The full range of wonders

Wildlife and creature comforts go hand in hand at this safari camp, writes Anthony Dennis.

It is early afternoon and I have just returned to my room at the resort after having spent a memorable half-day watching wedge-tailed eagles soar in near squadron-like numbers above me, spotted rare yellow-footed rock wallabies hot-footing it over boulders and emus striding across straw-coloured plains framed by the proverbial ragged mountain ranges.

On canvassing my room, I notice that housekeeping has swooped, not unlike those eagles from earlier in my day, and made my king-sized bed, cleaned my bathroom and changed my fluffy towels. Normally on most holidays, this would be an entirely unremarkable occurrence, except that my room here at the Ikara Safari Camp at the Wilpena Pound Resort in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia is a tent.

It is one of more than a dozen at the new camp, with nary a doorknob from which to dangle a "Please clean my room" sign, let alone a "Do not disturb" one, but featuring most of the modern conveniences of a half-decent motel or hotel room.

Ikara, which means "meeting place" in the local Adnyamathanha language, is part of the venerable Wilpena Pound Resort, about 400 kilometres north of Adelaide and one of the first outback tourism ventures of its kind in Australia.

It was established in the late 1950s by the visionary Rasheed family, with Ikara the latest accommodation offering. Yet in the pantheon of Australia's natural outback wonders, the Flinders Ranges tend to be overlooked, if not forgotten.

Yet, at 500 million to 800 million odd years old, South Australia's largest mountain range is one of the world's oldest landscapes.

It has been the home of the Adnyamathanha people for tens of thousands of years and, much more recently, hardy European settlers.

The ruins of their 19th-century homesteads are scattered across this part of the outback, although it was the German-born Australian artist Sir Hans Heysen who, in the 20th century, secured fame for the Flinders with his evocative impressions of the ranges.

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Heysen favoured the ubiquitous grand outback vistas of the Flinders, but the ranges also abound with wildlife, including the yellow-footed rock wallaby.

On my first full day in the Flinders, which stretch for 400 kilometres to the ocean, I head out by four-wheel-drive in search of this rare creature.

I am on a tour, heading from Wilpena Pound to the spectacular Brachina Gorge. En route, we are circled by wedge-tails, the silhouette of their more than two-metre-wide wingspan a near constant presence in the sky above us.

I am awestruck by the Flinders and find myself questioning why I have waited so long to visit.

When I discover that Heysen was nearly 50 when he first visited these parts, I feel a little less regret.

"It is an old country, very old," Heysen wrote of the landscape that would provide him with an enormous body of work and recognition, "and it is that very age you feel in your surroundings, that spaciousness and those rugged, peculiar shapes in the hills ... the dry quality of the colour and the infinity of the vast distances."

Brachina Gorge extends eight kilometres and it is here that we encounter a mob (or colony) of yellow-footed rock wallabies, best described as grey-brown in colour with a yellow-coloured tail banded with dark stripes, a white underside, yellow forearms and yellow feet.

As we step from our vehicle to view them, they are, true to their reputation, bouncing from one boulder to another. They generously pause long enough for us to get a proper look at them though binoculars provided by our guide.

For such a rare creature, the wallabies are remarkably undisturbed by our presence, but do maintain a certain, sensibly healthy distance.

In all my travels in Australia, I have not seen anything quite as gorgeous as these creatures. Twenty years ago, there were estimated to be between 7000 and 10,000 in South Australia, but today there are believed to be considerably fewer, with perhaps only 2000 left.

They favour semi-arid, rock-strewn country such as here, but they are prey for feral cats, foxes, which rangers are endeavouring with some success to rid from the park, and even wedge-tailed eagles.

After wallaby spotting, our group retires for lunch, in true outback style, in a creek bed that is as dry as an unstocked hotel minibar, enveloped by the streaky near blood-red walls of the gorge and the sort of towering, tangled and twisted river red gums that so inspired Heysen.

As we leave to head back to the resort, we spot a feral goat staring down at us from the top of the gorge.

Even goats are a threat to the yellow-footed rock wallaby, since they compete with them for food, particularly during drought.

Back at Ikara, there is certainly no shortage of tucker. Breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant-standard meals are served in a large, fully furnished central communal tent, with the flaps fully open on warm and hot nights. There is also a fire pit surrounded by small fold-up campaign chairs for pre or post-prandial moments.

The 15 en suite tents, two of which are designed for families, are situated in a secluded location away from the original main resort, bought in 2012 by Indigenous Business Australia and the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands. The camp, along with Wilpena Pound Resort, is run by the same group as Wildman Wilderness Lodge, just outside Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, which offers the option of similar safari tent accommodation.

Guests at Ikara can use the full facilities of the 60-room Wilpena Pound Resort, which includes a restaurant and bar, swimming pool, general store, internet access and visitor information centre. Each tent at Ikara is well spaced apart from its neighbour, maximising privacy, with the main resort within walking distance of Ikara.

My tent sits amid river red gum and native pines, with the rocky walls of Wilpena Pound as a backdrop of the view from my shaded timber deck. They call it "glamping", which more or less translates as camping for cheats.

There is no television inside the tents - there have to be some limits - but there is a fully tiled bathroom with a powerful hot shower, along with a reverse-cycle airconditioning, plunger coffee (what, no espresso machine?) and even a small fridge. The walls of my room may be flexible and canvas, but if this is roughing it, I could bear some more.

The next morning I rise in the relative cool of dawn and head to the nearby airstrip for the near mandatory scenic fixed-wing flight over Wilpena Pound, which until now I have seen only as a huddle of impressive deep purple-tinged mountains.

Unlike Uluru, a sense of which can be gained from ground level, Wilpena Pound demands to be surveyed from above, preferably by light aircraft, for a proper perspective of the 80-square kilometre natural amphitheatre created by erosion over eons.

You can walk to the top of the ranges from the resort and into the pound itself, but flying over it is the easier, if not more expensive, way to gain a proper visual understanding of it.

As we take off, with a couple of kangaroos loitering on the edge of the strip, the surrounding landscape is bathed in the sort of delicate golden outback light that is worth rising this early to experience.

Wondrous Wilpena Pound soon reveals itself. Heysen memorably dubbed it "the bones of the earth laid bare", although from the air it resembles a massive shallow frying pan with a wildly exaggeratedly base. As we circle Wilpena Pound, our pilot tells us it is so vast that it has been estimated eight Ulurus could fit inside it. Quite a frypan.

The flight lasts between 20 and 30 minutes, enough to gain a proper sense of the Wilpena Pound that I have found elusive from ground level ever since I arrived. With a few stomach-churning dips in the light aircraft along the way as it is tossed around in the fluky thermals, I am a little relieved to be back on terra firma, but glad for the experience.

I have just had three days in the Flinders Ranges and, what with the long though engaging drive from Adelaide, I have had only enough time to experience a fraction of it.

I can imagine spending a week or more here, discovering all that I have missed, free to explore this ancient world like one of those carefree wedge-tails, content in the knowledge that there will always be a reliable hot shower, a flush toilet and fluffy towels back in my fully serviced tent.

Anthony Dennis travelled as a guest of Ikara Safari Camp and the South Australian Tourist Commission.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN THE FLINDERS

BLINMAN

The discovery of copper here in 1859 led to a boom. Today you can visit the ruins of the old copper mine in this town.

HEYSEN TRAIL

A 1200-kilometre hike route, named after the artist, that meanders through the Flinders Ranges, where you can tackle sections of the walk.

PARACHILNA

The location for films such as Rabbit Proof Fence, Parachilna's most famous attraction is the Prairie Hotel, known for its "feral food platter".

LAKE EYRE

The Flinders Ranges is the perfect departure point for scenic flights to this 140-kilometre long and nearly 80-kilometre wide natural wonder which on rare occasions fills with water.

FLINDERS RANGES BY BIKE

A challenging 200-kilometre loop trail showcases some of the most spectacular scenery in the central Flinders Ranges.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Wilpena Pound Resort is in the Flinders Ranges National Park, South Australia. It's a 4½ to five-hour (430-kilometre) drive north of Adelaide. Qantas operates frequent daily flights to Adelaide from Sydney and Melbourne. There is also the option to fly from Adelaide to Port Augusta for the 1½ hour drive to Wilpena Pound Resort (transfers can be arranged). Direct charter flights are also available. See qantas.com.au.

STAYING THERE

Ikara, at Wilpena Pound Resort, offers 15 premium en suite safari tents. Accommodation, breakfast and dinner start from $340 a night, twin share, in the low season (November to March) and $390 a night in high season (April to October). Guests can also stay in the tents on a "room only" rate. See ikarasafaricamp.com.au; phone (08) 8648 0004.

MORE INFORMATION

southaustralia.com.