By Julietta Jameson
The starriest of night skies, the most soul-moving dawns and unforgettably vivid sunsets are your backdrop to a spectacular experience in the Flinders Ranges and Outback.
First impressions don’t really do it justice as you’re immediately taken by its grandeur and apparent harshness, but spend a few days touring and you’ll uncover places of surprising fragility. Yes, it’s a region of scorching heat, ancient gorges and soaring rock faces but delve a little further and you’ll find smaller microclimates with pine trees and hidden creeks trickling with water.
On a recent trip driving north past Rawnsley Park Station towards Willow Springs Station, we passed through a couple of kilometers of what seemed like an English meadow or even a carefully manicured golf course.
A carpet of what looked like freshly-cut lawn covered a gently undulating terrain. Kangaroos and wallabies grazed peacefully along with a couple of sheep – obviously AWOL from their flocks.
Ikara- Flinders Ranges National Park is home to a changing parade of distinctly Australian wildlife: endangered wallabies, and several species of kangaroo and the ultimate predator of the sky, the mighty wedge-tailed eagle.
Tour the land with an Aboriginal guide and see the giants and serpents come alive as their stories paint a vivid picture of the Dreaming.
And be awe-inspired by Wilpena Pound, a massive natural amphitheatre formed by mountains and home to the highest point in the Flinders Ranges, St Mary Peak.
Travel north-east for around seven hours from the Pound and you will hit Coober Pedy, a town renowned for its opal mining and dug-out accommodation, as well as being a base for exploring the surrounding region including the geological extravaganza that is the Breakaways.
Find your way
The largest mountain range in South Australia is around 200 kilometers due north of Adelaide and 170 kilometers from Port Augusta.
Take your time. There are some scenic routes to the area that take in some of South Australia’s best attractions. You can head there through the Barossa and Clare Valley, or head up along the coast to see pretty waterside towns and historic harbours. Or from the Clare Valley, veer into the outback to see South Australia’s pastoral life and history along the way.
Stay with a view to nature
From luxurious outback glamping experiences to deluxe eco-villas in the shadows of soaring cliff faces or even a simple bed and breakfast, the Flinders Ranges and Outback offer visitors a wide range of accommodation options.
Local sheep stations afford a terrific window on Flinders life: you can stay in homesteads, converted shearers’ quarters or on campsites, often with opportunities to get involved with the daily workings of these huge, often historic properties.
Angorichina is a 150,000 acre working sheep station that offers guest accommodation in the shearer’s shed, dating back to the 1850’s. The property, owned by the Fargher family features tasteful country furnishings and an outdoor seating area with sweeping views across the property.
The Farghers know the perfect spots to watch the sunset with drinks and the company of wallabies, emus and kangaroos, and operate seasonal activities such as sheep mustering and bore runs.
Another option in the Flinders is the Wilpena Pound Resort, which covers more than 120 acres and is close to the entrance of the Pound. Take your caravan, pitch a tent, or stay in one of the permanent canvas tents on site.
When heading to the Outback, cool respite can be found at the many underground motels in Coober Pedy. The Desert Cave Motel offers a choice of above ground accommodation as well as “dug out” accommodation. The hotel is furnished with all modern comforts including Wi-Fi and has several dining options including Umberto’s Restaurant, a café and the world’s only underground bar.
Coober Pedy provides the perfect base for a day trip to the KankuBreakaways Conservation Park .The rocky outcrop, featuring flat-top mesas and hills has been the backdrop for films such as Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
A bird’s eye view
To get a sense of the magnitude of the region, take a scenic flight. There are several operators, one of which, Air Wilpena, takes off from the Wilpena Pound Resort. The aerial tours focus on the Pound to give a view of its vastness and an understanding of its preciousness to the traditional owners.
Ranging from 20 minutes to several hours, the longer trip gives a bigger picture overview of the Flinders Ranges, soaring over the Western Plains, Parachilna and Parachilna Gorge, Blinman, the Bunkers and more, taking in the colours and formations of one of the Australia’s most remarkable landscapes.
Rainfall has recently transformed Kati Thanda – Lake Eyre, on the north-eastern corner of the state, from a dry salt pan to being shrouded in green vegetation. All can be taken in by flying over the lake with a longer aerial tour. The locals are even predicting wildflowers will begin to sprout soon.
Horseback or horse power
For four-wheel driving, Wallaby Tracks Adventure Tours will take you on anything from half-day to seven-day tours of the region with as much bushwalking as you want. On a longer tour, discover the unique sites of outback South Australia such as the Dog Fence that stretches 5600 kilometers from eastern Queensland to the South Australian coast at the Great Australian Bight. Erected in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was designed to keep dingoes out of South Australia, a job it continues to do and is actively maintained to do so, to this day.
Or stay at a vast working sheep station such as Moolooloo Station at Parachilna where you can take your own four-wheel drive to fascinating sites including the Nuccaleena Mine and Artimore loop. These roads are public access routes as well.
Keen mountain bikers often bring their own bicycles and ride some of the well-marked trails here.
Rawnsley Park is also one of the operations running horse riding tours in the region.
Arkaroola under the stars
With Advanced Ecotourism accreditation and some of the most spectacular scenery in the northern Flinders Ranges, you could stay for days at Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary. The 620-square kilometer, multi award-winning and family operated property lays claim to some of Australia’s most spectacular mountain views. You can four-wheel drive to the top of granite peaks that overlook ancient gorges and waterholes. Bushwalkers love it for the stunning landscape and incredible concentration of wildlife.
There are more than 160 species of birds in the sanctuary and the lucky ones might spot an endangered yellow-footed rock-wallaby, which also calls the area home.
Take Arkaroola’s 4WD Ridgetop Tour to discover ancient (now inland) sea beds and fossils and hear the history of Arkaroola founder Reg Sprigg whose family still runs the property. Sprigg was a pioneer of ecotourism and inspired its conversion from a sheep station to sanctuary.
At night, take the unmissable Astronomy Tour. With no light pollution, Arkaroola has some of the best star gazing conditions in Australia. It has three fully equipped observatories featuring professional-grade telescopes and the tours include expert commentary. Arkaroola says this is “an experience that normally isn’t available to anyone but astronomers and scientists”.
Dine in distinct style
Be prepared for a dinner with a difference at the Prairie Hotel at Parachilna, 25 kilometers from the Brachina Gorge Geological Trail. This world-famous 1876 heritage landmark is an eccentric slice of South Australia’s unforgettable outback, with the rugged Flinders Ranges on one side and desert plains on the other.
While the pub is your classic good old-fashioned outback affair, the seasonal menu is something unique.
Go the ‘FMG’ or Feral Mixed Grill or the ‘Feral Antipasto’ which includes kangaroo mettwurst, emu pate, goats cheese and bush tomato chilli jam.
The chefs regularly use local ingredients such as quandongs, wattle and acacia seeds, saltbush, native pepperleaf, thyme and wild basil herbs, lemon myrtle and mountain pepperberries.
You can stay the night, too. There are renovated rooms in the main hotel building or nearby self-contained cottages.
Try the lamb the area is famous for in Rawnsley Park’s old woolshed, now a restaurant, which serves Modern Australian cuisine. There’s an open fire in winter and a shady deck for taking in the views when the sun is out. Woolshed restaurant serves Southern Flinders and Clare Valley wines, and nearly always has a Rawnsley lamb dish on the menu, sometimes throwing special lamb-inspired four course dinners and spit roasts.
Virgin Australia flies into South Australia from most capital cities.
At Adelaide airport, pick up a car from any of a number of reputable rental operators, including Budget, Avis and Europcar. A four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended for outback driving.
It’s nearly 400 kilometers from Adelaide to the Wilpena Pound. But it’s recommended you take your time and choose a scenic route.
You can also fly to Wilpena Pound Resort in less than three hours’ flying time and with a Scenic Flight Transfer.
The Scenic Flight Transfers is in two flight parts: a 1 ½ -hour transfer from Adelaide to the mining town of Roxby Downs (Olympic Dam Airport) with Alliance Airlines, on a 52-seater Fokker aircraft. Then there is a one-hour flight to Wilpena Pound Resort with WrightsAir, on a GippsAero GA8 Airvan that can seat up to seven.
Wilpena Pound Resort runs special packages that include flights, accommodation, meals and experiences.