By Mark Chipperfield
Not too long ago the Flinders Ranges, a series of ancient, pink-red mountains stretching from Spencer Gulf deep into the Outback, was a closely kept secret.
Generations of local families have come here to camp and hike through gorges dating back 540 million years and watch the stars light up a night sky untroubled by town lights or pollution.
Visitors usually stumbled on the Flinders Ranges driving north from Adelaide to inland attractions such as Lake Eyre and the opal-mining town of Coober Pedy.
But now the word is out.
The region’s raw natural beauty, abundant wildlife, sweeping plains and frontier settlements are proving irresistible to anyone who dreams of exploring the ‘real Australia’ – a place where the pubs have wide verandas, men wear cowboy boots and the dinner menu is likely to offer emu, kangaroo, goat, camel and other feral gourmet delights, plus a locally harvested quandong, lemon myrtle, pepperberry and bush tomatoes.
A country with few fences, endless terrain and where winter is a foreign concept (although nights do get cold, so bring plenty of layers) has also proved attractive to those who enjoy hiking, mountain biking, off-road driving and other outdoor pursuits.
Ocean to the Outback
The region now hosts a major long-distance mountain bike race, the Melrose Fat Tyre Festival, held every June.
Although the Flinders is still a mecca for campers and four-wheel drive enthusiasts, the advent of up-market farmstay properties and specialist touring companies have made the region much more accessible to international visitors.
Because the Flinders Ranges covers such a vast part of inland South Australia it is divided into three distinct regions: southern, central and northern.
While the southern part reaches almost to the ocean, the most northerly tip stretches deep into the Australian Outback.
Unless you have several weeks to explore the entire sweep of frontier townships, towering escarpments and treeless plains, it makes sense to base yourself at Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre that rises majestically from the surrounding landscape.
The Pound, once used as a natural stockade for sheep by the early European settlers, is now home to a modern resort, a general store, petrol station, camping site and visitor’s center.
Long popular with local Adelaide families, Wilpena Pound is a laid-back back sort of place with little of the normal tourism hoopla.
Non-campers can choose from one of the pleasant, air-conditioned guest rooms or book into the nearby Ikara Safari Camp, a ‘glamping’ facility complete with 15 permanent tents, all with ensuite bathrooms and airconditioning, and a communal dining room.
Glampers have the use of resort facilities, such as the bar, restaurant and swimming pool.
Watch sunrise from St Mary’s Peak
Hiking, scenic flights, four-wheel drive tours and mountain biking are just some of the many great activities available at Wilpena Pound.
The self-guided walk to the top of St Mary’s Peak (3842 feet above sea level) is one of the must-do experiences while you are staying here – the summit provides 360-degree views of the ranges, salt lakes and surrounding plains.
There is an overnight walkers campsite for hikers who want to witness the sunrise from here; this is an all-day walk, so leave no later than 9am.
Covering 230,00 acres the Flinders Ranges National Park is a paradise for both hikers and those who prefer to ride a mountain bike (some of the stations now supply these, but competitive cyclists should bring their own).
The cooler months from April to October are the best time for strenuous outdoor activity, although it’s advisable to take plenty of water and warm clothing at any time of the year – desert nights are cold.
There are several pleasant day walks accessible from Wilpena Pound, such as treks to the Old Homestead and Wangara Lookout, Arkaroo Rock and Edeowie Gorge.
But more energetic types can join the long-distance Heysen Trail (for hikers) or the equally famous Mawson Trail (for mountain bikers).
The nearby Heysen Range, Brachina Gorge and Bunyeroo Gorge all worth visiting – ask at the visitor’s centre about guided tours.
Those interested in the Aboriginal history of the region should book an interpretive tour of the Old Wilpena Station.
Ghost sheep station
The abandoned sheep station offers a glimpse of 19th century life in Outback Australia, but a monument here also pays tribute to the Aboriginal station hands who played an important role in building this rural enterprise.
No visit to Wilpena Pound is complete without an early morning scenic flight.
The flight, which leaves from the nearby airstrip, provides a marvellous overview of this ancient rock formation which covers some 10 miles and was formed by natural erosion over millions of years – not as commonly thought, the remnant of an extinct volcano.
The high escarpments look particularly dramatic in the early morning light and make for great pictures.
Visitors who would like a taste of traditional station life can book accommodation at either Rawnsley Park or Arkaba Station.
Both are located on the main road into Wilpena Pound.
Apart from being a working farm, Rawnsley Park also offers a wide range of accommodation options and plenty of hiking, mountain biking and wildlife spotting options.
Guests can stay at the well-equipped campsite or hire a farm cabin or one of the newer and posher eco-villas.
These come with air conditioning, luxurious bathrooms, fully equipped kitchens, outdoor decks and retractable roof panels so that you can watch the stars from the comfort of your bed.
Other facilities include a swimming pool, mountain bikes, a restaurant, general store and guided tours.
Kangaroos, wedge-tailed eagles and emus can all be seen on the property.
Wild Bush Luxury in the Flinders Ranges
Just down the road, Arkaba Station, once the headquarters of a 60,000-acre sheep station, is the perfect jumping off point for all kinds of Outback adventures, such as bushwalking, off road driving, wildlife watching and scenic flights.
The original 1850s homestead, now owned by Wild Bush Luxury, has been sensitively transformed into an elegant rural retreat, complete with swimming pool, library, open bar and resident chef.
The station is no longer a working farm but the centre of a visionary conservation program which is slowly rehabilitating the land, eradicating feral animals and bringing back native species.
There are now two colonies of rare yellow-footed rock wallabies here, plus 10 new bird species.
The property’s signature experience is the fully guided Arkaba Walk.
Three day guided walk, complete with wines
Designed for small groups of walkers, this gentle three-day ramble offers plenty of native wildlife, big skies, fantastic views and just enough creature comforts to soothe the soul – walkers stay in purpose built campsites, sleep in luxury ‘swags’ – canvas covered sleeping bags, enjoy hot showers and eat chef-prepared meals served with South Australian wines.
The terrain, though dramatic, is easy enough for the most inexperienced walker – and the daily hiking routine is fairly gentle, leaving plenty of time for bird watching, photography, wildlife spotting or just absorbing the silence and majesty of the Flinders Ranges.
Those seeking a different type of Outback adventure should drive further north to Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary.
The fully accredited ecotourism facility offers a wide range of accommodation types.
Activities include bird spotting, mountain biking and four-wheel drive tours, but the sanctuary is also celebrated as the ideal location for a spot of stargazing.
The complex has no less than three observatories, each equipped with professional quality telescopes. Guided astronomy tours are available.
International carriers fly direct into Adelaide, including Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian Airlines. Qatar Airways begin daily flights into Adelaide from May 2016. Virgin Australia flies to Adelaide from all major Australian cities; flights from Sydney and Melbourne are under two hours.
Driving time from Adelaide to the Flinders Ranges (Wilpena Pound) is around four hours.
Choose either the coastal route via Port Augusta or the more scenic inland journey, which takes in the Clare and Barossa wine regions. Hire a four-wheel drive vehicle if you intend to leave the sealed road. There is a limited coach service between Port Augusta and Wilpena Pound. Private air charters are available from Adelaide to private airstrips in the Flinders. Summer temperatures can soar into the high 80F, so always carry plenty of water. Refuel when you can. The region is popular with local families at Easter and during school holidays, so book your accommodation in advance.