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South Australia highlights

Soak up the balmy Mediterranean climate in Clare Valley; admire the spectacular ridgelines and deep gorges of The Flinders Ranges; go ‘noodling’ for opals in a mad, bad frontier town. There are countless reasons why South Australia is like nowhere else on earth

South Australia highlights
Wilpena Pound. Image: AWL Images

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Clare Valley
Clare Valley perfectly illustrates Australia’s precarious reliance on coastal climes for its bounty. As the early settlers in South Australia found, the colony could sustain anything — so long as the water lasted. Today, though, its status as a Tuscan-esque wine region producing world-beating Rieslings is secure. Soak up the balmy Mediterranean climate, the 19th-century settler history and choose from over 30 ‘cellar doors’ where you can taste the local produce.

Stop at beautiful Sevenhill Cellars, which was set up by Jesuit Priests in 1851 and is still producing sacramental wine. Nearby is Mintaro, Australia’s answer to a Cotswold village, complete with an incongruous late-Victorian stately home, Martindale Hall. And pay homage to explorer John Ainsworth Horrocks at his cottage near Penwortham; he was killed when ‘Harry the Horrible’, an irascible camel, lurched into Horrocks’ gun, causing it to fatally discharge.

There are plenty of scenic spots to stop a camp; alternatively, stay at a cottage B&B in Auburn or Mintaro.

Wilpena Pound
The Flinders Ranges are serried lines of buckled planet, forming spectacular ridgelines and deep gorges. Wilpena Pound is one of their most dramatic features — seemingly, a massive crater, but actually formed by 540 million years of uplift and erosion. The strange elevated basin covers 50sq miles and is best seen after hiking the magnificent ‘ramparts’ (the rim of the basin), which rise to 3,840ft at their highest point.

Arkaroo Rock, on the southern rampart, contains 6,000-year-old Aboriginal cave paintings relaying the Adnyamathanha story of how Wilpena Pound was formed by two giant serpents. The ruins of Wilpena Station are to the east of the Pound, and most evocative at dusk, when you’ll see large groups of kangaroos and emus.
Quintessential Australian campsites are to be found beside billabongs and along dry creek beds throughout the area. Cabins, eco-villas and luxury safari tents are also available.

Brachina Gorge to The Prairie Hotel
Strike out north of Wilpena to Brachina Gorge, home to ancient gum trees and rare yellow-footed rock wallabies. It’s also an open book on the planet’s evolution — every layer of rock a page in that story. Interpretive panels indicate different strata, including rocks that display fossils of some of Earth’s earliest life forms. The rough track continues for 18 miles, emerging onto the Outback Highway, which in turn leads to the Prairie Hotel. The pub is the town of Parachilna and first started serving in 1897. Since 1991, owners the Farghers have made it a beacon of Outback hospitality. Its restaurant is famous for posh platters of ‘feral’ ingredients like camel, goat and emu but the front bar remains an old-school place of cold beer and tall tales.

A rare yellow-footed rock wallaby. Image: Getty

A rare yellow-footed rock wallaby. Image: Getty

Island Lagoon and Woomera
If you prefer bitumen under your wheels, stick to the Stuart Highway and head for Island Lagoon Lookout, your first arresting sight of a salt lake. These glittering, surreal, slightly deathly things were a barrier to the Europeans trying to break through the interior. Island Lagoon is relatively small and notable for its photogenic ‘shark fin’ of rock; walk down to the edge of the lake, and if the crust is firm, take a walk out into infinity. Not far away is Woomera, the base for British and Australian boffins working on joint missile and rocket programmes in the 1950s. The history is well shared in the Woomera Heritage Centre and Interactive Rocket Range Museum.

Oodnadatta Track
This 230-mile, two-day tour of the unsealed Oodnadatta Track is your ticket to what makes the Outback weird, wonderful and wild. Begin at Marree, where trains that once served the Old Ghan railway line sit as reminders of former glory days. Marree was once a major railhead town, it was also where the Afghan cameleers would trek into the desert making onward deliveries to remote stations. The town is home to Australia’s first mosque and a terrific pub where you can learn about the mysterious Marree Man — the world’s largest artwork, which requires an aircraft in order to view it.

Said aircraft can be found at the tiny outpost of William Creek, where you’ll find a quirky pub and Wright’s Air. Flight-seeing is a must, not least for views of the Lake Eyre salt lake, Australia’s lowest point (50ft below sea level) and magical when in flood.

Push through miles of stony plains, stopping at the Mutonia Sculpture Park (industrial-scale welded artworks) and ruins of the Overland Telegraph stations and railway sidings. Detour to see the remarkable Mound Springs — huge blisters that emerge from the plains, leaking water and sustaining ecosystems. Camp in Coward Springs, a lush oasis shaded by gum trees that cackle with cockatoos at sunset. There’s also a spring-fed soak in which to freshen up. 

Coober Pedy
The chance discovery of opal in 1915 saw a mad, bad frontier town spring up out of the desert. It’s still a pretty edgy place, but all the more fascinating for that. Start where it counts, with a tour of the opal fields — a landscape that looks like a sea of sailing ships, thanks to the cones of white spoil drilled from the ground.

Underground dwellings once provided respite from the heat. You can go into this strange dugout world to see churches, an art gallery and homes. Sci-fi film makers and hippies also drew inspiration from the landscape and legacies of both can be seen in spaceship props and rainbow-hued outlets dotted around town.

For a chance to strike it rich, join a ‘noodling tour’ (sifting through waste-rock piles). To sample life underground, stay in the backpacker hostel or the upmarket Desert Cave Hotel. When it’s lights out, rooms don’t come any darker.

Published in the Australia 2017 guide, distributed with the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).