Flinders Ranges travel guide, South Australia
The Flinders Ranges is (yes, ‘is’) a region. It’s part of the Outback which is an idea – a notion, a feeling and a way of life.
If we have to invoke some sense of the place we might say it’s big, it’s red and it’s made of old, old rocks. Some of the oldest rocks on the planet in fact, solidified seabeds that have been bucked and squeezed and eroded by forces we cannot appreciate on a timescale we can barely imagine. What we can appreciate is the views over rugged, red horizons beneath fearsome blue skies.
We can savour the clarity of the stars at night, the crackle of a camp fire and the stories told by the pastoralists and the Aboriginal custodians of the land – men and women who still recall the stories of their fathers and their father’s fathers and their father’s father’s fathers…
The Flinders are in fact many ranges – the ABC, the Elder, the Chace and the Gammon in the far north. There are foothills, gorges, ridges and razorbacks and wide, wide plains. There’s also the improbable Wilpena Pound, a thing as strange as it is lovely. Further afield you’ll find giant salt lakes, gibber plains and curious mound springs and you’ll feel much like the Europeans when they first saw them 150 years ago.
It’s not hard to find wildlife here, from the famous bounding ‘macropods’ to the wheeling wedge-tailed eagles. But it is rather harder to find human habitation. Settlements and homesteads grew up where the water bubbled out of the desert, or a valuable rock was stumbled across. Some of those settlements survive to tell the tale – not least in the pubs that have become entwined in their own legend. A few of them didn’t.
Part of the joy of the Flinders and Outback is blazing your own trail. Here are a few waypoints you might choose to navigate by…
In the beginning…
Haydyn Bromley is an ex-teacher of mixed Aboriginal descent. Visitors on his Bookabee Tours out of Adelaide gain an extra perspective on the Flinders Ranges and Wilpena Pound because they learn how the lands were understood, used and survived by the Adnyamathanha peoples.
North out of Wilpena you’ll find Iga Warta, where you can experience Adnyamathanha Culture with Adnyamathanha people on Adnyamathanha land. Members of the community lead a range of tours to important sites around this vast area, including rock art, ancient rock engravings and ochre pits.
What is Wilpena Pound? Correctly speaking, it’s the stump of an ancient mountain. Incorrectly speaking, it’s a volcano or a crater left by an asteroid – though this is what the thing resembles, a giant saucer of rock 12 miles across elevated out of the earth’s crust.
Arriving at the Pound, you first encounter its walls or ‘ramparts’ which rise to 1171m at St Mary Peak: if you’re feeling fit, you can do the seven-hour hike, though climbs to the like of Mt Ohlssen Bagge take considerably less time.
Either way, the views from the rim peaks are a revelation: you’re looking into the smooth floor of the saucer, a ‘pound’ which was used by cattle rustlers to stash and feed their ill-gotten herds. Flights over the Pound are popular, as much for the views afforded over the spines of ranges radiating in all directions.
Flinders on foot
There are walking trails all through the Flinders, most of them (importantly!) signed and mapped, and leading out of accommodations like Rawnsely Park and Wilpena Pound Resort.
If you’re looking for some luxuries along your walk – we’re talking white linen table cloths under the stars, multi-course meals and fine wines, showers and ‘swagging decks’ – then you’ll be needing the four-day Arkaba Walking Safaris. Walkers leave the comforts of Arkaba Station to hike into the Pound.
Ballooning over the Flinders
Before dawn cracks over the desert, you’re out helping to fill a balloon with hot gases. It’s cold, it’s dark, you’re barely awake – but it’s all worth it. Floating at 3000 feet over the ridges and flanks of the ranges is an extraordinary experience. It’s surprising what’s revealed in the eerie morning light. Champagne after? Of course.
Mt Remarkable in Melrose
The deserts and ranges are still three hours north on the six-hour drive out of Adelaide, but Melrose is a terrific resting stop.
This friendly country town sits at the foot of dramatic Mt Remarkable: when the sun sinks behind the rolling fields, flocks of corellas come in at night to roost in the huge gum trees, while two pubs fire up for another night of country cheer.
Lake Eyre and William Creek
William Creek (population 10) is a desert outpost that can introduce you (a) to the joys of Outback life and (b) to the mysteries of Lake Eyre. The latter is a salt lake measuring some 2 million acres. Very occasionally, waters come down from as far as Queensland to create a giant inland lake. People sometimes recoil from the monstrosity of its shimmering nothingness – often retreating to the intimacy of Dingo’s Cafe or the William Creek Hotel. The latter’s ceiling is hung with what looks like bunting: some might argue it is bunting but in fact it’s hundreds of bras left (for whatever reason) by donors from all over the world.
Succumb to opal fever
Coober Pedy was built on the back of this fiery stone and while the town has come a long way from the days of the opal rush, it still has a wild and weird edge. Get into the swing of things by taking an underground room – either in the upmarket Desert Hotel or the backpackers (the one with the crashed spaceship outside) – then start exploring.
The opal fields are a sea of giant cones of ‘mullock’ and bizarre home-made sifting machine; movie makers have left strange props around the place; and the hippies have long liked the alternative way of life. Further afield you’ll find the brutal Moon Plain landscapes, the beautiful Painted Desert and Breakaways and a small part of the 5400km Dog Fence – the longest man-made structure in the world. And opals? Yes they can be found. Join a Down ‘n’ Dirty tour and go noodling among the mullock to see if you can strike it rich. It’s easier than you think.
Not far away is Andamooka, an outpost that’s still home to those who seek their fortune in the white dust. Don’t miss Dukes Bottlehouse – it’s made of empty beer bottles.
Sheep graziers who tried to make a living in these parts were taxed by dingoes and drought; they could handle the wild dogs but without a permanent water source (usually a natural spring) they were always ‘on the outer’. En route to Wilpena, stop at Kanyaka Homestead – a poignant memorial to just one of many failed enterprises. Further afield is Farina, a whole town that had to be abandoned when the rains stopped coming. Picking among the empty township is an eerie experience.
White knuckles in Arkaroola
The Northern Flinders is home to Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, a comfortable resort dedicated to the 1600 million-year-old Gammon ranges and its wildlife. Arkaroola is perhaps best known for its Ridgetop Tour – a roller coaster journey in an open-top 4WD that follows an old exploration track. On the 4.5-hour journey you’ll see abandoned uranium mines, yellow-footed rock wallabies and Sillers Lookout, a precipice accessed by a 1-in-2 gradient.
The Prairie Hotel front bar
The Prairie Hotel is in the town of Parachilna which has a population of four – sometimes five, sometimes six.
Like many of the outback pubs dotted through Outback, it was licensed some 130 years ago to wet the whistles of thirsty pastoralists, prospectors and railway workers. Today the fabulous front bar is still serving its welcome cold beers, and it never takes much for unbridled partying to break out (always something of a surprise when you’re ‘in the middle of bloody nowhere’).
Travellers call in to partake of the famous roo/camel/goat ‘feral platters’ and other fine dishes to come out of the very good Prairie kitchen. There’s accommodation to suit all budgets (with some four-star suites at the rear of the pub) and adventure activities for those wanting to explore.
Don’t miss – actually you can’t miss – the mile-long coal train as it rumbles pass the pub at evening time.
Take a trip through time
Evidence of some of the planet’s earliest-known life has been found in the Flinders Ranges -- fossils revealing primitive animals that had evolved light receptors and nerves. You can drive a 13-mile Geological Trail through steep-sided Brachina Gorge which cuts through ‘folds’ in the earth’s crust, opening pages on a 600 million-year history of the earth’s formation.
While stopping to read interpretive signs, be sure to look out for rare Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies, kangaroos, emu and Australia’s largest bird of prey, the Wedge-tailed Eagle.
Deliver the mail!
Enjoy stories, people and sights on the Outback Mail Run Tour – a one-day experience out of Coober Pedy that takes those eBay parcels to remote cattle stations including the world’s biggest, Anna Creek. On the way you’ll encounter the Dingo fence, the old Ghan Railway Line and the old Aboriginal trade route along the Oodnadatta.