Arkaroola – Mt. Painter Wilderness Sanctuary – A Brief History

Yudnamutana Smelters early 1900s

Since the 1840s, explorers such as E.J. Eyre and prospectors including B.H. Babbage have frequented the Arkaroola area in search of wealth – they were looking for gold but instead found only limited supplies of copper. Numerous small mines opened, proved unprofitable and closed again. The ruins at Bolla Bollana and Yudnamutana are evidence of the optimism of the early miners. W.B. Greenwood discovered sapphires, rubies and ‘oriental emeralds’ at Corundum Camp in 1903 but these were not of gem quality and mining was unprofitable.

In 1910, the discovery of radium ore near Mt. Painter by W.B. Greenwood also promised a ‘boom’ that never eventuated. The ore samples were sent to Adelaide where a young (later Sir) Douglas Mawson was responsible for identifying the uranium minerals. Limited mining was carried out with the ore being removed from the area through the use of camels.

By 1900, pastoralists had settled on most of the land surrounding Arkaroola. But the inaccessible, incredibly rugged, semi-arid countryside around Mount Painter was decidedly unattractive to the early settlers and was left isolated. By the mid-1930s, approximately 61, 000 hectares of this isolated region had been fenced off by local pastoralists to keep the areas numerous dingoes, camels, donkeys, goats and other feral animals away from the sheep on neighboring properties.

The area quickly became infested with vermin and seriously degraded. In 1937 ‘Smiler’ and Bently Greenwood – the sons of W.B. Greenwood – were awarded the property by the South Australian Government for the price of eradicating and controlling the vermin and maintaining the fences. These hardy brothers set about establishing the Arkaroola Pastoral Station. In good years 7, 000 sheep could be carried on the property, but these years were few and far between. At the best of times, Arkaroola was only marginal sheep country because of its rugged terrain. Mustering was almost impossible.

The first track into the Mt. Painter heartland was carved out along Radium Creek by the Department of Mines in 1944 when the South Australian Government reopened the mine as part of the search for fissionable uranium by the allied forces of World War II. Government Geologist Reg Sprigg, who had previously visited Arkaroola as a student of Sir Douglas Mawson between 1937 and 1940, was taken out of the army to help assess the uranium potential of the area.

As a geologist / biologist, Reg saw a need for the region to be protected.

On the right is a 1947 view of East Painter Camp which accommodated up to sixty workers and was equipped with a canteen, bunk-houses, and garages. It was erected in 1944 and dismantled in 1950.

The first attempt at tourist development in the area occurred in 1923 when Dr. Charles Fenton set up a primitive ‘health spa’ at the radioactive Paralana Hot Springs, which are located on the Arkaroola’s eastern boundary. This project was doomed to fail from the outset because of its isolation; harsh conditions and shocking access. He only brought one group of patients to the springs and no follow-up was done to determine the long-term effects of their visit.

Mt Painter Camp circa 1940s

In 1948 Premier (later Sir) Thomas Playford gave encouragement to a group of Sydney entrepreneurs who were interested in reviving the Paralana ‘Health Spa’ proposal. Reg Sprigg was directed to lead the group of interested parties through the Flinders Rangers, looking at alternative prospects for a resort. This trip led to the eventual selection of Wilpena Pound as the site for the Flinders Rangers ‘Pleasure Resort’.

At around the same time, the Greenwood brothers attempted unsuccessfully to sell off Arkaroola for tourism purposes. In 1965 the Sprigg family became concerned at the worsening regional degradation of Arkaroola. They unsuccessfully campaigned for the state to take over the 61, 0000 hectare property in the interests of environmental conservation. In 1967 the property came up for sale, and encouraged by the Chairman of the Pastoral Board, the Sprigg family purchased the property and gained permission to start removing livestock. At first, about 3, 000 sheep had to be kept on the property under the pastoral lease requirements, but eventually permission was granted to fully de-stock Arkaroola in order to ‘rest the property for the purposes of conservation’. This allowed the native fauna and flora to start regenerating and there is now a thriving population of native wildlife and plants.

The same ruggedness that made it difficult to succeed as a pastoral station makes it wonderful to visit. The physical setting of Arkaroola is magnificent and the ancient rocks – some over a billion years old – are unique. Sir Douglas Mawson described the Arkaroola area as the ‘gem of the Flinders Rangers: A Geologists paradise’.

By mid-1968 the new Arkaroola Village was created 5km west of the original Station Homestead (now a private residence). Over 150 kilometres of roads and tracks were created to allow access to some of the most magnificent terrain in South Australia. It is one of Australia’s most isolated; self-supporting villages with its own power generation and water collection systems.

After much negotiation, the Sprigg family succeeded in having Arkaroola gazetted as a wildlife sanctuary (1969) and historic reserve (1970). This joint reserve status was withdrawn without explanation by the South Australian Government in 1972, and finally reinstated in 1996. The Arkaroola Sanctuary remains entirely privately owned, with all development under the control of the Sprigg family.

A Collection of Historic Images From Around Arkaroola-Mt Painter

HISTORICAL SUMMARY

1840

Explorer E.J. Eyre Passes West To Mount Hopeless.

1856

B.H.Babbage Explores For Gold; Discovers Copper.

1857

G.W. Goyder & J.M. Painter Commence Land Survey.

1857

First Pastoral Selection Made In Wheal Turner Vicinity by J. Taylor & W.T.   Gill.

1860

Yudnamutna Copper Mining Field Discovered.

1863-4

“The Great Drought”: Properties And Mines Abandoned.

1876

Most Local Pastoral Leases Revert To The Crown.

1903

W.B. Greenwood Discovers Rubies And Sapphires Near Mt. Pitt.

1910

Yudnamutna Smelters Constructed But Never Fired.

1910

W.B. Greenwood Discovers Mt.Painter Uranium Field. Closes 1914.

1923

Radium For Therapy Tops $1 Million Per Ounce.

1923

Paralana Hot Springs Spa Established: Abandoned 1924.

1924

Rich Congo Uranium / Radium Fields Discovered: Radium Prices Tumble.

1935

“Arkaroola” Area Fenced In To Contain Animal Pests.

1937

Property Awarded To “Smiler” & Bently Greenwood For The Price Of Eradicating Vermin. Sheep Re-Introduced.

1944

First Road Constructed Into Mt. Painter Uranium Fields by S.A. Mines Dept.

1945

Last Wild Camels, Donkeys & Dingoes Eradicated On Arkaroola.

1948

Attempt Made To Re-Establish Health Spa At Arkaroola.

1968

Sprigg Family Purchase Arkaroola For Wildlife Preservation & Conservation Of Environment: Arkaroola Village Established. 

1969

At Sprigg Family Request, Arkaroola Gazetted As A Private Wildlife Sanctuary Under Fauna Conservation Act 1964-5.

1970

Sheep Withdrawn With Approval of Pastoral Board.

1970

At Family Request, Arkaroola Gazetted As An Historical Reserve Under Aboriginal & Historical Relics Preservation Act Of 1965.

1970

“Ridgetop” Track Completed By Exoil N.L. Later Taken Over And Maintained By Arkaroola. New Arkaroola Air Field Established.

1972

Official Sanctuary and Reserve Status Withdrawn By S.A. Government without explanation.

1972

Arkaroola Re-Routes and Upgrades the “Government” Entrance Road & Track to Umberatna.

1971-4

Unprecedented Wet Years Bring Massive Regeneration of Flora & Fauna Not Witnessed since the mid 1890’s. Native Pines & Mulgas Appear In Profusion.

1974

Feral Goat Population Explodes.

1977

Freeling Heights – Mt Painter Area Offered To S.A. Government as a “Wilderness Preserve”. Offer Declined.

1979

R.C. Sprigg D.Sc. Made Trustee Of World Wildlife Fund Australia.

1980

Arkaroola Funds The World Wildlife Fund Project On The “Endangered” Yellow Footed Rock Wallaby.

1980

77sq. Km Over Arkaroola Gorge (As Aboriginal & Rock Wallaby Preserve) & Mawson Valley (For Geological Monuments) Set Aside & Nominated By Sprigg Family For The Register Of The National Estate As Defined By The Australian Heritage  Act 1975.

1981

Selected Geological Rock Monuments Accepted On To The Register Of The Geological Society Of Australia. (Includes: Mt. Painter, The Armchair, Paralana Hot Springs, The Pinnacles, Sitting Bull, Etc.)

1982

Mt. Elva Dam Completed. 20 Megalitre Capacity

1981-3

Extended Drought: Bush Fires Raze Freeling Heights Country.

1983

Feral Goats All But Exterminated On Arkaroola. More Than 50, 000 removed or destroyed.

1984

Rains In January Exceed 500mm. At Mt. Painter. All Time Record for the Flinders Ranges.

1984

New “Last Chance” Bore Provides Major New Supply Of Improved Water Flow (Tested At 50 Kilolitres / Hour).

1987

Hidden Valley And East Painter Access Tracks Reopened To Aid Vermin Control And Bushfire Surveillance: Village Roads Paved.

1987

December 1st, Horrific Hail Storm with Cricket-Ball Sized Hail Stones and Hurricane Winds. Unroofed Neighbouring Station Buildings And Sheet Eroded (Scalded) Soils And Grasslands In A 2km Wide Swath West – East Through Bolla Bollana To Lady Buxton And Across Neighbouring Properties.

1988

Arkaroola Scientific Research Facility Created at the Station Shearer’s Quarters. Callitris Lodge Completed Bringing The Total Number Of Motel Buildings In Arkaroola Village To Three.

1996

Official Sanctuary Status Re-Instated After Much Negotiation.

1999

Renovations Start On the Main Building and Mawson Units. Reception, Dining & All Storage Facilities Moved To Ningana.

2000

Renovations to Main Building & Mawson Units Completed, Building Re-Opened

2002

All Weather Road from Copley to Arkaroola Completed

2005

Kitchen Upgraded

2006

Inaugural “Star Party Down Under” held in January with great success.

Arkaroola

A Unique Outback Experience