David Attenborough, eat your heart out. After trekking through South Australia’s mind-bendingly beautiful Flinders Ranges, I can identify three types of kangaroo, tell an 'elegant' parrot from a red-rumped one, and spot a velvet potato bush at 20 paces. Heck, I can even distinguish kangaroo poo from fox or emu droppings (the latter looks like freaky green ectoplasm).
This is ‘glamping’, Arkaba style, where I’m teaming a three-day hike between stylish swag camps with a last evening of cosseting comfort in a sheep station-turned-haute homestead. You don’t need to accessorise with cowboy boots, a wide-brimmed hat and a horse, but we’re talking Big Country here; endless, sunrise-licked horizons and arid, pinky-red peaks.
Rocking up to the Flinders Ranges is half the fun; most folk drive north from Adelaide for five hours, stopping off to quaff at Barossa and Clare Valley vineyards. This Ms Smith (minus her Mr Smith, who’s busy back at the ranch) keeps it real, departing from Adelaide’s Central Station by bus, which calls in at every two-bit general store en route. Passing through arable flatlands dotted with sleepy towns called Yakka, Stone Hut and Quorn, I really feel like I’m going bush. By the time my host Brendon (a charming former safari guide) picks me up at Hawker for the short spin to Arkaba, I’m channeling Bear Grylls.
My Arkaba sojourn kicks off with the guided walking safari. Booted and briefed, our group of five – hailing from Canada, Brisbane and Melbourne – are driven to geological wonder Wilpena Pound. A vast natural amphitheatre, it’s an ancient rock bowl filled with tall trees. You’d think a meteorite had struck earth, but this crazy crater was actually shaped by the land uplifting over millennia. Our jaws collectively drop.
After hiking across the Pound, we drop down the ridge edge to our first campsite, Black Gap. A mob of emus is huddled nearby. Just as I start getting festival-tent flashbacks, our Scottish guide Kat shows us to our sleekly simple swag beds. Elevated on individual wooden platforms, each consists of a cosy roll of canvas bedding stuffed with soft blankets and a pillow, which can be covered with a canopy. All are angled to maximise the forest views and the epic Pound beyond. We’re kipping like the drovers of old, albeit with obliging staff to cater to our every whim.
Cue a three-course dinner starring beetroot and orange salad, followed by fish grilled on the campfire by our cheery cook Stuart. It’s all served in a semi-alfresco dining tent, with crisp white linen and chic glassware set out under pretty lanterns. We wash our gourmet grub down with South Australian reds, before gathering for drinks around the flames. It’s only when I burrow into my swag that I realize there’s something in bed with me – it’s furry, warm and doesn’t feel like one of the guides… My surprise bedfellow is in fact a sheepskin-covered hot water bottle, kindly secreted in my nest by Kat. Sweet dreams are made of this.
Emerging from my cocoon at dawn, I discover a copper bowl of heated rainwater for washing my face; beat that, Bear! I also freshen up in the shower, where a pulley-operated bucket of warm water is slung above a secluded corrugated-iron booth. One side is left open for bush views (although I’m not keen on revealing mine). Any pervy kangaroos out there? Rogue CCTV? Flashing frissons aside, it lives up to Arkaba’s mantra of ‘wildbush luxury’.
My fantasies of becoming a nude camping sensation on YouTube are trounced by one of my fellow trekkers, who missed the step of the ‘dunny’ eco-composting toilet shack in the night – despite donning a miner’s head torch – and commando-rolled into a ditch. It sounds like a challenge from The Biggest Loser.
Inspired by our passionate guides, I fall hard for the Flinders as the trek unfolds. We wander rugged ranges and creek beds, gawping at giant, twisted Red River Gums sporting camouflage-patterned bark. Keen twitcher Kat helps us pick out the cry of the willie wagtail, laughing kookaburra and neon-chested red-capped robin. We learn about Arkaba’s conservation mission, balancing this 60,000-acre former sheep station with a sanctuary for native animals on its land. Along the way we’re treated to snap-worthy wildlife sightings, as well as pinks, purples and mauves at sunset illuminating layers of delicate peaks. No need for Instagram filters.
Walk wrapped, we kick back for our last night at the heavenly homestead. Canapés and champagne at dusk? Don’t mind if I do. A dreamy dinner, peppered with local produce care of lodge chef Richard, at the convivial dining table? Cheers. A glass of red in the intimate library? Bliss. We even fit in a star-gazing session led by astronomy-geek Stuart, brandishing a Star Wars-esque laser to point out the constellations. If you think you see stars in the city, you’re sadly mistaken.
Natural thrills aside, this elegant 1850s homestead will appeal to style addicts. Its five rural-chic rooms have a strong sense of place, decked out with gum-nut curtain ties, old sheep shears and animal prints by a local artist. Creature features abound, from cowhide rugs to ostrich-egg lamp stands, merino bedheads and woolsack-wrapped bedside tables. Some boudoirs boast roll-top baths, but I’m content with the Chace Room’s toasty shower with vintage-glam gold taps. I sleep like a queen and rise to take tea on the mellow terrace, feeling like Scarlett O’Hara surveying Tara.
Rebooted by a breakfast of Nespresso coffee and tasty house-made bread, jam and Bircher muesli, I venture out with the homestead’s charismatic former owner Dean Rasheed for another trip to Wilpena Pound. We climb up to a look-out, then swing by Arkaba’s heritage woolshed, where you can still see shearing in season (Dean used to round up the sheep on a trailbike with his dogs). Finally, we four-wheel drive up the ridges to scope Wilpena at sunset.
Consummate hosting, fabulous food, romantic ranch living and natural eye-candy make Arkaba unforgettable. Sure, you may rough it a bit on the trail, but you can luxe it up at the homestead afterwards. Uluru may be Australia’s most iconic outback experience, but the Flinders Ranges are more accessible and far less touristy. We hardly see any other people during our adventures – and that’s just the way the kangaroos and emus like it.