Exploring the colourful beauty and culinary delights of the largest mountain range in South Australia
Driving through the Australian outback is one of the most serene activities you can do, but it’s even better when someone does the driving for you. I’m sitting in the back seat of a rugged Mercedes Benz 4WD van, staring out the windows as Adelaide, the South Australian capital, quickly fades into a scene of open countryside and green and yellow trees.
Soon, those country sights morph into red sand, gold and brown boulders, and an open blue sky that covers one of Australia’s best-kept secrets. The Flinders Ranges are in the heart of South Australia, and are the gateway to the outback; Uluru (previously known as Ayers Rock) may be world renowned as a natural icon, but the Flinders Ranges as a destination deserve their own accolades.
Most people who explore the Flinders Ranges do so by camping, but for the next four nights, I’ll be tasting this slice of Australia through the prism of luxury on a Flinders Ranges Odysseys tour. I’ll experience private villas with panoramic views, gourmet dining, plus some of the best wines produced in South Australia.
The word “desert” often conjures images of great swathes of land devoid of colour or life, but the Flinders Ranges are neither lifeless nor void of colour, which bursts forth everywhere, from the mountains, gorges and the kaleidoscopic hues the daily sunsets provide.
Driving slowly along a seemingly endless stretch of dirt road, a voice rises from the back seat. “Look! Look to the right!” I turn but don’t know where to focus my eyes; the rocky ledge is huge but eventually I see it: a yellow-footed rock wallaby. It’s so small standing amongst these enormous rocks that it would be easy to miss. But it’s a lucky find; the yellow-footed rock wallaby is under increasing threat and a sighting is rare. We whip out our cameras to capture this good luck, before the wallaby hops up the rocky ledge and away.
When you’re in the middle of such extraordinary nature, it’s a shame to go indoors – nature, here, is very much the main attraction. Rawnsley Park Station’s five-star eco-villas offer the best solution to this 21st-century problem, providing floor-to-ceiling windows that bring the world indoors.
In the bedroom, the views continue, with a roof window that is revealed at the touch of an electronic shade. Open it up and the brilliant navy-blue sky, speckled with diamond-bright stars, is your own personal entertainment.
Rawnsley Park Station is also a working livestock station, with about 2,000 sheep roaming across its expansive 12,000 hectares. The accommodation ranges from five-star luxury to a caravan park, while the rest of the station is focused on activities that showcase the best of the Ranges.
The heart of the station for visitors is the Woolshed Restaurant, which combines gourmet produce with the hearty servings that are needed following long days in nature. Native ingredients, which remain popular with many Aboriginal Australians and are slowly entering the mainstream, are featured heavily: quandong (wild peach), wattleseed, lemon myrtle and kangaroo. (Read our previous feature for more on native Australian cuisine.)
The lamb platter is the main attraction at the Woolshed and features lamb done six different ways: lamb cutlets dressed with basil pesto, lamb shank arancini balls, sugar-cured lamb backstrap, lamb sausage with caramelised onion, curried lamb pie, and finally, sticky Asian lamb ribs. Considering we’re really in the middle of nowhere, it’s the type of gourmet meal that rivals anything that Melbourne or Sydney could offer.
Of course, good food needs good wine, and we’re served several from the Clare Valley, which is best known for being a hotbed of riesling production. I’m currently into sauvignon blancs, but the riesling – just a bit sweeter – provides a fine contrast to the dry, arid backdrop of the desert.
While the nights are for feasting, the days are for exploring. The next day we hop back into our Mercedes Benz to visit Wilpena Pound, an extraordinary natural amphitheatre of mountains that is the heart of the Flinders Ranges for many visitors. It’s home to more than a dozen natural attractions and experiences including expansive walking trails, the Moralana scenic drive and the extraordinary Sacred Canyon. This culturally important spot features rock carvings from thousands of years ago. Little is known about them, or who carved them, and the mystery heightens the experience of seeing them up close.
Back at Rawnsley Park Station, we swap vehicles for a seriously equipped Toyota Landcruiser 4WD – we’re hitting the hills. This isn’t your everyday offroading; this is the type of driving that rivals a rollercoaster as we fly up a steep and rocky hill and back down again. And again. This is a wild, natural landscape and it’s thrilling.
We stop at the top of a hill just as the sun is starting to lower for the night, the sky a watercolour of soft pink, purple and blue. As we take it in, a champagne picnic is prepared, with local cheeses and fresh fruit – the strawberries are especially sweet. There’s something about the fresh air and views that makes the food taste better.
This mountain range is not only the largest in South Australia, but it’s one of the country’s oldest, too, at 800 million years – a number that’s hard to wrap your head around. From up in the air, a Chinta Air scenic flight over Wilpena Pound helps put this huge space into perspective, allowing you to see the rich browns, reds and greens of the landscape, the mountains and gorges and creeks seamlessly merging together in a spectacular view. It gives you a full appreciation of not just the size, but also just how many different types of landscape make up the whole of the Flinders Ranges.
Back on the ground, there are plenty of activities to indulge in, but one of the best things to do is simply stare out of the window, where the landscape and the colours change regularly. While the view from above gives you the “big picture” perspective, there’s still something special about seeing this evolution of landscapes and colours from ground level.
In the middle of what feels like nowhere, we come to a collection of crumbling yet still elegant buildings. They were once Kanyaka Station, a cattle station established in 1852. We alight and step over the fine, rocky ground. Signs show which ruins used to be which parts of the station: living quarters, storage, workers’ cottages, workshops and sheds.
Our last overnight stay is at the Prairie Hotel, which has the distinction of having a permanent population of just two people. This old-fashioned Australian pub has impressive indigenous art and giftware for sale, plus alluring food options. One of the main attractions at the hotel is its “feral animal” platter, a smorgasbord of native ingredients including emu pâté, goats’ cheese, smoked kangaroo and camel mettwurst. It’s tangy and makes for excellent stories when you get home.
At night, the pub transforms into a stage for one of the most immersive experiences you can have – a dark sky full of brilliant stars. A glass of sauvignon blanc in hand, it’s one of those priceless moments of calm that lets you reflect in peace.
Where Adelaide ends and the Flinders Ranges begin is clearly outlined on maps, but on the road, it’s more of a gradual unveiling – from concrete buildings to the green and yellow grasses of the country, and finally, to the bold red dirt of the desert. In between these bookends is a series of townships that are the epitome of “quaint” – dusty roads, small, picturesque shops and charming offerings, from locally made jams to artworks.
We stop at several of these townships, which join the dots between Adelaide and the Flinders Ranges. Quorn is the very definition of quaint country life, a place to shake off the extremes of the outback and readjust yourself to city life. At the delightfully named Quandong Café, its namesake – the quandong, a native peach – is the star attraction on the menu. Strong coffee and an afternoon tea of scones, clotted cream and quandong jam, served in a room full of country charm, helps pull me from the outback. But the Flinders Ranges leave a mark on you, and vivid memories that will have you thinking about its vast expanse, exotic colours… and its food, for years to come.