A Walk on Australia’s Wild Side

South and Western Australia are two of the country’s lesser trodden states, where isolation and nature afford not only stunning vistas and incredible sea life, but also some of the most bountiful food and wine the world has to offer. Avid adventurer and fearless food lover Krista Simmons explores the spirit of the region and witnesses its evolution since she lived there years ago. Photography by Jack Guy

It’s midnight in the South Australian outback, and my travel companions and I are bundled up in thick Pendleton blankets. With flashlights and a bottle of jammy Aussie Shiraz in hand, we’re on a mission to do some stargazing. But we needn’t wan- der too far from our eco-villas at the sheep-station- turned-luxury lodge at Rawnsley Park Station. The night here is inky, isolated and still, illuminated only by planets and galaxies and dozens of shooting stars.

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We’re nearly 250 miles from Adelaide—the state’s capital of only 1.2 million residents—and there’s not even the slightest threat of light disrupting our view. The skies in Flinders Ranges National Park are so massive you’d swear you’d been dropped into a snow globe and shaken, left to settle amongst the stars.

The expanse of nature is absolutely dizzying. On a private, scenic flight over Wilpena Pound at sunrise, it’s impossible not to feel minuscule amidst the vastness of red land and wide-open spaces. It’s estimated there are 600 million years of geological history in these mountains, which simmer in bursts of burnt orange. The ochre soil and expanse of landscape are so utterly unfathomable that it’s unbelievable unless you see them from the air. Suddenly your humanness seems tiny amongst all of the punishingly wild, yet endlessly generous elements.

I imagine it’s the same thing the first European settlers of this land felt when they came to the South Australian outback in the early 1800s. Most were immigrant pioneers coming from Germany or England in search of a new life and opportunity. After all, South Australia was a non-convict state, so it naturally drew enterprising, entrepreneurial spirits with an inherent love of the land.

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And it continues to do so to this day. Over at Arkaba Station, a revival 1850s homestead also situated near the Pound, the owners have hopes of returning the land to its natural state by partnering with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. So many years of sheep herding in such arid land has pillaged some of the native spe- cies and fauna, but they’re hoping to change that with their safari-esque stays and bush walks led by Brendon Bevon, a South African guide, who manages the property with his fiancée Kat Mee. “To me, this country is magnetic. You just want to explore every crack, every crevice, every rock. It’s magnificent,”says Bevon, as he peers out from under his akubra hat at a mother Euro kangaroo nursing her joey.

His eye for spotting wildlife is keen, having lead safaris in Africa for decades. As we trundle along in a topless jeep on the rugged South Australian mountainsides covering 60,000 acres of the property, I frantically tick off species on my checklist pamphlet—shingleback lizards, emus, wedge-tailed eagles, wallabies, echidnas and, of course, oodles and oodles of Australia’s signa- ture species, the kangaroo.

These rides are an abridged version of Arkaba’s three-day guided bush walks, which not only teach guests about the history of the land and aboriginal culture but also about the native edible plants and foraging.

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We get a taste of that, too. Back at the impeccably refurbished homestead, the chef uses foraged bush tomatoes, piquant quandongs, native pears and acacia pods to make the most upscale bush tucker I’ve ever tasted. To further keep it local, the open bar serves exclusively South Australian wines and beers, mainly from the nearby Barossa and Clare Valleys, producers of world-renowned Shiraz and Rieslings, respectively.

It’s difficult to imagine award-winning wine regions as a pit stop, but both of the valleys can serve as such entering and exiting the Flinders and heading back to Adelaide. They, too, are a prime example of South Australian craftsmanship at work. The Louise serves as a luxurious gateway to the Barossa Valley, with their fireplace-adorned rooms, vineyard views and fantastic farm-to-table restaurant Appellation, which showcase their on-site garden’s produce and chef Ryan Edward’s dedication to whole animal butchery.

At Linke’s Central Meat Store in the Barossa, Graham Linke keeps up the family tradition of making award-winning German mettwurst that’s been alive at the store since 1938. He stokes the fires in his smokers each night, preparing meats that are the favorite of local chefs like Mark McNamara at The Artisans of Australia tasting room and restaurant, a co-op of seven winemakers whose focus is on small batch and foods that pair well with them.

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That penchant for provincial ingredients extends down into Adelaide, a once sleepy city that’s now seeing a revival on Leigh and Peel Streets, whose vibrant culinary culture and small cobbled laneways are strikingly resemblant of Melbourne. Some of the highlights include an authentic Basque-style tapas bar called Udaberri Pintxos Y Vino and the ultra stylish cocktail bar The Clever little Tailor. Not to be missed closer to the CBD is the famous Adelaide Central Market, a giant farmers’ trading post where you’ll find everything from wild game meat to hand-crafted cheeses and rare Ligurian bee honey from South Australia’s Kangaroo Island.

Kangaroo island is located just a quick 30-minute flight south of Adelaide, and is a destination in and of itself. It became Australia’s first free settlement with sealers, escaped convicts and runaway sailors calling the island home. It’s a small land mass, just under 100 miles from east to west, but regardless of its size, the best way to get around is via hiring a guide like Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours. (Once you experience a local driver navigate a leather-lined Range Rover through a sheep traffic jam on a back road, you’ll understand why.)

Another great way to see KI, as the locals call it, is with Kangaroo island Helicopters. The rugged coastline is teeming with wildlife. Peering out of the window, the Remarkable Rocks look like a bright orange alien egg dropped out of the sky left to hatch on the cliffs. The Southern Ocean is so clear that sharks are silhouetted below. And flying low into the magnificent Southern Ocean lodge gives design geeks an up-close-and- personal view of the architectural stunner’s clean lines and intelligent layout, which is seamlessly integrated into the karri forest it’s built into.

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Savoring a negroni made with local KiS Spirits gin in the infinity spa at the Lodge, I take in one last sip of the crisp, clean air that comes from being on the nearest point to Antarctica. The journey in this little corner of the planet has come to an end, and we’re off to another lesser-known area, Western Australia.

Peering out the window as we descend into exmouth in our puddle jumper from WA’s capitol city of Perth, veins of bright blue water course into the red sand below. There’s no sign of movement or development, but straight from the get-go, it’s apparent this land is alive.

It might not be the pulsing hotbed of nightlife that city dwellers seek, but for ocean aficionados and lovers of wide-open spaces, the northwestern part of Australia is the place to be.

In fact, every time I speak to a city-dwelling Sydney-sider about my time living in Fremantle, a bohemian neighborhood of Perth, they seem shocked I even made it over for a visit, let alone laid roots there. Which is to say that the capitol of Western Australia—up until recently, due to a mining boom— has been a pretty off-the-map destination. For some that might be a deterrent, but if you’re into ecological wonders and pristine wildlife, then WA is certainly for you, particularly the northern part of the state.

Exmouth is perhaps best known for the annual migration of the whale sharks, the slow moving, massive creatures that reach upwards of 40 feet and are the largest known extant fish species. But even once the gentle giants have moved on, the diving and snorkeling off the Ningaloo Reef is some of the best I’ve seen, and that includes the heavily trafficked Great Barrier Reef on the east coast. In addition to the shark’s migration west, there’s a turtle hatching in January, giant manta rays and world-class snorkeling just a few feet off the coast.

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You don’t have to be PADI certified to get a peek at the underwater aquarium that the region has to offer. Snorkeling at Oyster Stacks and Turquoise Bay, you’ll find coral reef fish like Picasso triggerfish, clownfish, parrotfish, trevally and more. Head out to Navy Pier with Ningaloo Whaleshark N Dive, the only operator allowed access into the site, and you’ll see an incredible wealth of wildlife including wobbegong, nudibranchs, black tip reef sharks, giant schools of barracuda, scorpionfish, puffer fish, eels, nurse sharks and a 600-pound grouper that, for some, might be a little too friendly. (The “BFG,” as the dive masters call him, has been known to snuggle up with divers. He even tried to give me a kiss, and that is a big mouth.)

The Ningaloo Reef has just been granted the designation of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and local businesses are try- ing to honor the sacred nature of the environment and all it affords. A perfect example of that is Sal Salis, an eco-resort comprised of nine spacious, luxuriously appointed wilderness tents on the sea. Guests are only allowed 20 liters of water per day, which is more than enough to rinse off the sand from the day before lazing in the hammock to watch the sunset with a local little Creatures pale ale in hand.

In the morning, you’ll awaken amongst the sand dunes to the sound of the waves crashing on shore and, perhaps, be greeted by a kangaroo lazing on your porch. Walk along the pristine, pink, pebble-lined beaches for a morning swim, or paddle out for a kayak with one of the property’s knowledge- able guides as your partner.

You might find yourself joined by sea turtles swimming off the coral shelf—just a few meters offshore. This is what makes the reef so mag- ical. While the Great Barrier Reef is at least 10 miles off the coast of Cairns at its closest point, one can just grab a snorkel and pop their head underwater to witness some of the most magnificent biodiversity the planet has to offer in Ningaloo.

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The distinction by UNESCO is incredibly important because of the mining boom that’s happening in the northern areas. The capitol city of Perth is experiencing a huge boom due to the influx of wealth that is pouring into WA, which is great for the state and for those visiting.

I lived in Perth several years ago, and it’s staggering how much has changed. What once was a sleepy town is now bustling with great restaurants, cocktail bars and art galleries. It’s a feast for the senses—and for the belly.

Over at the BHP Billiton food court known as the Brookfield Place, you’ll find everything from international hawker-style street food stands to fancy gastropubs and cocktail bars like The Print Hall. Further adding to Perth’s cred is The Richardson Hotel, a gorgeous boutique hotel where Jay-Z and Beyoncé stayed when they were on tour in Aus- tralia. It features a top-notch spa, state-of-the-art gym facility and the ultra-swanky Opus Restaurant, which creates culinary alchemy using locally sourced ingredients and wine.

After two weeks of active travel, a glass of pinot noir from Western Australia’s Margaret River, and a luxurious massage with native eucalyptus oil at the hotel’s spa, I feel completely at peace, like I’ve really soaked up the spirit of Australia.

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