Paying Homage to Old Pat

Originally published in the Trailwalker magazine: Autumn 2010, Mar 2010

'In the land of the Oratunga' - Hans Heysen's painting of Patawarta Hill, 1932
Oratunga, from the summit of Patawarta Hill (Photo by Graham Connor)
Oratunga, looking south from inside the Pound to Patawarta (Photo by Jeremy Carter)

The history of the Heysen trail begins in 1932, according to an article written by Warren Bonython in the Trailwalker in 1989.

The Flinders Ranges became the landscape of this particular bushwalker’s dreams and set his feet on the epic journey along the ancient ridges and rocky gorges described in his book “Walking the Flinders Ranges”.

In 1932, with Australia in the grip of the great depression, Hans Heysen painted “In the land of the Oratunga” – a dramatic image of Mt Patawarta. Thirty years later the purple and orange water-colour hues of the far northern Flinders Ranges caught the eye of the restless Bonython and an interest was kindled. The Flinders Ranges became the landscape of this particular bushwalker’s dreams and set his feet on the epic journey along the ancient ridges and rocky gorges described in his book “Walking the Flinders Ranges”.

Warren’s enthusiasm was still burning throughout the decade of the seventies when he chaired the long range walking trail committee. Choosing a name was a challenge, but from the landscape of memory Warren Bonython had a wonderful suggestion. “The Land of the Oratunga” is held in the collection of the South Australian Art Gallery but is not currently on display. However that chance viewing in the 1960’s provides it with an added significance in the cultural history of our state. It also displays the power of landscape to change lives. It should be called the painting that launched a million feet.

In the spirit of Warren Bonython a group of 5 walkers who have crossed the final stile at Parachilna paid homage to Mt Patawarta in July 2009, as part of an ongoing pilgrimage along the northern Flinders. I have taken to calling this journey, with its intention of walking to the end of the Flinders Ranges at Mt Hopeless, “Beyond the Heysen”.

In 2002, a group led by Mark Darter reached Mt Hopeless, and in 2006 another group under Nick Langsford began the journey proving the broad allure of these rugged ranges. Despite the allure, this will never become a marked trail since it is simply too remote and difficult to access. Our small group received permission from the station owners to walk from Parachilna to Angepena, across Narrina pound. However it was with some expectation that we approached Mt Patawarta on the second day. It only just tops 1000 metres but stands unchallenged along the southern wall of Narrina pound like a shark’s tooth. As you pass through Patawarta gap it looms like a crusader castle over your right shoulder, and the further you penetrate the pound the more dramatic it becomes.

Any thoughts that it might offer an easy ascent were dispelled by a late afternoon foray which left us on the wrong side of a deep gully staring at the stately made stone cairn. Best approached from the north east we chose a more challenging route requiring rock climbs to storm its ramparts. We reached the crest by mid morning and from its stately citadel, in the company of eagles, we could gaze upon the length of the range from Wilpena to the Gammons.

Old Pat stood as our proud beacon to the south for the next 3 days as we moved north, and every time we glanced behind we knew we were in the Land of the Oratunga.