Wednesday, August 27, 2008

South Australia

North of us in Queensland is the beautiful Gold Coast and still further north is Cairns, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. To the south are the Australian "Alps" in Victoria and Sydney's edgier sister-city, Melbourne. And in the middle of this great country is Uluru, a rock in a class of its own. Keeping in mind these varied yet intriguing destinations that Australia has to offer, it's a wonder that we opted to take a holiday in South Australia. My mom and two of our dearest friends were visiting us on their first and perhaps only trip to Australia, and there we were on our way to Adelaide, South Australia's capital.

In order to explain how we chose Adelaide, I must provide some background on our travel history as a foursome. Last July, we traveled around Italy for two weeks together before Mickey and I tied the knot. We took the train from Zurich to Milan and then made our way over to Como, Tuscany, Rome and Venice. We explored medieval hill towns and we dined on wild boar pasta and carafes of Chianti over long lunches; we had a marvelous time. However, this romantic romp around Italy was almost ruined by the heat and crowds that come with summer travel. Sure, Cinque Terre would have been magnificent if the views of the coastal villages weren't obscured by other rich, fat Americans and their Rick Steves guide books.

Anyway, we desired the opposite of Italy in July and found South Australia to be just that. It was cold and, despite its beauty, SA is a destination that not many Australians would visit, let alone Americans. Best of all, SA is home to Australia's best Rieslings, so it was an ideal destination for the tasters among us. Moreover, none of us had been there before and the experience was new to us all.

We left on a Thursday afternoon and arrived in Adelaide too late to journey to Clare. Out of fear of running down innocent kangaroos, we restricted our driving to daylight hours and spent our first night in Adelaide. Wandering down streets littered with retail clothing stores at best and seedy strip clubs at worst, we were unimpressed. The restaurant and hotel accommodations recommended by Fodors did little to improve our opinion of SA's capital. Luckily, a venture outside of town to Mickey's colleague's lovely home saved the evening. He treated us to heaping plates of gourmet nibblies (cheese and spreads) and some sticky (dessert, sweet wine).

A visit to the Central Market, the largest produce market in the southern hemisphere, improved our opinion of Adelaide. We loved our breakfast at Zedz so much that we came back for a picnic lunch of fresh bread, cheeses, olives and creamy, berry topped yogurt. I also particularly enjoyed the botanical gardens. We ran to catch up with a free tour, but were delayed by a sudden hailstorm. We waited out the downpour in a covered rainforest exhibit and a greenhouse devoted to giant water lilies.

Our last stop in Adelaide was a quick tour of Haigh's chocolate factory. I went in eager to see thousands of little chocolates traveling along conveyor belts into hundreds of identical boxes. I was surprised to learn how much is actually done by hand at Haigh's. And not by the hands of underpaid child laborers, but by probably unionized Australian workers who looked rather content as we admired their work from behind the plexiglass. After purchasing a couple of bags of Haigh's specialty, scorched chocolate almonds, we drove north out of Adelaide and into the Clare Valley.

Though usually dry and golden, the winter storms colored the fields and low hills a healthy green. We passed through several tiny towns en route to the Old Stanley Grammar School Country House in Watervale. I only booked this place because everything else was unavailable. Looking back, I consider this to be a happy accident because we ended up loving the place.

The Stanley Grammar School first opened its doors to young male boarding students in 1857 when Australia and its wine making industry were still new. Back then and to this day, a fair number of Australians send their children to boarding school not to prove status, but because it's practical. This country is sparsely populated and having students board at school during the week makes more sense than long commutes.

Anyway, despite the hundred year old spit balls that still cling to its ceiling, the Stanley is elegant and comfortable. Denise, the proprietor, had decorated each room with attention to detail. Keeping such a large old building warm is no small task, but they manage with faux fireplace heaters in the bedrooms and an actual roaring fire in the enormous lounge (once the main school room). Denise and her husband Frank had only recently been granted the local permissions allowing them to turn this heritage building into a B&B, and their greenness as hosts showed. They surrendered their own living quarters to other guests and had to spend some cold nights in their camper van. They kept saying they'd "leave us be," but we found ourselves awkwardly sharing the kitchen.

Soon, they'll have learned from their new B&B mistakes, such as not making the beds when guests have paid $200+ for you to do just that. Housekeeping wasn't Denise's strong point and as it turned out, neither was cooking. She said she had tried preparing a cooked breakfast for guests, but that the timing was difficult. I thought this was strange because, as the owners of a B&B, you're supposed to make it work. Her solution to upholding the breakfast end of the deal while avoiding cooking was to fill large baskets of food and stick them in the fridge for guests. This worked for us because we enjoyed frying up eggs and bacon at our leisure.

We spent the first day on rented bikes from Sevenhill Cellars, one of the Clare Valley's oldest wineries owned by Jesuit priests. The property was picturesque and being able to bike around it only added to the charm. However, the Riesling Trail was the reason behind my desire to hire bikes. A wide, well maintained path atop old railway tracks, the Riesling Trail is mostly flat and provides easy access to the wineries. We deviated away from it to spend a wine soaked three hour lunch at Skillagalee Winery and encountered a couple of challenging hills for us novice bikers. Still, it was a picture perfect day complete with a sighting of 'roos lazing among the vines.

The next day we encountered more stunning landscapes en route to the outback. We drifted west in attempts to catch the southern tip of the Flinders Ranges, but didn't notice a dramatic change of scenery. As we headed back northeast, though, the land slowly began to change from grassy fields to red dirt and endless bush, to our great relief. The rest of SA had been so verdant, we wondered if the outback in winter would be the same uncharacteristic green.

However, when we arrived at the East Whydown Station, 30 kilometers outside of a nothing town called Yunta, we knew we were getting the real outback experience. In fact, it was a little too real, too authentic even. My heart sank when our hostess Joan showed us to our plain, toilet-less rooms. The dunnys (outdoor lavatories), were about 20 meters away from our beds in the shearers' quarters. Twenty meters was not far enough to get lost on the way back from a sleepy shuffle to the toilet, but it was long enough to encounter an insomniac boxing kangaroo or a deadly spider. Such thoughts make the chamber pot idea look like a reasonable option. Anyway, I had to do some quick outback math: 20 outdoor meters away from the potty - 5 kilometers to the main road (and the world of indoor plumbing) + $600 already paid to Chris and Joan = no turning back in the outback.
In retrospect, I'm glad I didn't know that East Whydown lacked indoor toilets, insulation and heating. I would regret never having had this adventure. Almost as soon as we arrived, Chris led us on an informative tour of the woolshed. We later learned that Chris is affectionately called 'Decimal' by his friends. This is an apt nickname for a man who loves throwing around unit-less data. "That looks about five, six, eighteen, fifty maybe," he'd estimate while gazing at his sheep. Was he talking about the birthweight of his lambs? Centimeters of rainfall? The price of a kilo of wool, or what? After the tour, the five of us admitted that we only understood a fraction of what Chris had said. Fortunately, we put our fractions together to construct a whole picture of how the sheep station operates.

The next day we were treated to another tour of the entire property. At first, the 245 square kilometers appeared unchanging; there was nothing but desolate bush in all directions. However, as Chris guided us and pointed out variants of gum trees and salt bush, I began to notice subtle changes. The tour of this immense nothingness, was indeed chock full of... stuff. We kicked up pottery shards from an abandoned homestead, mustered wayward hoggerts, had a picnic in a woolshed and lived a day in the life of two modern-day pioneers.

It wasn't hard to say goodbye to East Whydown because we were sick of being cold and longed for the luxury of not needing shoes for a trip to the bathroom or shower. However, I do miss the night sky in the outback, the quiet and the beauty of red dirt contrasted against a blue horizon.

We took six days out of our busy routines to explore a slice of Australia and flew back to Sydney not having seen the reef nor the rock. I'm still eager to visit those Australian must-see destinations, but I loved my days in South Australia, dunnys and all.


Leah said...

You trip sounds like one of those one of life time adventures. I liked the part about the Riesling tasting and, of course, all the descriptions about the food. It's great that you went down "the road not taken," and had a real authentic experience.

Alyssa said...

I'm a bit behind on reading the blog. Great description of our trip! Maybe we should call you the new Stick Reeves.