In the heart of South Australia’s Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, Wilpena Pound is a stunning natural amphitheater and award-winning public art space. It is a sacred place for the Adnyamathanha people, and as Tiana Templeman discovers, it is the perfect place to connect with the Country.
Adnyamathanha guide Vince Coulthard’s father, Clem Coulthard, always said, “How can we expect Udnyu [‘white people’, in the local language] to understand us if we do not share our culture? ” Clem was chief ranger at Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park in the 1980s. He was passionate about Country, and when Vince grew up, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. He has been guiding this country since 2018.
Our Intrepid group has come to Ikara (Wilpena Pound) to join him on a guided walk that sheds light on Adnyamathanha’s history, which stretches back thousands of years, and share stories of the park’s recent past. Learning about the country and culture of this place with a traditional guardian is a rewarding and tangible way to support Australia’s journey of reconciliation. It is one of three First Nations tours included on our seven-day Intrepid Flinders Ranges Explorer tour.
The dramatic mountains and rugged peaks that make up Ikara stretch 17 kilometers across the reddish-brown landscape of the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park. Together, they create a curve that forms a natural ‘pound’ or enclosure, eight kilometers wide. In the Adnyamathanha language, the name Ikara means meeting place and it remains a destination where people can meet and share stories.
We set off with Vince, who takes us across the land of his people and towards the distant collection of farm buildings known as Old Wilpena Station. White settlers were first seen by the First Nations Custodians of the Flinders Ranges in the 1840s, and they certainly made an impression.
“When the white guys showed up, our people thought they were ghosts,” Vince says.
He explains that when the Adnyamathanha people died, they were covered in white clay as part of a traditional funeral ceremony. As the Europeans came through the landscape, it looked as if the spirits of the First Nations Custodians of Ikara had returned and wandered around the earth.
As history shows, this was not the only reason why Adnyamathanha had to worry about the arrival of European settlers. It did not take long before the shepherds claimed areas with easy access to water for themselves and their population. The Adnyamathanhas were kept away from these and other natural resources and retaliated by stealing sheep, something that did not go unpunished by the settlers.
Agriculture also took a toll on Adnyamathanha Land, which was no longer run in traditional ways. As we get closer to Old Wilpena Station, Vince explains that it will take centuries for the area to regenerate after being cultivated.
As Australia continues to work towards reconciliation and strengthening the relationship between Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-indigenous peoples, the number of First Nations-driven trips on Intrepid voyages has increased to support this voyage. Like many of these experiences, our Ikara tour includes the story of the traditional owners and those who came after them, and also looks to the future. It’s an approach that suits Vince Coulthard well.
“Aboriginal culture is about sharing, and it’s about the stories. What has happened must be acknowledged, and then we can move on,” he says. “We cannot regret the past. It must be acknowledged, otherwise we will not be able to move on. “
In 2009, the Adnyamathanha people were recognized as the traditional owners of the Wilpena Pound and Flinders Ranges region. They have jointly managed Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park with the South Australian government since 2011. They also own Wilpena Pound Resort, which provides a viable way for Adnyamathanha people to work in the area and stay on Country.
“Aboriginal culture is about sharing, and it’s about the stories. What happened needs to be acknowledged, and then we can move on.”
As we move through the countryside, Vince points out hollow trees that Adnyamathanha mothers and babies once used for shelter, and the best places to find acacia seeds to do cushioning. We follow in the footsteps of Sir Douglas Mawson, who devoted much of his life to researching the region. Mawson was a geologist and lecturer at the University of Adelaide before becoming an Antarctic explorer. Even when he should have acclimatized in preparation for upcoming expeditions in sub-zero temperatures, he could not resist the attraction of this incredible place.
As we reach the collection of buildings at Old Wilpena Station, our group settles down on a seat in a place known as The Meeting Place, which is also an award-winning public art space. Vince explains that Adnyamathanha consists of two different words: adnyawhich means rock, and Mathanya, which means humans, and there are creation stories all around us. He gestures towards the surrounding mountains and points to Ngarri Mudlanha (St Mary Peak) glistening in the distance.
Ngarri Mudlanha is the highest point in the Flinders Ranges, and Adnyamathanha believes it is the head of a giant Akurra (slang) who played a key role in the creation story of Ikara. One late night, while everyone was on a corroboree, two mighty Akurra (snakes) were preparing to attack. Yurlu, the Kingfisher man, saw the father, but it was too late. Only Yurlu and Walha the Wild Turkey Man managed to escape. However, the two snakes paid the ultimate price for their greedy ambush. The Akurras were so full that they could no longer move and died where they lay, and their bodies formed the walls of the pound. Look closely when you are out walking, Vince says, and you will see stones that appear to be marked with rows of giant scales.
On our way back to the visitor center, turquoise mulga parrots fly through 500-year-old trees, creating splashes of color against a landscape rich in stories and history. Ikara is 300 meters higher than Uluru, and no doubt just as culturally significant, but none of our group realized the impact this sacred place would have on us.
That afternoon we find some of the peeling rocks that Vince talked about and are reminded of the two mighty Akurra snakes. It’s amazing what you can see when your eyes – and your heart, mind and soul – are opened to the natural wonders of you.
Do you want to explore Wilpena Pound for yourself? Check out our 7-day Flinders Ranges Explorer tour.