Space is not a problem for the staff at the Prairie Hotel in Parachilna. If the dining room is full, they just grab a table and white cloth and set up your table for six in the middle of the main street. If any traffic does happen by, there's more than enough space to edge past any hungry diners the streets are wide enough to turn a camel train in.
There's not much to Parachilna (population seven) deep in the heart of South Australia's rugged Flinders Ranges around 470 kilometres north of Adelaide. A disused railway station and pub and that's about it. But it has become, in recent years, a culinary destination, thanks largely to a very clever renovation and innovative menu that has put the Prairie Hotel and Australian native cuisine firmly on the global gastronomic map.
While you may be tempted to dismiss the hotel's signature dish of 'feral mixed grill' (camel sausage, goat chop, kangaroo fillet and wallaby kebab on mashed potato with gravy) as a tourist gimmick (you can't miss the road signs advertising the menu on the way into town), the Prairie's food is definitely worth going out of your way for.
Aside from some novelty dishes (roo burger, wallaby stir fry), the dishes are a blend of tastes and textures combining native food with more contemporary ingredients. Goats, one of the main feral animals found in the Flinders Ranges, are a prominent feature on the menu; goat's curd on bruschetta, goat curries and pies, goat's curd cheesecake and goat's milk cheese. There's lots of seafood as well, including yabbies, and a generous use of other native produce such as wattle and acacia seeds (in bread and pastries, both sweet and savoury), samphire (a salty-tasting succulent herb), native watercress, pepperleaf, thyme, wild basil, lemon myrtle, native lime and bush tomatoes. Quandongs (sweet native tree fruits) are harvested locally and feature strongly on the dessert menu, often served in a crumble pie with quandong sauce, cream and ice-cream.
But it's not just the unusual menu that draws people to this remote pub. The historic hotel has become a favourite with visiting movie stars, who often use the Flinders as a backdrop for films. And it's easy to see why. It's an ancient landscape, full of weathered crags in primeval colours, mountains of rich purples and deep blues, cut through with red rock gorges and surrounded by acres of white, yellow and purple wildflowers in spring. The countryside is one of the oldest on earth: the mountains, once higher than the Himalaya, are more than 600 million years old and are one of the richest geological areas in the country. The Aboriginal dreamtime stories that are woven around the creation of these ancient landforms and gorges have been passed on for more than 40,000 years.
Parachilna is around a five-hour, all-bitumen drive north of Adelaide via Quorn (home to the Pichi Richi Railway, one of Australia's best-known steam trains that runs along a narrow gauge line through deep rock cuttings, along stone wall embankments and spectacular iron bridges) and Hawker. But take the long way, turning off the highway at Hawker and tracking north east to the spiritual heart of the Flinders, Wilpena Pound, inside Flinders Ranges National Park. A crater-like ridge covering 83 square kilometres that rises sharply from the surrounding flat plains, the rim is actually the stumps of massive mountains and the wooded interior, accessible through just one gorge, is 11 kilometres long and eight kilometres across.
Base yourself for a few days at Parachilna and spend some time exploring the many tracks that cut across the national park, following dry creek beds and ancient gorge lines deep into the heart of the ranges to place like Brachina Gorge, a refuge for the yellow-footed rock-wallaby as well as many species of birds and reptiles, and stunning Chambers Gorge, a huge red rock gorge and waterhole with a gallery of Aboriginal engravings. The best time to visit is late in the afternoon, when the setting sun turns the walls of the gorge to a deep fiery red.
Whatever you do, make sure you stop at the former copper mining town of Blinman for a slice of quandong pie at the Wild Lime cafe or a drink at the historic hotel before heading back to Parachilna as the sun sets and the world turns purple, ready to tuck into some of the best bush tucker you're likely to find.
For more information visit: www.prairiehotel.com.au or www.flindersoutback.com