Some of South Australia's most impressive scenery is found in the Flinders Ranges. Each year, particularly between April and October, thousands of campers, caravaners, bushwalkers, artists and photographers converge on the region. The vistas of red rock faces and distant purple hills, and the timbered gorges with their streams and rock pools, were made famous by Sir Hans Heysen's paintings. They now attract not only tourists but also film-makers, for example both the 1957 and the 1985 producers of Robbery Under Arms.
The Flinders Ranges originate from a great thickness of sedimentary rocks deposited in the Adelaide Geosyncline through the Precambrian and Lower Cambrian periods some 1400 to 500 million years ago. These sediments have been folded, fractured, faulted, uplifted and denuded several times, most recently in Late Tertiary times. Differential erosion of the hard sandstones and quartzites which stand out as dominating ridges, and the softer slates and shales which form valleys and low hills, has revealed the structural skeleton with a clarity rare among the world's mountain regions. Bold cliffs of a highly resistant white quartzite stand above less resistant reddish sandstone which has been intricately carved into irregular hills, to make a most spectacular landscape.
The Ranges begin immediately north of Crystal Brook. The South Flinders Ranges are a broad mass of ridges deeply cut by gorges on the western flank. The steep slopes have a soil mantle and are largely forested. The most impressive scenery is probably in the Alligator Gorge in the Mount Remarkable National Park near Wilmington.
North of Quorn the terrain broadens into gravel-filled basins and low sandstone ridges. North of Hawker, the terrain again becomes more complex with curving parallel ridges and eroded domes and basins presenting abrupt cliffs and serrated shy-lines. The highest elevation is 1165 metres at St Mary Peak on the ridge enclosing the bowl-like depression of Wilpena Pound. The regular alignment of ridges gives way some 60 kilometres north of Blinman to the dissected plateau of the Gammon Ranges. Finally, in the north-east, is a tangled mass of ridges and gouges developed on metamorphosed sediments or closely fractured granite which offers uniform resistance to erosion. This is one of the wildest areas of mountain scenery in Australia.
On the margins of the ranges are broad aprons of alluvial fans, composed of ill-sorted stone and sand debris, which slope gently towards the encircling plains and their ephemeral lakes.
The vegetation is closely related to climate, aspect and rock type, and many plant species occur in a relatively small area. In the South Flinders Ranges, where up to 650 mm of rain falls annually, there are eucalypt woodlands. To the north, conditions are more arid. There may be 250 mm of rain on the flats and basins and perhaps 350 mm or more on the crests of the ridges. Rain is infrequent but can be heavy at any season, causing the intermittent creeks to rise suddenly. Red gums grow in the watercourses, and the valleys between the ridges are often park-like with the native Callitris pine, acacias and casuarinas.
On the plains the native plant cover of bluebush, saltbush, spear grass and porcupine grass has been greatly modified by the pressure of grazing sheep and rabbits. Throughout the region there are many attractive native flowering plants as well as exotic invaders such as salvation jane. Together, these produce brilliant spring carpets of flowers on the lower lands in wet years. In the rugged country north of Blinman, eucalypts give way to arid woodland with shrubs such as cassia, mulga and native willow. Feral goats are unwelcome invaders. If their numbers are not controlled they will cause further deterioration of the native plant cover. They also compete directly with the comparatively rare yellow-footed rock-wallaby.
Pastoral occupation had begun at Mount Remarkable in the South Flinders Ranges by 1846. Pastoral leases were granted over Wilpena Pound and the nearby Aroona Valley by 1851 and most of the ranges were taken up by 1860. Mineral prospectors followed, and many small deposits of copper ore were worked from the 1860s onward. The Blinman deposit, discovered in 1859, was the only significant find and was worked intermittently until 1917. Some stone mine buildings survive.
The Arkaroola-Mount Painter area in the North Flinders Ranges has one of Australia's most varied sources of precious stones, including purple amethyst, green torberite and yellow auturite. At Oraparinna is a main source of high-trade barytes, used in the chemical, point and rubber industries and in oil drilling mud by exploration companies.
Coal-bearing shale was first discovered near Copley in 1888. In 1941, tests began to see whether sub-bituminous coal from the area could be used for the generation of electricity. Open-cut mining began in 1944 when the original town of Leigh Creek was established. When this site was needed for an extension of the mines during the 1970s, a new town was built. In 1981, the 1600 residents were moved 13 kilometres to the town of Leigh Creek South.
Besides their striking scenery, the Flinders Ranges bear many marks from their long Aboriginal and short European occupation. More than a hundred recorded sites contain Aboriginal relics. Some of the gorges have notable rock engravings. European relics include the old railway stations on the abandoned line between Hawker and Brachina, and the ruins of old copper mines and pastoral homesteads. Settlers, who in the late 1870s were tempted to try wheat farming well beyond Goyder's Line of rainfall, left a sprinkling of ruined stone farmhouses, especially on the Willochra Plain.
Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges National Park is the main and sometimes crowded tourist destination. Other popular places are the Aroona Valley to the north of Wilpena Pound, Angorichina Holiday Village in the Parachilna Gorge, and Arkaroola in the North Flinders Ranges. To the south tourist activity focuses on the Wilmington-Mount Remarkable area and at Quorn, base for the historic steam train services on the restored section of the former transcontinental railway route though Pichi Richi Pass.