Arkaba Homestead Could Be South Australia’s Most Magical Stay

Arkaba Homestead, SA

Time, space and nature are chief among the luxuries of this remote South Australian stay.

The South Australian outback, my wildlife-obsessed son informed me, is home to the shy yet deadly inland taipan, the most venomous snake in the world. And while nothing would please my five-yearold more than his mother returning with an eyewitness account, the reticent reptile’s deadly credentials – “It can kill a human in under an hour, Mum! One drop of its venom can kill 100 men!” – are ringing in my head. I’m at Arkaba Conservancy, 24,000 hectares of former sheep station in the Flinders Ranges, and scanning the ground for taipans when guide Bruce Lawson, walking metres in front and keeping his eyes on the steep incline ahead, calls out, “Pace okay?”

Arkaba Homestead, SA

Lawson – who moved from his native South Africa two years ago when his Australian wife, Dee, got a job as manager of the Arkaba Homestead – has clocked up more than 20,000 hours guiding wilderness treks and safaris. He also once covered the entire length of the African continent on foot. Suffice to say, the pace is at the pacier end of “okay”.

“If we can keep this up for another 10 or 15 minutes, we should be at the top in time for the big show,” he says.

Our group nods in unison, the crunch-shuffle-crunch of eight feet a satisfying baseline to the squawks of waking corellas. As we climb, the terrain throws off its blanket of shadow, the spinifex grass and craggy rocks reach skyward and a brown falcon swoops overhead. In a commotion that briefly distracts me from my impending death-by-snakebite, two emus burst from behind an outcrop, zig-zagging cartoonishly over the nearest bluff.

“They look so embarrassed,” says Kerry, a girlfriend joining me on this 48-hour kid-free, wifi-free reset. “Like we walked in on them in the shower!”

The absurd idea slaps a cackle from the group; it reverberates out across the dry creek bed in the valley below.

The earth evens out just as curtains rise on a kaleidoscope of colour. Sunrise paints purple and amber bands across the bluffs of the Elder Range, known in local Adnyamathanha language as Urdlu Warlpunha, which means “kangaroo bones”. Far below, I can see three white specks, the rooftops of the Homestead and the only sign of human life. A thin plume of smoke from the chimney promises a hot breakfast but for now, we drink in the view with steaming espresso from Lawson’s thermos.

Arkaba Homestead, SA

“Here ’tis,” he says, gesturing proudly as he hands out fat wedges of sticky orange and almond cake. “The show.”

Less than 24 hours earlier, four-and-a-half hours into the five-hour drive from Adelaide, I waved an outwardly cheerful goodbye to my family via FaceTime from the side of the highway just outside Hawker, the closest town to our destination. For the first time in my children’s lives, I was about to be incommunicado for an entire weekend. Twenty-five minutes later, the clench of maternal guilt was eased as a saltbush berry gin and tonic was pressed into one hand, a hot towel into the other.

The rambling 1850s Homestead is an oasis in more ways than one. Each of the five ensuite guestrooms is tucked inside its own private corner of the heritage home, with custom nods to its agricultural history everywhere you look: sheepskin bedheads, printed wool bales that moonlight as side tables and historical artefacts lining the walls. An erstwhile wool classing table serves as an alfresco dining hub for multi-course feasts such as twice-cooked Berkshire pork with glazed native cranberries or “muntries”, prepared under the expert eye of chef Michael, whose gentle manner belies more than a decade of experience.

“You get creative with produce when you’re working in such a remote location,” he says, detailing his 10-hour round trips to Adelaide for supplies. The kitchen garden – a view of which filters through the linen drapes in my north-facing guestroom–supplements his culinary pilgrimages, with foraged bush tomato, native pear and acacia pod lending upscale bush tucker accents to his hearty fare.

Native harvests aside, Arkaba's caretakers are squarely focused on giving more to the land than they take. The fruits of this labour are most evident from the ridgeline, where there’s no need to point out the property’s boundaries, so stark is the contrast between arid sheep-farming country beyond its borders and the green bursts of life that scatter the conservancy like letters to a better future.

The conservation efforts underway here began with the destocking of more than 7000 head of sheep from the property and continue through its contributive tourism model, where part of the cost of each visit is funnelled back into regeneration and wildlife protection.

Arkaba is billed as a “fully hosted, all-inclusive bush luxury immersion” but how you engage with the landscape is up to you. The options, facilitated by guides as adept at reading their guests as they are at deciphering the tracks left by local wildlife, are as endless as the interests you bring with you. The day might begin with a walk along a red gum-lined riverbed. (“The reason we’re so drawn to trees,” says Bruce, his passion for the environment turning his clipped South African vowels into poetry, “is because they are nature’s great givers.”) You might follow that with a ramble through the scrub with Adnyamathanha elder Pauline McKenzie as she weaves ancient knowledge into the tour. A helicopter flight over Wilpena Pound (known by local Adnyamathanha people as Ikara or “meeting place”) is an unforgettable way to witness the 800-million-year-old natural amphitheatre rising from the landscape like a giant’s cupped hand.

Arkaba Homestead, SA

But the true luxury of our stay is captured in the thoughtful hospitality of our hosts. On day two, Michael quietly modifies someone’s breakfast because he noticed she didn’t touch the tomato in the previous night’s caprese salad. “Thank you,” she says to him. “I always just pick it out.” When it’s discovered that Ellie – a solo traveller whose final night at the Homestead falls on my first – is a keen twitcher, she’s whisked away on a bespoke expedition through the ridges in Arkaba’s modified safari LandCruiser, complete with a gourmet picnic lunch.

“You meet the ringneck parrots in the afternoon,” she tells me later at dinner, eyes shining as she tucks into her roast lamb in wattleseed rub, “but it’s the weebills I love – they are Australia’s smallest bird. Oh, and the yellow footed rock-wallabies. They’re much more difficult to spot but we found them.” A retiree from Queensland’s Gold Coast, Ellie is having precisely the kind of holiday she wants.

“I’d stay forever,” she confides as our plates are cleared to make way for dishes of rich chocolate and rosemary mousse, “but I’d leave the size of a house!”

During my final meal at Arkaba, Bruce arms me with a fact that’ll either impress or disappoint my son (the inland taipan rarely travels as far south as the Flinders Ranges), while Dee suggests that if I venture a few hundred metres from the Homestead, I’ll get a celestial show like I’ve never seen before.

My third glass of Clare Valley riesling in hand, I meander outside, wobbling slightly in the black night. The Milky Way is a dazzling slash of pearl that looks close enough to touch and the absence of any other light gives the psychedelic impression that I’m standing inside a star-filled snow globe. Dee sidles up with a wool blanket to ward off the chill and I’m struck again by this place’s unique ability to make me feel both incredibly small and like the most important person in the world.

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SEE ALSO: 20 Incredible Things You Can Only Do in South Australia

Image credit: Tracey Leigh, Randy Larcombe

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