Cricket & Ceviche

Adelaide was always going to be an avid cricketing city, with so many of the original settlers in South Australia being of British origin. So, it was no surprise to learn that a purpose-built oval was already being constructed in 1871. As it is now, was then and – hopefully – ever will be, the Adelaide Oval sits in the park lands on the northern bank of the River Torrens, and in the shadow of St. Peter’s Cathedral. The Oval was officially opened on December 15th 1873, with a cricket match between teams representing the British-born and the colonial-born inhabitants.  The first test match against England was played three months later. And lost.

In 1877, footballers were given entrée, and in the first football match at the Oval, Adelaide Football Club played against St Kilda.  And lost. On September 7th, 2014 the first Australian Football League (AFL) elimination final at the ground was played between Port Adelaide and Richmond. Port Adelaide won.

The Oval was also redesigned that year. It now looks more like a spaceship and teams nicely with the festival centre across the river. Since those early years, the Oval has seen tennis and baseball, soccer and test cricket played on its hallowed turf. In 1885 an Indigenous corroboree attracted 20,000 spectators. Since the 1970s, the Oval has also hosted numerous rock concerts, including David Bowie, Midnight Oil, the Rolling Stones and Ed Sheeran.

As youngsters, my sister and I spent some sunny days at the Oval – me to socialize and sip champagne (yes, I was over 18), my younger, sports mad sister to collect autographs from the players and actually watch the cricket.

The scoreboard, an Adelaide icon, was designed and built in 1911 by my great great uncle, architect Kenneth Milne. Despite all the latest technology and upgrades, she still stands proudly on the Hill at the northern end of the stands, the Cathedral providing an elegant backdrop. With an old-fashioned style and lack of fussy detail, she is much softer on the eyes than the huge electronic screens with their flashing advertising, while still providing spectators with all the information they need to follow the game. Thankfully, the board has been heritage listed by the National Trust, so it should be there for years to come.

Facing the park lands, the new Oval Hotel can be found on the eastern side of the Oval and opened only last month. The hotel, much criticized when first mooted, is a subtle and elegant design that wraps nicely round the back of the eastern stand. The entrance is so unobtrusive, we almost missed it, tucked quietly away to the right of the Victor Richardson Gate, so that nothing about the hotel impinges on the entrance plaza, other than the sensual copper fascia.

Last week, keen to investigate, I strolled from North Adelaide and across Creswell Park with the One & Only. Gliding up to the third floor in the lift, we were welcomed in the reception lounge with a glass of bubbles, a friendly smile and some amazing light fittings. Eventually, we took ourselves off to see our room in the south wing. As we walked in, the curtains opened automatically, to present a wonderful view across the north park lands and the River Torrens, between the leafy branches of a beautiful plane tree. The hotel has 138 rooms, a reception lounge, and two restaurants that look out over the Oval itself.

Before dinner, and while the spring rain took a recess, we wandered across the elegantly curved pedestrian bridge over the Torrens. Adelaide’s skyline has grown very tall in the years we have been away. Until 1975, no building went above nineteen floors. These days, even Westpac House (once the State Bank and the tallest building in Adelaide for thirty years) with its 31-storey, 132m  tower has been overshadowed by the Adelaidean on Frome Street which has risen to 138m high with 37 floors, and at least two others of similar height have been proposed, since planning reform in 2012 changed the rules. Sadly, the plan to revitalize the inner city with a greater volume of city apartments has been scuppered, at least temporarily, by Covid 19. The city centre was largely deserted and many previously thriving eateries were closed for business.

The new restaurant at the Oval was a different matter. By 7pm, the tables in the Bespoke Wine Bar and Kitchen were full. A small outdoor terrace sits at the top of the tiered seating overlooking the Oval,. If it hadn’t been so chilly, it would have been the perfect spot for a pre-dinner drink as the sun set over the stands. As we waited for a table, we had a long chat with the sommelier, who proudly showed off a wall of South Australian wines, picking out many of our old favourites and introducing a few new names. There is a seasonal degustation menu in the Fine Dining restaurant, ‘Five Regions,’ which is – no prizes for guessing – named for the five main wine regions of SA: the Barossa & Clare Valleys, McLaren Vale, the Coonawarra and the Adelaide Hills.

 The meal was excellent: well-priced and beautifully presented, and wine was available by the glass, which for dinner a deux on a weeknight was a great idea. The sun set over the stands as our server arrived with some lovely soft sour dough bread, with a satisfyingly crunchy crust. The menu sounded terribly glamorous. In our ignorance, we even had to google some of the ingredients. A delicate and delicious kingfish ceviche garnished with burnt mandarin and grilled padron (those tasty Spanish peppers) although the leche de tigre (a sauce of lime juice, salt and spices) may have ‘cooked’ the fish, but had been left off the plate. But a mille feuille of potato topped with smoked scallops was divine.

Fish again for the main course: grilled mullaway served with macadamia and harissa, bush tomato yoghurt and kohlrabi for me, Port Lincoln octopus cooked to perfection on a bed of fennel puree with fermented chilli and herbs (like a pesto) and lardo for the One & Only.  While I was not a fan of dripping with octopus, the rest was really tasty. There was a lot of emphasis on texture, and our white wine choices accented it all nicely. Sadly, I was too busy concentrating on flavours – and of course my gorgeous companion – to remember to take photos, but the food was both delicious and very prettily displayed.

Back in our room, the ‘intuitive technology’ switched on the light, and illuminated the bathroom with a terrific shower and plenty of elbow room. The bed was huge and wonderfully comfortable, and we could choose between a view of the vast Morton Bay figs in the parklands or an equally vast TV screen. And there were crisp towelling robes hanging in the bathroom, which was a much appreciated little luxury.

Sporting events are still largely forced to succumb to Covid regulations, so it may be a while before we visit again… although I am very tempted to try the rooftop walk one summer evening…

*With thanks to Google for the pictures. Next time I’ll remember my camera!

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“Is it beer o’clock yet?’

What could be more Australian than drinking beer in a shearing shed?
The specific shearing shed I have in mind is on the Fork Tree Road, where it squats high on a hill above Carrickalinga, looking straight out over the deep blue waters of Gulf St. Vincent. To the left is a deep gorge, green paddocks, gum trees, and sheep. Of course. An old, corrugated iron shearing shed, it has been in business since the 1880s. Three years ago, it was beautifully renovated by brewer Ben Hatcher and his family. It no longer houses sheep and shearers, but is now home to a small selection of craft beers and some very upmarket and tasty pub grub. And it has been re-branded: ‘Forktree Brewing.’

Despite the bar, a modern kitchen and an air conditioning unit, there are still strong signs of its original incarnation, with its tin roof and huge roof beams, not to mention the re-pointed wooden floorboards. The rustic feel is further enhanced by the many tables that appear to have been built out of old packing crates.

On sabbatical through the early months of Covid, Forktree Brewing reopened in June. Our first visit required winter coats, and a mad dash to grab a table near the wood burning stove. But now that spring is in the air, it is a joy to sit in the garden or out on the veranda on a warm afternoon, to wait for the sun set over the sea and to watch the sky change from blue to gold to pink to a deep Aperol-Spritz-orange, as the kids play on the swings or in the sandpit. Canine kids are also welcome.

Opened in 2017, it is – literally – the only place to go for a drink and a meal in Carrickalinga, a beach retreat for many Adelaideans where there is not even a corner shop for bread and milk. Residents here prefer to keep clear of anything commercial, and simply head to Yankalilla or Normanville for coffee and shopping. (Yes, I am thinking of setting up a toll gate on the main road, as apparently, the holiday traffic is notorious and there’ll be no hope of a park in the summer. On the Isle of Wight it was the DFLs – Down from London – so I have christened this bunch the DFAs!)

But let’s stop niggling at the neighbours and get back to the hilltop brewery for a testing platter of the craft beers or a glass of cold, crisp rosé as the sun sets into the sea and reflects gold through your pint glass.

The Fork Tree microbrewery serves its own beers: a light ale, a pale ale, a dark red, malty ale and a porter. All four can be tried and tasted if you fancy a tasting paddle. Or there are some lovely local ciders, if like me you don’t have a passion for beer.

The wine list is pure South Australia: the Coonawarra and the Adelaide Hills, Langhorne Creek and McLaren Vale, Clare Valley and the Barossa. There’s even a Cabernet Sauvignon listed from the Fleurieu Peninsula, and a Tempranillo from Moana.

Fancy a meal, perhaps? Chef, Kenton Day, has created a simple, succulent menu, and servings are generous. It’s really good value for the prices and tastefully presented. I have already been here a few times, with friends and family, and tried the seafood platter and the burgers, and there’s generally some terrific choices on the specials board above the bar. But this time I go straight for the laksa. I have been dreaming of it all week. Piping hot and spicy hot, it clears the sinuses at a single mouthful and is swimming with seafood: muscles, fish, huge prawns, calamari. But don’t worry, for those who cringe from so much chilli, there are plenty of other options.

Our server, Vanessa, is new to Fork Tree, but already knows that she loves working here, which for me is always a great sign. Happy staff, happy customers. She says the hours can be long, but she’s perfectly happy with that, and is justly proud of the food she brings out from Kenton’s kitchen.
And the car park has just been extended, so there is plenty of room. Do be aware, however, that this place is enormously popular, and you would be well advised to book in advance as it’s a risky one for a spontaneous visit. Particularly if you want to be there to enjoy the for sunset.

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‘Where would we be without water?’

I grew up in the driest state on the driest continent in the world. My childhood was full of drought warnings, water restrictions and murky brown bath water pumped all the way from the River Murray.
Anyone with a television in South Australia in the 1970s will remember the TV jingle about saving water. Even before the ‘Splish Splosh Splash’ campaign, a dad and his daughters – Belinda and Sarah – warned us about the dangers of trying to live without water. It was catchy and quirky, but the message got through. ‘Don’t waste water this summer.’

Today there are reservoirs all over our dusty state: at Mount Bold, Tod River, and Beetaloo to name a few, but I still feel a strong surge of guilt if I leave a tap running or fill a (rare) bath to the brim.

Our nearest reservoir is about twenty kilometres up the road at Myponga. The valley, once known as ‘Lovely Valley,’ was flooded in 1962. It is now the main source of filtered water for the southern metropolitan area and the southern coast. Fed by the Myponga River, the reservoir covers an area of 2.8 km² with a total capacity of 26.8 million m³. At the eastern end, the tiny township of Myponga clusters close to the shore. At the western end, a narrow road skims across the weir, high above the gorge created by Myponga Creek – river seems overly generous – and winds steeply to the top of the hill. Here I regularly park the car and gaze out at the glorious view over the dam to the east, the sea to the west, particularly at the moment, when the reservoir is full to the brim, and lapping at the rim of the forest.

The valley was first settled in the 1840s. Today, two old roads and the original Lovely Valley schoolhouse lie below the calm waters of the reservoir, where ducks and moorhens now bob gently, and bullfrogs croak noisily among the reeds, desperate for love. And long before the Europeans, the Kaurna people roamed this region, along the eastern shore of St Vincent’s Gulf from Cape Jervis as far north as Port Wakefield.

The Myponga dam was opened to the public only last year, and a 5.2km trail has been set up along the southern edge of the water. Walk, run, cycle or skip, it’s an easy stroll, with viewing platforms over the water and picnic tables on the hill. Earlier this year, the reservoir was stocked with more than 90,000 native fish, and for the keen fisherman (or woman) it is possible to fish from the shore, providing you are in the zone and have the requisite permit from Seven other reservoirs around the state are now open to the public, with more in the pipeline, and many of them have been stocked with fish, too. Unfortunately, it isn’t a place you can take the dogs, as they may disturb the wildlife, but your kids are more than welcome. And it has proved the perfect place for a post-prandial, Sunday stroll.

This week, at the beginning of spring, the landscape is a lush green, although it won’t be long before it has become sunburned stubble, dry and yellow. The paddocks are scattered with mobs of kangaroos: a handful of huge, heavy, square-snouted males, watching possessively over their harems; the smaller, more delicate females whose capacious pouches bulge with growing joeys, back legs protruding awkwardly, or tiny ears poking out of those deep, cosy pockets.

Down by the creek, dark purple grape hyacinths have blossomed in the swampy earth, the wattle is already fading along the banks of the reservoir, and the quiet pine plantations are soft underfoot, littered with a thick, shag-pile carpet of needles. Up on the hillside, a stand of eucalyptus is teeming with parrots – galahs, rosellas and lorikeets, corellas and cockatoos – flashing their paint palette colours as they dive and weave through the sunlit sky. For the keen bird watcher, there are apparently some 120 bird species in the area, so don’t forget your camera. There is also a toilet block half-way round the circuit for emergencies, and a craft beer waiting at the end of the trail.

‘The Smiling Samoyed’ is a family owned boutique brewery behind the old market building in Myponga. It opened in 2012 ‘after a home brewing hobby got out of control,’ and is named for the owners’ thickly coated, snowy-white dogs who feature prominently on the labels. The beer is made and bottled on site, and we found a table overlooking the reservoir, with a view of the brewing tanks through the window behind us. The restaurant, bar and brewery are contained in a vast, rustic, corrugated iron shed, with a playground outside to keep the kids amused, and a wood-fire pizza oven to provide for the peckish.

Now, I’m generally not the person to ask about beers. Pouring countless beers for punters in the front bar of a local hotel for the duration of my student years was enough to put me off for life. Or so I thought. But the One & Only assured me that these boutique beers are rather good, and the view across the reservoir was invitingly serene.

So, last weekend, I headed east with a girlfriend, ostensibly for a walk around the reservoir, but with the thought of trying out a beer or two as well. Unfortunately, the rain set in with a vengeance two hundred metres down the track and we had to bolt for cover. Decidedly damp, we cuddled up to a friendly Samoyed who was wandering through the restaurant like a congenial host. Hoppy or Kent, he never told us which, but was otherwise extremely polite, and more than happy to become acquainted and pose for photos.

As the rain shower retreated up the valley, we nibbled on a serve of salt and pepper chicken drumsticks, shared a morsel with Hoppy or Kent, and decided to order a tasting paddle to share. The small shot-sized glasses were the perfect size to introduce an unbeliever to some interesting beers.
In order of appearance, from light to dark, we were presented with a lager, a German style golden ale (Kolsch), a 12 Paws Pale Ale, an Indian Pale Ale and a Dark Ale, complete with tasting notes.

And in fact, it worked out well. We tried them all, but my friend loved the Mudlark Gold lager and the 12 Paws with its strong citrus and passionfruit flavours. I preferred the light Koln beer and, unexpectedly, the dark ale with a definite taste of mocha and Maltesers. The Indian Pale ale, with its strong pine and floral flavours, was not a favourite with either of us, but I’m sure others will delight in it.

As we emptied the bowl of chicken, it had started raining again – so much for our driest of dry states! Sadly, we decided to forego any attempt to walk around the reservoir for now, and headed home for a nap. Well, even a little beer in the middle of the day can make you sleepy…

*With thanks to Google images for the view of the dam.

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Scones & Cream & Camellias

The camellia against the moss of the temple, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains, a blue porcelain cup
this sudden flowering of pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion: is this not something we all aspire to?
~ Muriel Barbery

In the beginning, there was dense bush land, winter creeks, deep gullies, and gum trees galore; the traditional home of the Peramangk for thousands of years.

Then, in 1836, the Europeans began to land on the beach at Glenelg, and the Adelaide Hills soon became a popular destination for these new Australians. In the early days of settlement, ‘the Tiers’ – as the Adelaide Hills were first known – were rumoured to be the haunt of bushrangers, escaped convicts and runaway sailors – our very own Sherwood Forest. In reality, there were probably fewer criminals than legend tells. Most settlers in South Australia were proud of their convict-free heritage. More were fleeing religious persecution than the law.

Germans moved deep into the Mount Lofty ranges and established towns they named Tanunda, Hahndorf, and Lobethal, planting vines and building churches. The English stayed closer to the city, planting orchards and building railway stations in towns they called Stirling, Piccadilly, Norton Summit. Wealthy Adelaide residents built summer houses in the hills to escape the debilitating heat on the plains, much as the British in India were doing among the foothills of the Himalaya. (Although Mount Lofty, at little over 700 metres, has no hope of competing with Everest’s 8,848 metres in the highest mountain stakes.) Day trippers from the city packed picnic baskets and headed for the hills too, and it wasn’t long before these picnic parties were as popular as winery tours are now.

Today, it is a cool, blustery day in September, the sky intermittently weeping gentle tears, and I have driven into the hills without a picnic basket, but in anticipation of morning tea and a tour of the gardens at Stangate House.

Stangate House was built in 1940 in the heart of Aldgate village. Owned by the National Trust of South Australia, it is renowned as a premier camellia garden, designated in 2012 as an ‘International Camellia Garden of Excellence.’ The garden also contains one of Australia’s oldest and largest oak trees, believed to have been planted in the 1860s by Richard & Sarah Jane Hawkins, who had built the nearby Aldgate Pump, a pub still popular over 150 years later.

The land on which Stangate House was built was bought by Florence Emily Thomas, in 1892. Florence was the granddaughter of Robert Thomas, an ancestor of mine, too, as it turns out, who brought his family to South Australia on ‘The Africaine’ in 1836. Co-founder and proprietor of one of SA’s first newspapers, both his son William and his grandson, Sir Robert Kyffin Thomas would follow in his footsteps. In the meantime, his granddaughter erected a small wooden cottage on her four acres in the hills and presumably enjoyed the fresh air and cooler summers among the gum trees.

When Florence died, in 1922, she was able to leave the entire property to her own daughter, Florence Gwenyth Thomas, thanks to the introduction of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1883.

Florence Gwenyth Thomas travelled to England sometime after her mother’s death, where she married the Reverend Raymond Cornish on August 5th,1927 at Southwark. The newlyweds then moved to Stangate, on the southern side of Westminster Bridge, while the Reverend Cornish was chaplain at nearby St Thomas’s hospital.

The couple stayed on in London until the late 1930s. Then, with the threat of another war giving everyone goosebumps, they decided to return to Australia, to the property at Aldgate that Gwenyth Cornish had inherited from her mother. A house was designed for them by Adelaide architect, Eric H. McMichael, based on a model the Reverend Cornish had built in London. A simple, airy bungalow, it was constructed in double-quick time, and the couple moved into their new home in July, 1940. They named it for their first home together in London, SE1.

The Reverend Cornish had a sister, Elsie, who was already a distinguished landscape gardener in North Adelaide. Elsie Marion Cornish designed, among other familiar sites, the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden below Government House, now a focal point for the Adelaide Writer’s Festival in March.

Elsie and Gwenyth worked together to create the garden at Stangate House, heavily influenced by Getrude Jekyll, a British horticulturist, garden designer, writer, and artist.

Jekyll was a follower of the Arts and Crafts Movement, one half of an influential partnership with English architect Edwin Lutyens, for whose houses she created numerous gardens based on the Arts & Crafts principles of design, using hedges and herbaceous borders to divide the landscape into a series of outdoor ‘rooms.’

Stangate House also reflects the influence of the Arts & Crafts Movement, with its simple, spacious, well-proportioned rooms and wooden fittings. The movement had developed in Britain in the late nineteenth century as a protest against industrialised mass production and artifice. Its proponents challenged the finicky tastes of the Victorians, and sought to return to a simpler, more natural way of life. Turning to nature for inspiration, they espoused the value of quality craftsmanship and utility in design.

With its tiered lawns and hedges of Monterey Cyprus, winding paths and pretty bridges over the Aldgate Creek that runs through the property, the garden ‘rooms’ that the Cornish women created ensured that the garden was full of ‘colour and interest throughout the year.’ They chose many plants beloved for their autumnal russets and golds, created bright, colourful borders of azaleas, and planted masses of bluebells along the edge of the creek.

Gwenyth Cornish died, without issue, in 1971, having left her property to the National Trust. By that time, the garden was overgrown and unkempt. Together with the Adelaide Hills Camellia Society, National Trust volunteers cleared the garden beds, rebuilt walls and paths and planted hundreds of azaleas, rhododendrons and of course camellias, including many rare varieties with sumptuous names like Japonica, Reticulata, and Sasanqua. There is even one camellia dedicated to the house itself: the Stangate Ruby.

Now, I stand on the lawn below the house and gaze at a glorious bank of azaleas in a spectrum of pinks and oranges, red and white. Narrow paths wind between the camellia trees that have carpeted the ground with their luscious, deep pink flowers. It is a very English garden. In fact, it is a very English area, the property surrounded by streets reminiscent of the original Monopoly board: Edgeware, Euston, Fenchurch, plus a string of southern English counties. The lawns will soon be shaded by the many large, deciduous trees. This early in the season they are still skeletal, but they will no doubt look spectacular in autumn, particularly the liquidambar and the Japanese maples. In the meantime, the spring colours are out in full force, and the layered garden has something to catch the eye from every angle. It is hard to drag myself away from such splendour when we are summoned to the house for freshly baked scones, homemade plum jam and Stangate’s very own blend of camellia and lemon myrtle tea…

*With thanks to the National Trust for their notes on Stangate House and to the International Camellia Society for the photo of the Stangate Ruby.

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Pad Thai, Penang & a Proton Wira

Last night, I dined with our lovely new friends next door, who served up a fabulous Phad Thai and an equally delicious pear crumble. This was accompanied by hours of armchair travel, as we reminisced about various trips to Asia. Thailand, of course, after the inspirational Pad Thai, but later, we settled into memories of Malaysia, which has been an annual pilgrimage for our neighbours since they discovered the delights of Penang.

We also visited Penang, decades back, while we were living in Kuala Lumpur. I wasn’t writing much back then. Two small kids and a new baby didn’t leave a lot of time for creativity and self-expression. Even my journal was on hiatus. Fortunately for my failing memory, however, I did pen the odd article for a local expatriate magazine, which I recently rediscovered in a box in the garage. Lo and behold, there was my piece about New Year in Penang back in the 1990s, to jog my memory.

So, let’s begin by turning the clock back twenty-something years…

We had made a spontaneous decision to get out of town, in the sweltering aftermath of a tropical Christmas. Packing our compact Proton Wira with a handful of toddlers and an absolute mountain of bags, we set off on Boxing Day. Due to heavy traffic, it took us an hour to reach the toll gate on the outskirts of the city – usually a quick, fifteen-minute trip. Sadly, this set the tone for the day’s travel. Someone had informed me blithely that it was a breezy four-hour drive to Penang. They obviously did it without a car full of querulous kids. Before we’d even reached that toll gate, one tiny toddler was creating a storm on the back seat. Whether it was car sickness or simply the indignity of being roped into his car seat, we were never sure, but he wasn’t happy. Several pit stops later, tears, tantrums and a hefty migraine for mum, we made it to Penang. It had taken a gruelling seven hours. At last, we drove over the Penang Strait on the Penang Bridge, which was the longest bridge in Southeast Asia at the time, spanning some 13 kilometres.

Ditching our best intentions for a cheap holiday at the beach (also the reason we didn’t fly, our first error of judgement), we went in search of a hotel with air conditioning, a hot shower, a bar fridge and a kids club. This wasn’t the best time to be making such demands, as it turned out. While the One & Only was more than willing to indulge my own minor tantrum, the hotels were less so. Even a basic beach shack without air con, running water, or a loo that flushed proved difficult to find at the last minute in the Christmas season. Quelle surprise!

Eventually, we found a room at the inn – the Holiday Inn at Batu Ferringhi – for which they will forever have my blessings. Revived by a respite from the oppressive heat in our airy, air-conditioned room, I threw back a couple of Panadol, and we set out to explore the neighbourhood with considerably more equanimity than we had felt half an hour before.

(Wonderful haven though it has proved for many a traveller over the past four decades, I was sad to see that, thanks to Covid 19, it is one hotel in a long list of closures in Penang that has been growing by the week. )

George Town, on Pulau Penang (Penang island) was the first British settlements in Malaysia, established by the British East India Company in 1786. Today, the capital of Penang State is the second largest city in Malaysia and the economic centre of the country’s northern region. Founded as a free port, George Town was a British crown colony until World War II, when it was occupied by the Japanese. Liberated at the end of the war, Penang then merged into the Federation of Malaya (now Malaysia) and finally gained independence from the British Empire in 1957. Today, the city, well known for its cultural diversity, colonial-era architecture and exotic street food, is a booming tourist destination.

In the 1990s, George Town was already a popular holiday destination with the Malays, and local politicians were also trying to develop it as a modern business centre,. Unfortunately, it was forced to take a back seat to the rapidly expanding capital of Kuala Lumpur. Traffic congestion on the island was getting worse by the day, and the city was filthy.

By the beginning of 2000, George Town had become incredibly run down, and considerable damage from the tsunami in 2004 caused this historic little town to hit rock bottom. Beaten down and neglected, a media campaign was instigated by the Malaysian press to restore the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ to its former glory. And a miracle began to happen.

By 2008, a large section of the old city had become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, characterized by old Chinese shop houses, many of which have been converted into boutique hotels, bars and restaurants. (I am told that the best way to discover the old town these days is to take a tri-shaw ride through the intriguing laneways of the old town, checking out the street art along the way. It can be a somewhat hair-raising experience, my neighbours tell me, but the driver will assure you that the tri-shaw is “King of the Road” as he blithely swings out in front of speeding cars!)

Efforts to improve George Town’s status went on apace. Pedestrianisation, improved sanitation and public transportation meant that by 2010, George Town was ranked the eighth most liveable city in Asia by ECA International. Business and tourism have boomed, and high rises have shot up all along the coast. The skyline has changed utterly from the one I remember almost twenty-five years ago, but the city is now thriving, and – according to my neighbours – a fantastic place for a holiday, who provided a lot of good stories and travel tips over dinner.

For some cultural input, they highly recommended a visit to Khoo Kongsi, one of Penang’s most lavishly decorated clan houses, where Chinese families would gather to worship their ancestors. This one was built about 650 years ago, part of the five clans that formed the backbone of the Hokkien community in pre-colonial Penang. And food? Well, apparently, options are limitless. Pick any cuisine and you can probably find it in the alleyways of George Town. But for an authentic, hawker-style experience, I was advised to eat at the Red Garden Food Court – it’s great fun and inexpensive. And whatever you pick, make sure you try the char kway teow at least once. This Hokkien dish of stir-fried flat rice noodles with prawn or chicken is popular across Maritime SE Asia and has virtually become the national dish of Malaysia.

In 1996, the city was not as polished as it is today. In fact, the streets were rather grubby, the beach unkempt and uninviting. Yet the cultural diversity was fascinating and night markets and hawker stalls abounded all over town as they do now. There was a snake temple, lush botanic gardens and a butterfly farm. (Today, the old butterfly farm has had a makeover and ‘Entopia’ is situated in a huge glass conservatory where you can see thousands of free-flying butterflies in a beautiful tropical garden setting.) We walked through the hills and discovered pretty, plashing waterfalls. The fishing villages were poor and simple, but alluring. The view from our hotel window was of mountains densely clad in jungle and an azure sky filled with birds.

Our first dinner in Penang, after our horror drive from KL, was a joy. We found a large seafood restaurant on the beach front, with a table sitting inches from the sand. Our meal was simple, fresh and tasty, our diminutive ‘Oompa Loompas’ catered for beautifully, as we watched the sun set over a calm, quiet sea. No tsunamis that evening, thank heaven! Bare feet and sarongs was the unwritten dress code, and the Oompa Loompas could climb through the railing and play on the beach the second they had finished eating.

Later in the week, we drove to a fishing village, Teluk Bahang, at the far end of the beach road. Beside a long and rickety wooden jetty, we discovered the aptly named ‘’The End of the World restaurant.” Here we were welcomed by two barefooted lads and their pet monkey, and ushered to a plastic table overlooking the water. The fish came straight out of the sea – well, straight off the fishing boats tied to the jetty – and once the sun set, and the filthy cove was covered in shadows, it was all rather romantic. The rest of the week, we relaxed by the pool while the kids joined their new friends at the Kids Klub, and all of us were blissfully happy.

So, despite an inauspicious start, our week in Penang was fun and incredibly relaxing. But, as I concluded then, we would indubitably fly the next time. (I was hoarse by the time we got home, after six hours of non-stop singing en route to keep the children entertained.) I also decided that it was time to put the $5-a-day backpacking myth to rest and accept that – for the time being at least – 2.5 kids equalled an air-conditioned hotel, running water and a mini-bar!

*With thanks to the Robertsons for sharing their up-to-date travel tips and their lovely photos of Penang. Not to mention an amazing Pad Thai and an inimitable pear crumble!

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‘Conspicuous Consumption’

Ayers House, now run as a museum by the National Trust, illustrates one of the early success stories in the history of South Australia. Situated on North Terrace, a tree-lined boulevard in the city of Adelaide, Ayers House is an elegant blue stone mansion. Yet, originally, it was merely a small settler’s cottage at the far end of town. Built in the first years of settlement, it became the property of Mr. William Paxton, chemist and philanthropist, who made his fortune in copper from the Monster Mine at Burra in the mid north of the state. Paxton enlarged the cottage to a nine-roomed house on 2 ¾ acres at the smart end of town, before returning to England a very wealthy man. He left his Adelaide property in the hands of his friend and business associate, Henry Ayers.

Sir Henry Ayers, one of the founding fathers of Adelaide and a self-made millionaire, created an opulent family home from these basic beginnings at 288 North Terrace. Among other substantial improvements, Ayers added a ballroom, a guest wing and a state dining room. Here, as sometime Premier and Chairman of the Board for various banks and businesses, he would entertain the political and social glitterati of South Australia for almost forty years, throwing lavish dinners and biannual balls, when the cedar floor of the ballroom would be polished with milk, and the chandeliers took a week to clean.

Today, the National Trust has recreated many rooms in the house as they would have been in the nineteenth century. The family dining room has been beautifully restored, and the dining table is set for a family dinner in the formal and fashionable dining method of service à la russe with an extravagant array of cutlery, crockery and crystal, and where even the walls and ceiling are decorated with elaborate friezes and paintings of food.

Dining among the aristocracy has long demanded opulence and eating to excess. Or, as it is described by food historian Hans Ottermeyer, ‘conspicuous consumption’. The wealthier the host, the more dishes would be squeezed onto the dinner table, to impress guests with the quantity and quality of food on offer.

In the eighteenth century, service à la française evolved from the mediaeval smorgasbord, with its random but abundant display of dishes – savory and sweet – weighing down the table. Now, while there was still an embarrassment of riches, the food was arranged into specific courses, and each course became a theatrical presentation; a ‘self-consciously elegant display with its rule-bound choreography of dishes’ – as described by another food historian, Cathy K. Kaufman – to which the diners were invited to help themselves.

An ostentatious surtout or centrepiece, made from silver or porcelain, would grace the middle of the table, with a dozen dishes in a formal, geometric arranged around it; a ‘cornucopia of delicacies’ that might include as many as seven courses. The host would carve the meat, and guests often shared plates. Dining was a thoroughly communal, interactive affair. The downside, however, was that the food was often tepid, if not downright cold by the time it reached one’s plate; a sad reflection of the monumental effort the kitchen staff had put into producing such a plethora of dishes.

In the early nineteenth century, a Russian diplomat introduced a radical new method of banquet dining to the Parisian elite. With a sophistication that quickly upstaged the previous trend for service à la française, service à la russe relied on an army of waiters to silver-serve the meal in sequential order, even requiring them to add the finishing touches to the cooking at the table. Complicated though it sounds for the staff, service à la russe was much simpler for the diners than the profusion of dishes and table decorations that had cluttered dining tables and bedazzled diners for centuries. No longer did the guests help themselves to whatever they fancied, but the chef de cuisine – no more a mere ‘cook’ – dictated what the guests would eat and in which order, a menu was provided and there was now only one dish per course, although I fear it didn’t lessen the quantity of food served! However, the emphasis was now specifically on the food itself, rather than the conviviality of dining together, with the chef as the star performer and the diners as his captive audience. And so began the era of the celebrity chef…

But this new method of dining still provided ample opportunity for the host to show off: the number of staff one could employ; the quality and quantity of food served; the finest crystal, and the best family china. In the centre of the table, while the surtout remained, it had been much simplified, which made it far more affordable for the rising middle classes. And now, for a change, the food was served hot. Or at least warm!

As the food came to the table sliced and plated at timely intervals, there was also far less waste – and potentially far less indigestion – and it quickly proved a more economical way to dine in luxury. Post dating the French Revolution, many may have felt there was a certain democracy in serving everyone the same amount of food.

Now that the table was no longer collapsing under hugely laden food platters, there was also more room for the table to be laid with all the cutlery needed for the meal, rather than having to rinse one set between courses. And considering the number of courses, there could now be quite a selection of cutlery.

A full meal would consist of potage (soup), hors d’oeuvre froid (cold starters), more soup, hors d’oeuvre chaud (hot starters), poisson (fish), the pièce de résistance, entrée chaud, entrée froid, sorbet, rotis (roast or baked meats), salade, entremets de legumes (side dishes of vegetable), entremets chaud and entremets froid, entremets de fromage (cheese), and of course at least one dessert. Well, perhaps indigestion remained an issue!

Serving wine became more elaborate, too. No longer was just one wine served from trays in a shot glass and handed back immediately to be refilled. Now each course was accompanied by a different wine, which meant each guest also required a selection of glassware.

By the second half of the 19th century, service à la russe has been cut back to four or five courses. Old fashions blended with new, and dining became far less formal, and more like restaurant dining today. Nevertheless, as can be seen in the dining room at Ayers House, it was still much fancier than our 21st century approach to dining. Even in the colonies, middle class Victorian eating habits made no allowance for such casual, inconspicuous consumption as takeaway meals or TV dinners…

*With thanks to Google for the image above.

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Heading North

This time last year I was in London, in a city full of covid free people and lush green parks, strolling through Borough Market on a bright summer’s day. Today I am in Burra, South Australia. I am surrounded by lush green paddocks, and thank goodness it’s still a covid free town. Unfortunately, it is mid winter, damp and chilly, and the rain has been shrouding the bare hills in a mizzling mist for the past twenty-four hours. Last night, we huddled around a roaring fire in a tiny, nineteenth century cottage with slate floors and short doors. And as soon as I have dropped the men off at World’s End to walk the Heysen Trail, I am heading back to that fire, my Ugg boots and a large mug of tea.

These days, Burra is a quiet country town with a population of nine hundred, tucked among the Bald Hills to the east of the Clare Valley. Once upon a time, when the South Australian capital of Adelaide had a population of only seven thousand, this sleepy backwater was a thriving metropolis of five thousand inhabitants.

As the crow flies, Burra lies 143 km north of Adelaide, and on the new northern expressway, it is an effortless, two-hour drive. In 1845, it was a long, hot journey on foot, or plodding along in a bullock dray. A handful of enterprising pastoralists had already found their way here and planted a few sheep, but the Burra may never have been more than a remote farming region, if it hadn’t been for a couple of local shepherds who, one auspicious afternoon, found some copper in the surrounding hills.

Thus, barely a decade after South Australia was established as a new, convict free colony, ‘coppermania’ kicked in and – for a brief moment – Burra gained fame and fortune and became the largest inland settlement in Australia. the proceeds of the renowned ‘Monster Mine’ supporting the new colony through years of near bankruptcy.

Miners thronged to the area from Germany, Cornwall, Scotland and Wales. In the beginning, the copper ore was shipped to Wales for smelting, but by 1849, Welsh smelters had arrived to do the job locally and were burning 600 of firewood a week to run the furnaces and extract the base metal from the ore.

Although it’s stardom lasted barely three decades, Burra is still teeming with signs of its brief but successful mining venture. Armed with a map and a key, you can discover the last remaining dugout homes the early miners created in the riverbank, and the tiny, row cottages that were eventually built when disease and floods drove the miners and their families from their hobbit holes, the prison where many found temporary housing and the tunnels below the old brewery. Tall chimneys rise above the town, created as an outlet for the boilers in the engine houses along the rim of the open cut mine. One can be seen clearly on Market Road, topped with a cut out of Johnny Green, the miners mascot.

There is a mining museum at the Bon Accord mine site, a second mine that never quite got off the ground. A third mine also failed to live up to the expectations of its owners at Princess Royal Station, nine miles south of Burra. In the meantime, however, the mine belonging to the South Australian Mining Corporation was thriving. Half a dozen villages sprang up around the mines, including the company town of Kooringa. The railway arrived from Adelaide in 1870, and at the height of its success, there were nine watering holes in the area, all served by the Unicorn Brewery on Bridge Terrace. Today, only three pubs are still operating, and the villages of Kooringa, Redruth, Hampton, Aberdeen and something Welsh without any vowels have been absorbed into one: Burra, claiming its name from the Burra Burra Copper Mine and the Burra Burra Creek that flows through the town.

The origin of this name is lost in legend. Was it a derivation of an original ‘Burrow Creek?’ Or the indigenous word for creek bestowed on it by the local Ngadjuri people? Or perhaps it came from the Hindustani word for ‘big’ or ‘great’ used by the Indians shepherds of an early pastoralist? Whatever the etymology, it’s a pretty, atmospheric little town. When the miners began to leave the town in the 1870s, the mining association demolished many houses, so that today the town seems widely scattered and the streetscape can look like a gap-toothed six-year-old in places. But there are still plenty of homes built of local stone and surrounded by sprawling gardens, that have survived to beautify the town.

But enough of the history class. As you can see, it stopped raining long enough for me to get out and explore the town. I even had some company, when a girlfriend arrived with her husband, who was eager to join my boys on their expedition into the outback. So, while they trudged over the hills and far away, we followed the heritage tour and visited an art gallery in the old Telegraph Station, with a fascinating exhibit about Barbara Hanrahan, an Adelaide author and artist I had studied at university long ago, who had once dated a local and left him a collection of her prints.

We met lots of friendly locals on our travels: at the art gallery, the information centre, the museums and the coffee shops. Everyone seemed happy to welcome us and found time for a chat, a history lesson or a tall tale of ghosts and gremlins. When hunger struck, we wandered into ‘Good Golly Miss Polly,’ a quaint and quirky tearoom with a colourful collection of old saucers mounted on green walls below a corrugated iron ceiling painted a deep raspberry pink. Stepping back in time, we sat by the potbellied stove and drank copious amounts of exceptionally good coffee – a secret recipe I could not wheedle from the staff – and discovered a top-notch pie floater on the menu. For the uninitiated, this is a South Australian icon: fresh pea soup with a steak pie island in the centre, garnished in tomato sauce and parsley, which proved to be the perfect lunch for a cold winter’s day. Unless, of course, you felt more like a ‘tiddy oggy’ – a novel Cornish pasty with savoury meat and vegetables at one end, and stewed apple at the other – or a tureen of delicious pumpkin soup, flavoured with coconut milk and a dash of fresh ginger. For afternoon tea, or dessert, there were sumptuous scones and cream, or wondrous homemade cakes. I don’t often succumb to cake, but the kumquat and citrus cake with a thin layer of cream cheese icing was quite divine: moist, light and lemony.

Midnight Oil House

On my last day in town, the sun finally broke through the clouds and the sky was a bright, clear blue. I did a final lap of the town centre before strolling back across the creek to our cosy little cottage, where low doorways had caused a few bumps and bruises, but there were no disruptive ghosts, and we were warm and toasty beneath the pink patchwork quilts. Hard to imagine that this world of green pastures and muddy red roads will become a dry, turmeric-coloured dust bowl in summer…

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In April 1990, I flew from Sydney to Nepal, via Delhi, intending to meet the One & Only after his trek to Everest Base Camp. I had left my mother in hospital, heavily sedated after an emergency operation, and was heading to Kathmandu where there had recently been a coup – that turned out to be the end of absolute monarchy. Should I turn back to check on my mother? Or should I plough on, not knowing whether or not I would be allowed into Nepal? Back in the days before mobile phones, there was no way of informing the One & Only that I might be stuck in India. Anxiety levels were rising like a tidal wave…

I landed in Kathmandu, grinning with euphoric relief after a thoroughly harrowing night in Delhi, unsure – until the very last moment – whether I would be able to board the plane to Nepal. Luckily, I had met two lovely blokes from Brisbane who were great moral support, and excellent body guards  for fending off the unwanted attentions of the hotel manager at the airport hotel. Once safely in Nepal with the One & Only – ‘my own private guide and font of all wisdom’ – I breathed a sigh of relief. All was well. At least for as long as I was free of the dreaded ‘giardia’ (Giardiasis spreads through contaminated food or water or by person-to-person contact. It’s most common in areas with poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water and leads to diarrhoea and dreadful wind.)

We dined that night with a few of the guys who had also been to Base Camp: sizzling steaks and coca cola spiked with Jim Beam under the table. Exhaustion and alcohol fuelled laughter to the point of hysteria before I was packed off to bed at our hotel around the corner.

We gorged on a late breakfast –light and fluffy omelettes crammed with mushrooms and cheese, hot lemon with honey to drink – at a roof top café, before I could be properly introduced to Kathmandu. Happily fed and watered, we set off on a five-hour trek through the city, dodging bicycles, cows, rickshaws, and constant offers of tours, carpets, jewellery and hash.  The streets were narrow and dusty, and packed with people. The noise was immense, and the air grew increasingly thick and malodorous as the day got hotter. Many Nepali men had adopted modern western clothing, while the women still wore traditional Nepalese garb. (The kurta suruwal consists of loose, cotton trousers in bright colours, a short sleeved, knee-length, patterned blouse, a large scarf draped over the shoulders.)

To a girl from a first world country, the inequality and level of poverty was appalling, with hygiene and sanitation a non-existent priority. (Nepal is still the poorest country in south Asia). Apparently, 50% of new-born babies died within six months. The GDP depended heavily on the remittances of Nepali workers overseas.

Two beaming young boys were keen to earn a rupee each (worth about five cents back then) to show us the sights, swinging off our arms and wrapping themselves around our legs to get our attention. They followed us all the way across town to the Hindu temple, before peeling off to find new customers. We couldn’t go inside the temple, but we found a spot by the river to rest our weary feet, and watched the world go by: a local holy man doing tricks for the tourists that included swinging a boulder from his penis; acrobatic monkeys leaping across rooftops and swinging through the trees along the river bank; women washing clothes in the river, their children paddling around them; wrinkled and weather worn ancients sporting broad, gummy grins whenever they caught our eyes.

We also found the Buddhist Temple, Bouddanath, and although we weren’t allowed inside here either, we were able to climb up the outside for a fabulous view across the city to the mountains.

By the end of the day, I was thoroughly sunburnt and in need of a cold shower. My hips felt as if they had been wrenched sideways and my feet were blistered. But they still managed to get me to dinner for a delectable bowl of minestrone and a questionable carbonara made with dried bacon.  Accompanied by a mad new friend, we went in search of ice cream, while ‘Dr Fog’ tormented the locals, requesting several kilos of hash or a kilo of tiger balm. And ‘why hire a rickshaw? Let’s buy it!’ He left in his wake a bewildered array of Nepali gentlemen, unused to tourists who turned the tables on them so ridiculously. We raced home in two rickshaws, and were easily beaten by Dr Fog, who was seated on the roof of his rickshaw, berating his eager cabby, while our poor driver, considerably older and dealt a much heavier load, struggled to keep up.

After our first night in the ruinously expensive Kathmandu Guest House (AUD $25 a night!!) we moved next door to the Pheasant Farm. For AUD $3.50 we had a ‘stable’ with a straw mattress and shared bathrooms where the toilets didn’t flush, and the drains in the showers were blocked. I suddenly understood why wedge heeled flip flops were available at every roadside stall.

The next day we meandered into a different part of town, where the youth were marching beneath a communist flag and I did my first bit of successful bartering for a pair of green ‘happy pants.’ Wandering off the beaten track, we found a fabric market where the locals shop, and another full of sacks of colourful spices. We crossed a bridge to see children, pigs and a dead cow in the river below. We passed beggars and Buddhist monks, fruit sellers and women returning home from the river with large bundles of clean washing on their heads. We clambered up crumbling steps, dodging piles of refuse. Near the temple, monkeys ran amok, using the city roofs, window ledges and staircases as a giant playground.

Day five saw us heading across town in a rickshaw with a deafening lawn mower engine, bounding furiously over bumps and skidding on newly laid gravel, avoiding calamity after catastrophe by the skin of our teeth. Reaching the outskirts of town, we were squeezed, cheek by jowl, into a windowless bus which careened along narrow, winding roads and around mountains for four hours. Everywhere, the women chatted and smiled while they laboured in the fields with scythes, carried enormous loads on their backs, mended roads, clambered up steep mountainsides collecting wood, and fed their babies. Meanwhile, the older children played under the village pump, or squatted by the side of the road throwing knucklebones, staring and waving as the bus passed by in a cloud of dust. Men sat on the roof, smoking and arguing, cleaning their teeth, watching the horizon. Others were down by the road, chewing gum and selling oranges, poppadums, samosas.  Rusty trucks were filled with rocks, kids, scrap iron, bedecked in tinsel and belching black smoke, tooted like maniacs. Cows and goats wandered forlornly across the road. Emaciated chickens pecked at the dust that flew behind us and settled on my clothes, up my nose, in my hair. Layer upon layer of tiered fields crept up the sides of the mountains.

We finally arrived in a tiny village where dinghies were lined up along the edge of the river. Falling from the bus, we huddled in a grubby heap and waited wearily for someone to tell us what to do next. Eventually our guides arrived to feed us lunch and pour us into the waiting boats. Within minutes we were shooting the rapids with consummate skill, born navigators of this perilous river, getting joyfully drenched, with shrieks and laughter, as we flew around boulders and dropped several feet into white water, then floated gently through stretches of deep green, calm, water before pulling into our campsite three hours downstream. Here, dinner was waiting, not to mention several bottles of some incredibly rough local brew that was set to inspire tomorrow’s hangover…

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A Sweet Escape

While current news reports still place covid at the top of the list, in South Australia we have been – dare I say it? – corona free for many weeks. Although we are currently keeping the Victorians at bay, visitors arriving from Queensland, the Northern Territory, Tasmania or Western Australia are even permitted to enter South Australia without having to self-quarantine. Travel within the state is now largely unrestricted, and we are being actively encouraged to explore South Australia as a good way to support our regional communities.

So, life is gradually returning to normal. All the warning signs are still in place, but aged care facilities have cautiously re-opened their doors to visitors. Social distancing is still recommended, but among close friends and family members it seems to be a matter for personal discretion. Restrictions to restaurants and cafes have been lifted since early June and while individual establishments might choose to remain closed for the time being, many are back in action, and will even serve alcohol to their guests.
So, with the blessings of the State Commissioner, we took advantage of the lifting curfew and made a short trip to Kangaroo Island.

Kangaroo Island is a large, rocky island that hangs off the toe of the Fleurieu Peninsula almost, but not quite like an Aussie Rules football.
Rising sea levels separated it from the mainland thousands of years ago. It became known to the indigenous people on the mainland as Karta, Island of the Dead. Stone tools and shell middens suggest that Aboriginal people once lived here too, but early European settlers found no sign of recent habitation.

Kangaroo Island was mapped by Baudin and Flinders at the beginning of the 19th century – note the plethora of French names along the south coast to guess who took which route – and it quickly became a popular base for European sealers and whalers. By 1836, Kangaroo Island had been incorporated into the British colony of South Australia.

Although Australia’s third largest island, K.I. – as it is commonly known – has a population of less than 5,000, scattered through farmland and four small towns: Kingscote, Penneshaw, Parndana and American River. One hundred and forty five kilometres long, from Cape Willoughby in the east to Vennachar Point at the western end, it covers an area of 4,405 km2. About 50% of the island was gutted by bushfires earlier this year, most of that area within the Flinders Chase National Park. Forty million animals are estimated to have perished in the fires, including thousands of sheep and half the island’s population of koalas. Yet, a wet winter is already beginning to restore at least some semblance of green.

We stayed in Penneshaw, on the Dudley Peninsula, where it’s only a hop, skip and a forty-minute ferry from Cape Jervis, the closest mainland town to the island. From our prime position above Hog Bay, it is hard to believe that so much of the island has been largely denuded of wildlife, its foliage razed to the ground, when all around us, the hills are green and lush, dotted with wallabies, winter lambs, calves, and, believe it or not, a huge flock of black swans we discovered sharing a paddock with a lake and a hundred ewes and their small, eager offspring.

We followed the Chapman River to the sea, where we hardly saw another footprint on the long stretch of pristine sand at Antechamber Bay. (In warmer weather, this is a glorious place to camp, with options to swim in the sea or kayak down the river.)

Wandering up to the Penneshaw pub one blustery night for dinner, we disturbed a handful of small tamar wallabies, who had gathered on the lawns near the ferry port. Instead of bounding away, they stood as still as statues as we walked past, like small children who believe we won’t see them if they just close their eyes.

Down at American River for lunch, we spot buxom pelicans balancing precariously on the tall lights beside the marina, while a pair of seals showed off their synchronized swimming routine beside the fishing boats. Penguins at Penneshaw may now be legend, but not so long ago, after a day’s fishing, they marched in single file from the sea, up the beach, past the shacks on the sandhills to their nests high in the dunes, and apparently there are still a few small colonies around the island. And of course, most famously, those roly-poly, sleek and glossy seals clutter their eponymous beach on the southern coast. There is a company that runs boat tours from Christmas Cove, but we will save that for a week of warmer weather, when swimming with the seals and dolphins won’t cause frostbite.

Sadly, our week on KI was punctuated with numerous heavy showers, battering on the tin roof and forcing us to don raincoats whenever we left the house. Yet we still managed to squeeze in a few adventures between storms. And when the sun set, we snuggled up by a wood fire, cooked simple dinners, enjoyed the local wine and watched the rain sweep over the sea.

In retrospect, we managed a lot, despite the temperamental weather. We visited friends in Emu Bay, Penneshaw and Kingscote. We walked out on the cliffs at Cape Willoughby, where the surf is abandoned and ebullient as it boils around the rocks at the foot of the lighthouse. We climbed up Prospect Hill, once known rather poetically as Mount Thisby, although little more than a giant sand hill. Everest it may not be, but there is still a certain satisfaction in climbing the four hundred odd steps to the top, where we had a marvellous panoramic view over Pelican Lagoon and Pennington Bay, before the clouds rolled in again.

Then there was the False Cape Winery, a joyful discovery on a remote dirt road in the south east corner of the island. Named after a nearby coastal landmark, False Cape vineyard was established in 1999 on the banks of the Willson River, which apparently provides an ideal combination of soil, sun and limestone for producing top quality fruit.

The cellar door is a new addition to the vineyard and it is a gloriously tactile blend of textures and light: huge glass bifold doors; recycled wood and jetty timbers; locally made red bricks with a kangaroo imprint, and rough limestone sourced from the property. And lots of corrugated iron. Sitting on a slight rise, the views from the stone terrace take in the vines, the river, and the impressive stands of gum trees – and were just as fabulous from the leather sofa beside the fire inside. Speaking with owner Julie Helyar, while we sipped our wine, I told her that I would very happily live in this beautiful space. She admitted that she could too; that it is in much better shape than the old stone cottage they live in across the road. The Helyar’s wine maker – and Julie’s brother – is Greg Follett of Lake Breeze Wines at Langhorne Creek. Julie & Jamie’s son Coby is also getting in on the act, as he studies viticulture and wine making. The family work hard at sustainability, and the whole farm runs on solar power. Apparently, there is even a rafter of turkeys roaming through the vines to keep pests under control, although unfortunately we didn’t meet any.

Meanwhile, I tried a flight of four wines. (On an empty stomach, just before lunch, that was enough, though not all they had to offer.) Montebello is a bright, summery, pinot grigio with a hint of limestone, rose petals and crispy pear that only needed some grilled whiting to improve the lingering finish. (The Montebello was a three masted steel barque that came a cropper on the south coast in 1906.) The False Cape Chardonnay – ‘The Captain’ after Matthew Flinders – is brimming with tropical fruit and a subtle hint of oak. The ‘Unknown Sailor’ is a Bordeaux blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot, and a tribute to the men who braved the rough South Australian seas. My favourite was the ‘Ship’s Graveyard’ Shiraz, its name a nod to the rugged coastline that has claimed so many ships over the past 200 years.

So, all in all, it was not a bad week! We took home several bottles of False Cape Wines, a sample of island honey and a souvenir from the KIS distillery: a bottle of Wild Gin that had come highly recommended by friends in the know. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the delicious seafood chowder I could have eaten every night at the Penneshaw Pub, rich, spicy and chock-a-block with fish and shellfish. We might not have got the heavenly views over Backstairs Passage that stormy evening, but the soup was divine. Perfect for a chilly, and decidedly damp winter night on a windblown island in the Southern Ocean.

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‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’

While the beaches in England are chock-a-block with holiday makers – for let’s face it who can believe in the myth of a killer virus on a toasty summer day? – here in the southern hemisphere, winter has set in. The nights are bitingly cold, the warm, morning sun melting the light frost on the lawn. During the day, skies are a crisp, clear blue. It’s perfect walking weather.

Although currently confined to South Australia, we are talking about a state that is larger than many European countries. And where we have set up home, just south of the state capital, we have found a haven from the covid storm. Largely rural, we look out on mile upon mile of rolling green hills dappled with eucalypts, cows and kangaroos. New born lambs, calves and kids are running amok in the paddocks. The galahs and corellas shriek through the trees in deafening chorus. One morning, I drove beside a convoy of kangaroos bounding in single file across the hillside like animated Qantas logos. Alpacas, with their giraffe-like necks wrapped in woolly scarves, watch the traffic passing with a gimlet eye. I have even spotted ‘hosts of golden daffodils’ getting a head start on spring. It is a naturalist’s delight. And it is wonderful territory for walking.

The Fleurieu Peninsula is the smallest of the three peninsulas that dive into the Southern Ocean from the southern rim of South Australia. There are no cities, one major town and a handful of tiny country towns which, in England, would be called villages. The coastline is rugged, and the sea is icy cold, though the dolphins don’t seem to mind. The beaches are strewn with mounds of seaweed sequined with soft, circular sponges and the creeks are gurgling merrily over the rocks after all the recent rains. At Cape Jervis – the jumping off point to Kangaroo Island – the Heysen Trail begins, zigzagging north-east along the coast then up through the native bush, pines and vines of the Mount Lofty Ranges, the Barossa and the Clare Valley, before plunging deep into the Flinders Ranges.

First mooted in 1947, the inaugural segment of the trail was opened in 1976, within the Cleland Conservation Park. One Mr. Terry Lavender, with the support of many local councils, landowners and a mob of volunteers, led the charge to construct the Aussie equivalent of the Pennine Way. It took sixteen years to complete, and would eventually earn this keen bushwalker a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM)  “For service to the community through the development of walking trails, particularly the Heysen Trail.” Yet it was not christened the Lavender Trail, but was instead named in honour of a prolific and much loved local painter, Hans Heysen, who is internationally renowned for his watercolours of gum trees, the Australian bush and our often stark, South Australian landscapes. Today, the Heysen Trail is a world class walking track of 1,200 kilometres that runs in a long, wobbly line from the tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula to Parachilna Gorge.

 The One & Only has recently set himself the task of walking the entire route. Not in one fell swoop, I hasten to add – that would be a hefty two month trudge laden with kilos of camping gear – but in bite sized pieces, so that I can act as his Sherpa, dropping him off in the morning and picking him up 20-25kms down the track at the end of the day. So far, he has completed some two hundred kilometers. It may not have made a huge dent in the map, but, nonetheless, it’s earned him a few blisters and a good suntan! And while he has soaked up the scenery on foot, my taxi service has given me ample opportunity to explore the highways and byways  of this prodigious landscape we now call home – with special thanks to my zealous satnav ‘Daphne’ who likes nothing better than to lose me in a tangle of dirt roads, gnarly fire tracks and non-existent trails.

I have also got a buzz out of exploring a little of the region’s history.

For thousands of years before the Europeans found their way to Botany Bay and beyond, this region was inhabited by three aboriginal tribes: Kaurna, Peramangak and Ramindjeri. Some of their place names are still in use today, albeit corrupted by us non-native speakers. Allowing for a little poetic license, then, those lovely Kaurna names – Yankalilla, Kangarilla, and Tunkalilla, Aldinga, Myponga and Onkaparinga – still dance lightly across the tip of your tongue.

At the beginning of the 19th century, a French explorer and cartographer was sent halfway round the globe, with a remit from Napoleon himself, to fill in the considerable gaps on the outline of Australia. Nicholas Baudin had spent much of his naval career on ships that became prey to pirates or storms, or both. In October 1800, he left Le Havre leading a convoy of two sailing ships – Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste – and headed for Australia, or New Holland, as it was then known. Both ships were packed with zoologists and botanists. Both arrived safely, many weeks later, on the north west coast of Australia. From the top end, they sailed south, then east around the Great Australian Bight, mapping the coastline as they went and collecting vast samples of unfamiliar native flora.

A year later, in a bay just shy of the River Murray mouth, Baudin bumped into British cartographer and explorer, Matthew Flinders, who was on a similar mission. They compared notes and concluded that they had found one single southern continent of vast proportions.  They named the spot where they had met Encounter Bay, exchanged emails and headed off in opposite directions.

While Flinders’ designations have largely remained intact, most of Baudin’s were erased from the official map of South Australia. All that is left today is a smattering of French names along the south coast of Kangaroo Island, and the Fleurieu Peninsula, the only French name to survive on mainland South Australia, a peninsula which Baudin christened in honour of his mentor, another French explorer, Charles Pierre Claret, Comte de Fleurieu.

So here I sit, in a converted milking shed, waiting for the One & Only to finish today’s adventure. Sooner or later, he will have to don a larger rucksack and weather a few nights camping, as the distances between home and his starting point begin to stretch beyond my driving range, but so far the track has passed close enough to home to make collection points easy. This weekend we have made it a joint adventure though, and I have found a cosy B&B in the hills, a stone’s throw from wineries and the Willunga Farmers Market, where I was able to acquire the ingredients for dinner. So, tonight we will be having a platter of local cheeses and a water buffalo cecina from Myponga, fillets of trout from Beachport sautéed in local olive oil and served with fresh, locally grown salad, and a pear and almond flan for dessert, all accompanied by a Clare Valley Riesling. It’s a tough life!

*With thanks to the One & Only for letting me ~ yet again ~ use his amazing photos for my blog.

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