FOR a contrast to bright lights, busy traffic and a bustling city, Ngarkat Conservation Park’s vast outback landscape, a touch more than three hours’ drive west of Adelaide along the Mallee Highway, is the perfect choice. The park’s sand dunes, mallee scrub and heathlands tick all the boxes when it comes to the quintessential outback elements.
As you’d expect, the park’s location – and its weather – means this desert escape is a definite cool-months-only destination. We’d recommend any time from late April until September to experience Ngarkat at its best.
Ngarkat CP features 11 campgrounds, the majority of which are 4x4-access only. Pertendi, just off the sealed Ngarkat Highway, offers caravan sites, while Nanam Well and Pine Hut Soak – both in the northwest section – offer 2WD access, as does Comet Bore, off the Ngarkat Highway.
Most campgrounds in the park are quite small, and sites range from unallocated to one, through to six sites at Cox’s Windmill. Of course, think of Ngarkat CP and you can’t help but be reminded of its most famous attraction for off-road tourers: the Border Track.
As the name so obviously implies, this north-south track follows the fence-line boundary that signifies the Victoria/South Australia border. The track is challenging and includes a southbound (from the park’s northern boundary) section that reverts to a two-way track once it joins the Centre Track (around 29km south of the track’s northern start-point). This is designed to ensure the fragile sand dunes and vegetation are as protected as possible.
The Border Track is a fantastic adventure, and for visitors who loop up and enter the park from its northern boundary just south of Pinnaroo, it’s a great way to kick off your Ngarkat experience with a true desert driving test.
The Border Track isn’t the only exciting touring option in the park; another option, for those heading north to south in the park’s western section, is to enter via Pinnaroo but turn toward Pine Hut Soak (rather than the Border Track start-point).
From the campground here you can drive south along the Centre Track, stopping along the way for the short (40 minutes return) Orchid Hike that, as the name suggests, leads bushwalkers through a pine forest that contains beautiful native orchids – a seeming oddity out here in mallee/desert country.
The Centre Track turns east to join the Border Track and, continuing south, you reach the turnoff to the rugged Mt Shaugh Track. This leads to the sealed Ngarkat Highway before you turn, again, onto dirt and follow the South Boundary Track west to Rabbit Island Soak campground (or Bucks Camp if you so wish). It’s a big day, but this campground makes it worthwhile.
For the energetic (and those with young’uns in tow), there are two short walks – the Gosse Hill Hike and Mount Rescue Hike – near here, both of which offer some cracking views across the low hills and open country of the park’s interior.
Following these short jaunts you have the option of leaving the track via Mount Rescue Track on the western edge, or you could head north along Jimmys Well Track to Box Flat for another night of camping.
A second drive option, again starting from Pine Hut Soak in the north but this time with a short hop across the border into Victoria’s adjoining Big Desert Wilderness, repeats the Centre Track-to-Border Track adventure south until you reach the junction of the Border and Red Bluff tracks. You can continue east from here to camp below this big outcrop, then return west via Mt Shaugh and South Boundary tracks to Rabbit Island Soak.
An alternative, for those who wish to return north, is to turn right before Rabbit Island Soak and head up along Baan Hill Track. This eventually leads out of the park. As well as off-roading Ngarkat CP has a load of great bushwalks, ranging from the short ones mentioned previously (Gosse Hill and Mount Rescue) through to more ‘serious’ treks that are more suited to experienced feet-borne adventurers.
Pine Hut Soak is the start-point for three big ones: the four-hour/11km return trek from Pine Hut Soak to Fishponds takes walkers through a sand dune landscape dotted with claypans; the shorter hike to Nanam Well takes you to a restored water well of the same name; while the longest – 17km/seven-hour return Pine Hut Soak to Scorpion Springs – allows well-prepared, experienced hikers to enjoy a journey through more mallee country, interspersed with clumps of native pine trees and stringybark mallee bush.
For the vertically inclined, there is the 1.5-hour slog up to the summit of Mount Shaugh. The views across to the ‘other side’ (aka Victoria) make this worth the effort. Keep an eye out for wildlife at any (small and often dry) waterholes, as this arid country hides a surprising amount of native animals and wildflowers when in season.