Welcome to the Outback - published OUTthere magazine, Dec2012

Article text
Welcome to the Outback
Unlike our standard, rushed drives from point A to point B, this 1360km road trip is the destination and one I’ve been hankering for. While my keyed-up husband acquaints himself with the Audi’s multi-media system and minute-modern Navman, I follow the road signs from Adelaide airport to the Clare Valley. It takes less than two hours and with the car accessories sorted, as we amble through historic towns, past art houses, cellar doors, wheat farms and paddocks of fat cattle and sheep, the city frenzy becomes a faint memory.

One of Australia’s most famous wine producing regions, the Clare Valley is a captivating place for wine and history buffs. English, Irish and Polish settlers first moved into the region during the 1840’s and left a rich heritage of villages and architecture, which remains largely intact. Many of the buildings now run as charming guesthouses, historic pubs, top restaurants and contemporary galleries. We visit Mintaro’s contemporary artist Jen Penglase-Prior’s Irongate Studio Gallery to see her wonderful, limited-edition artwork.

We continue along the trail to Burra, where copper was discovered in 1845. Once a thriving mining area, Burra’s palpable history has been devotedly conserved. With a Burra Heritage Passport we’re able to unlock historical sites and with a guidebook to 65 others, including Redruth Gaol, Unicorn Brewery, museums, Monster Mine and dugout homes in the banks of Burra Creek where migrants once squatted, we explore the 11 km driving trail.

Tonight we dine at Skillogalee winery with Dave and Diana Palmer. We are introduced to their world-class, handcrafted wines and superb food with an emphasis on local produce. Dave and Diana’s daughter, Nicola, cooks for us. We are treated to fabulous fare, great company and my new best friend, Clare Valley Riesling with its zingy citrus and crisp, dry finish.
Dave tells us the Skillagalee rustic stone cottage was built by a Cornish miner, John Trestrail, in 1851. “The property stayed in the Trestrail family until the early 1900's when it was then planted to stone fruit and vines for dried fruit, currants and sultanas. In the 1950's it became a grazing property and in 1969 wine grapes were planted with early varieties of Riesling, Shiraz, Grenache and Crouchen.”
Skillagalee offers three self-catering accommodation choices – the Skillogalee House, Wren Cottage and ours for the night, Owl Cottage. Set amid rolling hills and vineyards, it’s sheer, romantic luxury.
At dinner we meet the delightful Katherine Maitland who tells us about her family’s wheat property, Anama Park. “The Maitlands have traditionally worked the land since 1866. Recently we created a new arm to the business – our own hand-shaped pasta, Pangkarra, which we launched last year.” Katherine invites us to visit Anama the next morning where we meet her husband, Jim, and his parents, David and Margot.

The dirt road to Anama’s historic homestead carves its path through harvested wheat fields. Here, the Maitland’s produce broadacre crops. Katherine says Pangkarra was launched after 12 months research. Stone milled and wholegrain pasta is a rare commodity in today’s world of mass produced pasta and overseas’ imports. “The best thing about it, is its back to basics, traditional way of making food in a very low processing environment.

“We make fettuccine, spaghetti, pappardelle, lasagne, linguine and spiral. Dried on racks, it’s a 100 percent natural product. We also make Australia’s only stone milled, wholegrain durum flour which is used for making pasta, sourdough, focaccia and baked breads, grissini and bread sticks, pizza bases, cakes, loaves and other baking products.”

With lingering guests at Anama this morning, Margot has whipped up some Pangkarra fettuccine, pan tossed in olive oil with crushed garlic, mushrooms and flat-leaf parsley. Its delicious, nutty taste and wonderfully rough but light texture is seriously good.

From Clare, we continue travelling through quaint, historic towns. Before long the earth begins to redden and the landscape becomes a panning shot of smooth, sweeping plains. We pass solitary ruins, mostly homesteads and rail sidings from the old Ghan railway. There isn’t a ‘Welcome to the Outback’ sign, but we know we’ve passed through the gateway. Drawing close to Parachilna in the late afternoon, with the Flinders Ranges rising in the distance, we are awash in a translucent, golden light. Loving the freedom of driving on the empty Stuart Highway, we arrive at the Prairie Hotel on sunset.

At this wonderfully restored pub, with feet up on the verandah we swap stories with a handful of stockmen and pilots. We drink the pub’s own Fargher Lager and share one of its famous feral platters. The mix of saltbush dukkah, emu, camel and kangaroo is a little gamey, but surprisingly tasty.

Pastoralists Ross and Jane Fargher bought the pub in 1991. Jane says when the Ghan Railway moved in 1980 the town’s railway families moved out, the school closed and the population dropped to less than 12 permanent residents. “We recognised the hotel’s potential and thought by providing good food, service and accommodation we could keep people coming.” How right they were. It’s an exquisite, contemporary shelter in the outback with innovative, eco-design and houses an impressive Aboriginal art gallery.

Back on the road we head to William Creek, population 10. We stop at Marree for lunch. In the town centre beside the old railway line is outback legend Tom Kruse’s old mail truck that he drove on the track between Marree and Birdsville delivering mail from 1936 to 1957. Rolling stock stands slowly rusting at the disused station. A true desert settlement, you can feel the town’s solitude and isolation. Marree Hotel owner Phil Turner shows us through his pub. He takes delight in telling us about the hotel’s ghosts, giving a colourful recount of who died and how in each room.

On to the world’s most isolated pub, the William Creek Hotel. We are now deeply entrenched in Outback life. With the absence of all things metro, we are amazed at the extraordinary level of hospitality, comfort and food. The potential and revival of outback pubs is clear in South Australia. Next morning we fly over Anna Creek Station, the world’s largest cattle property, and the fragile inland sea that is Lake Eyre. Our pilot, Michael Urquhart, provides captivating commentary as we take in the immense white salt flats, flanked with sections of ochre earth and gleaming water in shades of blue and in parts, pink from the algae.

On our final stretch, we begin our drive along the Oodnadatta Track between William Creek and Coober Pedy. We stop to let emus cross, stare a dingo in the face and walk along part of the famous 5300km dog fence, built in the1880’s to protect sheep.
At midday we reach Coober Pedy. The moon-like landscape is strewn with shafts and mine workings spanning 40km around the town. We visit a stunning underground Orthodox church, an opal mine and museum and like kids on an expedition, we love our underground digs at the Desert Cave Hotel.
As we sadly hand over our car keys and settle in for the long flight home, it hits us just what an extraordinary journey this has been; and we take with us, a swag of gripping memories.

18 King William Street
Adelaide SA
1300 655 276

2 Market Street
Burra SA 5417 (08) 88922154

Sevenhill, SA
(08) 88434311

Anama Park
Mt Tinline Raod
RSD 18, CLARE SA 5453
(08) 88462137

Railway Terrace South
Marree SA 5733
(08) 86758344

High Street and West Terrace
Parachilna, SA
(08) 86484895

William Creek, SA
(08) 86707962

Oodnadatta Track
William Creek, SA
(08) 86707880

Hutchison Street
Coober Pedy, SA
(08) 8672 5688

Coober Pedy, SA
(08) 8672 5226