Everything seems to exist on a monumental scale in the Flinders Ranges, where sawtooth ridges of blood-red rock loom over ancient river red gums, and dramatic sunsets turn passing clouds into puffs of bright pink fairy floss. Stretching over 400 kilometres from the shores of the Spencer Gulf to the glittering salt lakes of South Australia’s far north, these ancient hills lie on the traditional lands of the Adnyamathanha people and take in the Outback’s greatest hits across a range of landscapes beautiful enough to turn any visitor into an amateur photographer.
Local cooks have long championed native ingredients, and you’ll find the omnipresent quandong featured in salads, tarts, wagon wheels, jams and gin. But a new wave of operators has brought a cosmopolitan flair to a region where you can get your caffeine and adrenaline fixes simultaneously in a growing mountain biking hub, slake your thirst in style at one of Australia’s most remote microbreweries, and end the day marvelling at the epic night skies in the nation’s second dark-sky sanctuary. Here’s everything you need to know to make the most of your next Outback road trip.
Flinders Food Co, Hawker
The pantry of house-made sauces, relishes, jams and muesli packed with native ingredients makes Flinders Food Co – located by the turn off to Flinders Ranges Way – a great place to pick up last-minute supplies. A cabinet filled with bakery treats like quandong wagon wheels and wattleseed tarts is equally tempting, but it’s the all-day brunch menu that really draws the crowds for slow-cooked saltbush lamb tacos topped with beetroot-and-anise-myrtle relish and excellent vego options like sticky roast eggplant with edamame, native dukkah and Korean barbeque sauce.
Prairie Hotel, Parachilna
This might look like a classic Outback pub from the outside, but step through the doors and you’ll find a stylish timber and marble front bar that feels like an oasis in this dusty landscape. Wall to wall paintings by desert artists turn the dining rooms into an art gallery, and the menu honours the Outback location with thoughtful dishes that would give most inner-city venues a run for their money – think chunks of roo tail that are roasted overnight then flash-fried and tossed through a balsamic reduction, or a salad of slow-roasted beets with goat’s curd, fresh quandong halves and dehydrated Davidson’s plum.
The Miners Crib Cafe, Blinman
The days when a Flinders road trip meant subsisting on a diet of dicey roadhouse fare are long gone, but sometimes the lure of a meat pie is simply too strong to resist. When the craving hits, make for this cute little cafe doing a mean line in house-made baked goods. The kangaroo bush curry pie with red-roo mince, lemon myrtle, pepperberry and saltbush is a standout, while the thick-crusted miner’s pasty pays tribute to Blinman’s copper-mining heritage – two thirds is filled with a classic mix of beef, potato, carrot, onion and pumpkin, with one end concealing a pocket of stewed apple for dessert.
Flinders Gin, Quorn
This welcoming distillery has outgrown its initial home and taken over the former livery stable next door, but thankfully the resident groodle, Ernie, is still around to personally greet every visitor. Flights of four gins include a peachy quandong number and a citrus-heavy Outback gin flavoured with native lemongrass and desert limes – and both drops are also available in premix cans featuring a delicate lemon myrtle, rosemary and bitter orange tonic from Mischief Brew. And if you’re abstaining, you can still enjoy salts, teas, candles and even a gin lip balm made with the leftover botanicals from each run.
Over the Edge, Melrose
Ignore the corrugated iron and timber walls; there’s nothing rustic about the offering at this cosy cafe run by ex-Donovans chef Kerri Lee-Bruce. Initially an offshoot of the bike shop next door, it’s grown as quickly as the network of mountain-biking tracks surrounding the town. Riders keep the staff busy pulling single-origin shots from the bright red Ruggero machine all morning. You’ll also find a bank of Squatters Collective taps featuring Gather Brewing kombucha and Juice Quest juices. To eat, there’s a selection of raw slices and cakes alongside more substantial options like the signature spiced chicken and cauliflower crepes.
Parachilna Brew Project, Parachilna
The dusty town of Parachilna is so small that the local population isn’t counted by the census, but it can claim its own microbrewery thanks to the 500-litre kit sitting in the front bar of the Prairie Hotel. Six taps cover the core range – an easy-drinking session ale, an IPA and an NEIPA – alongside seasonal releases that might include the dangerously smooth Sadie Jane Stout or a sour featuring native botanicals, while the two taps connected to bright tanks pour the freshest beers in the region by far.
Rawnsley Park Station, Flinders Ranges
It’s hard to beat the location of this property, nestled below the dramatic rock wall encircling Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park’s most famous site. A strenuous five-hour hike leads up to a lookout with incredible views over Wilpena Pound and beyond, or you can take it all in from eight straw-bale eco cabins with rainwater tanks, solar power and a chemical-free cleaning regime. Windows on three sides and an outdoor deck maximise the sunset views, while retractable skylights let you enjoy the glittering night skies from the comfort of a king bed. And because this is still a working sheep station, the on-site Woolshed Restaurant serves up lamb ribs, racks and a platter featuring the signature protein served half-a-dozen ways.
Jacka Brothers Brewery, Melrose
It’s a mystery how this 19th-century stone tower remains invisible from Melrose’s main street, but once you arrive there’s no ignoring the imposing, fortress-like structure. After lying dormant for 90 years, the old brewery has once again been pressed into service as a taphouse for the region, and the former bottling plant and shearing shed beside it has been converted into a gorgeous four-bedroom guesthouse. Original timber trusses, thick stone walls adorned with vintage photographs and a wool-sorting table that’s been converted into a dining table nod to the building’s past, and the restored cellar below now doubles as a stunning function space.
Nungawurtina Hut, Alpana Station
The classic Flinders Ranges experience involves seeing it through a tent flap at one of the many campgrounds scattered throughout the national parks. But if you don’t want to sleep under canvas or simply can’t bear to leave your dog at home, this cosy pine-and-pug hut is the next best thing. Nestled between rolling hills and a creek bed lined with ancient red gums, the pet-friendly bush retreat sits at the end of a high-clearance 4WD track just south of Blinman. It’s necessarily rustic, with BYO linen, a rainwater-fuelled camp shower and a pit toilet, but will only set you back a maximum of $130 a night – and it provides exclusive access to a spectacular location in the heart of the Flinders.
Nilpena Ediacara National Park
South Australia’s newest national park officially opened to the public this April, but the only way to see it is on a guided tour. That’s because the surrounding hills preserve some of the finest Ediacaran fossil beds found anywhere in the world. This era, which witnessed the emergence of the first complex life on earth, was named after the nearby Ediacara Hills, and an 1870s blacksmith’s shop houses a visitor centre holding the most impressive fossil bed. Visitors are welcome to touch the nine-metre slab of rock that holds more than 200 fossils, and a 17-minute AV show brings the scene to life by showing how they moved and interacted.
Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary
If you like your adventures firmly off the beaten track, keep heading north on unsealed but well-maintained roads until you reach this 60,000-hectare property bordering Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park. Almost a billion years older than the rest of the ranges, this open-air museum is home to an extensive network of challenging 4WD tracks that lead to jaw-dropping vantage points looking out over rugged peaks to the glittering white surface of Lake Frome. A healthy yellow-footed rock-wallaby population makes the epic sunsets even more memorable, and the evenings bring night skies so clear that the property was just designated Australia’s second international dark-sky sanctuary.
Mountain Biking Trails, Melrose
The light foliage and exposed nature of the single-track trails covering the steep slopes of Mount Remarkable mean that just about every ride comes with incredible views over the surrounding region. And a significant expansion is set to crank that up to 11. A network of beginner-friendly trails in nearby Willowie has already opened, while the Mount Remarkable Epic Trail is a challenging 42-kilometre loop that will climb up from Melrose before plunging deep into the national park when it opens in late 2023.