|Photo by Freeimages.com/Rick Hawkins|
Peter Hughes, The Daily Telegraph, December 21, 2015
It’s easy to forget how hostile the Australian Outback can be. There aren’t many places where you are given a survival guide in preparation for a motoring holiday. Being Australian, it doesn’t pull its punches.
“Carelessness can bring death,” says the Aussie RAA (Royal Automobile Association) in its uncompromising booklet on Outback travel. It goes on to advise you how not to die. For example, if you break down and can’t rig an adequate shelter, “make a hole in the earth large enough to climb into”. If that doesn’t work, “dig a deeper hole under your vehicle and lie in it”. And remember: “Your rear vision mirror can be used for signalling passing planes by flashing it into the sun.”
With these tips still uppermost in my mind, I set off in a 4WD on my own expedition into the Australian wilderness. I was heading for the Flinders Ranges, a five-hour drive north of Adelaide in South Australia . It’s a desiccated area, rumpled by mountains, bare and brown as crab shell, and roughened with scrub-covered hills that are grazed today by sheep and tourists. As it turned out, a journey to Wiltshire would have been tougher.
Flinders Ranges is a desiccated area, rumpled by mountains, bare and brown as crab shell, and roughened with scrub-covered hills that are grazed today by sheep and tourists.
Australia’s wilderness, open to only a few people just a decade ago, is today being visited by increasing numbers. Holiday accommodation has followed. First there were pubs and small hotels, then resorts and campsites. The latest phase was the arrival of a handful of small, chic and über-comfortable lodges. And now comes “glamping”.
The Ikara Safari Camp is a collection of 15 tents seemingly sculpted from sandy canvas. They’re the same colour as the track that leads to them through a bristly wood of river red gum and native cypress trees. The camp is part of the Wilpena Pound Resort, but set apart from the hotel, its visitor centre, restaurant, bar, shop, caravan and campground, which cater for up to 2,000 visitors at a time. Ikara has its own secluded site amid the scent of resin and the descants of chirruping birdsong. A restaurant-cum-lounge is in a large separate tent.
The accommodation tents are boxy cabins of insulated canvas sheltered by roofs spread like vast parasols. The “glam” is all on the inside. Flaps with zips as elaborate as narrow-gauge railways open into a large, square bedroom, timber-floored and with a king-size bed.
Wilpena Pound itself is a ring of mountains at the heart of the Flinders Ranges and one of their most striking features. From the air it looks like a massive volcanic caldera.
There are hotel touches such as facilities for making tea and coffee, a fridge, a safe and a ceiling fan. Behind the bed, and a solid wall, is an unexpectedly stylish bathroom done out in smart slate-coloured tiles. It has a fashionably shallow ceramic basin, a flushing loo and a spacious shower. It’s camping, but not as we know it. For one thing, the whole tent is air conditioned.
Wilpena Pound itself is a ring of mountains at the heart of the Flinders Ranges and one of their most striking features. From the air it looks like a massive volcanic caldera. In reality it’s a syncline, the trough of a fold of mountains. From the air you can see the whole amphitheatre, some 10 miles long and five miles wide, rimmed by battlements of ancient rock, blunted by erosion and coated in a plaque of bush.
I reported to the Wilpena airstrip before dawn. A kangaroo outside my tent bounced away, indignant at being disturbed. Andrew Booth, the pilot, was already clambering over his aircraft, preparing for the day’s sightseeing flights. The sun rose, bathing the land in a tangerine glow. A pair of emus strutted across the airfield. Andrew, born in Sheffield, gunned the engine of the Cessna Stationair and taxied briskly down the grit runway to shoo them off. Bird strike is not a good idea with starlings, but with emus…
We flew past St Mary Peak, and the high escarpments of Rawnsley Bluff and Point Bonney, their marmalade-coloured crags tilted at the sky. The Pound is in the land of the Adnyamathanha people. It was not until 1839 that a European first saw it, and it was whitefellas who named the mountains – Dorothy’s Peak, Beatrice Hill, Reggie’s Nob. Even some of the Aboriginal names – Attunga Bluff, Tanderra Saddle, Timburru Peak – were given by an Adelaide bushwalking club in the Fifties.
St Mary Peak, at 3,842ft the highest mountain in the Flinders, is sacred to the Aborigines: they ask walkers not to tread upon the summit. So is Sacred Canyon, an intimate gorge, accessible only on foot, of dilapidated red rock, some scratched with ancient engravings.
The Bunyeroo and Brachina gorges, at the western edge of the Flinders Ranges National Park, were the only places I needed my off-road vehicle. You drive on rocky tracks for 12 miles through a landscape that looks to have been trashed by an intruder. Whole mountains have been upended, their strata left tipped at the angle of ladders; cliffs are stripped of vegetation and rocks smashed. The intruder is time. The youngest rock is 500 million years old; the oldest goes back almost 150 million years more.
The Flinders Ranges have two other outstanding places to stay. Arkaba Station is owned by Wild Bush Luxury, Australia’s top operator of Outback lodges. It got rid of the sheep two years ago to make its 60,000 acres a sanctuary for wildlife and visitors. Ten people can stay in understated luxury in the original 1851 homestead.
On the evening I arrived, we drove in Arkaba’s safari vehicle for sundowners on a ridge high above the station. A grey shrike thrush began its fluting call as we left. The sound swooped like the atmospherics on a radio being tuned. We followed the stony bed of the dry Arkaba creek.
Rainbow bee eaters darted among river red gum trees; red-rumped parrots flew squawking from a dead acacia tree; kangaroos stood warily to watch us pass. At the top, the wind was warm. The Flinders stretched about us like the swell of an amber ocean. As the sunset laid long shadows across the burnt earth, we shared canapés and a chilled bottle of Clare Valley riesling.
A few miles up the road, at Rawnsley Park Station, Tony and Julie Smith still run 3,000 sheep on their 30,000 acres, but tourism is now the bigger business. Their latest venture is eight hugely impressive eco-villas, somewhat incongruously painted Suffolk pink. It’s supposed to echo the red Outback soil.
The fully justified “eco” claim comes from the use of thick walls, insulated with straw, pitched roofs and recycled timber – construction techniques learnt from old settlers’ cottages. Beams of Oregon pine were salvaged from the Royal Agricultural Society Hall in Adelaide. Two thirds of the villas’ power comes from solar panels and, rare for Australia, they are double-glazed.
Serviced daily, the villas have remarkable facilities. At one end of an 11yd-long living space, the kitchen boasts a microwave oven, an espresso machine and a dishwasher and, at the other, there is a powerful sound system, as well as a television and a DVD player. Even more original, remote-controlled skylights above the bed let you stargaze from your pillows – authoritatively too, because a book on astronomy is provided.
Outside, there’s a barbecue the size of a jukebox, and the veranda looks out to the high bluffs of Wilpena Pound across a seared pasture spattered with scrawny cypress trees.
If it’s easy to forget the perils of the Outback, places like Rawnsley Park make it easier still.
And not once did I have to dig myself a hole in the ground or signal a passing aeroplane.
Peter Hughes travelled as a guest of the South Australia Tourist Commission ( southaustralia.com ).
At Ikara Safari Camp ( ikarasafaricamp.com ), a tent for two costs from AU$358 (about £189) per night including breakfast.
A one-bedroom eco-villa at Rawnsley Park Station ( rawnsleypark.com.au ) costs from AU$410 (£217) per night, including breakfast.
The Homestead at Arkaba Station ( arkabastation.com ) costs AU$816 (£432) per person per night; includes full board, drinks, guided bush walks and 4WD safaris. No children under eight. The three-night Arkaba walk ( arkabawalk.com ) operates from mid-March to mid-October and costs AU$2,150 per person (£1,138). Includes all meals and drinks, a guide and support vehicle to transport overnight luggage between camps. Minimum age 12.
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This article was written by Peter Hughes from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.