket of stars. The easy company of strangers. 

Looking over Arkaba Station
from Wilpena Pound
Look at that – I’ve just described a trip I did recently: the Arkaba Walk in South Australia's Flinders Ranges.

It’s one of those luxury guided walks that are becoming so popular around Australia: carry a daypack, let someone else cook and show you around, a comfy place to stay each night. Nature looms large, you sleep and eat well. They're all low-impact, operating in pristine natural environments, often national parks (see Great Walks of Australia).

Arkaba Walk, run by Wild Bush Luxury (which also has Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef, and Bamurru Plains in the Top End), takes things up a notch - it's basically a tourism-funded conservation project.

In partnership with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Wild Bush Luxury is transforming Arkaba Station, a 60,000-acre (24,000 ha) former sheep property, into a private wildlife sanctuary. So far so good.

Not walking, roaming
Since 2009, when Wild Bush Luxury bought the property, sheep numbers have been reduced (to let native vegetation recover) and feral species such as foxes, cats, rabbits and goats are on the decline. 

That’s good news for Arkaba's native residents: there are now two colonies of rare, yellow-footed rock wallabies, 10 new bird species have been recorded in the past year, kangaroos are thriving, reptiles are returning.

A Gould's goanna helping
itself to a feral rabbit
It’s important work because, according to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which owns 23 sanctuaries across Australia, covering more than three million hectares: Australia is one of the six most bio-diverse countries in the world, 80 per cent of our species are endemic (found nowhere else) and we have the highest rate of mammal extinctions in the world - 27 species have disappeared since European settlement. So Australia's native animals need all the help they can get.

Sky, tree, earth - the essence
of outback walking
What’s the walk like? When I went (late October) it was HOT. Thirty-five-degree days, warm nights. But we walked at a leisurely pace, learning and looking, through a classically outback landscape: striped ranges, grass trees, native cypress forests, sandy creeks that flow just once a year. There were kangaroos everywhere, birds galore (from tiny thornbills to wedge-tailed eagles), various dragons and lizards.

Our destination each afternoon was a permanent campsite on the property: Black’s Gap, Elder (the Elder Ranges are on Arkaba Station) then Mern Merna Camp. Each one the epitome of low-impact camping - just a corrugated iron shelter (for cooking and dining on frosty winter nights) and five timber sleeping decks, built in existing clearings and raised above the ground to allow vegetation to grow underneath.

Lanterns at Mern Merna Camp
There’s no electricity, no generator – for light we had rechargeable head torches and hung LED lanterns in the trees.

Bush shower 
There are two simple showers (water is heated over a gas stove and poured into a bucket hoisted overhead) and two waterless composting toilets – all open on one side for bush views. Of course the soaps and shampoos are biodegradable, and locally made.

The best part? The swags. An upmarket version of the stockman’s bedroll, these canvas envelopes containing mattress and soft, sand-coloured Ecodownunder bed linen might not look like much in the daytime. But at bedtime, when you’re safely inside one, head on a real pillow, eyes gazing at the outback night sky, they’re cocoons of wonder. Waking up in one is lovely too: open your eyes and there are the trees and ridges, the already-blue sky, ushering in a new day. 

Sunrise over Wilpena Pound
I'd recommend the Arkaba Walk to anyone who loves space and a few creature comforts. Did I mention the three-course dinners prepared by a chef at camp each night? And next year's walks will include a night at the gorgeous Arkaba Homestead. You've got time to think it over. Trips pause over the summer and start up again on March 14, 2013.

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