SOUTH AUSTRALIA ADVENTURE

Probably I should clean my walking shoes. But the smudges of muck and salt from Lake Eyre remind me of the wondrous journey into the South Australian Outback, of unimaginable vastness and sights, and extremely friendly – if few – people encountered along the way. Besides, I knew that snow at home, Boston, would do the cleaning job.

 

Lake Eyre? Nobody was there when the intrepid explorer, John Eyre, “discovered” it in 1841 – of course Aborigines had beaten him to it by centuries. And nobody was there when we pulled up beside the great mass of salt at Halligan Bay after a dirt road drive of 62 kilometers from William Creek, during which zero other cars appeared. Hardy cattle did appear, the only identifiable forms of life in the 40 degree morning heat, some finding shade beneath an occasional tree.

Eyre said it was “a dreary, cheerless scene.” Understandable. But he was steering a camel, not an air-conditioned 4-wheel drive conveyance, and wasn’t certain if he’d ever get home.

We three Bostonians (my roommate, Aurelio, and friend, Ron Sampson) liked our chances, while enjoying the varied beauties of the desert. Nevertheless, we’d seen a memorial at William Creek to a young German woman who perished out here in 1998 by leaving a car that had broken down, trying to walk to help. We were told to be aware that the Outback isn’t Fitzroy Gardens. It can be fatally inhospitable to anyone not fully equipped with water, spare tyres and a plan to let people at your last stop know your movements.

That was impressed on us aliens by the Rasheed brothers, Keith and Dean, at Wilpena Pound, their scenically breathtaking resort in the stunning Flinders Ranges, where our Outback foray began and sealed highways ended.

During numerous visits to this country we had neglected South Australia. A mistake, advised Melburnian Jeremy Oliver, the wizard of wine, touting the tastes of the Barossa and Clare Valleys. Definitely a mistake, counseled Beverly Knight, Melbourne’s astute dealer in Aboriginal art, calling Coober Pedy a further down under wonder.

Correcting the mistake, we flew to Adelaide, rented a Land Rover and headed north.

“Andiamo – let’s go,” crooned Sampson in a burst of tenor soon forgiven. Aurelio, at the wheel, always insists on driving because she’s a photographer and wants to control the stops. Wherever, whenever. Sometimes several within 100 meters.

It doesn’t take long to reach the Barossa and its plentitude of vineyards. The twisting route, the Onkararinga Drive, led through pleasant small towns such as Hahndorf, Mount Torrens and Birdwood. Distinguished by bright gardens, meticulous structural stonework, trees arching the road, they are neat communities, home mainly to cattle and sheep.

“These are bucolic scenes that delighted 19th century Aussie painters,” said Sampson, pleased to find them outside of a museum.

Hungry and thirsty, we had no idea of the treat awaiting us at Angaston and the Saltram winery that dates to 1859. Lunch was merely magnificent: from the best garlic bread ever through stuffed zucchini flowers, grilled shrimp, char-grilled octopus, lamb rump on a Greek salad, pannacotta with poached peach and watermelon consommé. Plus a bottle of winemaker Nigel Dolan’s superb No. 1 Shiraz.

Waiter Chris Schiller suggested we ought to stay at Lawley Farm, and he was on the money. A rustic B&B of 4 rooms in the 106-year-old ex-stable, it is operated stylishly by the striking proprietor, Lesley Gregg. Once the chief of protocol at the Australian High Commission in London, she is far from all that now, a ruralist who raises a few grapes herself for neighboring vintner Robert O’Callahan. Also makes fine eggs benedict, but modestly doesn’t take credit for the cheery avian chorus of galahs, parrots, magpies and cockatoos at breakfast.

A morning walk revealed that we were in genuine huge-sky country something like the American west. Endless overhead blue was decorated with distant, far-separated cities of clouds. Gentle hills, some bare, some forested, surrounded us and vineyard after vineyard, as well as ecru fields, gnarled and towering elderly gums, and trees whose leaves were billowing green spinnakers.

Germans from East Prussia and Silesia, fleeing religious persecution, began arriving in the Barossa in 1842, and started planting grapes and making wine, to their own and presently the rest of the world’s benefit.

In 1842 copper was found in Kapunda, that strike often said to have saved the South Australian colony in difficult financial times. A mural on the main street salutes a local boy who made good in a large way, Sir Sidney Kidman. Known as the cattle king, he owned 100 stations covering more than 130,000 square miles (83 million acres) and countless tons of beef during a lifetime spanning 19th and 20th centuries.

Nicole Kidman, not bad on the hoof herself, fits somewhere in the family tree, said a woman named Elaine at the Visitors Center. That’s next door to the Olive Branch Boutique, dealing not in used clothes but attire “pre-loved.” Across the street is a market whose notice board has the offer of “racing ferrets for sale.” Where they race, or whether they’re thoroughbred ferrets wasn’t mentioned.

Tarlee, quickly passed through, is the gateway to the Clare Valley and possessor of a handsome church, 129-year-old St. John and Paul. A colorful rose window punctuates the façade of amber stone. Yellow-blossomed agave touched up the neighborhood.

We were looking for the “his and her” vintners, Jeff Grossett and Stephanie Toole,

and found them and their two kids, Georgina and Alex – a lively, engaging family — in Auburn, domiciled near an olive grove. Stephanie, a diminutive dynamo out of New Zealand with close-cropped auburn hair and cobalt blue eyes, decided to raise wine along with a child when Georgina, 11, was born. Thus her Mount Horrocks vineyard was born, too.

Jeff, his gleaming head shaved, has been in the business, Grossett Wines, much longer. “They are separate businesses, not a mom-and-pop partnership, but,” he said, smiling, “we swap ideas.” They do share processing equipment, although the grapes are hand-picked and until recently foot-stomped.

“Not as romantic as some think,” she said of the squishy toe-dancing.

Theirs are small but select operations, the products sold out within weeks. Both are known for their marvelous Rieslings, each a distinctive flavor. His red, a Gaia, and her Cordon Cut dessert wine have made their marks as far as the U.S.

For his Gaia Jeff is beginning to use screw cap bottles, long thought downscale gauche. “The French are starting to approve for reds,” he said. Instead of corkscrews, the cry may be “Screw corks!”

Mount Horrocks, not really a mountain, 620 meters at the crest, is a challenging drive nonetheless, overland and lumpy. But worth it to see the spreads of grapes including his and her odd-shaped plots, charolais cattle and a few curious kangaroos. “The ‘roos love cabernet grapes,” Stephanie said, but are in no danger of becoming winos.

Along the way, on Polish Hill, is Mintaro, a gem imitating a 19th century English village. There the lawn bowlers weren’t intimidated by rain, and slate is yet quarried to serve as pool tables and flooring.

Jesuits launched the Clare Valley wine planting in 1851 to supply communion requirements. Their Sevenhill Cellars continues, selling blood reds throughout Australia and Asia.

A wiggly, climbing road took us away from the valley. In a short time we were in the bush at Hallett, flat and desolate, the settlements tiny and far apart with a feel of deterioration and desperation. Dusty, windy Whyte Yarcowie seemed deserted until we spotted a man working on the roof of the post office, “Have a drink at the hotel and come back,” said he, John Gray.

Working the quiet, empty barroom, Hanne and Jeff Stokes, the new owners, were not exactly civic boosters. “There are 27 people here,” she said. “Most of them drunks and dropkicks. John Gray is all right. Sometimes I have to be a bouncer.” An ample lady, she looked up to the task.

Gray, a retired boilermaker with his German shepherd, Titan, as housemate, purchased the defunct post office, turning it into a comfortable home. It is filled with primitive paintings by a woman named Ruby Clare, the former postmistress, who was killed in an accident. Though a life of solitude suits him, Gray said he’ll move on if the disappearing town folds altogether,

A long stretch of vacant road and varying vegetation, gray or crimson earth, sudden clumps of trees patrolled by pink galahs and dark wedge-tailed eagles, rolled on to Cradock. Somber hills were in the distance, then crags sprouting from the plains, introducing the Flinders Ranges National Park, and the Outback.

“You should have been here a few million years ago,” said the Wilpena Pound Resort’s Keith Rasheed in mock apology. “The Ranges aren’t what they used to be.” But what is? Through erosion, Australia’s oldest pinnacles have shrunk to about one-third of their original height. St. Mary’s Peak at 1171 meters is the apogee. Yet they remain majestic in rusty red palisades, buttes, jutting salients and promontories. Not a home for stray dogs, the Pound, in a geological sense, is a bowl within cliffs, this one sized 17-by-7 KM. Aboriginal legend has it as an area surrounded by two gigantic coiled serpents.

Walking trails abound. But a very good way to get the lay of the land is in a sort of buckin’ bronco, a Toyota land cruiser, ridge-running and straining up and down improbable grades. Or from above in the RAF: Rasheed Air Force’s single-engine Cessna that bounces a fair amount, too.

Bearded Richard Wickens, gravel voiced, sounding like bygone British actor Jack Hawkins, was an excellent guide and bronco driver, good humored, knowledgeable on flora and fauna. It seemed a roller-coaster ride in slo-mo, lurching and swerving along the edge of precipices, dipping and climbing.

Kangaroos – red, brown and euro – were everywhere, and so were strutting emus, looking like laundry bags on golf sticks. Wickens said the ‘roos could speed 50 KPH in short bursts. (Do they ever get sore feet from all that hopping?) “We were amused when the euro, the European monetary unit, made its debut. Did they name it for our ‘roo, expecting it to bound beyond the dollar?”

Wedge-tailed eagles with 2 meter wingspans monitored our progress. “They’re considered heroic now because they dine on those pesky rabbits,” Wickens said.

Plunging through a forest of spindly mallee, so contorted that they appeared in pain, we stopped for tea in a dry riverbed called Maud’s Gully. Accompaning were lilies, purple-striped lavender boulders, lofty 400-year old river red gums with trunks looking camouflaged in strips of black, gray, vanilla and red.

“We’re in a Russell Drysdale tableau,” said Sampson, citing a favorite native painter.

Soon we were off – the plot quickens wih Wickens – scaling a series of humps he called “The Stairway to Heaven.” Steep, steeper, steepest. A look over the side could

inspire prayer.

More emus appeared. Talk about independent females. As soon as mom lays the eggs she leaves the job of hatching and baby care to dad, vanishing for a couple of months. Is that emu lib or what?

The following day our female, Aurelio, took charge again in the driver’s seat, pledging not to emu-late by leaving Sampson and me to fend for ourselves. Keith Rasheed kindly checked our car’s equipment, finding there was too much air in the tyres for the rough, unpaved driving that lay immediately ahead.

That was the jiggle-and-jolt passage across Brachina Gorge. A trip through time, the Gorge makes you feel young since the jagged limestone, quartzite and sandstone formations in shades of red, blue, fuchsia, gray and an array of ripples are as old as 620 million years, give or take 100 million.

Exiting to the sight of 2 wild camels, perhaps descendants of Eyre’s beasts,

Aurelio pointed the vehicle toward Edward John Eyre’s salty namesake, the largest lake on the continent. After that to Coober Pedy, the strangest of all communities where cavemen are up-to-date and caves are in demand.

I’ll be telling people about William Creek for a long time. I mean, how often can you meet 57 per cent of a community’s population? All right, so that means 4 of the 7 residents. Is it municipality vanity that leads the good citizens to call theirs Australia’s smallest town?

Whatever, it’s way out there on the Oonadatta Track, and has a sense of humor in its isolation. Among its assets are a lonely parking meter, a stoplight (jaywalkers beware?), a bus stop with a bench to ease the wait for a bus that will never come.

John Sheedy, a bearded Melburnian who owns the lowslung hotel, chuckles, “It’s amusing to see some bloke noticing he’s parked near the meter. He’ll go back and move the car to avoid feeding the meter. But it doesn’t eat. No, we don’t give jaywalking tickets, and the light doesn’t work either.”

Stopping at Marree (population 80) for a good steak dinner prepared by sturdy Simone at the neatly appointed hotel, we were too late for the benefit cricket game on the two concrete tennis courts that raised $ 1690 for tsunami relief.

As instructed, we called ahead to William Creek to say we’d be there for the night, and set out. Not really a good idea because nightfall intervened, and so did a gang of cattle on the road. Nevertheless, that gave us reason to stop for a while and watch the stellar extravaganza. The sky, dripping stars spectacularly, was anchored by the Southern Cross, a chandelier poised to fall on us.

During the 207 KM spin to William Creek, we saw one car. It was innkeeping samaritan Sheedy, out looking for us, worried about the cattle hazard. Such care and consideration.

Not until the following morning did we notice the grave of well-liked road-grader, Butch Osborne, a few steps from the hotel. Butch never wanted to be far from his favorite barroom where T-shirts, caps and lingerie are draped, tokens from wanderers across the globe. After all, as a sign indicates, Paris is merely 14,590 KM distant.

The side road to Lake Eyre offered more ruts, ruffles and dust, sporadic greenery, numerous cattle, plenty of shimmering mirages amid the scrub. Nearing the destination, we entered the fields of hell: black mounds and vales, the desert swathed in tiny black stones called gibber. You expect Mephistopheles to appear and offer choice lakeside properties for sale. Dante would have loved the way the sun made it an inferno, though deathly silent.

Then, resembling an interminable ice floe – Eyre’s lake showed its salty, ghostly face. Low down, 16 meters below sea level. A sandy shore but no day at the beach. No lifeguard. A dunny, two shelters with picnic tables – but nothing human. Except us. The only sound was our crunching footsteps as we walked on water – not divinely – denting the salty crust. Seldom does the lake fill with water like Israel’s Dead Sea. After trudging about 100 meters from shore, we were having trouble. It was sticky as we sank in. Could it suck us up? Didn’t try to find out. We’d had the rare Lake Eyre experience, including a finger-licking tastes, wondering if it could be marketed as pure sea salt. Where was Lot’s wife? She’d be sensational in salt commercials.

Life is low in Coober Pedy also, much of it lived underground, in homes, hotels and hostels, businesses and opal mine shafts. But no place in this country is farther below sea level than Lake Eyre.

Still, the miners, burrowing in search for the famed gemstones, get lower in rambling tunnels that sometimes resemble the sewers of Paris. Known as the opal capital of the world, this place was dubbed Coober Pedy by Aborigines, meaning “white fellow down a hole.” Entry holes are everywhere, more numerous than acres of Swiss cheese or wardrobes plagued by moths. You quickly respect the signs – “Don’t Walk Backwards.” A step back to take a better photographic position could be your last (and has been for some).

This has been going on since 1915 when the first opal was accidentally unearthed, creating a jewelry rush. Silica solutions, seeping into the ground formed opals when the ocean covering the territory millions of years ago receded.

Defending against overpowering heat (temperatures in the 40s, even 50s, aren’t uncommon), and absence of air-cooling in the early days, the populace went underground. Veterans of trench warfare in World War I brought the idea of dugouts to the desert. Sandstone and limestone caves carved out of cliffs and rises maintain temperatures of around 20, ventilation pipes marking addresses. About half of today’s 3500 residents are subterraneans, living like American prairie dogs, but with plumbing and other modern comforts.

We got the feeling by staying at the Desert Cave Hotel, a first class inn with an exceptional diningroom presided over by chef Anil.

“You deserve to be underground,” said Aurelio, who had been here before. It wasn’t an unfriendly remark, hinting of Boot Hill, the local cemetery where the late Karl Bratz’s grave is decorated with a beer tap and the inscription: “Have a drink on me.”

No, she just felt that I should have a troglodyte’s experience, and we did in room 9. A handsome limestone cell, though I missed windows. The most attractive dig-in is the Serbian Orthodox Church, excavated from sandstone streaked in pink, beige and wine, with a quintuple-barreled ceiling worthy of any cathedral. And a bas relief of St. Elijah, who hid from enemies in a cave.

Miles of conical piles of dirt hauled from the mines resemble small pyramids or tented army camps. If a quarter-million holes aren’t enough, there are 18 more at the Coober Pedy Golf Club ($ 50 membership). “The whole place is a sand trap,” said a member, Graham Pollard. Greens are black, an oil treatment. “You carry a piece of artificial turf to give yourself a reasonable lie for every shot.”

Pollard, a part-time miner (lucky his wife has a job), said, “Anybody can file a claim. You get opal fever – there’s always a fortune in the next hole,” he laughed. “But 90 per cent of the diggers go broke. But there are 150 full-timers, and still opals to be found, although the 1970s and 80s were the best times.”

He drove us well out of town to the Breakaways, an Australian version of the American West’s Monument Valley, familiar terrain of innumerable John Wayne-flavored Western films. Broken away from the nearby Stuart Range, these odd-shaped mesas in black, white, gray, orange and beige tones, and the plains stretching out of sight, have been movie stars also in “Beyond Thunderdome,” “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” and “Mad Max III.”

The romance of two Coober Pedians we met in a bar, Pete Carmichael and Sheridan May, seems out of a movie. Not watching his step, Pete tumbled into one of the myriad holes, a 10 meter crash, and wound up in the hospital where Sheridan, a newly transplanted Sydneysider, was his nurse.

“I guess you could say I fell for her. And soon we were married,” he grinned at finding a silver lining instead of an opal in a mine.

Returning to Adelaide, running out of time, we were sorry not to look in on Glendambo, whose exit sign announced: “Population 30 — 22,500 sheep — 2 million flies approximately.”

But after covering 2500 KM in 9 days, we realized that we had fallen for South Australia.

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