It would be an extraordinary sight in any setting. But this really is the middle of nowhere: the Flinders Ranges close to the centre of South Australia, 250 miles north of Adelaide. Nothing to the east; damn-all to the west; sweet Fanny Adams to the north.
It is called Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre easily big enough to contain central Adelaide and most of its inner suburbs, and constructed by a deity in a maliciously taunting mood.
Flying over it in a plane, I was reminded of that most intimidating of sports arenas: the Melbourne cricket ground. Standing on the edge, I thought of another of the southern hemisphere’s most extraordinary places: the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.
But Ngorongoro offers a phenomenal array of wildlife. Almost a ridiculous amount; it’s more like a wildlife park than the African bush. Wilpena represents a different challenge for the visitor. No zebras, just zebra finches. And food for a great deal of thought.
The same can be said for the whole Flinders Ranges. Nearby is Brachina Gorge, an eerie place of trees, rocks and fossils. Here lived the Ediacaran fauna, jellyfish-like creatures that are candidates for the title of the first animals on earth. That was about 550m years ago. The white man settled in Australia 223 years ago. So maybe it’s more helpful to think of the ediacaran fauna in terms, not of years but of White Australias: 2.5m of them.
The Flinders is an astonishingly evocative, numinous place: a landscape where the centuries, the millennia, the aeons all whisper to you. Film directors love it. You could have seen the area in anything from Gallipoli to Rabbit-Proof Fence, sometimes playing itself, sometimes not. It is also a very good place to see what one White Australia has done. On the walk up to Wilpena Pound, a sign lists the mammals that flourished here until the white man came and that have now vanished from the Flinders or in some cases, altogether: the greater bilby ... the burrowing bettong ... the crescent nailtail wallaby ... the desert rat kangaroo ... the lesser stick-net rat ...
The Hill family came to Wilpena Pound in the 19th century. They saw what looked to them like a heaven-sent stock pen. Drought put paid to that idea. Then they tried wheat. There was a fanciful saying among the settlers: “Rain follows the plough.” In 1914, when most of the world had other preoccupations, there was another drought. “All we wanted for Christmas that year was rain,” wrote Jessie Hill years later. They got it: “I’ll never forget the rain that day ... when we got back to the Pound, the road was gone.” Soon the Hill family were gone, too. Nearly a century on, the natural vegetation has still not fully regenerated.
Off-putting? I don’t mean to be. South Australia is fascinating. Australian tourism has been suffering lately amid and partly because of, the nation’s general economic boom. Its share of the country’s exports has declined (from 13 per cent to 8 per cent) and the industry is trying hard to escape its dependence on its three big destinations: the Reef, the Rock and Sydney, a city where there is rarely a hotel room to be had for under $A200 (£131) and where they think that Melbourne constitutes the Outback.
Adelaide is the most charming and relaxing of the state capitals, and its substantial back garden (four times the size of Britain) offers opportunities to come to grips with the reality of Australia unavailable in more obvious places. It’s increasingly possible to see it in comfort, even luxury. And I’m aching to go back.
It is enjoying a short-term popularity brought about by the end of Australia’s long drought and the inundation of the saltbed of Lake Eyre, a scene appealing to homegrown visitors increasingly conscious of the interior. But as the weather starts to dry up again, this attraction is already at the Hurry! Hurry! stage. The Flinders is likely to be back in arid times very soon.
The tourism pioneers round here were Jane and Ross Fargher, who moved in 22 years ago and took over the Prairie Hotel, which was a rundown pub even by bush standards, in the railway settlement of Parachilna (population: seven).
Now it is famous, mainly for its feral mixed grill: kangaroo fillet, emu mignon wrapped in bacon, and camel sausage. “The emu’s lean so the bacon gives it flavour,” explains one of the cooks. “Kangaroo’s best done rare, camel is like beef.”
Just before dinner, I went outside to experience the biggest events of a Parachilna day: the sun going down and the coal train rattling south. But something else happened too: the most luscious full moon I have ever seen popped up from behind the mountains.
We travelled north next morning to Rawnsley Park, where Tony Smith, a fourth-generation Flinders farmer, now thinks the bush is more suitable for tourism than for sheep. He still has about 2,000 merinos but, in Australian terms, that almost counts as hobby farming. He also has the next-generation problem that haunts farmers everywhere. “I’ve got three sons,” he says. “They don’t want anything to do with sheep. They want to be lawyers.”
Smith’s parents first provided a cabin for bushwalkers 40 years ago. Since then the balance of the business has turned upside down and so has the market. “The Prairie Hotel was a pioneer in providing interesting food,” he says. “That started to change the perception of the Flinders ranges from somewhere nature-lovers went to somewhere anyone could go.”
With prices ranging from $A12 a night (camping) to above $A500, Rawnsley Park tries to cater for both ends of the market, but the balance is shifting. In 2006, it opened “luxury eco-villas”, built with recycled timber and straw bales. “We had some difficulty reconciling the two aspects, luxury and eco,” he admits. But they are luxurious all right, and their popularity has exceeded Smith’s expectations.
Furthermore, quite a lot of forward-thinking rural Australians swear by the thermal efficiency of straw-built buildings, whatever the Three Little Piggies might say. This is, I suppose, what you might call inconspicuous consumption, an attempt to do what previous generations of white Australians never did, and take the bush on its own terms.
Now there is a new contender in the Flinders luxury market: Arkaba Station, which opened in 2009 and offers “wild bush luxury” at $A1,500 a night for two. That‘s for everything, including the run of the drinks cabinet, and done to the kind of standard you might expect at such a price.
But like the Flinders itself, it is a challenge. It is an intimate place to stay, although fortunately, at these prices all the guests may well know each other beforehand. There is nothing to stop anyone lounging round the verandah, the pool or the drinks cabinet (“We’re not a boot camp,” says Kat Mee, the Scots-born field guide) but the incurious would be wasting their money.
The highlights of the day are Kat’s morning and evening game runs (with a champagne bush picnic thrown in). We had a terrific time, highlighted by the kangaroos, bounding through the crackly grass – utterly exotic in the loosest sense of the word, looking as though they had hopped in straight from Jurassic Park. The evening run was followed by dinner, cooked stylishly and theatrically by Sean the Kiwi.
The main species of kangaroo are doing very well in modern Australia, which is why the Prairie Hotel can fillet them with a clear conscience. But a lot of what we saw was not native, and a lot of what Kat told us was dispiriting. Much of the ground cover – mustard weed, rosy dock, Ward’s weed – was imported. “The native species couldn’t cope with the overgrazing. The damage was done in about 15 to 20 years,” she says. Oddly, the most foreign-looking object was the cypress pine. Yet it is as Australian as any roo, far more so than Vegemite.
Throughout the Flinders it was a similar story. There were fabulous experiences: on the way to Brachina Gorge, we passed a family of emus, a bird with a gloriously serpentine look. When they break into a trot, they waggle their arses. It’s almost sexy. And there were vast numbers of a fascinating insect: locusts, heading south to torment the farmers who had gleefully welcomed the rains of 2010 after years of drought and thought they were through the bad times.
“It’s a good story that we have to tell,” insists Jane Fargher of the Prairie Hotel. “Australia is about contrasts in the weather. It’s an amazing landscape that bounces back. Just add water. The management of the rabbits in the past decade has made an amazing difference to the regeneration of species.”
A dash of melancholia in the mix has to be an ingredient in any form of tourism with an ecological dimension.
Matthew Engel flew from London to Adelaide with Qantas (www.qantas.com); return fares start at £982. He stayed at the Prairie Hotel (www.prairiehotel.com.au; doubles from A$175); Rawnsley Park Station (www.rawnsleypark.com.au; villas sleeping two from A$360); Wilpena Pound Resort (www.wilpenapound.com.au; doubles from A$216); and Arkaba Station (www.arkabastation.com; doubles from A$1580, all-inclusive).