By Mark Eggleton
We were somewhere around Orroroo on the edge of the desert when it started to get dark rather quickly. I remember saying, “We’re going to have to drive slowly because the roos will be out soon … .“ And then suddenly, thunk! I had sideswiped a big grey chap while travelling at around 40km/h. With apologies to Hunter S. Thompson, we weren’t heading to Vegas. Although, we were on the edge of the desert but I wasn’t travelling with my Samoan lawyer. More pertinently, the hundreds of kangaroos which seemed to be descending on the car at a rate of knots were actually real as the only mind-altering substance I’d had was a coffee back in the Clare Valley.
The kangaroo was at least the 100th bouncing chap who had veered towards my headlights as we drove on in the semi-darkness towards Parachilna. Just over five hours’ driving time north of Adelaide, our destination was the Prairie Hotel. As the shadows lengthened the landscape turned from a bright yellow bathed in sunlight to gold, ochre and finally a rusty red. Unfortunately, the glancing blow on our kangaroo friend woke us both from our Flinders daydream. The rest of the drive was a crawl into Parachilna at around 25km/h.
Parachilna with its permanent population of three is not exactly a thriving metropolis but what it does have is one of the world’s hip hotels sitting on the rather short main street. We arrive in the dark to be greeted by curator and host Grant Rasheed who feeds us a late night supper of Feral antipasto containing smoked kangaroo, camel mettwurst and emu pate as well as bush tomato chutney and warm bread washed down with a Clare Valley riesling. It was exactly what was needed.
We gorged on our slap-up meal outside under a warm, night sky illuminated by millions of stars. It reminded me of my childhood as I lay in bed early in the morning trying to keep my room dark with the blankets over my head and little pin pricks of light would shine through – although in this instance the night sky was the huge blanket thrown over the desert.
Owned by the Fargher family for over 25 years, the Prairie Hotel is touted as one of those Australian places you must visit to experience the real outback. What’s more, it’s rather luxurious. Owner Jane Fargher says she wanted to create a civilised experience known for its quality food and accommodation at a place where the desert meets the Flinders Ranges.
And it works – the hotel attracts people from all over the world.
“We wanted to make the outback more accessible and we have done that here at the Prairie Hotel,” she says.
“It has this rough façade but as soon as you walk in you’re struck by this warm interior filled with artwork and artefacts from the region. People are amazed that we have our own beer – Fargher Lager – and amazing food,” Fargher says.
According to Fargher, she decided early to focus on native food so “we were one of the first to introduce kangaroo on the menu, then emu, camel and goat. We make our own emu-liver pate, bush tomato chutneys and quandong jams so people can take home some produce from their little prairie providore.”
The sheer peace and quiet at Parachilna means relaxation is probably the best activity close at hand and a drink outside leaning against an old wooden barrel as the sun lowers in the sky in the evening is something special Fargher says.
The Farghers live a bumpy 40-minute drive away across the desert on a working cattle station and Jane isn’t inclined to leave anytime soon.
“There’s a warmth here not just the landscape but the people as well. There’s so much wildlife and a real spiritual feeling in the air. It’s just really calming,” Fargher says.
It also helps that curator and host Grant Rasheed provides guests with such a warm welcome. A former fashion industry executive in Milan, he has returned to his roots in the Flinders to not only play host at the Prairie Hotel but to curate the hotel’s large exhibition of Aboriginal art which he takes on the road globally. It’s an incongruous mix – European fashion maven turned art curator on the edge of the Australian desert.
The next day we’re up early and backtracking along the highway towards Rawnsley Park Station. The roadkill carnage on the road from the previous evening makes for the world’s longest wild smorgasbord as big black crows and magnificent wedge-tailed eagles feast on kilometres of carrion. The bright sun seems to reflect more brightly off the surrounding earth than the sun’s own rays as we drive along dodging eagles rising off the road and crows picking at an array of overnight tidbits.
At Rawnsley Park, Julie Smith and her husband Tony have been running a tourism business together since 1984. She says the family moved into tourism to diversify away from being a purely pastoral property and now she and husband Tony often banter about what makes the most money.
The property is still a working sheep station and visitors can still see a shearing shed in action and wander the property. Yet what brings people to the property is the Flinders Ranges and the magnificent sunrises and sunsets on Rawnsley Bluff which makes up one side of Wilpena Pound.
“People come for the colours of the ranges and the peace and tranquillity,” Smith says.
“There’s a feeling of open space and plenty of wildlife about. Guests can fill their days with guided walks, short walks as well as 4WD and helicopter tours. What they’ll also notice is how the landscape changes. At first glance it seems so harsh but then there are pine trees, creeks rimmed by river gums and the colours – always changing colours on the rocks and landscape.
The Smiths originally started the tourism business as a fairly Spartan affair with simple accommodation, but in recent years they’ve built quite luxurious eco-villas. For Julie, the villas take Rawnsley Park to the next level. The straw bale and recycled timber dwellings sit unobtrusively on the Flinders landscape. Inside they’re a quiet, contemporary, cool haven away from the outside heat. Lie back in bed at night and a retractable blind pulls back to reveal a large window into the sky. It’s probably the most luxurious way to slumber under the stars anywhere.
One of the station’s highlights is the restaurant in the old woolshed. There’s a strong focus on the local lamb on the menu and Julie says “everything is homemade.”
“We try to keep everything local,” she says “and one of the great experiences at the restaurant is just to sit on the verandah and stare at Wilpena Pound at breakfast or with a glass of wine as the sun goes down.”
“It’s very romantic, a great place for honeymoons and for proposals.”
Just down the road from Rawnsley Park, Willow Springs Station is a 70,000-acre working sheep station and tourism operation. Owned by Carmel Reynolds and her husband Brendan, the property has been in the family since 1952.
For Carmel, the property is a special place.
“It’s rugged yet quite fragile and there is a certain serenity here,” she says.
Guests can either camp at Willow Springs or stay in the repurposed farm buildings such as the shearer’s quarters, worker’s cottage and even the old schoolhouse on the property. Interestingly, Carmel arrived to teach some of the family’s children and fell in love with Brendan on arrival.
“Brendan likes to say I fell into his arms and fell into debt.”
“We started the tourism business to improve cashflow when the wool prices started to drop and now we’re proud to give guests a real taste of the Flinders and what happens here.
“It’s a working station but there’s also four-wheel drive tours and the opportunity to wander through the landscape and discover ancient Aboriginal etchings.”
Visitors will find the 4WD track Skytrek a real thrill as it moves over some harsh terrain and gives the vehicle a solid workout.
“It takes around six hours to complete and travels through pretty gorges, over hills and across plains with the last part of the journey offering low-range four-wheel driving.
“It’s just so secluded here and visitors feel like they own a little piece of land when they arrive because of the isolation. Then there are the stars at night, the trees around the creek beds and the landscape. People who come here just become so passionate about its beauty.”
Sir Douglas Mawson’s legacy
Passion doesn’t begin to describe the feeling Doug Sprigg has for the Flinders. Flying above the Ranges in his little single engine Cessna is one of the great tourism wonders of the world. Doug’s father Reg Sprigg fell in love with the region and the family’s property Arkaroola back in 1939. At the time he was visiting the area with his professor from the University of Adelaide, Antarctic explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson.
Mawson referred to the area around Arkaroola as the “greatest outdoor geological museum in the world”. Mawson wanted it protected and Reg Sprigg, who would go on to become one of the nation’s gas industry founders bought the whole area in 1968. Now designated a wilderness sanctuary, it’s one of the only private such holdings in the nation.
As we were lifted up and down on the vents of warm air flying towards Arkaroola, Doug provided a passionate and engrossing account of the geological history of the ranges. He’s lived in the region for about 40 years and is keen to continue his father’s work. As too is his sister Marg who has “only been living at Arkaroola for 22 years”.
Marg who’s a geologist like her father calls the area with its 1800-million-year-old rock formations a very special place.
“It’s wonderful geology and Dad, along with Mawson and (former Governor of South Australia), Sir Mark Oliphant wanted it protected. The government wouldn’t buy it so Mum and Dad bought it and thought they could use the funds from tourism to protect it.
“It was a sheep station but it’s very difficult land to run livestock on. What we’ve done over time is turn it into a 600sq km protected wilderness area.
“There’s very little groundwater here but you’ll find a place amazingly rich in vegetation. Some of the plants along one of the ridges are not known anywhere else in the world. They only grow in the 10sq km on this land. These are relic species harking back to when the region was a rainforest 50,000 years ago.
“It just amazing country controlled by its geology and soils. It’s a wild landscape that inspires and I always hope that visitors who come here leave with a feeling of the depth of this country and learn to understand the region.”
Virgin Australia flies to Adelaide via Melbourne.
Major hire car companies are at Adelaide Airport.