The Flinders Ranges offer some of the most stunning outback scenery in Australia and a chance to glimpse another way of life by staying on the sheep stations.
It is easy when travelling to fall into a rut and follow the obvious route, but sometimes an oblique approach can bring rewards. A visit to the Flinders Ranges in outback South Australia is a must: beloved of Sir Hans Heysen who captured their beauty and ethereal light on canvas, their timeless landscape of ochres and reds is easy on the eye. Few peaks are over 1000m so one can enjoy their majestic creeks and encompassing hilltop views within the same hour. They have an almost wild west grandeur: I expected David Gulpil to spear me from a rocky outcrop at any moment!
Consider staying on an outback sheep station: years of drought have bought diversification and accommodation. In country equally as dramatic as that managed by the national parks, they can be enjoyed without the crowds. Eclectic hosts with down to earth welcomes will be only too happy to give you the freedom to explore places few other tourists get to see.
Accessible in a normal car, they offer an alternative to the run of the mill caravan park with secluded sites or charismatic, renovated shearer’s quarters, ideal for families or groups. Some have luxurious homestay. Further exploration beyond the homestead might require 4-wheel drive, motorbike, bicycle or just simple walking - we actually took our own horses. The following are in the Central ranges area, some 450 km north of Adelaide.
En route to our first station, we too succumbed to the Prairie Hotel (Crn. High St & West Terrace, Parachilna, SA 5730; +61 8 8648 4844; doubles from $145), on every outback tour’s itinerary, having gained a reputation for its ‘feral food’. This isolated roadhouse is as good as it gets out here and you can debate the moral ambiguity of visiting Australia and then eating its wildlife over a kangaroo or emu burger. Personally, I think the beef burger was the pick of the lot: when I commented on how finely minced his kangaroo burger was, my husband replied: ‘You would be too if 20 trucks had driven over you!’ I don’t think it is road kill but the choice is yours! It would be as interesting an overnight stop as any but we lunched and moved on.
This station is 25 km on from Parachilna (Keith & Lisa Slade, Moolooloo Station, Blinman SA 5730) and has a lovely stone shearers quarters from $150/night for 5 people self catering ($30/extra adult) or scenic camping at $15/vehicle.
Stony 4WD tracks led us to the Nuccaleena Mine, an 1860’s common story of disaster and lost money, though the ruins that remain are quite impressive: a tall chimney, the engine room, the boss’s office, all nestled in the folds of a dry valley.
We explored dry river beds, their rough sides home only to wild flowers. The red river gums are immense, silvery and twisted, and it was now that I began to realise how these creeks really serve as highways, their wide, smooth beds providing the perfect easy path. There is little rain so the creeks seldom have water, other than when flash flooding occurs and at the occasional springs - which are indeed there if you know where to look.
Keith, the owner, is a great character. One day he whizzed by with a motorcycle group and stopped to point out a 1858 ‘pioneer’ grave. He didn’t think much of his group: ‘dressed up as if they are going to war’, he sniffed, straddling his old motorbike in a dust jacket and battered helmet. ‘I could go faster on a horse..’ - which I suspect was true.
Nearby the high sides of Ferguson’s Gorge are a rich red, the layers an instant geography lesson; ascending in levels up the gorge, permanent water pools are revealed coming from the springs above. Scattered prints in the sand speak of it’s importance to local wildlife. Nearby is Blinman Hut (from $50 a night), an old restored cattleman’s hut which would be a perfect simple hideaway for a couple, or a place where the family could run wild without disturbing (any) neighbours.
We discover a distinctive pyramid-shaped hill with a fabulous 360 degree view near Willingon Spring and in the next creek, ancient aborigine carvings on the rock face depicting circles and emu prints, maybe the ancestors to the elusive birds we have seen: the delights are indeed varied here.
Blinman village was en route to our next station. It was once known for its copper mining but that is long gone and the 1869 Blinman Hotel (Main Street, Blinman, SA 5730; doubles from $80-140) is one of the surviving relics, a favourite watering hole for any passing traveller. They have a small characterful front bar with interesting pictures of the old days scattered around.
Once we had got our tongue round the name, this proved another wonderful experience (Ian & Di Fargher, Angorichina Station, Blinman, SA 5730) With our horses in the sheepyards, we had a scenic camp ($15/vehicle) on a dry gorge from where we headed out each day, following Ian’s suggested routes. This station has some large springs within an hour of the homestead and we enjoyed the presence of water again, taking the opportunity to picnic beside the creeks. These are popular with feral goats, but also with more important wildlife such as the endangered yellow footed rock wallaby.
There is a fabulous 70km 4WD route here called the Oratunga Track which can be broken down into easier segments: the view from Carey’s hill was stunning and could be reached on foot within a couple of hours. We also visited the ruins of Artimore station, abandoned over a 100 years ago, It is scenically located under the distinctive shape of Mt Patawarta, the highest hill in the area at 978m and one which we came to use as a reference point.
Angorichina has great shearer’s quarters with homely kitchen and big dining room, or light a big fire, throw some steaks on the barbie and enjoy the outback experience under the stars - children - indeed all the family - would love it. They also offer luxurious B&B though we didn‘t get near that side of things.
Willow Springs Station
This station (Brendan & Carmel Reynolds, Willow Springs Station, Blinman, SA 5730) is only 15 km north of Wilpena Pound and the national park so could easily be used as an alternative base. I would recommend their nice individual campsites here ($20 for 2) and their well advertised 4WD ‘Skyline Trek’ at over 70 km which has wonderful views from Mount Caernarvon (921 m) - we were sent off with some great notes on the points of interest and vegetation en route.
We did it in 2 days, camping out half way with the horses, and were richly rewarded with some superb scenery. Initially following a broad valley beside the softly undulating Bunker Hills, the track then climbed steeply on the second day within the Bunkers reserve to justify it’s ‘skyline’ tag. This land is now owned by a group dedicated to the preservation of the yellow footed rock wallaby.
The aptly named Skull Rock is only 10 km from the homestead and there are other shorter walks - which include a picturesque gorge or good viewpoints
One of the reasons I travel is to lose myself in the beautiful places of the world. From the unbelievable luminosity of the blue skies to the deep velvet of the starry nights, you will find beauty in abundance in the Flinders. Added to which, the complete absence of noise enhances the feeling of perfect peace and leads one to realize what a luxury silence is in our modern age.