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From the past and the future: Explore an ancient landscape and uncover new luxuries in the Flinders Ranges and Outback

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In winter, the desert turns mild. Under cool, clear skies it is possible to discover the ancient stories written in the earth and mountains of the Flinders Ranges and Outback – to see the normally-barren vistas bloom, all while the region’s new wave of savvy tourism operators take care of your every need.

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“When you look at the stars,” says Doug Sprigg, manager of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, “you look back in time.”

Stars are so far from Earth that the light they emit takes tens or hundreds of thousands of years to reach our eyes. Looking at the night sky, we see only a symbol of how the stars were. Journeying through the Flinders Ranges and Outback – watching a surreal, unfamiliar landscape pass by – feels like a parallel experience. Home to the world’s oldest fossils and some of earth’s most beautiful views, this region is a portal to the past that has an undeniable magnetism.

Arkaroola. Photo: Tyrone Ormsby

“We came home,” says Doogal Hannagan. “We came back for family, for culture, for the Flinders Ranges.”

A chef, Doogal spent a decade away working in cities across the world before returning home to Hawker to open café Flinders Food Co. with partner Louise Lynch.

Kirstie Jamieson wasn’t born here, but she felt the pull too. In 2005, she moved to Beetaloo Valley in the region’s south and eventually started her business Beetaloo Gourmet Mushrooms.

“We’ve found ourselves in a wonderful bushland setting. We’re loving it,” she says.

It’s not only the natural environment that locals like Kirstie and Doogal are drawn toward. The culture, the kindness, the little touches of luxury, and the fresh food that rivals anything served in a big city all soften the edges of this wild place. And Kirstie says winter is the ideal time for those living in Adelaide to discover how the very old and the very new blend into something special here.

“It is absolutely gorgeous here in winter,” she says.

How to travel through time

For outsiders, immersion into the great unknown of the Flinders Ranges and Outback is both daunting and exciting. But – from planes, trains, and automobiles, all the way up to transport much more exotic – there is no end of methods available to help you experience this landscape.

The way Kirstie recommends visitors get a sense of the region’s vastness and variability, though, is simple.

“I really recommend going on the Heysen Trail from Wirrabara to Beetaloo – it is a wonderful way to experience the bushland here,” she says.

A day-long walk that mostly involves trekking along the ridge of a range, this section of the Heysen Trail has panoramic views over the Spencer Gulf on one side and sweeping plains on the other.

This far south, the region’s millenia-old past – when it was an enormous ocean – is only just becoming visible. Head an hour’s drive further north, and walk through the astounding formations of a place like Alligator Gorge, and it begins to be obvious. Travel further still – maybe to join the Nilpena Station Fossil Tour near Parachilna, where Ediacaran fossils believed to be more than half a billion years old have been found, or to Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary – and it all becomes very real.

Alligator Gorge. Photo: Tyrone Ormsby

“I call Arkaroola geo-Disney,” says Rick Hamilton, a guide at the Wilderness Sanctuary, “because it’s like Disneyland for geologists.”

Arkaroola’s Astronomy Tour , during which a high-powered telescope offers views into other universes, and the 4WD Ridgetop Tour of rarely-visited parts of the northern Flinders Ranges and Outback make the unique nature of this place clear to all.

A flight over the region is similarly revelatory. There are plentiful scenic flight choices, but one of the most poignant is the Heli-Swag helicopter flight from Rawnsley Park Station that takes in a scenic loop around Wilpena Pound before landing on Chace Range. There, passengers are set-up for a night of luxurious camping. Flying over the landscape, and then watching it change as the sun sets and then rises once more, brings truth to the words of Heli-Swag pilot Nick Evans, who says, “Sydney has the Opera House, and Adelaide has the Flinders”.

Heli Swag. Photo: Tyrone Ormsby

During these once-in-a-lifetime winter experiences the insignificance of human life on earth suddenly crystallises while gazing up at the light pollution-free night sky and then down into valleys shaped by an ocean that is now nowhere to be seen. But hidden among the Flinders Ranges and Outback are also counterpoints to this sensation – sites that document the great achievements of humanity, including those of the Adnyamathanha people who are the traditional owners of this land.

Arkaroo Rock is a great walk – it’s easy and really beautiful,” says Doogal, whose step-father is an Adnyamathanha man. “At the top are really nice cave paintings… They’re thousands of years old.”

Hidden and not-so-hidden hideaways

Preservation of cultural wonders like Arkaroo Rock and the unique natural environment here has become a mantra for locals who realise that they are living amid something worth conserving.

Occasionally, intrepid travellers in the region will dig deep enough to find a slice of perfectly-preserved history in which they can actually stay. One such place is Beetaloo Grove – a single room stone cottage set on a three-acre olive grove surrounded by 200-acres of heritage-listed bushland.

“It’s a real hidden gem,” says Kirstie, who lives just around the corner. “You’ll experience the valley as those of us who live here do – the wildlife, the beautiful silence, and incredible starry nights.”

Beetaloo Grove is a rustic hideaway set-up for a simple winter holiday spent bushwalking and sitting by the fire, but the Flinders Ranges and Outback offer other accommodation options with equally strong conservation credentials that contain contemporary luxuries. 

Rawnsley Park Station has transitioned from fully-functional sheep station to eco-friendly tourism hotspot over the last two generations of Smith family ownership. Its low-impact, highly energy-efficient straw-bale eco villas – with their retractable ceilings for comfortable night sky viewing – are testament to the family’s dedication to simultaneously protecting and sharing their land.

“I guess you think of it as home and as a place where you belong,” says co-owner Tony Smith. “I would like to see it survive and prosper… so I think you have to think of things holistically.”

Eco Villa at Rawnsley Park Station. Photo: Tyrone Ormsby

Nearby in the Ikara Flinders Ranges National Park, Wilpena Pound Resort has chosen a different but equally effective tact in their quest to combine deluxe accommodation with pristine wilderness. In Wilpena’s Ikara Safari glamping tents there are more modern amenities than can be found in many homes. Sleeping soundly in a climate-controlled tent with ensuite bathroom and waking to the sound of wallabies grazing nearby is the ideal preparation for a mild winter’s day spent hiking some of the region’s most spectacular trails, many of which start just a few hundred metres away.

Glamping at Wilpena Pound. Photo: Tyrone Ormsby

A taste of community

An embrace of cutting-edge luxuries by accommodation providers has been happening in the Flinders Ranges and Outback for a while now, but the translation of the ideology into the world of food and drink is brand new. Doogal and his partner Louise are leading the charge with their café Flinders Food Co.

Serving Proud Mary coffee roasted in Melbourne and with a focus on fresh, local, and native ingredients in their breakfast and lunch menus, Flinders Food Co is a slice of big city life in the outback.

“We make everything from scratch,” says Doogal. “All of the pastries, everything. All the time, when people come they say they can’t believe they’ve found something like this out here.”

Flinders Food Co. Photo: Tyrone Ormsby

Sourcing ingredients can be challenging, but Doogal combines his extensive chef experience and his knowledge of his home region to find and use lesser-known natives like muntries, which create flavours that are both fresh and completely unique to this place.

Although they operate on a completely different scale, David and Jackie O’Reilly of OReillys Orchard are equally dedicated to serving food that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Dining with the O’Reillys is a singular and special experience. The couple invite small groups into their home and serve a three-course dinner cooked with produce they’ve grown themselves.

O’Riellys Orchard. Photo: Tyrone Ormsby

“We just try to be inspired by what we’re picking,” says Jackie. “We want to give people an experience – hospitality and engagement and friendship.”

Kirstie enthusiastically recommends the O’Reilly’s Orchard dinner, and says David and Jackie are cornerstones of the local community and that visitors get a real insight when they dine with them. Further north, Emilys Bistro serves a similar purpose in Quorn.

Owned and operated by the Brown family, Emily’s Bistro is located in a beautifully-restored 1800s retail shopfront, complete with an antique, still-functional flying fox payment apparatus. Under the pressed-tin ceiling mother and daughter team Wendy and Sally dish up homestyle meals while baker Hayden Preiss supplies fresh bread, pies, and pastries. Sally says visitors from Adelaide are always enticed to stay longer in the restaurant on cold winter’s nights as they are comforted by the satisfying food and entertained by tales of Quorn’s brushes with fame.

Arkaroola. Photo: Tyrone Ormsby

“We call ourselves the Hollywood of Australia because of all the movies that are filmed here,” says Sally. “Practically everyone in the town has ended up being in a movie as an extra at some point.”

In many of these films – from Wolf Creek to Tracks – the Flinders Ranges and Outback appear as an ominous and strange, yet beautiful, backdrop. Those who make the trip from Adelaide during the welcoming cool of this winter will discover that this place is much more than that. It is a strong, hospitable community offering comforting luxuries, delicious food, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences amid a breathtaking landscape.

Solstice Media has partnered with the South Australian Tourism Commission to tell South Australian’s the reason why they need to take their next holiday in their own state.

For our recommended 4 day itinerary, click here.

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