April 1, 2022
People & Places

Modern life in the Flinders Ranges

After a busy day in the kitchen of the Flinders Food Co, feeding and caffeinating roaming travellers, Doogal Hannagan shuts the doors of his Hawker cafe and takes fiancée Louise for a drive down to Wonoka Creek.

Doogal relaxing at Wonoka Creek: his favourite place in the world.

Cold beer in hand, it’s Doogal’s favourite place in the world.

In the late afternoons, there’s not a soul around as the sun streams through 200-year-old river red gums with gnarled roots stretching deep into the dry riverbed at Wonoka Creek, flies lazily buzzing around in the warm afternoon light.

As a kid growing up in Hawker, it used to take Doogal an hour to get out here, pedalling furiously on his bicycle, a cloud of red dust trailing behind.

“We used to just come down for the afternoon, just bum around; kids being kids,” he says.

“As long as you were home by the time the street lights came on, you were right.”

It was a childhood free of devices and centred entirely around his bike – both an escape route from parents and entree into adventures.

The red dust of the back roads around Hawker.

However, for teenage Doogal, the slow pace of his hometown of just 340 people dragged and he found his ticket out of town with an apprenticeship as a chef at Wilpena Pound.

The week he turned 18, he transferred his apprenticeship and disappeared into the bright lights and busy pub scene of Adelaide.

In between years of fast-paced work in Adelaide CBD kitchens, Doogal rarely returned home over the next 10 years, choosing to travel far and wide, road tripping to far flung towns in Western Australia and overseas. Anywhere but home.

Then, 16 years after Doogal first left, Hawker beckoned. With fiancée Louise, a wealth of travel and dining experience under their belts, the pair hatched a plan to transform an existing cafe into their own venture, a place to put Hawker on the map.

At the start of 2018, the Flinders Food Co opened for business, with its laid-back atmosphere and bold menu spin guaranteeing its place as one of the Flinders Ranges’ busiest and most talked-about eateries. The FFC vision is simple, says Doogal.

“Catch up, have a chat, have good coffee, good food and a sense of family,” he says.

Doogal and Louise, with baby Herbie, are ambassadors for the Flinders Ranges

In early 2021, renovations not only saw the dining room transformed but some additions to bring Hawker into with the 21st century, including an outside sensory wall for children with autism, and gender-neutral bathrooms.

In April 2021, Doogal and Louise’s son Herbert Fleetwood Hannagan, aka Herbie, was born. He quickly became a favourite with the regulars, tucked away in a pouch, sleeping peacefully through Louise’s stints at the coffee machine.

Doogal was in his late 20s and working as a chef at Parachilna’s famous Prairie Hotel when he met his future wife. The chance encounter took place at the Leigh Creek Tavern, a country pub renowned for good times and late finishes but, for once, Doogal recalls being “the soberest one there”. 

“I pulled up out the front of the Leigh Creek Tavern and there were all these people dressed in onesies,” he laughs.

“Louise came out, dressed in a Tigger onesie, a bit the worse for wear.”

Louise, then a nurse at the Leigh Creek Hospital, clearly made an impression on the young chef – who made it back to Parachilna at 5am, just in time for his breakfast shift. Six months later, Doogal asked Louise to marry him. Now busy with the cafe and little Herbie, the couple say they are enjoying a “long engagement”.

Flinders Food Co is one of the region’s busiest and most-talked-about eateries

The pair aren’t scared to speak out, becoming unlikely ambassadors for Hawker at a time when the town has sorely needed champions. A few years ago, they were vocal against the Federal Government’s plan to locate a nuclear dump site near the town, joining a local action group and making their feelings known through the media.

“As much as I don’t like confrontation, I’m not scared to tell you how it is,” says Doogal, now 37.

“We opened the cafe in 2018, then it all went down. Why would two young people move back to the Flinders Ranges and invest everything we have into the cafe if we thought that was going to happen?”

After a community vote, the plan was eventually scrapped, but it was a close call for townspeople, many of whom believed the area and its vast trove of natural assets needed long-term protection.

In mid-2021, a guardian angel of sorts arrived in the form of a bid for several sites in the Flinders Ranges to gain World Heritage status, which Doogal believes will foster a greater appreciation and understanding of the region by all.

“You can’t exactly go and put a dumpsite in the middle of a World Heritage-listed area,” he says.

Fruit from the quandong tree in Doogal and Louise’s front yard finds its way onto the menu at the cafe.

“The fossils that are here in the ranges, it’s the beginning of life on earth. It’s the start of creation.

“It would put a stop to both exploration and environmental damage straight away. A lot of people don’t have a clue about what’s here, so this might encourage more people to come and appreciate it for what it is.”

Since becoming a dad, passing on a legacy is something on Doogal’s mind more often.

“When you’re a kid, you can’t wait to get out and leave,” he says. “Once you move away and come back, you appreciate it a bit more. Herbie is going to be the next generation. I hope he has the love for it as much as we do.

“It’s just a feeling about the Flinders: you get goosebumps. You feel like you’re home.”


This story first appeared in the February 2022 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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