You can drive there via some of the lushest wine vines in the country and cross it to steam in oasis-style desert springs. South Australia’s Flinders Ranges is the iconic outback – but not as you know it. Want to conquer monumental gorges with the kids? Or walk through the rugged wilderness in bush-luxe style? Australia’s most accessible outback makes having the biggest kind of adventure surprisingly easy.
Immerse in rugged luxury
As night falls, the lights come on and the music starts. A dazzling diorama of stars and planets blazes overhead while insects, birds and unseen creatures deliver a chorus.
At Arkaba Station, two bush camps offer the best seats (actually plump, custom-made swags) to take in this spectacle. The 24,000-hectare Arkaba was established as a sheep station in the 1850s but this section of the Flinders Ranges, the magnificent Elder Range, has been a sacred place of learning for Adnyamathanha people for millennia.
Experience this ancient world on guided four-day walks (March to October) that balance days exploring the rugged outback on foot with unexpectedly luxe stays.
Kangaroos and emus abound. Echidnas share habitat with quolls, rare rock wallabies and four nesting pairs of wedge-tailed eagles. But it’s the landscape here that really dazzles. It’s unlike anywhere else on the continent. In this home to half-a-billion-year-old fossils and the world’s oldest human culture, the energy is palpable. “It’s amazing how people respond to this place,” says lodge manager Bruce Lawson.
Walks designed for families cover shorter distances but don’t skimp on adult indulgences, including campfire dinners of saltbush lamb and top SA wines.
How to get there
From Adelaide, you could shoot straight up the A1 but that’s about as exciting as a highway. Take the seven-hour trip to the Flinders Ranges via the A32 instead, wending through pretty towns to collect bottles in the historic Clare Valley wine region. The shiraz is sensational at Skillogalee Estate, where you can also get Port Lincoln sardines for lunch. Mintaro Maze just outside Clare is a delightful leg-stretch for families; grab picnic supplies at Seed Deli. Further up the road (by 256 kilometres, to be exact), Flinders Food Co. is a welcome pit stop, offering hearty fare such as lemon myrtle hotcakes for brekkie, salt bush-spiced lamb tacos for lunch and expertly made Adelaide-based Mischief Brew Coffee all day.
What else to do
After Arkaba, linger around the ranges, making a premium eco villa at Rawnsley Park Station your base camp for 4WD expeditions through magnificent gorges. Scenic flights with on-site operator Chinta Air give you the big-picture perspective on sights such as the painted hills at Anna Creek (the world’s largest cattle station) and the moon-white salt expanse of Lake Eyre via Leigh Creek. “To see the different colours of the salt is quite spectacular,” says pilot Hugh Pottie. Another spectacular option? The overnight heli-camping experience, which begins with an afternoon flight over the striking natural amphitheatre of Wilpena Pound followed by a snuggle in a swag on the Chance Range, is an unforgettable immersion in the outback.
Drop in to Prairie Outback Lodge at Parachilna, a shock of quirky elegance in the dust. Owners the Fargher family will launch a craft brewery in April 2022 and their famous “feral foods” – kangaroo pastrami, emu paté – are always on the lunch menu. Their tours of the Ediacaran fossil fields at Nilpena Station are a must.
Up for more adventure?
Who would guess that on the edge of the Simpson Desert there awaits a tree-fringed geothermal oasis? Go find Dalhousie Springs. The road from the Flinders Ranges is lined with fascinating diversions, from rusting railway sidings from the old Ghan to abandoned telegraph stations.
“They all have fantastic stories,” says Graham Scott, publican at the Mt Dare Hotel, which is 70 kilometres from the springs and a chance to stock up on fuel, water and food. You can’t wing it out here: it’s remote, untamed and services are scarce.
This drive is possible by car if it doesn’t rain (plus the road’s been graded recently) but a 4WD is your safest bet. You could spend days pulling over to marvel at wonders like Lake Eyre up close (camp by the billabong at Muloorina Station or Coward Springs) or the Oodnaburger at Oodnadatta’s Pink Roadhouse. When you reach the springs, stay and soak it up for a couple of days. You’ll have earned it.
Image credits: Arbaka Conservatory, Great Walks of Australia; Arkaba Station, South Australian Tourism Commission; Mintaro Maze, South Australian Tourism Commission; Skillogalee Estate; Rawnsley Park Station Eco Villas; Dalhousie Springs, Aswewander.