On safari in South Australia's outback, 'swagon' style

On a safari with a difference in South Australia – taking in the Aussie big five – Nigel Summerley finds comfort and a view of the stars from his bed in a converted farm wagon

Rosie (formerly known as Roadkill Rosie) was at the wheel, giving instructions in a cut-glass English accent that seemed at odds with her frontierswoman demeanour – and the fact she was gunning the 4x4 down a dirt track in the South Australia outback. We were racing to get back to camp before sunset; it was that dusky time when kangaroos start their day – and tend to cross the road without looking. Rosie told me to watch the bush flats on the left, and my safari companion, Teresa, to watch the right: "And if you see anything, shout 'Roo!' "

That Roadkill nickname came not from squashing creatures on the highway, but from the way she would retrieve carcasses for use in her artworks. Her full name is Rosemary Woodford Ganf, and she's a noted wildlife artist (and now also a guide with Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris).

As a teenager in the West Country, she scouted locations for (and appeared in) the 1963 movie Tom Jones with Albert Finney; as a 21-year-old in Uganda she not only danced ("in a white mini-dress") with Idi Amin, but agreed to paint his portrait: "One couldn't say no. And I also thought it best not to say I only did animals."

"Doing animals" barely covers her talent: she produced all 100-plus illustrations for the definitive book of Australia's wildlife, A Fragile Balance: The Extraordinary Story of Australian Marsupials. But one of her more unusual works is Kangaluna Camp, and in particular its "swagon", in which I slept for three unforgettable nights.

The swagon is a cross between a traditional swag (bedroll) and a wagon. Like Kangaluna itself, it's a cross-fertilisation of ideas from Rosie and her boss, Geoff Scholz, owner of the camp and director of Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris, which specialisies in intimate encounters with the natural world.

The swagon is the brainchild of Rosemary Woodford Ganf and Geoff Scholz
The swagon is the brainchild of Rosemary Woodford Ganf and Geoff Scholz Photograph: PR

Kangaluna sits on the wildly beautiful Eyre peninsula, west of Adelaide, just outside the Gawler Ranges national park. It's the base for three- or four-day, small-group expeditions, and has three two-bedroom tents and one swagon. The tours can compare to an African safari, but the big five here are koalas, kangaroos, emus, wombats and eagles.

The camp is called Kangaluna – "a new Aboriginal word for bureaucracy" – because of the red tape Geoff had to face from local officials. But once it was established, in 2004, Geoff brought in Rosie. What might have been a basic tented site became something magical thanks to her touches, from bedcovers with images of wildlife, a dining table inlaid with a kangaroo portrait, and wombat hot-water bottle covers.

The swagon is a recent addition. Geoff said: "We'd had an increase in solo travellers, and they can get hit hard with single supplements.

"We had also had a number of people who wanted to try sleeping in a swag. But snakes are nocturnal, and scorpions can be a problem, so it's better not to be lying on the ground. Then I remembered seeing an old wagon in the bush …"

The wagon, made in 1902, was used for carting grain and hay until the 1940s. In its new incarnation, it offers a night under the stars as if you were sleeping rough – but a few feet off the ground and with a double mattress.

The genius of the swagon is that its cover can be peeled back as much or as little as you like. If you want the full sleeping-with-the-Milky-Way experience, you strip it right back. If it gets chilly, you can let it back down. Its rustic "bathroom" has a shower head appearing from the bough of a myall tree, and a towel rail made from an antique horse yoke.

Kangaroos, Swagon safari, South Australia
'Roo do you think you are? Kangeroos keep an eye on the safari tourists. Photograph: Nigel Summerley Photograph: Nigel Summerley

After long days on safari, I nodded off in the swagon watching the stars. I woke before dawn to see the silhouettes of eucalyptus trees against a pallid sky, then felt the approach of the sun, and heard the chorus of wrens, magpies and crows

This safari was filled with surprises and serendipity. We'd been warned that wombats are a rare sight. You see their burrows (like giant molehills) and their cube-shaped dung – but they emerge only at night to graze.Yet on our second day we passed one sunbathing outside its home. Lisa, our cool, calm guide, couldn't stop herself squealing with delight as she brought the 4x4 to a halt. Our wombat soon realised he'd been spotted and was down his burrow before our cameras were half-raised.

But on the six-mile drive through the grassy Nukey valley, our cameras barely stopped clicking. If small groups of kangaroos weren't stopping to check us out, mobs of emus were scuttling across the plains. We saw green flashes of Port Lincoln parrots among the trees, and silhouettes of wedge-tailed eagles with six-foot-plus wingspans.

At Mikkira Station, home to the peninsula's only wild koalas, we stood in wonder beneath the trees as the creatures perfected the art of doing almost nothing. Apart from the long business of digesting leaves, the koalas' most energetic activity – be warned – is to hang their bottoms over a branch and defecate. And at Baird Bay, on the west coast, we had the trip-closing bonus of visiting a sea lion colony and swimming with dolphins.

An outback safari is as much about land as wildlife. Walking on water is not something I'm accustomed to, but at Lake Gairdner I took to it right away. This white expanse of salt flats, covered in an inch of water, is 100 miles long and up to 30 miles wide. And you're not just walking on the water; with the heavens reflected below, you also appear to be walking in the sky.

Lake Gairdner, South Australia
Walking on salt flats at Lake Gairdner. Photograph: Nigel Summerley Photograph: Nigel Summerley

Lake Sturt offered views of rocks spread out in amalgams of red, purple, yellow and white, often decorated with mosaics of pebbles. The scene is as random as the surface of an alien planet, and as filled with startling images as a contemporary art gallery. Even Rosie agreed nothing could match the artistry of nature.

The trip was provided by Wexas Travel (020 7838 5874, wexas.com) which has seven-night tailor-made tours with Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris (gawlerrangessafaris.com) from £2,796pp, based on two sharing, including all flights, transfers, accommodation and some meals. More information from southaustralia.com

Nigel Summerley

The GuardianTramp

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