When heading north on the Outback Highway, some travellers stop in at Farina to check out its famous bakery, ruins and campground. Very few take the 25km detour from here to the Witchelina Nature Reserve.
Remoteness keeps Witchelina off the radar, as does its lack of infrastructure, the absence of signage, and the fact that its gates only recently opened to the public. Conservation organisation Nature Foundation purchased the historic 4210sqkm pastoral property in 2010 for $2 million. It has removed roaming stock and continues to reverse damage inflicted by pest plants and animals.
I’m here with my partner Emma and the Reynolds family: Sam and Jenna plus their children Will, Emily and Jade. The Reynolds founded Offline Campers and they’ve brought along their Raker, as seen at Camper Trailer of the Year 2021. An automated rear-fold hard-floor with serious offroad credentials and luxurious fit-out, it’s made for far-flung places just like Witchelina.
From Farina to the Homestead
We wake up in Farina and the morning kicks off fortuitously when Sam hands me a hot coffee, drip-fed out of his Sunbeam machine. The red Sherrin lies dewy after a night outside and the kids are preoccupied making toast (using Nutella that’s firm in the morning chill), so I’m content to wrap my numb hands around the warm mug. I contemplate the two days ahead. We’ve decided to tackle the 94km Ridgetop Track and the 35km Old Mt Nor’ West Loop.
After a pack-up that involves little more than holding down a button, we venture along the track towards Witchelina. The ruts that would normally indicate bulldust are caked over and crusty, and as the Reynold’s combo passes over them, our handheld radio crackles into life. “Bit of rain through here lately,” Sam says.
It comes as a welcome surprise. We’re far above Goyder’s line. Intermittent drought resulted in generations of pastoralists (including the first, McConville, from 1873) watching for every possible sign — ants raising their nests, or lizards sitting on fence posts. But as the old maxim goes, when it rains it pours. After a drought in 2018 and 2019 that wiped out 75 per cent of the kangaroo population, a single day in 2020 unleashed more than the entire 2019 total.
After grabbing the ring-bound track guides from the rotational manager manning the Homestead, we finally hit actual bulldust near the start of the Ridge Top Nature Drive. Sam’s tyres strike and the dust billows around his trailer as if emitted by a night-club smoke machine. The plumes spill out behind, uncoiling yet more circles of dust into the air until they lose definition and settle like fine rain.
The Ridge Top Nature Drive
Anyone on foot would find the presence of trees relaxing. Yet when driving in arid terrain, they tend to mean one thing: washed-out creek beds. We encounter sections of dry track hollowed out as if by an ice-cream scoop. As I perch on the cusp and peer over the bonnet, the internal dialogue flows: “If the front left tyre goes onto that rock, it should give me the clearance in the centre…” But these well-laid plans come unstuck as the way becomes invisible directly below.
Historic human occupation shows along the Ridge Top Drive. East Mount Dam demonstrates the long-forgotten principles of sinking a dam using ploughs and a camel team. Utah Shed recollects a 1980s copper exploration squad who eventually joined the long list of dejected miners seeking magnesite and gold. Rusted machinery of unclear purpose becomes comprehensible through the guidebooks. Mirra Weir and Kingston Ruins round out the European history. The Arabana and Kuyani First Peoples have left the land a lot more as they found it.
We see no sheep, rabbits, brumbies nor goats, only a few red kangaroos thundering along parallel with the car. They’re proper protein-shake-downing 6-footers. We pass a few stands of apricot trees and patches of native greenery, but it’s the geology that dominates. Rocks can’t help but endure. They’re more immune to the whims of climate and humanity.
The strange geology surfaces at ‘The Stripes’, a field of sedimentary strata laid out on flat ground in long lines. They’re a tease of the mountains forming an undulating horizon. Further along, the embankments and ramparts stick out from red earth like sheepdog hackles. Flat shards of rock display beautiful ripples, shaped by currents eons ago in the age of inland seas and estuarine lakes. We’re clearly building up to something big. Very suddenly, it arrives, heralded by a sign asking us to engage low range for seven kilometres.
This next run is on par with the best of the Flinders Ranges. Two dusty tyre lines form the track over the undulating ridgeline. At the top of a peak, you can survey the upcoming slopes, but as you start up the inclines, the mound you’re on hides those beyond, and you’re contained in that little moment, modulating the accelerator on the basis of revs and engine feel.
To our right, the ridge declines to a vast red plain. To our left, a dense, chaotic series of saddles and gullies span into the distance. All of them are patterned with horizontal concertina-lines along their length, formed when torturous tectonic activity lifted and tilted horizontal layers of sediment.
We park at the highest point and Jenna slides out the Raker’s kitchen to plug in the toastie machine. The kids fan out to explore. Apart from the rustling of the bread bag and their excited laughter, there’s nothing but gentle gusts passing by our ears to break the silence. It’s truly rare to have something like this to yourself.
Old Mount Nor'west Gorge
The next day we tackle Old Mount Nor’West Gorge, a step-up in the 4WDing stakes. Within the gorge, we find ourselves moving slowly enough for the kids to run alongside. It proves to be a low-range crawl between rugged bluffs. Loose creekbed rocks clack, grind and shift beneath our tyres. We pick lines on faith and regularly stop to check the Challenger’s clearance. Absurd angles, fifteen point turns, and UHF comms prove necessary, but it’s an exhilarating challenge and the surrounds are gorgeous.
Later, we discover the Woolshed. At the turn of the 20th century, 30,000 sheep were shorn here every year. Dingoes, rabbits, salinity and drought reduced this to 10,000 within a century. Overhead diesel-powered shearing equipment was installed in the 1920s to replace less efficient razor shearing; it still hangs from the roof now.
As Sam demonstrates the shearing process to his daughters, Will crawls in and out of the portholes in the shearing board, baa-ing like a madman.
But for now, I’m content to slump in my camp chair, exhausted after a big day tackling the Ridge Top Nature Drive. Will, Emily and Jade are having a ball around camp. They examine stones, gather firewood, climb trees, perform cartwheels and pretend to be characters in imaginary games. Sam and Jenna relax prior to cooking up a burrito bowl with fresh spring onion, sour cream and avocado. The setting sun casts the shadow of the gums over our camp and highlights the tips of the neighbouring mountains a fiery orange.
The dark sets in, the stars emerge and the heat saps from the air.
The Reynolds family emerge one by one from the trailer with wet hair, steaming from hot showers. The youngsters are sleepy by now. They’ve fallen silent. All three read their books — which are the most high-tech devices I’ve seen the Reynolds kids hold this trip. It’s great to see them enjoying the outdoors with such curiosity. It reminds me of myself as a kid.
We older ones settle into some quality conversation. The fire has a way of bringing out the truth. Tightly-held stories emerge to general merriment. And we exchange a few yarns about places we’ve been and places we’ll go. I hope that, as word spreads, around campfires and diesel pumps, camp kitchens and viewing platforms, the wonders of Witchelina Nature Reserve will reveal themselves to more and more Australians.
Where: 25km west of Farina. 245km north of Hawker. 627km north of Adelaide. Loosely in between Lake Torrens and Lake Eyre, to the north-west of the Gammon ranges.
Booking and camping: If you wish to camp, book with Nature Foundation on (08) 8340 2880 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s unpowered bush campgrounds at Homestead and Old Mt Nor’ West with drop toilets. Nature drives need to be booked too ($55 per day, $75 for 2+ days).
Best time of year: The winter months. Bring warm clothes and firewood for the nights. Heat is extreme in summer, meaning the Reserve is closed from 1 November to 31 March.
Nearest fuel: If coming from the south, Lyndhurst. If from the north, Marree.
Difficulty: The tracks are challenging in parts, particularly Old Mt Nor’West Gorge and the detour to Mirra Weir. The descent from the Ridge Top is quite steep as well. Clearance and low range capability help. There’s no need to bring your trailer as they’re loop drives.
More info: naturefoundation.org.au
The guidebooks from the Homestead contain a lot more information.