South Australia: Into the outback
From eating emu to nature-filled bush treks and seductive sunsets, Carrie Anderson proves a week is long enough to discover South Australia's many hidden treasures
I'm confronted by kangaroo, emu and camel, and I don't know which one to tackle first. I've been warned that the 'roo is quite strong, and I'm guessing that the emu and camel can hold their own too.
Thankfully, this isn't some kind of woman versus nature challenge from I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! No, I'm facing more of a culinary dilemma of the bushtucker-trial kind, but without the addition of live witchetty grubs and unmentionable animal parts.
Here in the dining room of the Prairie Hotel in South Australia's outback, some of the vast region's famous 'feral food' is being dished up. So, after an entree of smoked kangaroo, emu paté and goat's cheese, it's on to a hearty main course of emu and 'roo steaks and a camel sausage. This is no place for vegetarians.
I'm here on a small group trip with Banksia Adventures, exploring the sprawling, diverse landscape of the state. The previous day, after an early-morning touchdown into Adelaide, we had set off on a six-hour drive to the Wilpena Pound, one of three national parks in the Flinders Range.
This region encompasses more than 80pc of the state of South Australia. We ponder what drives people to make this near-epic voyage. Our guide Mick provides the answers. The Adelaide-born trekker splits his time between the city and the outback. "Everyone needs to go back to nature at least once a year; it helps us to be at peace and to get on with our lives."
With little mobile phone reception, giant spaces to explore and endless natural spectacles to take in at your leisure, you quickly come to understand the appeal. After several hours on the road in an air-conditioned 4WD, we take a breather at a small town called Quorn. The journey has taken us through dry landscape comprising pink-coloured salt lakes, miles of salt bush (which provide fodder for the local merino sheep) and various blink-and-miss-them 'towns', so this is practically a city in comparison.
Home to 1,400 people, Quorn promotes itself as a family-friendly stopover. During the Second World War, the town was a hotbed of activity. It was here in 1941 that troops gathered, ready to head north to Darwin to take on a Japanese land invasion which didn't happen in the end.
If you paid attention during history class, or watched the film Australia, you'll know that the northern city was heavily bombed from the air by Japanese forces during the war. Quorn was a vital railway junction at the time and the Pichi Richi Railway still stands, but for different purposes. You can tour the railway workshops, or take a leisurely ride on the steam train there up to Port Augusta -- a two-and-a-half hour return trip covering 32km (train operates April to October).
Later, we arrive at Wilpena Pound Resort, a sprawling yet unobtrusive collective of four-star accommodation, serviced and non-serviced camping grounds.
On our drive up to the resort we spot plenty of euro -- not cash sadly, but a small breed of wallaby. Earlier, we had spotted a mother and joey happily nibbling away just inches from us as we explored the resort.
It's set just outside the walls of the Wilpena Pound, a region of red gum trees and native pines that hide plenty of wildlife. The entire Flinders Range sits on an ancient seabed and is popular with geologists who hunt fossils. It also has its own Aboriginal clan, whose stories describe the formation of the Wilpena Pound as coming from the bodies of two serpents who couldn't move after eating people who had gathered there for a ceremony.
One of the best (and most fun) ways of seeing the area is by air. A flight on a light aircraft rewards us with views that reveal the Pound's crater-like aerial appearance, and nearby mountain ranges that resemble rippling spinal cords.
Back on dry land, we stroll the area by foot, walking through gorges and trying to spot the well-concealed yellow-footed rock wallabies, who were hiding from the midday sun.
A word of warning -- even though it was dry season, there were more than enough flies to drive anyone insane over a picnic lunch, so if you go during the rainy months invest in a hat with netting -- they may seem comical, but you'll have the last laugh.
What really strikes you about this area is the lack of human contact in the region. We passed about four cars a day as we made our way around; seeing three in a row on one occasion was almost as exciting as spotting new types of wildlife.
One thing that all the hotels in the region seem to have in common is a heightened awareness of the need to be green, though in this part of the world eco-friendliness is not about being trendy. With the arrival of rain heralded in the same way that we greet rare glimpses of sunshine at home, everyone here is doing their bit to preserve precious water supplies.
One place that is leading the way in green tourism is Rawnsley Park, on the southern side of the Wilpena Pound. This 3,000ha family-run sheep station has been in operation since 1968 and the latest addition is a series of eco villas of one or two-beds.
They have giant windows and terraces facing the surrounding Flinders Range, providing front-row seats for your own private sunset or sunrise. The mountains change from orange to red -- before revealing another natural show: billions of stars in the cloudless night sky. The villas also feature organic toilets and, for that night show, a retractable ceiling over your bed.
The next morning brings another early start as we make our way towards Clare Valley, named after the Banner county, where the diversity of South Australia's landscape really comes to light. But just before leaving the salt bush and dry lakes behind, we make one final stop to snap the king of all roos: the big red. It's a feast for the eyes when tens of its pals start hopping up the hill, having previously blended in with the burnt landscape.
I suddenly become aware of a carpet of green rolling out over the land as we leave the outback. We're heading into wine country, and eventually vineyards become our new surrounds. Heading into a suburb that looks like something out of Desperate Housewives, we roll up to Clare Valley Cycle Hire and make for the Riesling Trail to try out some of its 36 winemakers.
It stretches 30km from Clare to Auburn and can be cycled in one to two hours, or walked in eight. The good news is that it's built on an old regional railway line so it's flat. What better way to spend the day than by cycling some of the route, stopping for a few wine tastings and some lunch, then doing the same again on your way back?
My stomach full of good food and local Riesling and Pinot Noir, I reflected on this whirlwind tour from the balcony of our final stop, the Clare Country Club. A week may seem like a very short space of time to spend in such a very large space, so very far from anywhere.
But as a state containing everything from roos, bush walks and mysterious rock formations to eco retreats, wineries, and the famously laid-back locals, South Australia is anything but a barren outback.