Escape to the Outback

Journey to the South Australian outback – Audi style.

A road trip into the wild red yonder doesn’t mean going without, says Lee Atkinson, who found  a wealth of good food, fine wine and ruggedly scenic roads on a three-day trip to South Australia’s Flinders Ranges.

29 September, 2016

Watching a blood red sun sink into the dusty plain while perched on a stool outside an outback pub, cold beer – or in my case, a glass of bubbles from the winery just a couple of hours down the road – is an unforgettable way to end a day. Even better when the pub is the iconic Prairie Hotel in Parachilna in the middle of the Flinders Ranges, as famous for its innovative approach to using local ingredients as its stylish accommodation.  

The pub’s signature dishes are the FMG (feral mixed grill) with kangaroo fillet, emu fillet mignon and camel sausage, and the Feral Antipasto which includes kangaroo mettwurst, emu pate, goats cheese and bush tomato chilli jam, although the real reason to come here as far as I’m concerned is the quandong pie, a rich tart treat of native peach. The house-made desert lime gelato is pretty good on a hot day, too. It might sound like a novelty designed to fleece tourists but this is a quality act, delicately done with flair and one of the outback’s best dining experiences.  

The Prairie is a true destination diner, a must-stop dot on the map for any traveller passing through, although just passing through is hard to do because beyond Parachilna, population six, there’s not much but road houses, mining camps and desert tracks. It is, however, smack bang in the middle of one of South Australia’s most ruggedly beautiful landscapes, the Flinders Ranges. 

You really need at least a week to explore the many trails, tracks and scenic roads of the Flinders. We had three days, but sometimes you don’t need to do it all to do it best, and the beauty of the Flinders is that it’s an easy half-day drive from Adelaide. Even better, to get there you have to drive right through the middle of one of South Australia’s best wine regions, the Clare Valley.

Celebrated for its crisp bone-dry rieslings, the Clare is one of those wine regions that until recently had plenty of fantastic cellar doors to visit, but not a lot of good places to eat or stay. That’s changed with the opening of the Mill Apartments, a cluster of luxe self-contained one-bedroom villas surrounded by bushland – a long soak in the bathtub looking out at nothing but treetops is the perfect way to relax after a long two-hour drive from the airport. Well, it should have taken two hours; it took us all day, as we got distracted by half a dozen wineries along the way, and lingered over lunch on the deck at Paullet Wines, gazing out at the vine-clad hills while we ate. 

The Mill Apartments might enjoy a leafy outlook, but they are right on the historic township’s main street, and less than half-a dozen strides from the Seed Winehouse + Bar, a relatively new addition to the local eating scene. Housed in a made-over Chaff Mill, the dishes on the menu are designed to share, so we left the choices to the chef. Platters of soft, buttery jamon and spicy salumi, polenta-crumbed sardines, black linguini with blue swimmer crab, grilled Gawler River spitchcock and a swoon-worthy shoulder of saltbush lamb cooked for 12 hours and served with fig, vincotto and pomegranate, followed by a burnt ginger custard with poached fruits and walnut crumble, almost put us into a food coma, so it was just as well as apartments were next door. 

After a leisurely breakfast overlooking the flower garden at Skillogalee winery – the baked blueberry and raspberry pancakes are divine, and I have it on very good authority that the baked eggs with mauri taleggio and spinach were just as good – we headed north, past hillsides covered in yellow canola and ridged with rows of vines, the bare trellises smudged with the very first hints of springtime green.  

Established in 1851, Rawnsley Park Station on the southern face of Wilpena Pound – a circle of rocky mountain peaks that from the air looks like a giant crater – was one of the first sheep stations in the Flinders. It’s still a working farm – we take a peek inside the fleece-strewn shearing shed before we head out on a sunset 4WD tour – but the owners have been welcoming travellers since 1968, first to simple cabins, then a caravan park, and now to luxury eco-villas with stunning views of the surrounding ranges, and a glass panel in the bedroom ceiling, so you can star gaze from under your doona. 

Having toasted the dying sun with a glass of local bubbly from the top of the Chace Range, jagged mountains fanning out in all directions below us while wedge-tailed eagles surfed the thermals above us, and enjoyed a plate of station saltbush lamb in the Woolshed Restaurant that was so tender you didn’t need a knife, we strolled back to our villas in the dark, navigating by starlight so bright that our torches stayed in our pockets.

Rawnsley Park is only 90 minutes drive from the Prairie at Parachilna, but it we dawdle, exploring Brachina Gorge along the way, before circling back to do the equally ooh-ah-gorgeous Parachilna Gorge in the afternoon. You don’t need a 4WD to get to the Flinders as the main south-north roads are sealed, but the really wondrous bits are on the tracks that run east-west through the gorges of the range, and it’s here that the Q7 comes into its own, tackling the rocky but ridiculously scenic roads with style. 

If you thought a road trip to the outback is all about roughing it, think again. Best of all, you don’t have to drive forever to get there: the Prairie, one of the outback’s most unforgettable watering holes, is just a little more than five hours drive from Adelaide airport, so you can wake up in the outback and still be home in time for dinner.  

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