Flinders Ranges: Luxury under the stars

By Sheriden Rhodes

Discover camping with a difference in South Australia's Flinders Ranges.

Sunrise over the Flinders Ranges, Arkaba Station, South Australia. Photo / Richard Field
Sunrise over the Flinders Ranges, Arkaba Station, South Australia. Photo / Richard Field

I'm lying in a luxury swag on a raised wooden platform, reading by headlamp. Above me in a cypress tree is a boobook owl, and when I turn off my headlamp I lie back under a canopy of millions of stars.

Cocooned in my custom made swag - the bedroll of choice for generations of Australian bushman - hugging a hot water bottle, I'm guessing true bushies never had it so good.

It's day two of a four-day luxury swag camping safari at Arkaba Station in South Australia's Flinders Ranges, and before I close my eyes I see a shooting star race across the sky above the craggy Elder Ranges.

We are at Elder Camp, a beautiful, lonesome location among native fir trees on a slight slope overlooking the ancient, red mountain range.

When we reached camp earlier that afternoon after a 14-kilometre walk, iced water and cold towels were served up on a tray, as if we were guests checking in to a five star hotel. Clouds like fluffy cotton wall balls are splayed across the blue sky, a table is set with white linen and around the campfire, the conversation, beer and wine flow.

We'd arrived on a Monday having driven the four and a half hour journey from Adelaide Airport.

As we step inside the historic Arkaba homestead a heavenly smell of fresh baking wafts from the open kitchen. New Zealand chef Richard Corcoran is turning out chocolate cookies from the oven and raises his oven mitt in greeting.

"I applied for 200 jobs before I got this one," Richard explains when I ask how a Wanganui boy found himself out here in the red dirt, heat and blowflies of the Australian outback.

All the staff, apart from Australian Stu Dann, are from elsewhere but it's perhaps Richard, with his tattoos, rugby physique and spectacles, that looks most conspicuous.

"The hardest bit is the isolation, but I talk to my wife and family every day. I think Kiwis would love it out here. Yes we have the lodge thing, but this is a complete experience, the luxury of the accommodation, the food, going out with the guides, learning about the unique flora and fauna of the Flinders."

Our first night is spent at the tasteful, understated five-room homestead, which dates back to 1851. A classic Flinders building, with thick stone walls, deep shady verandahs and corrugated roofing set against the backdrop of the Elder and Chance Ranges, it's outback style at its best.

Within moments of arriving a family of emus (dads look after the chicks) wanders near the homestead, and after settling in we take a drive on Arkaba's designated 4WD trail with our guide Kat Mee, who points out graceful wattle, proud River Red gums, willy wagtails, and bounding euros.

We stop at a dry creek bed, which experiences flash flooding in summer, and Kat indicates evidence of Aboriginal cuttings on the banks.

As we wind our way up to the highest point on the trail, we observe a nest of baby wedge tail eagles through binoculars before stopping for sunset drinks and canapés overlooking the magnificent, remote and rugged 24,000-hectare working sheep station.

The following morning, plied with coffee and an egg white omelette whipped up by Richard, we pore over the map which will see us head off from Wilpena Pound, cross the length of Arkaba Station before arriving back at the homestead on Friday.

Walking boots on, camel backs filled, we head off in a slight drizzle, our spirits high. Richard has packed us off with delicious trail snacks, freshly made sandwiches and home-baked trail bars. We also carry a thermos each of hot tea and that's about it. Talk about luxury.

The first day's walk is easy going, but my inexperience is evident. I'm wearing brand spanking new trail shoes (the ultimate sin) and stop numerous times and plaster up an expanding blister on my left heel, but I may as well be plastering it with arsenic: it does nothing and the pain is excruciating as we reach the lip of the Pound before descending to the first camp. And then tragedy really strikes.

Kat, our brave and knowledgeable Scottish born guide takes a tumble off a rock. The fall thankfully doesn't do much injury except to her pride, but she's twisted her ankle and has to hobble into camp.

On arrival Stu has the fire going, cold drinks are handed out and we collapse in deck chairs and assess the damage. With Kat out, South African born station manager Brendan Bevan steps in, and we wait and see what happens with my blisters.

Undoubtedly one of the best parts of the luxury swag safari experience is sleeping out under the stars, although at first it's a little disconcerting given the outback's proliferation of creepy crawlies and snakes. But apart from flying insects interrupting my bedtime reading on the last night, we don't come across anything scarier than ants.

There are three permanent camps which are set up in advance by a support person so walkers can arrive to warm showers, excellent food (mostly prepared back at the homestead by Richard) and fine South Australian wines.

Walkers sleep on elevated wooden platforms, between 500 thread count cotton sheets on thick mattresses with nothing overhead except the magnificent night sky.

My favourite campsite is Black's Gap Camp where we spend our first night between the foot of the pound and the Bunbinyana Range.

As the sun sets the camp is bathed in a soft golden glow, a couple of western grey kangaroos bound off in the distance and light dances across the lip of the pound.

In a three-sided bush shower made of corrugated iron, warm rainwater washes off the red dust accumulated along the trail and I marvel at the view. In the late 1850s, a shepherd used to camp here and his stone chimney still exists overlooking the creek where he drew water.

Later we sit down at a table lit by hurricane lamps, which hang off tree branches. A wonderful pinot gris is served alongside a hearty chicken ragout, beetroot salad, crunchy bread rolls and a rich chocolate pudding.

We are aroused just after daybreak with a friendly "morning" by the affable Stu, who pours warm water into a metal bowl so we can have a quick wash before breakfast.

Golden ham and cheese toasties are cooked over the campfire and served with plunger coffee, Bircher muesli and freshly squeezed orange juice. This is my sort of camping.

The walking ranges from easy to moderately difficult, but a guide is with you every step of the way and given they're carrying around 18kgs worth of extra water, a first aid kit and their own supplies, it means your day pack is an easy load.

Highlights are spotting kingfishers, Red and Western Grey kangaroos, families of emus, shingle-back lizards, kestrels, soaring wedge tail eagles and other native fauna.

The second day, after we cross the Red Range, my blisters are raw and weeping. Brendan rules me out and sidelines me along with Kat. While the others are walking, I head up to my favourite outback pub, the Prairie Hotel, where I enjoy a cold ale with other travellers in the front bar.

Afterwards I barrel back along a lonely stretch of highway, red thirsty plains on either side, heading for our final campsite on Merna Merna Creek.

The walkers file into camp around 4pm, red faced but grinning. It's Brendan's 35th birthday and he is presented with a chocolate cake and candles as we toast him with cold beers.

I am unable to share in my fellow walkers' satisfaction at completing the walk, and yet I feel content, out here in the company of strangers, around a campfire, away from email, work commitments and family responsibilities.

Having said that, if you do follow in my footsteps, take a leaf out of my book and wear in your walking boots.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

Getting there: Air New Zealand offers direct flights between Auckland and Adelaide. Sharp Airlines flies between Adelaide and Port Augusta and from there you can hire cars for the 75-minute drive to Arkaba Station.

From Adelaide Airport, it takes four and a half hours to drive to Arkaba Station on a sealed road, or five to six hours by the more scenic Clare Valley.

Further information: The four-day, three-night walking safari costs $AU2000 an adult and includes all meals, wines, drinks, bedding, camping equipment and transfers from Hawker Airport. Additional nights at Arkaba Station start from $395 per person, twin share. Walks operate from mid March until November 30 each year.

South Australia's top 5

Flight Centre's Tracy Gray has travelled to South Australia and shares her top tips on things to do:

1. Visit Adelaide Zoo. The gardens are beautiful and there is a wide range of animals including Wang Wang and Funi, the only pandas in the southern hemisphere.

2. The Adelaide central market is great for foodies.

3. Take a day trip to the Barossa Valley to enjoy the varied landscape and, of course, some wine tasting.

4. Go swimming at Glenelg beach. You can take the tram from the city. Afterwards stroll around the shops and cafes.

5. Try to time your visit with the Adelaide Fringe Festival, which usually takes place during February and March for about three weeks.

Find out more at Australia.com

- Herald on Sunday

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