There is nowhere on Earth like the Flinders Ranges.
Rainbow-striped mountains zig-zag out of a vast, sunstruck desert plane; ancient river red gums spread their roots along the banks of perfectly clear, silvery streams; leafy, green microclimates shelter a stone’s throw from barren, rocky gorges.
There is something altogether otherworldly about this place. But it’s not just the stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty of the Flinders Ranges that makes it unique.
Flinders Ranges is a World Heritage listed site
This 600-million-year-old landscape was described by geologist and explorer Sir Douglas Mawson as “one great outdoor museum”. It provides a precious, unparalleled record of the evolution of life on Earth, including a cache of the oldest fossils in the world.
And it’s recently been nominated for World Heritage listing. It’s no surprise then that this region has been a haunt of scientists and artists since Matthew Flinders sent a painter and two botanists to climb Mount Brown, back in 1802, and describe what they saw there.
Hans Heysen (for whom the spectacular Heysen Trail was named) made 11 trips to the Flinders between 1926 and 1949, drawn by what he described as “the bones of nature laid bare”. Horace Trenerry was the master painter of the Flinders.
Jeffrey Smart had a different, more desolate take. More recently, the author Fiona McFarlane brought its rugged beauty and harsh colonial history to life in The Sun Walks Down. And Tom Carment has captured its moods and shades over a lifetime of packing up his paints and camping out there.
But long before Europeans first spied the Flinders Ranges, their traditional owners, the Adnyamathanha or Yura people, lived here for many tens of thousands of years.
Today, they co-manage the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park and co-own and manage the Wilpena Pound Resort, which is an oasis of cabins, resort rooms, campsites and magnificent glamping tents, set in the shade of rivergum trees.
Wilpena Pound, which looks from the air as if it was scooped out of the ranges by a long-ago flying saucer, is known as Ikara, ‘the meeting place’, in the Yura Ngawarla language and was, the Elders say, the work of two spirit snakes, or Akurra, whose bodies take the form of the Pound’s north-eastern and south-western walls.
The best way to get to know Ikara from an Adnyamathanha point of view is to spend a few long, relaxed days at the resort, taking in a range of cultural tours and experiencing the Traditional Owners’ generosity and hospitality.
Highlights include the nightly Welcome to Country and less formal opportunities to yarn with locals and travellers around a roaring outdoor fireplace under a starry sky.
The Sacred Canyon Tour meanders along a hidden creek where ochre river stones, in shades of blue, mauve, aubergine, yellow and white, mirror the rainbow mountains above. Every one of these stones leaves a mark as smooth and creamy as pastel chalk.
Further along the creek, a wall of rock rises beside an ancient gathering place, and an Elder explains how to recognise signs and symbols in the Adnyamathanha engravings.
From Wilpena Pound, there are also scenic flights, day-long hikes, spectacular sunset tours with canapes and fine South Australian wines.
Most importantly, there’s always the opportunity to take off with a map on your own, immerse yourself in beauty and very likely spot more than one emu or echidna, a rare Yellow-footed rock wallaby or a Wedge-tailed eagle riding the currents in the wide, blue sky.
The Wilpena Pound Resort is an accredited ecotourism destination, as is its near neighbour, Arkaba, once a sheep station, now a private wildlife conservancy, hiking destination and intimate luxury resort.
There is room for just 10 guests at Arkaba’s beautifully restored 167-year-old homestead, and there are roughly 25,000 hectares of spectacular wilderness and former grazing land to explore on foot and in the station’s all-terrain, open-top safari vehicle.
There are roaring fires in winter, a swimming pool in summer, and three superb meals each day that showcase South Australia’s finest produce and wines.Arkaba and Wilpena Pound are an easy five-hour drive from Adelaide or three hours from the vineyards of the Clare Valley.
How many days do you need in Flinders Ranges?
In the winter, busloads of tourists pull in, watch the sun set from a cliff top and drive away the next day. Don’t make that mistake.
Around every twist and turn of the Flinders Ranges is an entirely new opportunity to be struck by wonder. Ikara kept Heysen spellbound for decades. Four days was just enough to whet our appetites. We’ll be back next year for more.