Pamela Wade gets far more than she bargained for on a South Australian safari.
I was disappointed about the wind. What I didn't know was that because it blew steadily all day, I would be getting the most magical gift at sunset, one that it still gives me a tingle to remember.
Mainly, I was missing the wombats. Normally a common sight in South Australia's Gawler Ranges, trundling through the spinifex grass, today they were apparently tucked safely in their burrows underground.
"It's because the wind keeps them from hearing predators approaching," explained my guide Geoff Scholz, a local man who knows the area intimately and is passionate about sharing it with visitors.
I'd already spent a day in his company, picked up down south at Port Lincoln and driven west along the Flinders Highway following that spectacular coast of high orange cliffs with foaming white breakers biting at their bases. We'd visited sleepy little towns, their peace broken only by squawking parrots, and dropped into Bairds Bay where, on a warmer day, I could have swum with sea lions.
At the end of our 400km drive was Kangaluna, a low-profile, low-impact camp on the edge of the inland Gawler Wilderness: solar-powered, rain-watered and fitted unobtrusively into the mallee scrub. Which is not to say that it's basic: the safari-style tents are furnished with canopy beds and have fully-fitted bathrooms, and I went to bed comfortably full of salmon, salad, wine and dessert, luxuriating in the simple pleasure of snuggling down on a clear chilly night with a couple of furry hot-water bottles.
At breakfast next morning in the open-sided dining room, I spotted many of the 35 types of birds that come flocking to the water dishes outside: impressive, but only a fraction of the 140 species to be found in the Wilderness, a 162,000ha National Park of volcanic rock that's an incredible 1600 million years old.
"That's a lot of weathering," said Scholz, pointing to the low range of hills on the horizon, a purple band below the vast blue bowl of the sky. The soil was red, and so was the big mob of kangaroos we encountered, leaping gracefully across the track; while the Port Lincoln parrots that swept past were a raucous blur of green, blue and yellow.
It wasn't all primary colours: there were grey kangaroos too, standing up straight to look at us as we bumped past along the track. The trees were muted green, the saltbush silver, the grass tawny gold, and the pencil-shaped tumbled columns of volcanic rhyolite were gleaming orange, reflected in the still pools of water beneath.
At the Ochre Pits we played with Aboriginal face paint in cream, brown, maroon and pink, grinding the stone into powder and mixing it with water - an ancient custom, but not as old as the stromatolite fossils nearby, dating back over 3 billion years.
The day was filled with delight: no wombats, but floppy-bottomed emus running ahead, absurdly unco-ordinated; kangaroos, wallaroos and wallabies by the score; parrots and an eagle, lizards and butterflies. There was a picnic by a waterhole, a poke around an abandoned stone farmhouse, and over every rise a new valley to explore.
Imperceptibly, the colours began to glow as the sun lowered, and Scholz took the track to Sturts Lake, named after doughty explorer Charles Sturt. It shone white through the spindly mallee trees as we approached: a salt lake, dry and crystalline, looking as though it was covered in hail.
Above, the sky was saffron and the clouds rimmed with gold as we stood on the beach with wine and nibbles. We could hear cicadas, the grunt of a roo back in the bush, the wind rustling through the trees - and then, finally, it dropped, and there was a silence that it seemed stretched for 1000km. Soon after, I heard a noise: a faint hiss, a crackle, that came from the dry surface of the lake. Walking on to the salt, I looked where Scholz pointed, and saw coming towards us the lake's shallow waters in a slow, creeping wall - just a centimetre or two high - from the far end where the wind had blown and held it during the day. It was a remarkable sight, flooding back steadily, reclaiming its territory for the night after losing the battle all day; and it was a remarkable sound, one it was only possible to hear in the deep silence of the Outback.
The night brought Saturn's rings clear and sharp through a telescope, and a million stars; and the next day the vast and dazzling expanse of Lake Gairdner's metre-deep salt sparkling in the sun, ringed with purple hills and red rocks under a cobalt sky. But nothing for me symbolises the special magic of the Gawler Wilderness like the quiet hiss of the world's tiniest tsunami.
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