"You get sensational lightshows three times a day - at dawn, midday and dusk," said the mother-of-two in the eco-villa next door. "You'd be crazy to miss any of them." And she was right. At dawn, the Elder Range changes from deep purple to mauve as the sun rises in the east. At around 12noon, the towering walls of Wipena Pound turn flame red under the midday sun. And when the sun sets in the west, the great zig-zags of hot pink quartz-sandstone in the Chace Range look like psychedelic lightning frozen in time.
The mother's seven-year-old daughter described these lighting effects as "the sun's three magic spells". And during our visit they were pretty spellbinding. Equally dazzling, however, are Rawnsley Park Station's eight new eco-villas (below) located high on a hill in the shadow of the Pound, a geological natural wonder that looks like a huge meteor crater.
The award-winning villas are not only chic and spacious, but also have the latest environmental design features, including rendered straw bale walls to insulate their interiors from the Flinders fluctuating day- and night-time temperatures. They even have retractable ceiling screens so you can gaze at the stars from your comfortable king-size bed.
Equipped with large private verandas that provide the perfect perch to enjoy breakfast while watching the local birdlife and kangaroos eat theirs, the villas have been designed to allow cooling breezes to flow through them in summer.
As tempting as it may seem to enjoy the raw beauty of the Flinders without leaving an eco-villa, you would be missing out. Try the station's evening tour Sunset on the Chace ($80) that takes you to the top of the Chace range to watch the sun setting behind the Pound. Local wine and antipasto are provided and the views are sensational.
At the other end of the day, starting at 7am, the Highlife Guide Walk ($60) gently explores the foothills beneath the Pound and gives a fascinating insight into the local ecology, flora and fauna … and more amazing views… followed by a hearty cooked breakfast under a giant gum tree.
The symbol of Rawnsley Park is the wedge-tailed eagle (right) and you'll see them soaring high. On the first day, I found two of them - magnificent birds with talons the size of fingers and great curved beaks - sitting in an old pine tree close to my eco-villa. As one of the top predators in the Flinders, they have been known to swoop out of the sky and take a young kangaroo, but these days you’re more likely to see them feeding on a dead kangaroo on the highway and, sadly, they end up as road kill, too.
Rawnsley Park Station is a great local success story. After years of drought and falling stock prices, its owners Tony and Julie Smith decided to supplement the income of their 3000-hectare sheep station by diversifying into high-end tourism -hence the eco-villas. After building four at a cost of $1million, they won the Best New Tourism Development at the SA Tourism Awards and built another four. The couple then bought neighbouring Arkapena Station, which at 9000-hectare was three times the size of Rawnsley, and plan to transform the homestead into more luxury accommodation.
The Rawnsley expansion is well timed. The Flinders region has been chosen, along with the Red Centre (NT), Blue Mountains (NSW) and Great Ocean Road (Vic), to feature in a multimillion dollar marketing campaign as one of four fabulous places to visit Down-under. For years, these spectacular mountains that rank among the world's oldest - with their red sandstone gorges and rugged, serrated summits - have been almost exclusively enjoyed by Australians. Now, visitors are flocking there from all over the planet.
Heritage homesteads, early settlers cottages, breathtakingly beautiful walks, giant river gums and yellow-footed rock wallabies (right) are just some of the attractions. Now good food and wine have joined the list.
Once known as "the pea and pie trail", there are now several places serving good tucker, including Rawnsley Park Station, the Prairie Hotel at Parachilna (see link below) and the Wilpena Pound Resort, just up the road.
At Rawnsley's restaurant, The Woolshed, Jon and Sally Dean serve some of the best roo in the Flinders. Their Marinated Kangaroo Fillets with Red Wine and Tarragon Jus ($32) are as tender as they are tasty, and are served with a Greek salad and baby roast potatoes. Also delicious is the Salmon Stuffed Tommy Ruff ($32), Artichoke and Fetta Tart ($15) and Crab and Avocado Pate ($15). But don't forget to round the meal off with the Sticky Date Pudding with Double Crean ($9.50), it’s so light it leaves you wanting more… and more.
Join one of the Rawnsley Park Station's (right) seven excursions, such as Bunyeroo & Brachina Georges Half-Day Tour ($115), and by the time you get back in the afternoon, you'll have time for a bath (yes, the eco-villas have big baths and soothing soaking salts) and a glass of wine on the veranda, before dinner at the Woolshed five minutes down the road. The perfect end to an unforgettable day.
Rawnsley Park Station (tel: 08 8648 0030) has five types of accommodation, including eco-villas (one bed: $340; two-bed: $380); 3.5-star holiday units (suitable for two to six people, from $65 and from $95), a bunkhouse (sleeps maximum 48 people, $30 per adult, minimum $200), powered site (from $20) and camping (from $11).
If you like to be where the action is, Wilpena Pound Resort (right) is the place to be. Located on the doorstep of the Pound's only entrance, a creek that gently winds through an avenue of giant river gums into the hidden interior, this resort is the original walker's hotel. From here, you can join many of the spectacular walking trails to the Pound’s highest points, including St Mary Peak (a full day), Pompey Pillar and Rawnsley Bluff.
The resort also offers a variety of easy guided walks, including one to historic Old Wilpena Homestread and another to the Pound Lookout, but the most spectacular experience on offer is a scenic flight over the Backbone of the Flinders. The 30-minute one, known as Flight 2 ($145), includes superb views of the Elder Range, Edeowie Gorge, Heysen Range, Lake Torrens, Bunyeroo and Brachina gorges and the Pound itself. It's worth every cent and gives every visitor to the Flinders an eagle’s view of the entire region.
Recently taken over by Anthology, The Travellers' Collection, a group that brings together guided walks, heritage experiences and comfortable accommodation, the resort is undergoing a stylish renovation. It offers several accommodation options from double rooms to deluxe villas, priced from $195.
The restaurant provides simple, but good modern Australian food. Highly recommended for a quick lunch are the superb baguettes, especially the one filled with marinated chicken and roast vegetables.
Wilpena Pound Resort (tel: 08 8648 0004) has several accommodation options, including comfortable room and villas, from $195 and $210 respectively, a campsite with powered sites (double: $28) and unpowered sites (double: $20), permanment tents with linen ($90) and has plans to set up 12 safari-style tents in the near future.
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