January 19, 2023
People & Places

On top of the world

Sally Brown can be found trekking up a mountain most days – sometimes several times a day – and it’s no wonder with the Flinders Ranges on her doorstep.

No matter how many times she climbs Devil’s Peak, Sally says the changing light never ceases to amaze her.

“It looks like a bloody painting or something.”

There may never have been truer words spoken about this vista. SALIFE is sitting at the top of Devil’s Peak, just outside Quorn, with local Sally Brown.

Driving into town, it’s one of the first things you notice. The imposing formation gets its name from its likeness to the face of a devil lying on its side.

Sally sounds impressed, because she is, but it’s far from the first time she’s sat on this ridge, looking out over the land she grew up on.

“Every time you come, whatever time you come, you get a different kind of experience with the light,” Sally says.

The first thing Sally Brown does in the morning is check the weather and decide where in the Flinders Ranges she’ll be hiking

The Flinders is known for its spectacular shows of colour at dawn and dusk; fiery orange, blazing pink and gentle, moody purple.

“If you can be on top of the mountain watching that, it’s just incredible and I never, ever get sick of it. Every time I do it, I still get that feeling as though it’s the first time.”

Sally’s enthusiasm comes so naturally and so often that she worries other people aren’t having the same experience as her.

“Are they enjoying it, or is it a task for them?”

Moments earlier, as she neared the peak, she became like a child leading her parents to a carnival ride. Even though she’s just bounded up almost 700 metres, her energy is palpable, being fed by the promise of that view.

While the journey up there might not be as enjoyable for everyone, it’s hard to imagine anyone being less than captivated by what they see at the top. Sally points out Spencer Gulf, Port Augusta and Quorn.

“And that’s the house I grew up in, down there.”

Since before she could walk, Sally was coming up the peak strapped to her mum or dad’s back. Growing up in the Flinders offered all the freedoms you’d imagine of a childhood in the outback; walking, horse riding and motorbiking. The region’s rocks are studied for their historical significance and Sally frequently found herself hiking up a mountain with visiting geologists to learn more about the formations.

As her hiking boots crunch against the rocky earth, she shields her face from the sun with her Akubra.

“I tried to leave a few times. I went to uni and studied teaching. I taught in Port Augusta, then went to Darwin and then America.”

Sitting atop a mountain brings a moment of calm for Sally.

But the 36-year-old returned home when her sister Emily, after whom her Quorn cafe is named, decided to shut up shop.

“I came back and reopened this probably nine years ago and it’s been a massive success,” she says.

From the outside, Emily’s looks like any other quaint little shop in the rural town. Stepping inside, however, you’re magically transported to a 1920s department store.

The town was born on the railway and, in those days, it was buzzing. A train would roll into Quorn and its passengers would head to what was then The Great Emporium for supplies.

Sally moved back home from America about nine years ago to reopen Emily’s Bistro, and has been busy ever since honouring its history and looking to the future.

There were different departments in the store – Sally guesses a grocer, clothing, a seamstress, a milliner and a bootmaker – all connected by the flying fox system on the ceiling. The configuration of ropes and pulleys, which remains charmingly intact today, was used to send money from each department to the cashier.

The business dates back to the 1890s, although the building burnt down in the 1920s and was rebuilt. Skylights flood the grand space, highlighting the intricate pressed metal ceilings.

“I remember shopping here as a child. Back then, everyone had an account at the shop, so on our way to piano lessons or netball, we’d come in and put lollies and chips on Mum and Dad’s account.

“You could get anything here; Mum used to buy materials and patterns and make our clothes.”

The shop remained in just one family until Sally’s family bought it in 2002. Since she took over, with the help of her parents, Sally has guided the business to exciting new heights. They’re known for their Sunday lunches and you’ll easily find 80 hungry diners there each week. Wanting to offer something different, they hired a baker, and the biggest change was opening the Great Northern Lodge next door.

An impetus for the growth was the influx of visitors created when actors and crew descend. Sally says there’s a film or television production filmed in and around Quorn almost annually.

“I still remember finishing the painting as John Jarratt was driving up the driveway.”

Australia’s most famous fictitious serial killer was in Quorn to film Wolf Creek 2, which Sally herself was in.

“I’m in the scene where he’s in a gun shop testing guns, looking through the scope and he sees me walking a dog.

“He pulls the trigger but there are no bullets. I’m basically the only one who survives,” she says.

“And Jamie Dornan [of Fifty Shades of Grey fame, who was in Quorn to film The Tourist] is the nicest guy.”

The productions can bring hundreds of new faces into town and Sally says locals are all welcoming, even setting up rooms or building granny flats to help with accommodation.

Sally has taken these very steps up the peak with famous names, introducing them to South Australia from new heights.

As Sally gallops down Devil’s Peak – her mum Wendy calls her a mountain goat – she speaks about her plans for the future.

She’s passionate about coaching people to wellness and has started offering to lead hikes.

“I want to tie in coaching and hiking and help people overcome stresses. Just allow people to come out here and detach and destress from whatever they’ve got going on.

“This is probably one of the simplest ways you can feel good. It’s the only time I’m fully present when I’m sitting up here. All the worries go away.”

Sally knows just how lucky she is to have this passion of hers, especially after coming so close to losing it. About 10 years ago, she was in a head-on traffic collision, shattering not only her leg, but also her confidence.

“I’ve got metal all up through my leg; it took me a little while to learn to walk again.”

It took years for Sally to build up the physical strength and internal confidence to hike alone again.

“It builds discipline and resilience; it’s about overcoming challenges and breaking past barriers,” she says.

“I’ve dealt with chronic stress; I’ve had burnout. I think the one thing that’s kept me going and kept me sane is hiking.”

With some extra time on her hands during Covid lockdowns, Sally decided to become more involved in her community. She’s now the vice president of the Flinders Ranges Tourism Operators Association and is a first responder with the SES – she’s absolutely the person you want looking for you if you’re stuck on a mountain.

When someone new walks into the shop, the first thing they comment on is the flying fox system, which is orginal from the 1920s.

Sally displays an optimism for the town she calls home. She says there had been homes on the market for more than 10 years that have now been snapped up. Outsiders are coming to see what Sally’s known all along – Quorn is magnificent.

“I’m just so bloody grateful to be living in such a beautiful place,” she says.


This article first appeared in the June 2022 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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