It wasn't until we took to the air that I really understood the Flinders Ranges. From the road, they are magical enough, but a bit confusing. Great sawtooth ridges peer over the shoulders of little hills, like tall kids jostling in the back row of a school photo.

Up in the Cessna on a 20-minute scenic flight, it all suddenly came together. We saw the flanks and coils of the two giant serpents.

Rising out of the plain was a huge, roughly circular rim of jagged mountains holding 80 square kilometres of green plateau, as a pair of cupped hands might hold water. That's Wilpena Pound, as one of the local wedgetailed eagles might see it.

Flanking the Pound are other chains of mountains: the Heysen, Chace and Elder Ranges, striped in every shade of red and brown and purple. Far in the west, the flat white expanse of Lake Torrens. No wonder Hans Heysen, who painted so many scenes here, described the Flinders Ranges as "Nature's bones laid bare".

Even Cool Nephew was impressed. He'd been doing what 13-year-olds do: all the time we oldies drove along oohing and aahing at the views, he'd been sitting in the back of the car reading a book and listening to his CD player. Now, as the plane banked and turned, he actually craned his neck to look.

Back on the ground, at the southern end of the Flinders Ranges National Park, we did a great two-hour return walk to Arkaroo Rock, where a stone rears up and curves round like an open hippopotamus mouth to reveal 5000-year-old ochre and charcoal drawings showing the creation of Wilpena Pound. Lizards basked on red rocks and the Chace Ranges frowned against the sky.

"Another lizard!" cried Keen-Eyed Son in great excitement. He's 12, and what a difference a year makes. "Oh, wow, another lizard," said Cool Nephew in tones of heavy sarcasm. He was dying to get back to his book and his CD player in the car.

Let me clear up the most confusing thing about the Flinders Ranges. It's not one collection of mountains, it's three distinct areas, hundreds of kilometres apart: the southern end, around Mount Remarkable; the central ranges, in Flinders Ranges National Park, in and around Wilpena Pound; and the northern end, around the Gammon Ranges and the Arkaroola Sanctuary. Ideally you should stay in all three areas. We had only five days to get there and back by car from Adelaide, so we decided to concentrate on the central ranges and stay in the Wilpena Pound Resort, right on the edge of the Pound.

Driving north from Adelaide, everything was Aussie sports colours: the green of grass and young wheat, and paddocks of brilliant gold canola. But after an overnight stop in Hawker, the landscape abruptly changed into flat tussocky plains, park-like native pine forests and our first sighting of the craggy Pound rim.

How was this magic circle of mountains formed? It looks like a giant volcano or a meteor crater, but it's neither. There are two explanations for how it came into being, and both are equally awesome, though I prefer the serpent story.

The geologists say that 650 million years ago, a huge dome of rock was pushed up from the sea bed, as high as the Himalayas. Gradually it was weathered down. The centre of the Pound is a remnant valley floor, and the jagged walls are quartzite, which resists weathering more than the other rocks.

The Adnyamathanha, the Hill People, who have lived in the region for thousands of years, say that two Akurras, enormous bearded and maned Dreamtime serpents, formed the Pound when they twined together in a circle to capture some people who were holding a ceremony there. When the people looked up at the night sky to see if it was time to start, they mistook the serpents' eyes for stars. The sneaky Akurras ate nearly everyone, but Yurlu the kingfisher escaped. You can still see the serpents' bodies in the undulations of the mountains: St Mary's Peak and Beatrice Hill are their heads.

Europeans weren't so impressed with the ranges, at least not at first. Edward Eyre, who explored the region in the mid-1800s, gave more than a hint of his mood when he named one peak Mount Hopeless. At about the same period, surveyor Edward Frome declared: "A more barren sterile country could not be imagined."

Later settlers were much more optimistic. They tried growing wheat, and running sheep and cattle on the saltbush plains. We took an easy walk into the Pound along a creek bed to visit the old Hill's Homestead, a handsome little sandstone building where the Hill family spent decades trying to make a go of farming the area. Once we'd outstripped a noisy school party also doing the walk, the peace of the bush took over. Sitting on the old homestead veranda in the gentle spring sun, looking out at the redgums and a grazing kangaroo, it seemed an idyllic place to raise a family, a paradise in a green bowl.

But the Hills had not found paradise. The years of plenty gave way to years of drought. On Christmas Day 1900, when they sat down to dinner, the sky was black. The rain poured down. Instead of bringing relief, the floods washed away the road that the Hills had built with so much backbreaking toil to link them with the outside world. This is a land of abandoned homes and dreams.

With this history, I had expected a stark, arid landscape. But we were there in September, after 48mm of rain. The weather was perfect, and everything looked positively lush. Along the Moralana Scenic Drive, a 26-kilometre unsealed road just south of the Pound, we saw scenes that apart from the absence of snow on the peaks, could have come straight out of

The Sound of Music: green meadows, green hills, red bluffs, and carpets of wildflowers- white, yellow, red and above all, the vivid purple of Salvation Jane. A weed, but what a weed.

Extending our drive, we took another unsealed road into 130 million years of history along the Brachina and Bunyeroo Gorges, bumping over creek beds (they warn you not to try this road when there's been a lot of rain) past walls of red rock and spectacular red gums. The Brachina Gorge Geological Trail along part of this route is like time travelling: every now and then a sign tells you the rocks are a few million years older (or younger in our case: we did the trip backwards). And sure enough, the colour and texture of the rock walls changes as suddenly as layers in a cake.

Beautiful as the drives are, the only way to get right inside the Pound and experience it is to walk. With two boys, two mums and one disabled dad, we picked comparatively easy walks: but fitter and more ambitious walkers have many further choices, including a hike up St Mary's Peak to stand on the head of the serpent.

We were looking out for the dainty yellow-footed rock wallaby with its distinctive stripey tail, which hangs out in the rockier places. Once almost extinct, it's making a comeback, thanks to local conservation programs.

Keen-Eyed Son reckoned he saw at least one. By far the more common were the Western Grey kangaroos, the shaggy grey euros and gangs of emus. On a late afternoon drive to a lookout just outside the national park, we estimated that the kangaroos, wallabies and emus we saw grazing outnumbered the sheep.

Back at the motel, Cool Nephew brightened up when he found a kid his age at the swimming pool and when he saw the size of the steaks in the bistro. "I'm sorry if he's not enjoying the trip," I said anxiously to his mother. "Oh, he's enjoying it all right," she said. "It's just not the done thing to tell us about it."

Fast facts
Getting There: By car from Adelaide, 400 kilometres. The roads are sealed as far as Wilpena Pound.
Best time to visit: May to October.
Accommodation: Wilpena Pound Resort has hotel and motel accommodation, restaurants, a swimming pool and a store, and a camping and caravan park (you need park entry and camping permits). You can also stay at Rawnsley Park and Arkaba Station. Motel accommodation at Hawker and Quorn, south-west of the central ranges. It's advisable to book.
Tours and trips: Organised tours leave from Adelaide, Port Augusta, Quorn, Hawker and Wilpena Pound. Four wheel drive tours and scenic flights can be booked at the Wilpena Visitor Centre.
More information: The South Australian Tourism Commission; the Wilpena Visitor Centre; Flinders Ranges National Parks.