Sunday, January 18, 2009

Exploring Yorke Peninsula - a travelogue

Thanks to a work assignment, a weekend on South Australia's Yorke Peninusula.
Moonta is an old copper town, part of South Australia's Copper Triangle. It is a popular holiday town on the quiet waters of Spencer Gulf. It is about two hours north of Adelaide - not the most pleasant of drives. One sets out amid heavy transports and rather scatty and impatient traffic which gradually branches off to rural destinations or interstate highways, until one is almost alone on the scrub-lined country road.
Moonta is a very neat country town which treasures its copper history with a tourism focus but it soon becomes apparent that the intervening generations have lacked forward thought and an astonishing percentage of the cottage-dense historic areas is simply gone, the land reclaimed by scrub creeping around rock piles and scattered shards of glass and china. This, apparently, is legacy of the dominance of the mining companies which owned all the land upon which the miners built their solid little stone cottages. When the mines closed, they lost not only jobs but the right to live on the land. Some exceptions seemed to occur since some cottages remain, one of them restored as a National Trust exhibit.

They were tough days, the 1850s-80s and the largely Cornish mining population suffered no end of privation and exploitation in carving out their lives. In one add-on room at the show cottage was a huge wooden wringer with a big black winding handle. This, apparently, was the gift that the mining company would give to women whose husbands had been killed in the mines. Wringing washing and becoming a laundress, was the gift of a widow's potential livelihood.
What "compensation" for a heartbroken woman!

While I pursued my work day, hooking up with an historian and, later, with the photographer who was to illustrate my feature, Bruce drove off and explored the old mines and museums. We reunited late in the day at the charming Henry on George's cafe.

We overnighted in Moonta Bay. It's a shallow gulf bay with an immensely long jetty - characteristic of the peninsula's history of grain exports via mighty sailing ships. Our motel, the Patio, was perched on a hill looking down to the jetty and the bay with its rocks and and rocky dark waters juxtaposed against the almost lime brightness of the shallow waters over white sands. The patio must be the most trusting hotel in the world. I'd made a phone reservation, told it was the last room in the place (summer school holidays) and when we arrived to check in, the receptionist sitting with her back to a breathtaking view and surrounded by the most lavish and long out of date Christmas decorations, simply pushed a key across the counter and told us how to get to the room. "You want a credit card?" we asked. "Why?" she responded. "Do you want to pay now rather than when you are leaving?"
The room was utterly adequate in every way for a cheap Aussie country motel. Good fridge. Soaps and shampoo, extra pillows and towels, kettle, toaster, good telly, tea and coffee, a double and a single bed, room service...and very clean with chilled wine glasses waiting in the fridge. After a restorative glass of icy white wine, we strolled down the slope to the very new and modern ..... restaurant with its array of window tables looking to the sea view.Oops. Afternoon sun was so fierce that the windows had to be covered with dark blinds, cutting the fabulous sea views to an impressionistic shaded vista.
A friendly place. We sampled some lovely Grant Burge Barossa wine and gorged at leisure on an interesting starter of chorizo sausage in balsamic-glazed onions as a form of bruschetta, followed by an over-creamy chicken dish and a sublime rice pudding with stewed apricots.
We truly needed our after-dinner walk down the gusty jetty in the fierce pre-sunset light. If only weather had been less windy, there was a lovely area netted in half way down the jetty for shark-safe deep-water swimming. How nice. Intrepid fisherman rugged up against the wind lined up on the jetty railings with half a dozen rods each plus a few crab pots.

Friday morning, after paying our super-honest motel and having the room maid chase the car to give us B's belt, which he had somehow managed to cast off behind the curtain, we paid an exploratory visit to Port Hughes to see what attracted Greg Norman to create a golf course and housing development there. It is a pleasant little port township - mainly jetty.We walked the long jetty which, despite a brisk wind, was crowded with fishermen. The only convivial ones we encountered, some Greeks at the end of the jetty, were pulling in squid and blue swimmer crabs which they were carefully measuring to ensure they were legal scale.

Port Hughes is not much of a township or anything much else - but a lot of housing development with and without Greg Norman. Mostly, away from the lovely coastline, the land seemed dry, dry, dry. The drought has cut hard on Yorke Peninsula as we were about to observe more and more as we took to the road south. There was a lot of pretty relentless long, straight road passing through vast expanses of stubble - parched yellow wheat-lands. Struggling native vegetation gave some relief to the harsh landscape, but abandoned farmhouses and the ruins of old farm buildings were regular melancholy reminders of the tough conditions and dreams laid waste through drought years just like this one.

Maitland was a fairly welcoming site, a sedate little country town in the peninsula's hinterland. A very neat and tidy town with a broad main street . We found a cafe for lunch - a large and welcoming place, albeit that the food was a bit primitive. I thought they could not go too far wrong with a hamburger. They did. It was just edible. Bruce ordered half a chicken - one of those ready-roast numbers. It was very oily and very salty. Best thing, I think, was my cup of tea. I was to find this in most meals.
We checked out the local market in a vast corrugated iron shed set way back across an immense brick-paved parking lot. It was lots of very unremarkable crafty things and assorted Ikea vases and things on resale. The only people there were a couple of stall-holders drinking coffee, Certainly, I could find nothing worth buying. I sought, instead, the public lavatory which, to my surprise, bore a name plaque honouring some local personage. First time I've seen a loo block with a name plaque. It was an interesting loo block, too. Very spacious. Well, it had one very spacious room with a long, broad shelf on which one could change at least half a dozen babies. It had two small sinks and, tucked in the corner, were two lavatory cubicles. They were so tiny that one could barely close the door when one went inside. One had to shuffle sideways against the toilet pedestal. I am not exactly a fat person so I wondered how obese country women ever managed to get in for a pee. This meagre size seemed extremely odd considering the very large expanse of unused space in the rest of the building. But, in a perverse way, it matched the vast parking lot outside, all so beautifully paved, with a pavilion in the centre. Why the big fancy parking lot in this small country town?

The Chatt centre purported Internet access - and, indeed, it had a couple of PCs on which one could access the Internet. I was looking for a hotspot for my laptop. A pleasant chap there said that there were wireless accesses so I took in the lappy and sure enough, the local council had an open network. All very well, though. I could not access the net on it - and I decided it was not important to keep trying.

We headed off to find a service station to clean the gluey suicidal remains of some poor insect off the car windscreen and top up the tank. Couldn't find one in the main drag but a Toyota dealership had petrol pumps - plus a very nice dealer who came out and cleaned the windscreen with Windex. Yet another lovely person on Yorke Peninsula. If the landscape was benighted, the people were turning out to be uniformly delightful.

Our destination was Port Victoria - a wee coastal town of which I had fond childhood memories. I'd stayed in the country pub there with my parents on a holiday - and my father had taught both my mother and me to swim in the shallow bay beside the jetty. I particularly recalled a seal coming to play with us in the water there - and getting to know an Aboriginal girl who worked at the pub.
The pub is still there much as it was - except that it has motel rooms out the back and poker machines inside.
We popped in to buy a bottle of wine. But we were staying at a cabin in the camp ground. Since I had booked at the last minute, it was not a sea-front cabin but, set back one row, there were goodly sea glimpses from the little deck of the cabin and, inside, with a full kitchen and satellite TV, there was not much we missed. Well, mobile phone coverage would have been handy. I didn't even bother to pull out the laptop. Instead, we lolled on our deck with books. The pub menu had not looked too impressive. More fried everything. So we took a walk down the main street to see it there was a cafe. Another very broad main street, albeit a tiny wee town. There was a cafe but, guess what? More fried frozen everything. It seemed ironic with all the emphasis on fishing - fishing boats all over the camp grounds, people fishing and crabbing off jetties - that there was no fresh seafood to be found. But we did find the fresh fish on sale just off the main street - and Amanda, a small, tough girl in black wellington boots and white overalls. She skippers a fishing boat. She is a third generation fisher. And she was selling fish she had caught herself. We bought a big fillet of snapper - and then went to the funny little grocery store cafe and purchased garlic,frozen peas, olive oil, dried herbs, a courgette and some spaghetti. With a lemon, some home-grown tomatoes and chillies, I later turned this into an unspeakably delicious pasta dinner which we consumed with lovely, cold Hollick wines from the Coonawarra. Oh it was a relief to escape a meal of fried everything.

We spent the afternoon lolling on the deck and reading, going for walks, marvelling at the vivid greens of the sandy-bottomed sea and watching all the people in the camp site. Again, everything was friendliness - and there was generally a very convivial spirit in the camp ground.

We were out, as the instructions dictated, by 10 am and on the road. As we drove south, the landscape seemed slightly less godforsaken. Perhaps because the terrain was not so flat, perhaps because the roads were better and not so straight... There was evidence of the felling of pine trees along the roads. Lots of evidence in the form of lots of chain-sawed pines piled up. There is a general policy among councils of eradicating pines because they are not native and because nothing grows beneath them. Ironically, however, there would seem to be a disease afflicting a lot of the native vegetation on the peninsula and the pines thrive and a relief of greenery beside sad, dying and dead eucalypts.

Minlaton is another very neat and tidy country town with a very, very wide main street. They even have picnic tables on the generous medians in the main street. Picnic tables with plaques in honour of local dignitaries, even. Bruce was glad to score a copy of The Weekend Australian from the friendly newsagent and I visited the local arts, craft and Internet centre where, eschewing the possibility of connecting to their broadband, I actually found some lovely local craft and oils and did a spot of shopping. Even Bruce made a purchase - a lovely redgum bowl. A wonderfully olde-worlde bakery, very popular among the locals, turned out to be still using trans fats so we did not stop for brunch there - nor across the road in the cafe where the scent of ancient and overused deep frying oil was overwhelming. We drove on to Yorketown.

Yorketown is set on the edge of a salt lake.
Blinding white. It is like an ice lake but whiter.
The town itself is odd. It is really just a big junction with the peninsula's main roads intersecting asymmetrically. We chose one of the two pubs for lunch. Probably the wrong one. The handsome old two-storey corner pub was huge and a man, finding us wandering through its corridors, escorted us to the dining room which was immense. A very elderly couple sat there dining in silence, dwarfed by the cavernous proportions. They were all dressed up, I noticed. A large and brightly-lit salad bar adorned one wall. The salads seemed very cold and fresh. But where were the people? It was a bit surreal.
We ordered from the "specials" menu on a blackboard. Fish and Chips for me - and when the waitress asked if I wanted the fish battered, crumbed or grilled, I jumped at the grilled option. Bruce ordered chicken breast in satay sauce. My fish was terrible. It was one of those awful frozen Vietnamese imports, I think. The chips were not too good, either. I enjoyed my cup of tea while Bruce wolfed down his chicken.

A few miles down the road, Edithburgh was a much better little town with a great big ocean grain terminal and extremely broad streets. It had some nice cafes - but on closer inspection, they were closed.-

We paused outside Edithburgh pausing to detour for a close up look at the Wattle Range Wind Farm.
Those great minimalist windmills are so linear and elegant - I have long wanted to get in among them. People tell me of bird strike and of noise. I saw sheep, gratefully lined up in the shade of the windmills. A quirky site, actually. And I listened to the soft machine hum and realised why people were never quite able to describe that sound. I can't describe it, either. It was not unpleasant, though.

We drove on up the coast past the towering white grain silos and gleaming white conveyors which take the grain out to modern boats resting at the modern facilities. It was a pleasure to encounter a coastal road - the first sealed coastal road we had found on the peninsula. So many of the roads are unsealed, dusty with sharp stones and, in many places, bone-shattering corrugations. We had hit them a number of times, most recently to and from the wind farm. It is astounding how much of this peninsula functions on graded dirt roads, "metal", I think they call them. Plumes of dust announce all cars which venture onto them. My dark green Forester is now a very dusty beast, thanks to those roads.

Our destination for the night was Stansbury and its Holiday Motel.
Stansbury was instantly likeable - and obviously much-liked since its camp ground, which wraps around a little promontory called Oyster Point and provides dozens of campers with million dollar foreshore sea views, was crowded with holiday makers.

We found our motel, perched up on a hill. At first glimpse it looked a bit downmarket and kids seemed to be swarming everywhere and squealing from the enclosed swimming pool.

"You'll like your room," the proprietor, Iain, promised as he handed over the key. He was right. We liked our spacious and well-equipped room, we liked our hosts, we liked their part-Aboriginal grandkids, we liked the spirit of the place -- despite the fact hat a massive phone tower loomed over the buildings and that the police Drug and Alcohol Unit bus was parked across a series of rooms which, said Iain, were occupied by a large party of police who were on operations down here. We'd be well protected, he said. Too true. When I woke next morning, there were about six cop cars lined up outside.

The grandkids had caught a mass of blue swimmer crabs that morning, Iain said. They were cooking them up and serving them at $10 a kilo, if we would care for some. So we ordered a kilo and went out to buy another bottle of wine and have a meander around Stansbury. A beach walk was an essential - so we walked the coast in front of the camp ground from heaven, looking at the campers.

They lolled under canvas awnings beside caravans or family tents, groups around tables, very comfortable ensconced while children played on the beach. The tide was out and, as we crossed over the point, it was to the most extraordinary expanse of tidal flats occupied by a few kids digging, a few pelicans hanging about and, far out in thigh-deep water, people crabbing. We could not believe how far out the tide had gone - when we turned around to see the shore, it was miles away.
There were vast shoals of shells we traversed and, further out, crystal clear pools of water which danced with tiny crabs and darting fingerling fish.
We were falling in love with Stansbury. And when we walked the long cement jetty, it was to get another thrill - two of the most immense stingrays you could ever imagine, softly cruising the shallows. This was their territory, Iain later told us. One of them was known as Harold. I wondered if the other was Maude.

We sat on the steps at the front of the motel to drink our wine with the mighty view of fishing boats coming and going - and repaired to the room in time to get a lesson in little crabs from the granddaughters, Chantal and Destiny. When our platter of crabs arrived complete with nutcrackers, newspaper, herbed vinegar and a rubbish bag, we simply feasted and swooned and made a mighty mess. Oh, they were good. We finished our dinner with some excellent watermelon we had purchased at the Stansbury IGA - and drifted into the night.

I had a glorious swim in the pool before leaving in the morning. It was very nippy - but heavenly. I love a swim - especially with no one else in the pool to splash me. Bruce read his paper and kept me company - and the motel kittens came and scrutinised my activity. 'Twas all rather pleasant - and I was a bit sad to leave this sweet niche.
Ironically, we were in quest of some fresh local fish to take back to town but found the quest disheartening. Seems one really needs to catch one's own. Perhaps that is why everyone takes their rods.

We drove up the coast, popping in on Port Vincent, Black Point, Pine Point and, finally, Ardrossan. No fresh fish to be found. We paused at Ardrossan's award winning bakery where they the make the award-winning best pasties in the state, asking, before we purchased, if they use a trans-fat-free shortening. They did. The baker himself came out to tell us - and to say that we were the first people who had ever enquired.

We took our trans-fat-free pies and pasties in their paper bags and sat on the point, looking out at the red cliffs and the boats coming and going and shared bits of pastry with raucous seagulls before hitting the road for the push back to the city.
All quite smooth - via the carwash to rid the Forester of its dusty coat.
And back to get ready for the working week.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful read. I wouldn't know what to do with a fresh fish of course... but I love that you do. slk

Siladitya said...

gr8 article must be said.
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