Wilpena Pound, South Australia

An Antipodean travel company serving world travellers since 1983

Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park

Wilpena Pound, South Australia

The vast mountain amphitheatre of Wilpena Pound, South Australia, should be considered one of Australia’s geological wonders, along with the Kata Tjuta, the Twelve Apostles, and Uluru. But Wilpena Pound remains little known and even less visited outside of South Australia, making it one of Australia’s hidden gems.

Wilpena Pound is a huge, flat plain, covered in scrub and trees and surrounded by mountains in all sides in the shape of an oval amphitheatre. 17 kilometres by 7 kilometres, Uluru could fit within its walls six times; while the surrounding mountains would loom 300 metres over the top of the rock. Even the centre of the pound sits 200 metres above the surrounding landscape.

Wilpena Pound
Aerial shot of Wilpena Pound

Superficially, Wilpena Pound resembles the remnant of an ancient and violent cataclysm, a massive meteorite crater or catastrophic volcanic eruption. The geological reality is far more prosaic. Around 800 million years ago, sediments began to layer, in a formation known as the Adelaide Geosyncline. Pressure in the earth’s crust folded the sediments, creating a mountain range that once towered over the Himalayas. Over millennia, the mountains eroded, leaving the crater-like landscape we see today. The centre of the amphitheatre is a ‘remnant elevated synclinal basin’, meaning that the youngest rock layers are found at the bottom of the basin, with older layers on the surrounding hills.

The broader landscape of the Flinders Ranges is the result of the uneven weathering of alternately hard and soft rocks, with quartzite forming the high peaks and softer materials, mudstone, siltstone and shale, worn away to form valleys and gorges. Limestone hills stand in-between, striped with darker bands of hard dolomite. Iron oxide lends the rocks a pinkish-glow in the half-light of dusk and dawn, while distant vistas have a blueish tint thanks to the emission of terpenes (plant compounds that combine with ozone) by vegetation. The multicoloured landscape here is quintessentially Australian, inspiring artists including Hans Heysen and Harold Cazneaux, and used as a backdrop for movies including Breaker Morant and Gallipoli. 

For the traditional owners of the land, the Adnyamathanha people, Wilpena Pound was known as Ikara or ‘meeting place’. According to tradition Ikara was created in the Dreamtime, as two Akurra (serpents) surrounded a hunting party. After a long and brutal fight the hunters killed the serpents, which petrified as the surrounding mountains. St Mary Peak, the highest point of Wilpena Pound, is said to be the head of the male serpent, while Beatrice Hill (the second highest point) is said to be the head of the female serpent. For the Adnyamathana people, Akurra are the creator and guardian of all permanent waterholes in the Flinders Ranges. The creation story of the Ikara is told through 6000-year-old ochre paintings at Arkaroo Rock, 17 kilometres south of Wilpena Pound.

Arkaroo Rock
Cave paintings of ochre and charcoal in Arkaroo Rock.

The settler history of Wilpena Pound began in 1850, when it was spotted by the stockman William Chace, who was prospecting for pastoral land on behalf of the doctors W.J. and J.H. Browne. They took up a number of leases the following year. At first, it was used as a huge horse-breeding area, with the horses let into the Pound and left to their own devices.

In 1899, the Hill family took over the lease and used the area to grow wheat. They erected a small stone house near the entrance in 1904, though they had to abandon their attempts after a ruinous flood in 1914. Before the Hill family took over the least, the entire Pound and swathes of its surrounds (around 1000 kilometres) was part of Wilpena Station. Wilpena Station was a working station from 1852 until 1985.  Today the pastoral homestead, known as Old Wilpena Station is open to the public, displaying restored farm buildings, including an 1864 blacksmith’s cottage.

In 1920, these leases expired. The South Australian government bought back Wilpena Pound, and declared it a forest reserve. In 1945, it was declared a National Pleasure Resort. Today, Ikara Flinders Ranges National Park, which includes Wilpena Pound in the midst of over 912 square kilometres of land, is managed in partnership with the Adnyamathanha people. Their stories are now told alongside pastoral and natural histories.

Wilpena Pound offers a range of walking trails, suitable for a variety of activity levels. Some of the most interesting include:

  • Hills Homestead walk (6.6 kilometres return): Follow Wilpena Creek and encounter relics and reminders of pioneer life within Wilpena Pound. A shuttle bus is available to shorten the walk.
  • Living With Land walk (1 kilometre return): This gentle walk explores the way people have lived with the land in Wilpena Pound, both Aboriginal people and European settlers.
  • Boom and Bust hike (2 kilometres return): Discover how plants survive water shortages in arid conditions. In spring, this walk contains an array of wildflowers.
  • St Mary Peak Hike (14.6 kilometres return): This challenging hike takes you to the highest peak in the Flinders Ranges, where you will be rewarded with panoramic views of the surrounding ranges and salt lakes. As St Mary Peak is of spiritual importance to the Adnyamathanha people, it is preferred that you stop at Tanderra Saddle, which likewise gives spectacular views.

In addition to bushwalking, a scenic flight is ideal for experiencing Wilpena Pound, with the unique shape of the pound particularly striking from the air. These take off regularly from the airstrip near Old Wilpena Station.

Flinders Ranges.
Approaching Wilpena Pound, through the Flinders Ranges.

Wilpena Station is abundant in native flora and fauna. Plant life found here includes Sturt’s desert pea, river red gums, mallee, acacia and casuarinas. The abundant wildlife found here encompasses 60 species of lizard (including 18 species of snakes), kangaroos (including the red kangaroo), emus, eagles, and the elusive yellow-footed rock-wallaby. The yellow-footed rock wallaby was on the verge of extinction, with population of only around 40 by 1992, but they have since bounced back, with more than 1,200 living around Brachina Gorge, in the Flinders Ranges National Park.

Odyssey Traveller visits Wilpena Pound as part of our tour of the Flinders Ranges, South Australia. Beginning and ending in Adelaide, our tour begins in Port Augusta on the Spencer Gulf, where we learn about Australian deserts at the Wadlata Outback Centre before enjoying quirky outback hospitality in Coober Pedy and Woomera. We journey to Oodnadatta, where the Oodnadatta Track once connected Adelaide and Darwin. Our small group tour also heads to Lake Eyre National Park, where we enjoy a scenic flight over this extraordinary landscape.

From Lake Eyre we head to the magnificent Flinders Ranges, where we tour the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary and the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park. In the Flinders Ranges National Park, we will walk the Brachina Gorge walking trail in order to learn about the incredible geology and native wildlife of these ancient cliffs. The Flinders Range is home to a number of other attractive sites, including Parachilna Gorge, Bunyeroo Gorge, and Rawnsley Bluff. We also take the time to learn about the Aboriginal culture of the Flinders Ranges on a guided walk. Finally, we drive through the southern Flinders on our way back to Adelaide.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving world travellers since 1983. Our tours are designed for mature and senior travellers, who want an authentic and in-depth of their travel destination. We are now offering a range of Australia tours, designed to cast new light upon your own country.

The tour price includes accommodation, entrance fees for attractions, and transport in a suitable vehicle for both unsealed and sealed road.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to the Flinders Ranges and South Australia: 

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Dingo, Oodnadatta Track
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Small group tour of Australia's Flinders range

Escorted small group tour of the Flinders range in South Australia from Adelaide. Learn about Coober Pedy, Wilpena pound and water system of Lake Eyre as we explore and learn also about the history of the people who explored the Flinders.

Departing Feb, Mar, Apr, May, Jul, Aug, Oct

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Departing Sep, Oct, Feb, Mar, May, Aug

Eyre & Yorke Peninsulas, and the Gawler Ranges

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Departing Sep, Oct, Nov, Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, Jul, Aug

Articles about South Australia