Experiencing the Australian outback at Arkaba Conservancy
It is the great outback that, for me, sums up the awesome beauty of Australia – big sky country with hundreds of miles of wild and arid land, dotted with mobs of kangaroos, emus, echidnas and many other species.
Tourism began in this part of Australia in Uluru, famously known as Ayers Rock, which is at the heart of the outback geographically and spiritually. Some 900 miles south-east are the Flinders Ranges, which punctuate this huge expanse and are another of Australia’s ancient and most ecologically significant landscapes.
Unlike Uluru, the Flinders Ranges are little visited due to their remote location and dearth of places to stay, with the exception of an old sheep station turned homestead, set on a colossal, 60,000-acre private area called the Arkaba Conservancy, which I was lucky enough to visit earlier this year. It is the remoteness of this place that I found utterly compelling, and its rich conservation story, which was unravelled each day by my knowledgeable guides.
To get there, I flew from Adelaide to Port Augusta, from where my guide drove us the 75 minutes to Arkaba. En route, I saw several emus and a two-metre spanned wedge-tailed eagle all in the first few minutes. We stopped in the nearest town, Hawker, which has a population of just a couple of hundred people, a small school and perhaps the driest golf course in existence. This was once a thriving railway town and the centre of agriculture until severe drought brought that to an end in the 19th century. Only with the emergence of tourism in the area has the region been put back on the map, although you would not know this as you drive through, as development is non-existent.
On arrival at Arkaba’s homestead, phone reception and Wi-Fi ceases to exist and I immediately felt I could switch off. This is a place to go if you wish to truly slow down, focus on the present and relax. The mid-19th-century house has a handful of bedrooms, all with verandahs overlooking the ranges, which was where I spent my first few hours lazing in the heat of the afternoon sun. My room had a large double bed, antique furniture, a shower and bathtub, fluffy towels and a lovely writing desk. If I could have picked any room, though, it would have been the standalone Coachman’s Cottage in the corner of the garden, which felt wonderfully private. On my desk, I found a copy of the ‘Species Checklist’, a very useful logbook of all the birds, mammals, reptiles, frogs and trees that awaited me on my adventures to come.
The service here was relaxed, friendly and personal – typically Australian and ‘down to earth’ – yet with great attention to detail. The fridge was stocked with some very delicious wines, beers and soft drinks, and we were encouraged to help ourselves as and when we liked, which we happily enjoyed on big comfy sofas overlooking the garden.
The chef at Arkaba cooks delicious, unfussy food, with as much sourced locally or in South Australia as possible. Mealtimes were relaxed, with all the guests dining together. The great distance from civilisation meant that, at last light, after drinks by the campfire and dinner on the terrace, the entire crystal-clear night sky above the homestead was speckled with stars.
On my first morning, I woke up just before dawn and set out on a two-hour hike through the dry creek beds lined with red river gums and up to one of the highest peaks, just in time to see the utterly mesmerising site of the conservancy in the ethereal morning light. Arkaba’s walking trails offer great flexibility for hikers to fully immerse themselves in this awe-inspiring landscape.
The jeep safaris here change seasonally, depending on whether rain has come or not. During my stay, Arkaba had only seen 2mm of rain in months, which meant that reptiles were scarce. However, I saw dozens of red-rumped and elegant parrots, emus, goshawks, eagles, red and western grey kangaroos and common wallaroos, which are all uniquely adapted to the rocky outcrops of the ranges. There was a swimming pool overlooking Arkaba Creek, which I welcomed in the 30° autumn heat.
Air safaris are another amazing way to take in the staggering vistas of Arkaba and some of the topographical highlights of the Flinders Ranges, such as Wilpena Pound, the massive saltpans of Lake Torrens and the Elder mountains. We can arrange a very special lunch in some of the highest peaks or the lowest gorges, or even at the famous Prairie Hotel, one of Australia’s best outback pubs.
It’s also possible to hike between comfortable camps and the homestead on one- to three-day expeditions in the outback. It is magical to sleep under the stars and this is particularly suitable for adventurous spirits or active families. The camping season is from March to October, as the summers are unbearably hot here.
Another unique aspect of a visit to Arkaba is the opportunity to listen to stories of times gone by with the homestead’s aboriginal guide, Pauline Mckenzie. Aboriginal people are the oldest living culture in the world and have a fundamental connection to the country. Hearing about her personal connections with aboriginal history, in the context of Arkaba's natural beauty, culture and traditions, is both fascinating and enlightening. It is only in the past few years that recognition of aboriginal art, culture and customs has begun to surface in Australia, and Pauline talks very openly about the many issues that confront this marginalised society today.
Another really memorable aspect of my stay here was learning about Arkaba’s conservation work. In 2013, the last of the livestock was removed from this then working sheep farm, as the negative impact of more than 150 years of agricultural grazing was bitterly evident, with many areas left completely barren, eroded and void of many native animals and plants. As a private wildlife conservancy, it has pioneered projects that are now being mirrored across the continent. The team focuses on the eradication of feral species’ to reverse the effects of years of grazing. Ongoing efforts to reduce the number of wild goats, foxes and cats have involved aerial and ground-based control methods that have proven highly effective.
Guests of Arkaba can get involved with the conservation here, which might include tracking a radio-collared feral cat with a telemetry device, setting up the cameras traps that monitor key sites across the property, looking for signs of vegetation critical to endangered animals or joining a biologist on land surveys. A proportion of the homestead’s profits go directly into these initiatives and towards funding ecologists to conduct vegetation and mammal surveys to track the efficiency of the programmes.
Thanks to the dedicated ongoing efforts of the teams at work here, Arkaba is without question one of the best places to see wildlife in Australia, and with a maximum of just 10 guests led by a handful of incredibly insightful and passionate guides, our clients can have a truly exclusive and fascinating immersion into this ancient land.
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