Sublime inferno

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As nature turns up the heat, Max Anderson finds five-star luxury takes the edge off a journey through outback history.

I remember a German visitor seeing the South Australian outback for the first time. Appalled by the heat, the space and isolation, he muttered: "My God. It's awful."

Things die out here - and often. In case you forget that fact, a string of ruined homesteads lines the road out of Port Augusta. Then the Flinders Ranges begin to rise up, stern as the Bible and older than God, bristling with "ramparts", "gates" and "razorbacks".

In the middle of the German's idea of hell is Arkaba Station, a new five-star wilderness resort surrounded by 26,000 hectares of dry, hard-bitten outback. The Elder Range stands over the homestead, bulging like an ochreous thundercloud; the Chace Range squats to the east and Wilpena Pound looms to the north.

On my first night, long after the sun has gone, the air temperature won't budge from 32 degrees. But that's OK because, with the other guests, I sit in Arkaba's swimming pool watching the moonless sky for comets.

The fractured ridgeline of the Elder Range is silhouetted against the stars while fiercely lit gum trees appear like giant silver wraiths. Glasses of Shaw+Smith sauvignon blanc are queued along the pool's edge and worldly conversations circle over the water; adventure in Yemen, shooting in Africa, art appreciation in Italy.

The 150-year-old homestead is white-washed and tin-roofed, with a manicured lawn, two date palms and verandas that are ideal for dawn coffees and dusk cocktails. Once the working hub of a sheep station, it's now dedicated to the comfort of 10 guests, each paying $790 a night.

The refurbished interior is "settler chic", with leather sofas alongside animal-skin rugs, original art hung on exposed stone and woolshed relics set among natural treasures taken from the bush. Then there are the five-star touches: waffle robes, monsoon showerheads, a choice of three types of pillow, handmade soap.


There is a menu of fine local food from chef Jo Cross - the likes of organic saltbush lamb from Dorper Creek - served on an old wool-classer's table and accompanied by endless rounds of premium South Australian wines. There is also the personal attention of hosts Pat and Sally Kent.

So here's this isle of cool and gentility, contrasting brazenly with the broken gullies and rusted agricultural ephemera lying just metres from the homestead. And it's not awful, it's sublime; practically speaking, a German visitor need never encounter any awfulness.

But is this really the "outback"?

"Come on, wake up!" It's 5.45am. "Get out of bed!" Cat Mee is a guide with Wild Bush Luxury, the group that now owns Arkaba. Being prised from your king-sized cotton-sheeted bed is all part of the deal - before being indulged over lunch and dinner, you have to go wild.

We do a 12-kilometre walk within the monster property - a mere scratch on its sun-baked hide - and, to my surprise, the country changes as quickly as the mercury climbs.

In the 30-degree dawn, the Elder Range looks sweet and soft, mottled with the colours of peach, apricot and plum. Mee says goat shooters came down from the foothills in the 1990s speaking of Aboriginal cave paintings; the caves haven't been located since.

By the time it's 35 degrees, we're in dry creeks shaded by 500-year-old gum trees. Red and western grey kangaroos watch from the shadows, rainbow bee-eaters, red-rumped parrots and corellas move in the canopies.

At 40 degrees, we find our only natural body of water, a piddling puddle in the sands of a steep-sided chasm. "Probably dug up by kangaroos," Mee says. "Arkaba only gets 300 millilitres of rain a year so groundwater like this is critical." Bees swarm beside it and a sheep has come to drink - too late judging by the crows picking over its carcass.

When the mercury reaches 42, we're at walk's end, sitting in the shade of native pines looking up at the 800-metre ramparts of Wilpena Pound. Our guide scratches complex geological processes in the dirt to explain how the giant elevated saucer, some seven kilometres across, came to be formed. "Hard to believe that cattle rustlers used to drive stolen cattle up into it," she says.

The ramparts look like the sort of thing that might daunt Dante on his foray into the inferno.

Forty-seven degrees. So hot that a single lick of desert air wicks the moisture from my skin.

"It's not meant to be like this!" Pat Kent says with a laugh. "It's November."

"Isn't it spring?"

"Yes. Just ... bizarre."

There is something apocalyptic about the unseasonal heat but we're not the first to experience it. Kent is peeling back the layers of history as he drives us through the property to the small outpost of Parachilna.

The local Adnyamathanha people - the Arkaba tribe - survived for 15,000 years thanks to permanent billabongs at the foot of the ranges. We stop beside one of them, a generous pool crowded by coolabahs and reeds, and we sit on warm, red rocks to watch swifts looping out of the sky to drink. "In 1851, two doctors - the Browne brothers - were looking to establish pastoral properties north of Adelaide. They heard about the Arkaba waterholes, had the land surveyed and established a lease."

More than 150 years of drought, dingoes and depression ensued but the water stayed and the station survived. Unusually, relations were maintained between the Arkaba people and the new owners; generations of Aboriginal stockmen worked there until the 1960s and two Adnyamathanha men continue to keep their horses on the property.

In the nearby Flinders Ranges National Park, the history runs deeper. Within steep-sided gorges, rare yellow-footed rock wallabies perch high on rock ledges - layers of the planet that date back 130 million years. In 2003, an invertebrate fossil found near Parachilna (population seven) was dated to 560 million years, the oldest ever found.

The town, however, is more famous for its pub than as an evolutionary cradle.

"Yeah, come in! Hot enough for ya? What are y'having?"

We're having the "roadkill grill" of goat, camel, kangaroo and emu, a platter that has made the Prairie Hotel a legend in its own lunchtime. But it's the front bar that's important, a thriving throwback to the late 1800s, when it served as a refuge for railway gangers, dog-catchers, cameleers and pastoralists. And, as with the waterholes in Arkaba, it's where life is at its most sustaining.

The soothing gloom is filled with stories, country music and trophies, making it easy to see why it's wrong to call the outback "wilderness". People are an integral part of the outback, a sine qua non.

We meet a barman whose previous incarnation was as a fashion designer in Milan. There's a local girl from Blinman who had rolled over in her sleep on to a venomous mulga snake. It was only on its second strike that she woke up and was flown to Adelaide.

That night, the guests at Arkaba kick up their heels in heat that has sent us all a little doolally. The cooling pool plays host until 3am.

On my last day, the temperature is still in the high 30s but today, the pool is covered. The sun has gone, so has the blue sky and the giant red flank of Elder Range - all are blotted out by a dust storm.

I fill the clawfoot bath in my ensuite and find a beer and book with which to while away my remaining few hours at Arkaba. But I'm fascinated by the white winds blowing across the gullies, eddying and spinning to the sound of a furiously creaking windmill. So I turn off the taps and head into the dust.

Within metres of the homestead, the ground is rich with debris - stone ruins, rusted paraphernalia, shards of 19th-century china - left by people who had struggled to make a quid here.

Two such people lie in graves dating from the 1870s and fenced by iron railings. The deceased were connected to the well-to-do Brownes but outside the fence are three broken pieces of slate, one of them poking 30 centimetres out of the ground. I bend low to inspect it and find two faint words scratched into its surface: "In memory". But there is no memory of whoever is interred. Bar the scratchings on the slate, their impoverished existence - their story - has been consumed by the outback.

I understand how the German visitor might see this as the brutal Australian interior serving up yet more awfulness. But, I confess, I relish it. I feel connected to it. And I feel privileged to see it.

Only later do I recross the manicured lawn to continue filling my bath.

Max Anderson travelled courtesy of Wild Bush Luxury and the South Australian Tourism Commission.

Arkaba Station has five rooms; four in the main 1850s homestead and one in the Coachman's Cottage. Rates are $790 a person a night, with a minimum two-night stay, inclusive of all meals, drinks, round-trip transfers by road from Port Augusta or Hawker and scheduled activities (four-wheel-drive safaris, mountain biking, wildlife viewing, daily guiding). See or phone 1300 790 561.