Spend any time in the Flinders Ranges and it’s easy to be awestruck by the ancient landscape – where giant sheets of rock have been uplifted and buckled into formidable craggy bluffs, furrowed valleys and serrated sawtooth ridges striped with bands of deep red, purple and sand coloured stone.
That’s especially true at Arkaba Conservancy, a 60,000-acre station that lies 425 kilometres north of Adelaide and borders the vast natural amphitheatre of Wilpena Pound in Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park. Over the past decade it’s been transformed from a working sheep station into a wildlife conservancy, and with no wi-fi or phone signal, guests are encouraged to focus all their attention on the surrounding landscape.
For field guide Shane Craswell, the strata in the surrounding hills can be read like the pages of a book to reveal hundreds of millions of years of history. In fact, his presence transforms the entire region into an absurdly scenic classroom. Art lessons come courtesy of magnificent river red gums, twisting gracefully skyward in forms that fascinated landscape painter Hans Heysen, while the long distance walking trail that bears the artist’s name cuts through the property and offers plenty of opportunities for PE.
And a visit to Arkaba is a constant biology lesson, as the species checklist in each room attests. In it, guests are invited to mark down sightings of the hundreds of birds, mammals, reptiles, frogs and plants found on the property.
Visitors stay in the rambling 1851 homestead, which has been designed so each of the four guest rooms has a private section of the deep wraparound verandah. Mine looks out to a pool with shade cloths and a large hill behind, while the gums lining the creek bed between them are full of screeching corellas, doting galah couples and fabulously coloured ringneck parrots that obviate the need for an alarm clock.
Evidence of the station’s former use is everywhere in the homestead, including bedheads of sheepskin stretched between old fenceposts, cowhides spread out on the floor as rugs and wool bales that have been repurposed as side tables. But in the surrounding landscape it’s slowly disappearing, and destocking 7700 sheep from the property was just the beginning of the conservation effort
Arkaba’s “contributive tourism” model means that a portion of all guest fees are used to rewild the property, a long-term project that includes feral animal management, weed removal and wildlife surveys. When he’s not guiding, Craswell might be removing fencing that inhibits wildlife movement or carefully pulling up invasive plants that threaten to clog creek systems.
There are plenty of chances to see the positive effects of this work through the program of activities. It varies daily but might include a safari in a modified open-top Land Cruiser, a walk along dry creek beds and lightly forested slopes, and cultural tours led by Adnyamathanha elder Pauline McKenzie, who can explain the uses and significance of just about every plant on the property.
And on returning from each excursion, guests can expect a warm face towel and a cold drink. The Flinders Ranges is one of few regions in SA where you won’t find any wineries, so the cellar draws from throughout the state, with a particular focus on the Clare Valley between here and Adelaide.
Those wines are part of an open bar that’s available to guests at any time, and an all-inclusive stay also covers meals that straddle the line between traditional station fare and modern Australian cuisine. Think lamb roast with river mint and wattleseed rub, poached quandong tarte tatin or yoghurt with bush lime, plus a sprinkling of seafood from the Eyre Peninsula.
When the weather permits, two-course lunches and three-course dinners take place around an old wool sorting table on the back verandah, which looks out over the nearby creek bed and the hills beyond. Over the warmer months, the schedule changes slightly but there are advantages to visiting outside of traditional peak season. As water sources dry up, a bird hide with a permanent drinking hole becomes a meeting point for rarely glimpsed bird and animal species. And once the sun has gone down, moonlight walks are a chance to spot nocturnal animals, including quolls and brush-tailed possums that have migrated from neighbouring Wilpena Pound.
Arkaba Conservancy is offering a three-night special until March that includes two nights at the homestead and one night in a swag with a sunrise walk to spot yellow-footed rock-wallabies and look out over the Flinders Ranges and Lake Torrens beyond.
The writer was a guest of Wild Bush Luxury.