Australia’s Big Outdoor Museum: The Magnificent Flinders Ranges

A group of Australian geologists takes a trip down memory lane through the Flinders Ranges. A stunning and beautiful national landscape region, steeped in rich natural and cultural heritage.
This article appeared in Vol. 16, No. 1 - 2019


Australia’s Big Outdoor Museum: The Magnificent Flinders Ranges

The magnificent Flinders Ranges, which is an Australian National Landscape and is now looking at World Heritage status, comprises a number of serial sites within a topographically and environmentally varied geographic region of South Australia. The area contains outstanding scenic, environmental, cultural, historical and, above all, scientific value. 

The area was described as ‘one great big outdoor museum’ by Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, one of Australia’s most distinguished geologists.

Caption for Map: Map of the Flinders Ranges area with location of places named in the text. Map courtesy of Protected Areas Unit of the South Australian Department for Environment and Water (Flinders Ranges World Heritage Nomination).

A Reunion Geotour of the University of Melbourne 

In 1968 the geology graduates of The University of Melbourne necessarily made career decisions that determined the direction of the next phase of their lives, but most responded to the lure of the mining resources boom of that time and became exploration geologists.

Tour group geologists straddling the Eon boundary between the Proterozoic (Neoproterozoic) and Phanerozoic (Cambrian) along the Brachina Gorge Geological Trail; L to R: Angus M Robinson, David Tucker, Andy Hill, Fred Cook, Bruce Pertzel, Griff Weste and Chris Middleton; Rear, Colin Hallenstein. In September 2018, 50 years on, a seven-day, 50th anniversary geotour was organised, commencing in the heritage mining site of Broken Hill, in western New South Wales, to commemorate the class excursion to attend the Annual Conference of The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy in 1968. As well as a visit to current Broken Hill tourism attractions, the 2018 trip was followed by a tour of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary of the North Flinders Ranges, Wilpena Pound, the Brachina Gorge Geotrail, the Ediacara Biota, and a visit to a heritage vineyard in the Clare Valley en route to Adelaide. It concluded with a memorable reunion dinner at the historic Adelaide Club.

The geologists, including their partners, were led by Angus M. Robinson, and in this article he shares a few of the highlights of their trip.

Broken Hill Heritage City

The Class of ’68 Geology graduates and partners from The University of Melbourne visiting the Pro Hart Gallery. L to R: Bruce Pertzel, Barbara Pertzel, David Tucker, Angus M Robinson, Jane Tucker, Jeanette Hill, Andy Hill, Sue Middleton, Sheila Weste, Griff Weste, Lois Revie, Colin Hallenstein, Fred Cook and Chris Middleton. Photographer: Jan Kilsby. In 2015, Broken Hill Heritage City, New South Wales, was recognised as Australia’s first heritage listed city, having been included on the National Heritage List alongside the Australian War Memorial, the Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef. This listing was in recognition of the city’s significant mining history and contribution to the Australian and international mining and resources industry. With what was once the world’s largest silver/lead/zinc ore body slowly coming to the end of its mining life, the population has had to rely on other means of employment, such as nature-based and cultural tourism, to stimulate its economy.

For the short time that was available to spend in Broken Hill on the second day, we selected the world-famous Pro Hart Gallery, the Silver City Mint and Art Centre (which features the Big Picture – an enormous diorama of the Broken Hill region), as well as the Albert Kersten Mining Museum Geo Centre – as the pick of the attractions to visit. We also travelled to the remnant Line of Lode Gossan, the heritage Browne’s Mine Shaft, the Living Desert Sanctuary Park, and the Sculptures in the Desert display.

The Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary: A Geological Hot Spot

The next day we travelled all day on outback roads to arrive at the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary situated some 600 km north of Adelaide in the Northern Flinders Ranges. The Sanctuary was established in 1968 by the eminent Australian geologist Dr Reginald Sprigg AO, who in 1946 had discovered the Ediacara biota, an assemblage of some of the most ancient animal fossils known. Dr Sprigg was also involved in uranium and petroleum exploration with the Geological Survey of South Australia and with various companies which he helped establish, including SANTOS, Beach Petroleum and Geosurveys of Australia. He acquired Arkaroola, a derelict pastoral lease, and transformed it into a wildlife sanctuary and wilderness reserve, now an outstanding world-class ecotourism attraction.

  • Panoramic view of Mt Painter (left) and Mt Gee (right) from a lookout along the Arkaroola Ridgetop.

Arkaroola is one of Australia’s outstanding geological ‘hot spots’ and is an outdoor museum of nationally and internationally significant geological phenomena and a window into Australia’s deep geological time. We enjoyed Arkaroola’s unforgettable encounter with the timeless terrain – and the unique natural beauty of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary. On day four, travelling in specially modified open-top 4WD vehicles, we were taken on a half-day, guided ridgetop tour of the spectacularly rugged country. Inspiring images of red granite mountains (such as the uranium ore-bearing peaks of Mt Painter and Mt Gee) and golden spinifex-covered hillsides give way to a breath-taking view across the Freeling Heights, Lake Frome and the desert beyond. For night sky watchers, Arkaroola features three fully equipped astronomical observatories that are available to professional and amateur astronomers and visiting astronomical societies and clubs.

The Blinman Heritage Mine and Ediacara Fossils

Inspecting the world-famous Ediacara fauna fossil site at Nilpena Station. Departing on day five, we travelled south through the Flinders Ranges to visit the Blinman Heritage Mine located at the small village of Blinman. This is situated within the Blinman Diapir, which covers an area of approximately 44 km2 and consists of a mass of brecciated and crumpled sedimentary rock. The ore body at the Blinman Mine comprises dolomite impregnated with copper minerals. In the oxidised zone, over 90m thick, the main supergene copper minerals are cuprite and malachite. Below this level the ore consists of the sulphides chalcopyrite, bornite and chalcocite. Underground mining to a depth of 165m was undertaken intermittently between 1862 and 1908. The Blinman mine represents one of the early Australian copper deposits worked by Cornish miners.

Arriving that evening at the Prairie Hotel at Parachilna, an oasis on the cusp of the rugged Flinders Ranges to the east and desert plains sweeping toward Lake Torrens on the west, we enjoyed the cuisine of the hotel restaurant, which is renowned for innovative dishes with Australian native and ‘Flinders Feral Food’ twists, and with a focus on local and South Australian produce.

Day six featured a fascinating visit to the Ediacara fauna fossil site at Nilpena Station. This is one of the most important fossil sites in the world, representing the earliest evidence of complex life on Earth. The Ediacaran Period is a globally recognised geological era between 635 and 545 million years ago and named after the Ediacara Hills of the Flinders Ranges.

The Wilpena Pound and The Brachina Gorge

The shy yellow-footed rock-wallaby is only found in western New South Wales, eastern South Australia and isolated parts of Queensland. Source: Jason Irving/SA Department for Environment and Water. In the afternoon, we travelled along the 20 km-long Brachina Gorge Geotrail. Highlights were the ‘hieroglyph’ stromatolites described by Sir Douglas Mawson; the GSSP golden spike at the Ediacaran basal boundary; the postglacial carbonate and iron-rich sediments; and a chance to straddle the Eon boundary between the Proterozoic (Neoproterozoic) and Phanerozoic (Cambrian). We were also thrilled to glimpse the beautiful yellow-footed rock-wallaby.

A visit through the famous Wilpena Pound embraced by the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park included admiring the spectacular geological landscapes, sighting emus and a wide range of other bird species, red and western grey kangaroos, and the stately river red eucalypt trees (Eucalyptus camaldulensis). We also visited the historic ‘Old Wilpena’ Station (homestead) before arriving to stay the night at the nearby Rawnsley Park Station resort and enjoy a very pleasant dinner in the Woolshed Restaurant.

Southern Flinders Ranges and Clare Valley

A view of a group of River Red Eucalypt trees toward the Wilpena Pound Landscape. On our final day we travelled to the township of Hawker, the gateway to the Flinders Ranges featuring the impressive Jeff Morgan Gallery, home to a number of spectacular, painted panoramas of the Flinders Ranges and an extensive minerals collection. 

From Hawker, we then travelled along the R M Williams Way through Cradock, Orroro, and Jamestown to the Sevenhill Cellars south of the township of Clare. Sevenhill was settled by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1851 to produce sacramental wine. While this tradition continues today, Sevenhill is also highly regarded for its premium table wines, which are recognised for the regional qualities that have put the Clare Valley wineries, including Kilikanoon, on the world stage.

Grand Finale: The Historic Adelaide Club

Founded in 1863, and located in the heart of Adelaide’s arts and cultural precinct, the historic Adelaide Club proved the perfect venue for a splendid farewell dinner for the Geology Tour Alumni members and partners, who reflected on their enjoyable journey from the heritage mining locale of Broken Hill, travelling together through a stunning and beautiful national landscape region of Australia, steeped in rich natural and cultural heritage.


Further Reading on the Geology of Australia

Some recommended GEO ExPro articles relating to, or similar in content to, the geology and hydrocarbon activity in Australia.

Hydrocarbon Prospectivity of the Offshore Canning Area in Western Australia
Said Amiribesheli, Discover Geoscience Pty Ltd; Andrew Weller, Searcher Seismic Pty Ltd
Recent petroleum discoveries, including the Dorado-1 well, in the Bedout Sub-Basin indicate a promising future for the hydrocarbon prospectivity of offshore Western Australia.
This article appeared in Vol. 15, No. 6 - 2018

Oil and Gas Exploration in Australia
Brought to you in association with NVentures
After several low years of oil and gas exploration activity in Australia, it looks as though drilling potential is picking up.
This article appeared in Vol. 15, No. 5 - 2018

Australia’s ‘Big Red’ Centre
Angus M. Robinson and Christine Edgoose, Geological Society of Australia
‘Big Red’ country, encapsulated in Australia’s first National Landscape - Australia’s Red Centre is now being recognised as a major draw for global travellers seeking outstanding geotourism experiences in the country.
This article appeared in Vol. 13, No. 2 - 2016


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