The Best Bits of Australia?
Seeing the whole of Australia in one trip is impossible – but head south and you’ve got all the best bits in one easily navigable state writes traveller Rofl Ayres
Following a day spent on a pleasant flight to Australia, collecting my hire car and driving for several hours The sat-nav has dumped me. An automated Aussie lady is insisting I’ve ‘arrived at my destination’, but all I can see are dusty plains rolling outwards in all directions. I’ve no phone signal, dusk is fast approaching and I’m feeling a little jittery.
I turn around and drive back a few kilometres, until a couple of bars of reception flicker onto my phone, and call Wilpena Pound Resort in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. ‘Turn right at the gas station,’ a blasé voice on the end of the crackly line tells me. ‘We’re about 55km from there.’
I do as I’m told and, as I watch the sun slip towards the red earth, the hire-car company’s warning comes back to me: ‘We won’t insure you if drive in the Outback after dusk, love,’ a bubbly blonde had told me that morning as I picked up my 4WD and signed the disclaimer. ‘Bandits?’ I’d inquired nervously (it’s my first foray into the bush). ‘Nope, animals,’ she’d replied. I hadn’t given it much thought at the time – I wasn’t planning on driving at night, and how many suicidal wallabies could there be out there?
Now, her words are feeling increasingly ominous. Granted, the first kangaroo I see standing by the roadside is a thrill. Stocky and human-like, it’s much bigger than I expected. But as darkness falls, more pop up, springing from the ground like targets in a fairground game. Confused by the headlights, a mother and joey dart in front of the car and I hit the brakes. I slow down to 30kph and grip the wheel, unsure whether I’m more nervous about killing a kamikaze kangaroo (I ran over a rabbit once and cried for a week) or about the damage one could do to my car, and possibly me.
Half an hour later, I creep into the resort, shoulders wedged under my ears and fingers soldered to the steering wheel. It’s at this moment that I remind myself why I planned this trip to involve as little driving as possible. If Australia is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, then I needed to see everything in my tight two-week time slot. I wanted to absorb the weirdness of the wildlife, the emptiness of the Outback, the beach culture and definitely the wine. But I didn’t want to spend my hard-earned holiday crossing time zones on tiring drives and internal flights. In a country that could swallow most of Europe, this is easier said than done. Mid-dilemma, a friend from Adelaide suggested concentrating on South Australia, a state I’d never considered. ‘You’re going to fight the rest of the tourists for snorkelling space on the Barrier Reef?’ he’d wailed, utterly exasperated.
‘Where I’m from, everything’s a short drive from the city – including Australia’s best wine region.’ I was sold.
So, after a day spent battling jetlag in Adelaide, I catch a flight to Kangaroo Island. ‘Wallaby hop’ would be a better description – the journey, by tiny propeller plane, takes just 20 minutes. We’ve barely poked our noses above the clouds before we’re filing onto the tarmac: a huddle of middle-aged Aussies; an American couple in budgerigar-bright shirts; and a glamorous pair who must have been heading to Southern Ocean Lodge, the island’s new, squillion-pound-a-night resort. It’s 110km from the south coast, but Kangaroo Island is well and truly cut off from the mainland – you’ll find animals here that you won’t see anywhere else, as well as the bees that produce the island’s famous Ligurian honey.
There are four large national parks – and with one person to every square kilometre, there’s little to disturb the delicate balance. It’s an understatement to say that the wildlife is the main attraction. In Parndana, a small, boxy settlement in the heart of the island, the pub doubles as both dating and employment agencies – and that’s as good as the entertainment gets. Not that the locals seem to mind. ‘I’ve been back to the mainland three times in the past six years,’ Nikki, our upbeat tour guide, tells us proudly, as she marches nine of us from the plane into the back of her Jeep. ‘And once was to see the doctor.’ We trundle off, down roads lined with straggly silver bush.
By the end of the day, I’ve seen a goanna (a metre-long lizard), chubby koalas picking their teeth with eucalyptus leaves, and a colony of Australian sea lions, fighting and flopping on the soft but stinky sands (blame their fishy diet) at Seal Bay. And, of course, plenty more marsupials.
For the rest of the week, I use Adelaide as a kind of boomerang, venturing out and zooming back in. The city itself is small, easily navigable and relatively forgettable, but it’s close to some of Australia’s biggest must-sees, and a good base for manageable jaunts. The all-Australian beaches of the Fleurieu Peninsula are only a leisurely hour-and-a-half away: there’s Victor Harbour, a pretty kiss-me-quick town; Port Elliot, for surfers and sleek second homes; and, my favourite, cute-as-a-button Horseshoe Bay (Clive Owen was recently spotted with his family here at the Flying Fish Café, a glass-fronted shack serving posh chips and kingfish sashimi). And there are plenty of lovely stops even closer to the city. My first attempt to reach the coast ends 30 minutes into the journey in the pretty Adelaide Hills, home to Penfold’s winery – its Grange Hermitage is the country’s most expensive bottle (a 1951 vintage can fetch in the region of £23,000). Lacking the required funds, I bury my nose in a streusel bun at Otto’s Bakery in nearby Hahndorf instead, then wander through the Hansel-and-Gretel village with its beamed, creeper-draped cabins and cafes. The first German settlers landed on the South Australian coast in the early 19th century, busily planting the first vines and knocking up little settlements like this one.
By my second week, I’ve enough practice runs under my belt to tackle the biggest trek of my trip: the five-hour drive to Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges, ‘gateway to the Outback’. It’s a marathon run for a Brit but a mere toddle in the grand Aussie scheme of things – and though the sat-nav is partly responsible for my late arrival and subsequent run-in with the roos, I fear I’m also to blame. I’d decided to break for lunch at Skillogalee, a family-run vineyard in the Clare Valley. Ushered to a table in the shade of an olive tree that overlooked rose- and foxglove-laced gardens melting into the vines of the valley below, it was too easy a place to linger – and I did just that, putting the second leg of the trip behind schedule.
Before the roo incident, I was in no rush to end the journey. The temperature gauge on my dashboard crept up as fertile fields blended into a traffic-light colour scheme: terracotta earth, stubbly, bottle-green vegetation and the occasional spray of gold, skeletal shrub. I could see so far into the distance that I watched sheets of rain and forked lightning while driving through searing sunshine. ‘Great drive, isn’t it?’ says manager Matt as he shows me to my chalet-style room when I eventually arrive at Wilpena Pound. ‘The Bentley and Rolls-Royce Club keep coming back. They like the fact that there’s tarmac right to the door so they won’t mess up their bodywork.’ Turns out my 4WD wasn’t necessary after all – it might not register on the sat-nav, but this is as tame as the Outback gets.
That doesn’t mean it’s any less impressive. Wilpena Pound is an 800-million-year-old natural amphitheatre, ringed by mountains. ‘Geologists make regular trips here,’ Matt tells me as we walk along in the shade of wrinkly red gum trees. ‘A farmer was using a fossil as a doorstop at Edeowie Station, a nearby sheep farm, and it turned out to be one of the oldest in the world.’
The best way to understand the scale of this remarkable place is on a scenic flight. So I climb into a tiny Cessna, my legs sticking to the beige upholstery thanks to a nervous hot flush. From above, the Flinders look like the bumpy spine of a crocodile and the pound appears like an upturned Frisbee, cloud-shaped shadows drifting across the dark foliage.
By the time we reach 1,400m, Haden, the baby-faced pilot, is in full flow, nattering about the original inhabitants, the Adnyamathanha people, while pointing out mountain ranges and turning round to answer questions, just like my dad does on family outings: it’s a habit that makes me nervous in the car, but up here it’s terrifying and it takes a large glass of red to steady my nerves back at camp.
And there’s more where that came from. An hour outside Adelaide, the Barossa Valley is Australia’s most famous wine-producing region. I’m welcomed by a landscape of golden slopes, neat vineyards trimmed with red rose bushes and the fluffiest clouds I’ve ever seen. I stop on a bridge and watch the actual
Jacob’s Creek trickle past the wheels of my car. But the best thing about the Barossa is the handful of boutique wineries offering free tastings. Krondorf Road is a good place to start: here, the Basket Press Shiraz is the star seller.
‘We drink this one on Boxing Day with eggs and bacon,’ the lady behind the counter tells me as she pours me a drop of sparkling red. I stuff a case into the car boot, making a mental note to try and save a bottle until December.
I’ve just enough time left for a return visit to Horseshoe Bay. Cone of chips in hand, I watch as a pair of middle-aged ladies in straw boaters and ’50s-style cozzies pick their way along the shore, while a family picnics under a candy-striped awning and a lone surfer backflips off the little jetty into the sea. ‘It’s the perfect snapshot of the Australian good life,’ I think, as I crunch the last of my chips. ‘But it’d look even better after a bottle of my eggs-and-bacon red.’