If you like getting off the beaten track a little and enjoying authentic experiences while getting to know the locals, then a South Australia station stay might be just what you are looking for. They can be found all over the state, but the most popular are the Flinders Ranges station stays. Take a look and think about including one on your SA itinerary.
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Feature image photo credit: Luxury Eco-villas Rawnsley Park Station, Rawnsley Park Station, Flinders Ranges & Outback
So What is a Station?
If you are not from Australia, you probably have no idea what a station is. Basically, they are big farms or ranches. And by big, I mean really big.
The largest working cattle properly in the world is Anna Creek Station, located near William Creek in the north of South Australia. It is 23,677 km², which makes it bigger than Israel.
There are stations all over South Australia. Almost everything north of Port Augusta as well as some areas further to the southeast.
Often they are associated with the outback, and, due to their size, they can be hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town.
I’ve grown up with the concept of a “station” as I lived right on the borderline between farming country and station country, but I was just wondering when a place becomes one or the other.
In my mind, farms at least have the ability to sow crops, but the areas where the stations are located are too arid and hence are only used for grazing stock.
A quick Google has not enlightened me much beyond that reasoning, so we will go with it (but happy to be corrected!).
Staying on a Station
With the financial ebbs and flows of raising cattle and sheep in marginal areas easily affected by drought, some station owners have come up with a plan to earn extra income – they host travellers on their properties.
In reality, they have always done this, but in the last ten years, it has become a much more formal setup with many more facilities available.
The accommodation ranges from absolute luxury to bush camps, and everything in between. With automation and different farming methods, fewer staff tend to be employed on the stations.
The owners turned to renting out accommodation such as shearer’s quarters or other staff housing when they were otherwise not needed.
They soon discovered the city folk loved to get out into the bush for a few days and soak up the ambience of a working station – and they were willing to pay for it.
So now stations are building all sorts of accommodation, especially for them as demand keeps increasing.
There is no one style of station stay. It can be rustic and relaxed, you can combine it with lots of activities, it can be a real cultural experience, and you can sometimes even join in with the day-to-day station work.
Flinders Ranges station stays tend to revolve around the stunning scenery, the sunsets and the wildlife.
Flinders Ranges Station Stays
There are some stunning properties around the Flinders Ranges for your station stay. They mostly lie north of Port Augusta on the lands of the Adnyamathanha people.
This is one of the most accessible station areas from any of the Australian capital cities, with relatively good road access to the stations.
They are not too far from “civilisation” with nearby towns such as Hawker and Quorn, and smaller settlements like Blinman, Parachilna and Wilpena.
There is plenty to do around the area, so you do not need to spend your whole break at the station, you can do some of the many other things to do in the Flinders Ranges.
Here are a handful of stations you can stay on. Some are popular, others are ones I’ve stayed on and liked. I’ve included a little bit about each one and what they offer to help you decide if they are your best fit.
Rawnsley Park Station
If there is one station stay you have heard of, then it’s likely to be Rawnsley Park. It is located on the main highway between Hawker and Wilpena, and has views of the southern side of Wilpena Pound.
It is a sheep station, with approximately 3000 sheep currently on the property.
They built their first cabin and started welcoming tourists to sheep shearing demonstrations in 1968. Things have developed a lot since then.
Rawnsley Park Station today is more of a tourist operation with sheep on the side rather than the other way around.
They offer a wide range of accommodations at the station. The top-of-the-range option is the self-contained eco-villas, located in an area all of their own.
They have spectacular views and their own pool, perfect for cooling down after a long day exploring, sipping a cocktail with a beautiful Flinders Ranges sunset.
The homestead is also available with similar facilities in a separate location. Then there are at least two different styles of holiday cabins, plus a huge caravan park for caravans, RVs and campers.
There are more cabins and a private bunkhouse for larger groups on a budget.
It’s not just accommodation here at Rawnsley Park. They also operate one of the few restaurants around the place, the Woolshed Restaurant. It is open for dinner every night of the week, but booking is essential.
To keep you busy during the day there is a wide range of activities available to you right here at the station. Take a scenic flight over Wilpena Pound, in either a plane or helicopter.
There is a range of 4WD tours available depending on your interests, and of course plenty of hikes too.
Mountain biking is becoming more popular, and if you are visiting during the school holidays, look out for activities such as feeding the animals to keep the kids entertained.
Mt Little Station
This is where I stayed on my most recent trip to the Flinders Ranges. Mount Little Station is about 15km north of Hawker on the road to Parachilna.
Unlike Rawnsley, Mt Little is run almost solely by the owners of the station, with just one or two other employees helping out with the many tasks.
Currently, the station is mostly used for sheep, with just a handful of cattle, but in the past, it was entirely cattle.
Accommodation ranges from the Homestead, a self-contained house, and sunset villas for those looking for a more comfortable stay.
There are also dongas, simple little rooms with just a bed. They have a variety of bush camping sites along a creaked, with a shower, toilet and a basic camp kitchen available for all to use.
Twice a week the Mt Little Tavern opens for business. Contrary to its name, there is no alcohol served here, but you are more than welcome to bring your own and enjoy a drink while eating one of the delicious wood oven pizzas made here.
The pizzas are popular with locals too, with at least half the people there during our visit from other stations and from nearby Hawker.
The tavern sits alongside the old woolshed, and this is a great way to watch the colours over the ranges as the sun goes down.
Mt Little sits in the path of the Mawson Trail, with walkers particularly liking the donga accommodation. It also means there are some great walking trails right at the station.
One popular walk is into Mayo Gorge, home to a permanent waterhole, something that is somewhat rare in the Flinders.
Alpana Station was my first choice for station accommodation on a previous trip to the Flinders Ranges. It is located just south of Blinman on the road back down to Wilpena.
Alpana is another great central station, with good access to many of the nearby attractions. It is home to around 3000 Merino sheep and is currently being run by the fifth general of the Henery family.
Alpana Station first opened up to tourism in 1994, and since then has improved its accommodation options and added a few extra attractions.
Today there are two self-contained accommodation options on the station, the shearer’s quarters and a nearby pug and pine hut, which is truly getting back to nature.
Those with caravans, RVs or camping have good options here too, with both powered and unpowered sites available, some with their own ensuite.
Alpana’s unique advantage is the tours that are on offer. One of the station owners will take you out to various locations, depending on your interests, and show you the views while teaching you about the local flora, fauna and geology.
You can either ride with them in their vehicle, or there are tag-a-long options too. The tours are available to everyone, but if you happen to be staying on Alpana Station you receive a discount.
There are some self-drive tracks for the 4WD enthusiasts here too.
Skytrek Willow Springs Station
Skytrek Willow Springs Station is located off the eastern side of the main highway between Wilpena and Blinman. It is best known for its great 4WD tracks and attracts lots of people looking to test out their skills.
Willow Springs now has both sheep and cattle and is currently being run by the third generation of the family.
They first added tourism to their portfolio in 1985 when the shearer’s quarters were given a bit of a spruce up so that visitors could stay.
Today there are seven self-contained accommodation options on the station as well as a variety of bush camping sites.
Along with the 80km Skytrek 4WD track, Willow Springs now offers mountain bike hire to give guests another way to explore the area.
The location close to Wilpena also means that there is no shortage of things to do in and around there.
Holowiliena Station is the most remote of all the ones I’ve chosen to include here. This is another sheep station, and it has been owned by the Warwick family for 170 years.
It is located about 50 km northeast of Cradock, on dirt roads that will take you around an hour. It’s around two hours to drive to the Wilpena area of the Flinders Ranges.
There are three styles of accommodation available here. Self-contained accommodation in the shearer’s quarters and a small B&B cottage.
There is also bush camping available, but you will need to be fully self-contained as there are no facilities at all.
So why am I telling you about Holowiliena Station if it is so far off the beaten path? This station has made a name for itself as the home of The Outback Blacksmith.
After restoring some of the buildings on the station, Luke turned one of them into a forge. It was originally a hobby but has become a good stream of income throughout the drought.
Visitors who are staying on Holowiliena can do a tour of the blacksmith shop, or there are other station tours available too.
If you want to see more about Holowiliena Station, they were featured on ABC’s Restoration Australia, series 1, episode 7.
Bendleby Ranges is interesting because it is two properties owned by separate families who have come together to create one tourism offering.
It is further south than the other properties I have shared, so it could be an option if you would like a shorter drive time from Adelaide.
Across the two properties, there are three different cottages and the shearer’s quarters available for accommodation.
There is also a range of camping options, some with power and some without. If you want to get really remote when camping, there is an option for that too.
While you are visiting, spend your time on the challenging 4WD tracks, cycling or bushwalking, and most of all, enjoying the spectacular scenery here. If you are new to 4WD-ing, there are some tag-a-long tours here to help you learn.
Bendleby Ranges has won an impressive amount of tourism awards with their offerings, including the 2021 South Australian Tourism Awards Winner – Best in Adventure Tourism, so you know you’re in good hands here.
Mount Ive Station
Okay, I agree, this one is stretching the definition of “Flinders Ranges” as Mount Ive Station is actually located over on Eyre Peninsula but I thought it was worth a mention.
This is the only station stay available in the Gawler Ranges, and while it’s a bit of a hike to get here, it’s worth the effort.
Mt Ive is a working sheep station and they have a range of accommodations available, from self-contained huts and the shearer’s quarters to budget dongas, and even a little old stone cottage that has been renovated.
For camping there are both powered and unpowered sites, and the option of bush camps if you want it a little quieter.
With not a whole lot around for hundreds of kilometres, Mt Ive also has a small kiosk where you can pick up basic supplies and a bar for a cold beer or two after a long day of exploring.
There is also both diesel and unleaded fuel available here too.
While Mt Ive has the usual 4WD tracks, but they also have something unique – private access to Lake Gairdner, a blinding white salt lake that is a photographer’s dream.
There are also some great Gawler Ranges rock formations not too far away to explore, and this area is a bird watchers paradise because there are species here that can’t be found anywhere else.
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