Leaving the Eyre Peninsula and feeling like we’d barely scratched that surface, we turned right towards Port Augusta. No choice there – you have to pass through Port Augusta no matter which way you’re going. We could see these hills in the distance, very faint and blue until we came nearer and realised they were the southern Flinders Ranges. The largest mountain range in South Australia, the Flinders Ranges run for 430 km from Port Pirie up to Lake Callabonna, a dry salt lake.
Beneath towering Mt Remarkable lies the little town of Melrose, population about 400. It’s a classic rural Australian town, with some very old stone buildings and a couple of ancient pubs. Explorer Edward John Eyre came through here in 1840, closely followed by European settlers. We pulled into a pretty little caravan park on the banks of a bone-dry creek lined with those wonderfully iconic Southern Australian eucalypts.
“If you’re looking for something to do in downtown Melrose tonight,” said the manager, “you could come along to the Barefoot Bowls social evening?” We’d never played bowls before but that didn’t matter. Turned out we were the only visitors in the large crowd of locals. We were welcomed like celebrities (coming from Darwin really helps!) and each put into a team, with lots of coaching and encouragement from the more senior onlookers. Much to our surprise we had a lot of fun, and didn’t embarrass ourselves too much. Like so many country towns, Melrose suffers from the loss of its young people to the city. They don’t leave for the bright lights – it’s because there’s just no work. Only one child can inherit the farm, so the others have to find employment elsewhere. In the long term it sucks the lifeblood out of a place.
Above – the view from Mt Remarkable. Melrose is mountain bike central – part of Mt Remarkable is crisscrossed with mountain bike trails, which meant we lost our way a few times trying to work out which one was a foot trail and which one would turn out to be a much scarier bike trail! The town hosts a Fat Tyre Festival every year – which, we discovered later, our Adelaide grandsons take part in. The hotel below has been there almost as long as the town itself.
From here we drove down through the Clare Valley to Adelaide, stopping for breakfast in Clare, the main town in the region. It’s an attractive town, but we noticed a lot of empty shops, and later counted 15 in the main street alone. The cafe owner told us the newsagent had shut its doors just the day before – how can you have a large town without a newsagent? This terrible drought is hitting very hard here. We heard that this season the wheat is half its usual height, and the grain content is much lower than normal. All the way down the Valley, we passed through tiny, empty villages, houses and businesses boarded up. Maybe that’s natural attrition, but it does seem like the heart is being pulled out of some parts of the country.
Not far from Clare we stopped for a little while at Sevenhill Winery, just to look at its very old cellar. This one is a true cellar – it’s underground! It was the first vineyard in the Clare Valley, established in 1851 by the Jesuits to make sacramental wine.
Lex’s daughter Sophie and husband Jim live near Adelaide with their three sons, and we had a lovely few days catching up with them. It’s good to be able to hang out with the grandsons – we wish we could do it more often! The Anderson Hill winery in the Adelaide Hills was a great spot for a family gathering – with excellent wine and pizza in the sun.
From Adelaide it was down into the Fleurieu Peninsula to see Mark Day, who has a beautiful property near Yankalilla. The moment we arrived, Mark piled us into his old 4X4 and we headed out to the mouth of the Murray. It’s Australia’s longest river at 2520km. It’s 16th in terms of overall length, but it’s the third longest navigable river in the world, after the Amazon and the Nile, with 1986 km of navigable waterway. Five barrages built during the Great Depression control the flow – a controversial issue. We inspected it from the upstream side of the Goolwa barrage, and then from the seaward side, a scant 200 metres from where the river enters the ocean, at the right side of the photo. Mark has a strong link to the barrages – his father worked on their construction in the 1930s.
On the way home we stopped along the surf beach and collected enough cockles for a feast of Pasta Vongole for dinner. We were intending to stay just the one night, but as we drove off the Wellington car ferry next morning, Mark rang – I’d left my laptop behind! Decided not to trust it to the postal system, and turned around, crossed the Murray again and drove the 2 hours back. But it meant we had another great night with a good friend. Mark has created a magnificent garden here – the house and the huge olive trees surrounding the property are 160 years old, and National Trust listed.I have to include this photo of the paddock across the road – it reminded me of a Jeffery Smart painting. Very precise and surreal.
Castlemaine was our next stop. Our good friends Jen and Chris moved here from Darwin just a few weeks before, so we were keen to find out what the attraction was, apart from cooler weather. It’s a very interesting place, with a history going back to the gold rush days. Lots of well-restored historic buildings line the streets, which are wide and easy to navigate. There seems to be thriving arts and music scene, as well as lots of great food, and plenty of entertainment. It was weird but wonderful driving all this way, then going to the local Theatre Royale and listening to a great band from Bathurst Island – B2M! We also found a fascinating bookshop. The aisles were so narrow you had to move sideways – very carefully. But it’s clearly a shop owned by someone with a fierce love of books. We left with a few!
After Castlemaine we spent two weeks in Melbourne with my 89 year old Dad, before making a quick run up to Batlow in NSW to attend the memorial service for a very dear old mate, Luke McCall. Luke died in Bairnsdale on the 9th of November, while we were in Adelaide. I’d been looking forward to seeing him again when we reached Victoria but his cancer got there first. We did have a good last phone call a few weeks before. I’ve known Luke since I was 20, first meeting him at Port Keats (Wadeye) in the NT. He’s the last of the true old bush legends, someone who grew up in the pastoral industry in the days when it was a very hard game, long before road trains and helicopters. People came from all over Australia to farewell him. His longtime friend and soulmate Pat McPherson brought him down to Bairnsdale to look after him in his last months, and organised the memorial back in Batlow where Luke had retired about 25 years earlier.
So, instead of watching the country through the windscreen, we’ll be watching the surf out in front of this house in Phillip Island for a few weeks. It’s peaceful and quiet, and there are no tents needing putting up or packing away. It’s even getting warmer! We’ve clocked just over 18,000 km, and have seen some astonishingly beautiful parts of our country. We camped – old school! – like that young bloke said – with our car, tent and esky, and didn’t feel like we were doing it hard at all. Except for the cold. Did I mention it was cold?
Thanks for coming along on this journey with Lex and me – we hope you’ve enjoyed it too. It’s now Christmas Eve, time to post the final blog and wish you all a very happy and safe Christmas with your loved ones. We’re a long way from ours, but we’ll be home directly, kids!
Here is a Christmas moon for you – the full moon last night, rising over the grassy paddocks behind us. Cheers for now, and we wish you all the very best for the New Year!