The harsh deserts of the outback | South Australia

The Painted Desert is a vast landscape covered in mesas made of soft, fragile rock

marc_casolani
Marc Casolani
23 December 2016, 8:00am
Coober Pedy is like something out of a Mad Max movie, an area littered with opal mines in every direction
Coober Pedy is like something out of a Mad Max movie, an area littered with opal mines in every direction
This journey took me deep into the heart of South Australia and the outback itself, but boy, was it worth all the effort, sweat and maintenance topped up with patience. I had heard about this place from a fellow photographer whom I can now call a friend. She is the Australian Lake Eyre photographer, Julie Fletcher, and before I set off further into the outback, she advised that I go and explore the outer reaches of a place called the Painted Desert – an ancient landscape that looks like the desolate landscape on Mars. 

It is quite extraordinary how this place came to be, and made so much more thrilling after exploring Coober Pedy, 200km away, which, though it is similar in landscape, is completely man made. Coober Pedy is like something out of a Mad Max movie, an area littered with opal mines in every direction. The Painted Desert is a vast landscape covered in mesas made of soft, fragile rock. A seabed 80 million years ago, just like most of its neighbouring areas like Uluru and Lake Eyre, the Painted Desert eroded in this way as the land rose and it created slopes with magnificent colour formations in orange, yellow and white shades. 

The flora has adapted over time to retain water for long periods without rainfall
The flora has adapted over time to retain water for long periods without rainfall
Driving through this land you instantly feel a sense of what was. It is truly an eerie feeling because when you look around, you can’t help but wonder how anything can survive in this barren land. I guess this is where the beauty of the way nature works really hits you. The flora has adapted over time to retain water for long periods without rainfall. In fact the geological and biological significance has made this the site of rare plant species, few of which are of survival significance to the local aborigines. With regard to wildlife, as everywhere in Australia it is home to an abundance of birdlife. Predominantly wild turkeys and wedge-tailed eagles, the latter is one of Australia’s greatest birds of prey and feasts on the reptiles and small mammals that make this area their home. Dingos, bearded dragons, euros, kangaroos and other small reptiles and mammals also roam these lands. 

Dingos, bearded dragons, euros, kangaroos and other small reptiles and mammals also roam these lands
Dingos, bearded dragons, euros, kangaroos and other small reptiles and mammals also roam these lands
Camping here will easily give you some of the best sunsets, sunrises and star gazing that the outback can offer. I probably saw the clearest view of the Milky Way from the Arckaringa Hills here. There are a couple of hiking trails to be found in the key lookout areas but in general, you make your own trails here. Just remember to always carry enough water to last for days and be aware that snakes can be on the paths you explore. Most of the driving tracks here are unsealed and 4WD only, therefore don’t even think of taking the camper van or caravan as you will be dealing with some pretty angry insurance brokers when (if) you get back. I would suggest though exploring the Painted Desert on a dirt bike. I could imagine this place being a dream for most off-road biking enthusiasts. 

Again, hiking around here or anywhere out in the bush requires that you carry at least two litres of water with you. Dehydration is a major issue, especially for those who take it lightly and the sun out here is unforgiving. It is bearable but it is intense. This will make sense to you once you’re standing with some stunning views under the sun. Walking tracks are plenty in the Painted Desert, however people also create their own paths but do be careful, as a lot of this rock is clay rock with silica.  

Funnily enough in all this empty, barren and harsh-looking space there is an old cattle station here. Today the owners still herd cattle and export as they own around 2,000km² in this vast land. These farmers substitute their income by showing travellers around their land, whether in a 4X4 or on a camel. Though this is a great way to explore their land, they are not allowed to go any further into the desert so as not to disturb the natural environment. 

Funnily enough in all this empty, barren and harsh-looking space there is an old cattle station here
Funnily enough in all this empty, barren and harsh-looking space there is an old cattle station here
The Gibson Desert as well as the Simpson Desert are two rugged landscapes high up on travellers’ bucket lists. However I strongly recommend the Painted desert, whether or not you plan to explore her more popular cousins. It offers you a true glimpse into the wild, outback Australia. Conquering any of these three deserts will leave you with a sense of achievement and an accomplished feeling that you have been to the harshest ends of the earth and that you have survived to tell the tale.

How to get there

Emirates offer regular flights between Malta and Adelaide. Flights departing from Malta on 29 December and returning on 12 January were priced at €1,388 including tax at the time of going to print. From Adelaide you will need to take an internal flight to Coober Pedy and then get to The Painted Desert, approx. 200km away, by car.

Want more information about the places Marc visits? Contact him on [email protected]