Outback spectacular ... a Cazneaux tree with Wilpena Pound in the background.

Outback spectacular ... a Cazneaux tree with Wilpena Pound in the background. Photo: Tourism SA

While settlers have come and gone, leaving only ruins behind, Carmen Michael finds the harsh landscape and uncompromising beauty of Wilpena Pound endures.

A group of elderly astronomers is standing silently on the range around Wilpena Pound. Some are hunched over walking canes but their eyes are looking upwards to the yawning night sky. They are searching for the Jewel Box constellation and the Silver Coin Galaxy but I can only make out the Southern Cross. It is too overwhelming.

"You just need to take one part of the sky and get to know it," one lady advises, leaning towards me on her cane. "Then you can start piecing the rest of it together." I nod and try again, even though I get the feeling she is not really talking about stars.

The Flinders Ranges are a popular place for star gazers. The South Australian interior has the clearest sky in Australia and a lunar landscape of craters, crevices and escarpments. The ranges extend for 430 kilometres. From the sky, the ranges look like a gigantic crease in the earth's crust. They boast so many peaks that most don't even have names. But travellers come for all sorts of reasons. The northern Europeans like biking through the empty landscape, Americans like to meet the locals, while backpackers are fond of drinking in dry riverbeds.

Wilpena Pound is the reason we are here. We want to walk in the cavernous 17-kilometre amphitheatre of rust-streaked sandstone that looks like a gigantic volcanic crater. The indigenous Adnyamathanha people saw two gluttonous akurra, or dreaming serpents, which lay down in a circle after eating all the people who had gathered in the area for a ceremony. Spectacular ranges encircle us, enormous red gums crowd around the creek and Aboriginal rock carvings can be seen on the underbelly of caves. It could be now or a million years ago. This is an ancient land, with sea fossils and the mark of earthquakes in her plunging valleys.

Only on a flight can one comprehend the enormity of the region. The Flinders Ranges run through the red sandy plains like a twisted spinal cord. Under the white belly of the plane, four-wheel-drive vehicles snake their way down through the spectacular Brachina Gorge and climbers scale St Mary's Peak. On the horizon, flocks of emus can be seen running towards water holes. There are bald patches where we are told settlers tried to clear the land for grazing, before being run out by drought. My fellow travellers tut in disapproval. How could have they done that?

I have a fairly good idea. I was born on the wheat belt in Western Australia but my great grandparents are buried just south of Wilpena in Booleroo. "You won't find much difference between them," said my father when I told him I would be passing by their graves. "They are both bloody hard country." They were German and English migrants who called destiny's bluff and found themselves in South Australia. They grew wheat and ran sheep, skirted the boundary of reliable rainfall they call Goyder's Line, and lost.

In the good years, the settlers came as far north as Wilpena Pound. The Adnyamathanha people received them with a mixture of amazement and suspicion. They already had a word for drought: pitaru. Literally, it meant to pound constantly, in reference to the grinding of hard-coated seeds that took place when all the other foods had run out.

The new Australians arrived in a period of freak rainfall. They sowed rose gardens, wrote bush poetry and built servants' quarters in anticipation of prosperity. Within 50 years, their dreams were ground to dust.

Australia's attitude towards the land has oscillated between awe and contempt but now is the time for reverence. Wilpena Pound Resort sits discreetly between the red rock cliffs and silvery green gums, guides talk respectfully about the fragility of the ecosystem and the sound of a backpacker practising the didgeridoo drifts on the evening air.

At sunset, the resort throngs with a democratic mix of North Americans, Europeans and Australians. Grey nomads trade road stories on the terrace, while young Scandinavian couples upload their blogs from wireless laptops. A group of bikers trade affectionate insults about injuries. They burst out into occasional laughter, probably at the city types that's us who are talking Zen Buddhism and yoga with the resort managers. Only the backpackers and elderly astronomers have hit the bar and are appraising each other's consumption with enthusiastic approval.

The food is surprisingly cosmopolitan and the tables overflow with delicate bowls of madras curry, crisp noodle salads and salt and pepper squid. A group of friends in their 50s generously invite me to come on their private four-wheel-drive tour the next day. They are Adelaide power brokers, pleased to discover that I am of South Australian stock and have been coming to the Pound for 30 years. The trip covers the 160 square-kilometre Arkaba Station belonging to Dean Rasheed, the descendant of Lebanese entrepreneurs who came to Australia to breed thoroughbreds for the British army. His wife, Lizzie, is an elegant Englishwoman who came to live in Australia some 30 years ago. "I remember my father not being entirely happy about it," she says pleasantly, before we take off on our tour.

Several of the group are testing out new Range Rovers, while we tag along in a 50-year-old pink Jeep inexplicably named the Silver Stallion. It is hot, rocky country and when we finally emerge from the car, our clothes are covered with a film of fine red dust.

The resort caters for a luxury lunch in a dry river bed. The smell of pesto chicken, kangaroo steaks and gourmet sausages wafts over the excited party, who share jokes and crack open excellent Skillogalee rieslings from the Clare Valley. Stories about desert golfing, olive growing and wine making drift over the sound of clinking glasses.

It all seems terribly decadent until we come to eat our food. A thick layer of flies has settled on the gourmet lunch. "You really must ignore them," Lizzie advises wisely, as everyone begins to swat madly at their plates. "Otherwise they will drive you quite mad."

After Wilpena Pound, we drive back by the way of the ruins. Abandoned settlements line the roadside. At Kanyaka, the remains of the 16-bedroom homestead of the son of the Earl of Carysfort sit beside a dried-up river bed.

The story goes that the homestead once had so many visitors that the owner opened up a hotel so the tourists would not interfere with the work of the station. Now, a lone palm tree stands in the ruins of a courtyard and from the road, it looks like something from ancient Egypt. But one man's hell is another man's paradise.

The farmers might shake their head in despair at the barren ground but filmmakers and tourists love it. The landscapes are like shadows. Dead trees twist out of dry river beds, the remnants of stone cottages crumble into red earth and the silence is broken only by the echoing scream of a galah. It is desolate, eerie and strangely beautiful.

We pass through the settlement of Wilson. The skeletal remains of the former wheat-belt town dot the horizon. There are no relics of grand homesteads here. It was a place of smaller dreams. There are just tiny cottages, a stationmaster's residence, an old schoolhouse and the rusted remains of a disused railway. Empty doorways frame parched fields and the tin sheds have turned orange with rust.

But I don't feel a sense of loss. I just wonder whether one of those piles of broken rubble once belonged to someone in my family.

The writer received a discounted rate from Wilpena Pound Resort.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Wilpena Pound is about 430 kilometres north of Adelaide and 1500kilometres west of Sydney. One-way flights from Sydney to Adelaide start at $99 on Jetstar, $129 on Virgin Blue and $165 on Qantas. From Adelaide, the easiest route is via Port Augusta on Highway 1 and then the B82 to Quorn and Hawker, about 4½ - 5 hours.

STAYING THERE

Wilpena Pound Resort has renovated the Brachina and Aroona rooms, which have new furniture and fittings. One night is $97.50 a person twin share.

THINGS TO DO

Costs for the riverbed banquet start at $15 a person. A light aircraft flight with Matt is $125. An hour in the star chair at Arkaroola is $40. See wilpenapound.com.au.