The spectacular Flinders Ranges in South Australia are full of ancient charm, writes Linda Meads.
Want a taste of the Australian Outback but but don't fancy spending days driving across great swathes of barren red dust to get there? Your best bet is to fly into Adelaide, the closest Australian city to the Outback, and head due north to the spectacular Flinders Ranges National Park, via the Clare Valley wine region.
The journey to Wilpena Pound, the most recognisable ancient rock formation in the park and a good base from which to explore the region, will take you just four and a half hours, and is easily achievable in a rental car.
The area is known for its dramatic scenery, rich Aboriginal heritage, classic country towns and plentiful wildlife, and you'll need to devote at least three days to get in as much sight-seeing as possible. Here are some highlights and a few ways to enjoy it.
Find some ancient art
The Flinders Ranges are one of the best areas in Australia to see Aboriginal rock art. You'll find indigenous guides at Parachilna, Chambers Gorge and Wilpena Pound. At Ikara (the Aboriginal name for Wilpena Pound) there's an extensive display of public art. Nearby Arkaroo Rock has paintings that are about 6000 years old.
The ranges feature in Aboriginal legends which tell of Dreamtime serpents and giants shaping these lands. You can drive yourself along the Aboriginal Dreaming Trail (two days) or go along with an Aboriginal guide.
Sleep in style
On the southern face of Wilpena Pound, about 30 minutes north of Hawker, you'll find Rawnsley Park Station.
First settled as part of Arkaba Station in 1851, these days Rawnsley Park is primarily a tourist attraction, though there are a few thousand sheep still farmed on its 11,735ha. There are several accommodation options available, from a caravan park and bunkhouses to the 1950s homestead and, best of all, luxury eco-villas.
These one- and two-bedroom villas, with private verandahs and skylights over the beds for stargazing, are by themselves in a secluded location with amazing views of the ranges, and have been designed to complement the natural environment.
Rawnsley Park also offers a range of tours, the most popular of which include a do-not-miss scenic flight over Wilpena Pound; watching the sunset reflect on the Chace Range while enjoying local wine and canapes by Woolshed Restaurant; and an all-day guided 4WD tour, the Central Flinders Explorer, which explores Bunyeroo and Brachina Gorges, takes in wildlife such as yellow-footed rock wallabies, and gives an insight into the area's geology.
Lunchtime on the tour is when guests get to try dishes created from the animals they may have just seen in the wild at the Prairie Hotel in Parachilna, which is known for its feral foods. Think emu pate, smoked kangaroo, goat's cheese and camel mettwurst, served alongside bush tomato chilli jam and saltbush dukkah. After lunch, the tour travels along Parachilna Gorge to the heritage town of Blinman.
Get on yer bike
There are several mountain bike races in the area, with one of the toughest held each October. The Flinders Ranges Outback Epic sees competitors race the clock in three categories: 64km, 109km and 205km.
All three finish at Wilpena Pound, with the longest route following the length of the Flinders Ranges, taking in Pugilist and Red Hills and the best sections of the Mawson Trail.
If racing's not your cup of tea and you'd prefer to join a leisurely cycle group instead, Over the Edge Sports in Melrose offers a tour to the Mt Remarkable foothills.
Taste of the land
Part of the fun of travel is experiencing the local culture, and food is a huge part of this. As well as the Prairie Hotel's feral foods, specialties in the Flinders Ranges include quandong (native peach) pies, wattleseed coffee, and native bush tomatoes. There are lots of farmers' markets and artisan producers dotted through the region, organic fruit and vege vendors, and several cellar doors selling southern Flinders Ranges wines.
An hour up the road from Wilpena Pound at Blinman you can tour a historic copper mine and learn about the Cornish miners who worked it. Copper was first found in the area by a one-legged shepherd called Robert "Pegleg" Blinman in 1859, and the town boomed for a decade afterwards. There are three tours a day at 10am, noon and 2pm, which feature a unique theatrical audio-visual element.
Just a few minutes from Port Augusta on the shores of Upper Spencer Gulf, the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden is the only place in the world to specialise in the conservation of flora from the southern arid zone of the country. This 250ha collection is housed among several walks and features rare and threatened plants, an AridSmart garden, showing how to create a water-wise garden at home, and dozens of bird species. There's also the chance to learn about medicinal and food plants used by the Aboriginal people, and you'll find a cafe and shop on site.
A novel way to see the Ranges is on a vintage steam train. The Pichi Pichi Railway has been operating heritage train journeys for the past 40 years on the oldest remaining section of the old narrow-gauge Ghan railway line.
There are a few routes and trains available, with the most historic the Pichi Richi Explorer, which operates from Quorn mainly during school holidays and long weekends (a two-and-a-half-hour journey with refreshments at Woolshed Flat); and the Afghan Express which makes a 78km return journey from Port Augusta, also on weekends.
The best of the Flinders Ranges
The cooler months (April to October) are the best time to visit the Flinders Ranges. Clear days and cool nights make travelling in the Outback a wonderful experience.
The best way to truly experience this incredible natural amphitheatre is by scenic flight, or take advantage of the mountain biking and walking trails that criss-cross the vast landscape.
You'll see brilliantly coloured parrots, yellow-footed rock wallabies, kangaroos and emus, while Australia's largest bird of prey, the wedge-tailed eagle, soars high above you.
Scenic flight over Lake Eyre
Lake Eyre, a vast salt pan in the middle of Outback South Australia, rarely fills with water. When it does, dazzling carpets of colour transform the surrounding desert, as dozens of vein-like creeks bring life to the parched earth, attracting wildlife and birdlife.
Food and wine
Explore the Southern Flinders Produce Trail to find surprising fresh and native produce. Try quandong (native peach) pies, Golden North icecream, blue gum honey and world-class wines.
The Flinders Ranges offer some of the best astronomical viewing conditions in the Southern Hemisphere because of the clear dry atmosphere. Allow at least two to three nights in the region to ensure you have time to see them at their best.
Getting there: Air New Zealand operates direct services to Adelaide from Auckland between four and seven times a week.
For more information: Visit southaustralia.co.nz.