SOME people are underwhelmed by the Australian Outback. What's the appeal, they ask, of monotonous landscapes of red dirt and stunted vegetation? Those people, clearly, haven't been to the Flinders Ranges, with its dramatic vistas and palette of shimmering ochres, purples and greens.
Occupying a chunk of South Australia that begins about 350km north of Adelaide, the Flinders mountain range has inspired many painters. But, even if you're not artistically inclined, the area has many attractions and by far the best place to stay - assuming you have a generous budget - is Arkaba Station, near the tiny hamlet of Hawker.
Dating back to the 1850s, Arkaba sheep station comprises 24,000ha of land and an impeccably renovated homestead, offering well-heeled guests a taste of Outback living with a distinctly luxurious flavour.
The homestead has five double rooms, a library, swimming pool, terraces and a shady outdoor lounge area, where meals prepared by a resident chef are served on a former wool-grading table.
The rustic ambience is reinforced by a liberal scattering of animal-skin rugs, and the open bar contains an excellent selection of Australian wines.
But the star attraction at Arkaba is not the accommodation, superior though it is, but the magnificent scenery with its rugged gorges, peaks and its colours that change with the light.
The undulating landscape looks particularly lovely in the late afternoon, as we discovered when our knowledgeable guide, Kat Mee, led us on a walk through a dry creek bed fringed with river red gum trees, then drove us along a ridgetop in the shadow of the Elder mountain range, at one edge of the sprawling property.
Kat alerted us to the diverse birdlife - galahs, corellas, kestrels and vividly coloured ringneck parrots - and explained the difference between a kangaroo and a euro (euros hop faster, and in a more upright posture). We spotted a pair of emus wandering through the bush, and a female western grey kangaroo with a "joey" (baby) in her pouch.
The following morning we got up at dawn to climb the 450m-high Arkaba Hill, which involved a steep scramble up sheep tracks but was worth it for the views that unfolded as we ascended in tandem with the sun. From on high, we could see Hawker, a 20-minute drive from the station, and the Chase mountains.
Still a working sheep station, Arkaba was one of the first properties established in the area. An 1856 woolshed, with its original corrugated iron roof, is still standing and other relics of history - including rusting trucks and old harnesses - are dotted around the station. There is also evidence of Aboriginal occupation - including artefacts and fire pits - which go back 5000 years.
The Flinders lifestyle is all about the outdoors; the activities on offer at Arkaba include four-wheel-drive trips, mountain biking, photography and wildlife viewing (binoculars and field guides are supplied). But if you wish, you can just sit back and drink in the splendour of your surroundings - perhaps while sipping a glass of champagne in the beautiful infinity pool.
For the particularly energetic, Arkaba organises four-day, three-night walking safaris, staying in well-appointed "swag camps". The 1200km Heysen Trail also passes through the property.
Just to the north is Wilpena Pound, the stunning natural amphitheatre that is the best-known spot in the Flinders. But while Wilpena can be crowded, you will never see another soul at Arkaba apart from fellow guests and homestead staff - and consequently, as Brendon Bevan, the station manager, puts it, "you can really plug into the wilderness".
Even so, the place is outrageously expensive. If money is no object and you want to feel cosseted in an idyllic environment, the answer is yes. But if luxury comes at too high a price, you can always dream - but make sure to visit the Flinders anyway, because it truly is an exceptional destination.
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