Walking below the towering red walls of Brachina Gorge, past the silver trunks of giant river gums was once reward enough. Fuelling up on snacks throughout the day and wolfing down a bush barbecue before collapsing into a swag was all one ever asked of the Flinders Ranges. Then came the drought and with it - manna from heaven. Station owners, faced with declining stock numbers and falling income, turned their legendary country hospitality towards tourism. Now, people are flocking to the Flinders assured of those little luxuries associated more with the city, especially to the Prairie Hotel at Parachilna, a former ghost town in the middle of nowhere.
Outside the Prairie Hotel (above), the sun is setting over the saltbush plains in the west, throwing a crimson stain across the sky and a purple glow on to the rugged Flinders Range in the east, when someone breaks into song. It's a Prairie tradition to play a song as the sun goes down and today some of the locals have decided to turn it into a sing-along.
The dress circle seats are on the hotel's veranda, where most of the guests are quenching their thirst after a dusty day on the trail, but I'm in the main dining room hypnotised by a plate of food – King George Whiting and Saltbush Fritters, served with a Sweet Lemon Myrtle and Chilli Sauce (starter: $16). The saltbush batter is as fine as the best tempura and the thin, moist medallions of fish provide the perfect foil. As I sip on a glass of Skillogalee Reisling, from a vineyard in the Clare Valley, two hours drive south, the day's hard trek takes on a mellow glow.
The Prairie kitchen is famous for its signature dish - FMG, or Feral Mixed Grill, a meat-eater's feast that includes Kangaroo Fillet, Emu Fillet Mignon, Camel Sausage served with a Grilled Tomato, Creamy Mash and a Red Wine Pepper Leaf Glaze (main: $30). But I decide to try the Bush Tomato Butter Chicken with Basmati Rice, Muntries Rivermouth Yogurt and Pappadums (main: $24.50). It's a lighter take on the famous Indian dish, with a subtle blend of spices balanced with the flavours of the bush tomato - better than any equivalent dish I've eaten in Sydney. Responsible for the food day to day is chef Hannah Hermann, just 20, who works with menus devised by consulting chef Andrew Fielke, of Adelaide. Hannah is a pro, no doubt about that. When I was at the hotel, she cooked for 70 one lunch and more than 80 that evening.
Outside on the veranda with the sun long gone, a local musician is singing bush ballads, when the blaring horn of a passing train adds an authentic outback note. The three-kilometre-long coal train makes the seven-hour journey from Leigh Creek, just north of Parachilna, to Port Augusta every the morning, returning empty in the evening.
When Parachilna was on the Port Augusta-Oodnadatta-Alice line, it thrived, but once the railway was diverted west of Lake Torrens, it became a ghost town. Until that is, the Prairie Hotel, circa 1876, put its name back on the map as a gourmand’s destination and one of the most exciting places to stay in the outback.
As I tuck into Quandong crumble with ice-cream, the sunset drinks outside have turned into a party - guests are dancing on several giant wine barrels in the car park. At the back of the hotel, where the bedrooms are located in a well-insulated modern extension that won an architectural design award in 2000, you could hear a pin drop. As the moon rises over the Flinders, shooting stars can be clearly seen streaking across the sky.
Jane (right) and Ross Fargher, who own the 873-sq km Nilpena Station, half an hour's drive to the north, bought the pub in 1991, by then a little run down. At the time, it was their local and with the pub's future looking a little shaky, they decided they would start pulling the schooners. The gamble paid off. Word soon got around that there was a gem in the Aussie desert and people started to come from all over Australia and further afield, including Brazil, Britain, USA, Japan and Italy, to name but a few countries. And it's not difficult to understand why.
When it comes to stuff of outback legend, the hotel's atmosphere couldn't be bettered. Behind its sandstone walls, little has changed to corrupt its original character. It's true the dining room (below) now doubles up as an art gallery, but the long wooden tables come from the shearer's quarters on Nilpena Station and the Aboriginal paintings couldn't have a better pedigree - they originate from the famous Utopia Community, 250km north east of Alice Springs. Like the food, the art is considered by many to be some of the finest to come out of the outback.
And the Prairie's attractions don't stop there. Country and Western star Lee Kernaghan has given two concerts at the hotel and Jane has just launched an annual shorts film festival called Cinema Under the Desert Stars.
Back to the restaurant, the local population of Western grey kangaroos provide some of the best roo meat in the country and appropriately they make a solo appearance on the menu, as Kangaroo Fillet on a Sweet Potato Fritter and Quandong Chilli Glaze (main: $24). Enjoy this with the local Flinders Bundaleer shiraz ($6 a glass) and you won't be disappointed. I was tempted to match the Mediterranean Pizza ($19) with a bottle of Bollinger Special Cuvee ($195), but ordered a long neck of Jane and Ross' home-brew beer "Fargher Lager" instead. It's obvious the Prairie caters for diverse tastes and budgets.
"You could say our bar serves the world," says Jane at breakfast the next morning. "It's a great leveller; a place where you'll find local railway workers talking to travellers from all over the globe. We've even broken into the Italian honeymoon market."
Before I leave, I order breakfast - a Dried Peach and Quandong Compote with Yogurt and Muesli ($8.50), followed by Sweetcorn Fritters with Bacon, Roast Tomatoes and Wilted Rocket ($12.50). The sun has risen over the great spine of the Flinders and its rays are flooding across the saltbush plains that stretch flat and unbroken more than 1500km to Perth.
Jane makes excellent espresso (from $3.20) and her skills as a barista are called upon when 15 cyclists, on a mammoth 2280km expedition from Port Augusta to Mt Isa in Far North Queensland, drop in for coffee. "Its the best brew we've had so far,” says one of the cyclists.
Near the hotel is the former town's old school house, post office and a couple of empty houses, where you'll find overflow bedrooms and what Jane calls her "Flashbackers". Today, Parachilna's population numbers around seven and most of them are connected in some way to the Praire.
Thanks to Jane and Ross Fargher, the old hotel is now an even bigger outback icon than it ever was - a traveller's rest, where you can either order a cool beer and pay for a place to park your tent or sit down to a three-course meal and collapse into a queen-size bed.
The 12-room Praire Hotel is 470km north of Adelaide. Nightly rates start from $130. The hotel's Sunsets, Saddles & Shiraz package offers an outback adventure of three nights and two days that includes any or all of the following: horse riding and a cattle muster experience on Nilpena Station, 4WD tours, country hospitality with meals, wine and beer and social contact with local characters, sleeping under the stars in a swag, in a shearers' cottage or at the hotel ($3800 per person during March, May , July and October).
Drive through the Parachilna Gorge to the historic town Blinman in the Flinders Ranges or through Brachina Gorge and Bunyeroo gorges to Wilpena Pound.
If you're driving up from Adelaide, drop in the North Star Hotel at Melrose, a historic little town just south of the Flinders. The Star offers great food and beautiful rooms and istheplace to break the journey to Parachilna.
To read about the best views in the Flinders Ranges from Rawnsley Park Station's chic eco villas, click here!