The Flinders Ranges enable the visitor to experience beauty on a grand scale, either through walking and hiking trips or driving around the ranges. The day trip to Bunyeroo Track and Gorge, through Brachina Gorge, as well as the Aroona Valley, the latter with a bush camping ground and natural spring, passes through some of the most beautiful outback landscape in this country.
It’s not easy to capture this beauty, either in words or photos. Travelling through this landscape, I am overawed. My thoughts race, beyond reason, beyond words. I am a small creature passing through a momentous art installation. I begin to recall the works of Hans Heysen, whose art was popularised in print form, commonplace in homes and motels in the 1960s. That tasteless retro era comes flooding back, childhood memories tinged with melancholy, and I see this bush again, I am a part of it, it’s there in my consciousness but I’m not prepared. The land is dignified, venerable, unspeakably beautiful. I think of the traditional owners of this land, whose love of country is unsurpassable and is inextricably woven into their legends, culture and identity.
It is about being: experiencing beauty on a grand scale, limitless skies and ancient forms, and letting go of all else. A passing cloud highlights the relief of that distant ridge- chiaroscuro, a stage, a light show. Next minute, it has disappeared, new colours and shapes emerge. Art and theatre.
Do the landscape paintings of your memories influence and enhance your perception of the landscape? Or does the power of landscape simply remind you of the painting? Do older Australians have a pre-disposition towards this beauty, based on learning through art and history? Would this landscape be so familiar and lovely to the visitor from the northern hemisphere, whose eyes are trained to see younger, greener and moister views?
Setting up a base camp in the outback takes organisation and planning. Supplies are available but they are usually extremely expensive and limited to the basics. While Mr Tranquillo takes charge of things like batteries, the fridge, testing solar panels, and setting up good lighting, I like to plan a functional camping kitchen.
Before leaving home, I tend to pack in this way:
tall bottles in one box (extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, fish sauce, tomato sauce, passata, good vinegar, other sauces depending on length of stay).
cans box includes, tomatoes, chick peas, borlotti beans, baby beetroot, tuna large and small, other canned fish.
breakfast basket – muesli, spreads and jam, tea bags, coffee, small long life milk packets, cups, picnic set, bread board, bread well wrapped ( more important for days when travelling)
root vegetable bag, includes a big bag of Nicola chats, onions, garlic, ginger, beetroot, sweet potato, ( carrots best in fridge)
car fridge includes fresh milk,plain yogurt, tasty cheese, parmesan cheese, fetta, fresh herbs, fresh vegetables, butter or Lurpak. Fish as found on route.
the spice box. (more about this below)
Along the way, I begin to rearrange these boxes. Despite our camping rule, to do the major cooking prep in natural light, sometimes this isn’t possible as long walks and day trips demand a later start. So a new method of sorting emerges, one based on ethnicity or cuisine.
An example of this approach can be seen with the Indian cooking bag containing:
coconut milk powder
red lentils ( masoor dhal)
chick pea cans
The spice box is a permanent feature of the camp kitchen and stays in its own compartment in the kitchen, and is regularly refreshed. In it are spices, dried herbs, salts and black peppercorn, whole chillies and stock cubes.
This new approach can be seen in action on the day I decided to make some chapatis on an open fire. I simply grabbed the Indian bag and started the chick pea curry on the gas stove, a simple dish involving four steps:
Finely chop onion, garlic, ginger and gently fry in plain oil (canola) till soft.
Add the following ground spices, coriander, cumin, turmeric, big handful of curry leaves. Stir through for one minute.
Add 1 cup of reconstituted coconut milk plus a little extra water to loosen. Stir then cook for two minutes on medium heat.
Add a can of chick peas, drained and well rinsed.
Let cook slowly while making the chappatis. Taste, add salt.
The chappatis are made with atta flour, water and nigella (kalonji) seeds. These were rolled out using an empty Riesling bottle, then cooked quickly on hot wood coal. Asbestos fingers are handy: so are tongs.
Another Indian treat is a simple potato chat dish. Peel and parboil nicola (yellow fleshed) potatoes. Add Indian spices such as mustard seed, salt, lots of curry leaves, and fry in a little canola oil in a super hot wok over coals. Serve with then a squeeze of lemon if you have one.
My new organisation also has a wonderful Italian bag -naturally. Basics like cans and sauces stay in the original boxes. I am keen to hear from anyone who enjoys packing food supplies for long getaways, especially where there are no shops and electric power is limited.
On the way to the Flinders Ranges and the South Australian outback, it is customary to stay in the historic town of Burra. In the past, and I mean less than ten years ago, Burra was a sleepy historic town: attractive, but definitely ‘olde worlde’. Today, the town is buzzing with new energy. More old houses in the back streets are being restored, the Burra Hotel has a new publican and chef , and the arrival of an Italian Osteria in an old tin shed is an exciting addition to the town. One can sense the brio! Given that Burra is only 200 kilometres from Adelaide, it was bound to happen.
After setting up camp at the central but extremely basic camping ground in town, we wandered the historic streets of Burra in search of a cleansing ale, or to be precise, a cleansing Coopers Pale Ale. This search wasn’t long or arduous. The Burra Hotel is centrally located and has had a makeover since our last visit, but still retains that old pub feel, that is, spruced up but not gentrified. Michael, the new publican, had just taken over some days before and he certainly enjoys a chat. The menu looked great, and we would have stayed, but something caught my eye on the way : this sign, on this shed.
An osteria, La Pecora Nera, in the middle of a little outback town? A beacon in the twilight. Off we trotted after our beers to find a packed and thriving authentic pizzeria and osteria complete with domed wood fired oven and a noisy, convivial atmosphere. We were seated at one of the larger communal tables. Wine is displayed on the wall shelving, so it’s a matter of choosing one and taking it to the table. Our 2009 Mt Surmon Nebbiolo from nearby Claire was the perfect wine for the occasion. ( $35.00)After ordering, a plate of rustic wood fired bread, drizzled with good oil, arrived at the table. Really good bread, really good oil. Then a Pizza perfetta arrives, a Napolitana with a fine, thin crusted base, ( $17.00) large enough for two.
We ordered a delicious cheesecake to share and then the lovely Clare did the rounds of all the tables with her limoncello bottle. It’s mid week and no one wants to go home.
Clare and her partner Paolo run this successful osteria: Paolo is the pizzaiolo and Clare makes everyone happy with little extras. It is indeed authentically Italian. Suddenly we feel like guests at her party.
I can’t wait to go back to Burra, but next time for a longer stay, to walk around the town at leisure and to stay in a little renovated Cornish miner’s cottage.
Are we there yet? Still trying to make it to the outback, it was necessary to pass through McLaren Vale, one of the many notable wine growing districts of South Australia and certainly worthy of another diversion. With 74 cellar doors open for tasting, is it possible to drive through this town, without sampling a wine or two?
After setting up camp, we wandered along a section of the inviting walking track, the Shiraz Trail, and whoops, found ourselves in the vast estate with winding driveway that enters Serafino winery and restaurant. It was early evening. The Serafino restaurant, like some Pavlovian experiment, seemed to be beckoning us to its door. My semi feral camping appearance, hat not fully disguising unruly hair, allowed me to emerge from this spell. We wisely turned back to our little home on wheels.
The next morning, all scrubbed up and ready to face a new day, we drove up the fabulous driveway, past the lake with friendly geese, and entered the Serafino cellar for a quick wine tasting. The young attendant informed us that morning wine tastings were a good idea as the palate was still untainted! Excellent news. At 10.30 AM, I felt justified, if not virtuous, by sampling a few of the range on offer.
The wines are listed in categories, from Serafino Terremoto (the big reds) and Reserve wines, followed by lighter styled vintages. I always lean towards the Italian varietals and was pleased to see their ‘Bellissimo’ range included Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Fiano, Pinot Grigio and the Spanish variety,Tempranillo. I am a big fan of Nebbiolo, knowing only a few companies making an Australian version, so this was a little heavenly moment. Thankyou Bacchus. Given the offer of free postage, a few cases were ordered and sent home. I joined the Serafino wine club, and even though I missed the chance to enjoy the restaurant, I am a happy camper.
We tried two other wineries, dropping into Hugo Wines to pick up a couple of aged Shiraz, and a bottle of their award-winning olive oil, then we were safely on our way. Only the Clare wine growing district ( home of divine Riesling ) could lead us further astray before making it to the outback, but we had happily spent out wine dollar in McLaren Vale.
It is worth reading Serafino (Steve) Maglieri’s story of migration from Campobosso, Italy in the 1960s, as a young man with little English and $20.00 in his pocket. Another remarkable Italo- Australiano!
In his foreword to Steve Strevens’ book, ‘Slow River’, Stefano de Piero attests to his appreciation of the slowness and strength of the Murray River, noting that words like ‘mighty Murray’ are too clichéd. Stefano continues to quote poet and scholar Paul Kane, who describes the Murray in this way,
“The Murray, a river of work, cutting its way through time and all resistance: here broad and reflecting, there deep and gorgeous in confinement- scoriated limestone valleys of imagination – and stillness too, in swampy backwaters and billabongs, where the traveller, the river’s reader, can paddle about and muse on the curious vicissitudes of Nature’s Muse, who is like a river, only she is her own source of plenishment, whereas the Murray- refreshed by loss- is both less and more.” Paul Kane, 1995.
I have tried on a few adjectives too and I keep coming back to ‘elemental’ and ‘primordial’ to describe this river and its beautiful surrounding bush. Although not many of us are in the position, like Steve, to take a ‘tinnie’ (a small aluminium boat) down the Murray from source to sea, we can appreciate its wonder and hypnotic attraction by camping along its banks. One evening, a posse of around 20 pelicans came bobbing along, appearing as if from nowhere from a nearby fork in the river. For the first 10 minutes, like obedient troupes, they stayed in a neat line as they travelled upstream. Bills up and down in unison, they hugged the banks of the river for some time. Then, as if commanded by an invisible force, they simultaneously spread out in a wide circle, a choreographed show, and the hunt was on. Fishing time! Amidst the white troupe, one small dark cormorant had joined the gang.
Human daytime activities consist of walking and photography, noting the variety of flora and bird life, and watching the ever-changing moods of this slow river as it passes by. Other pastimes include reading books about the Murray ( see below), fiddling with the solar panels, and considering whether it’s time for another cup of tea or something stronger. Big decisions. The days are sunny and the nights are frosty in early September so a camp fire is recommended. From November through to May, camp fires are banned due to the risk of bushfire.
At times, a houseboat cruises by. The nearby Lyrup Ferry service operates 24 hours a day: it is a free service and one simply pulls up, presses the red button, and out comes the ferryman to take you and your car over the short stretch of river. Of course, I couldn’t stop singing Chris de Burgh’s, “Don’t pay the ferryman, don’t even fix a price, don’t pay the ferryman, until he gets you to the other side, ah ahh ahhahaah”. South Australia retains some fine traditions.
In the late afternoon, food is prepared and the fire is lit. Mr T chops onions, garlic and ginger: he is my favourite kitchen hand. Tonight’s feast includes a Keralan fish curry, loaded with fresh curry leaves found in the excellent Indian shop in Mildura. Alongside is an Aloo Gobi stir fry- a simple little cauliflower and potato dish with added Kalonji seeds. I put Kalonji seeds in many things these days, especially flat breads. The next day, a big shared Szechuan soup for lunch with wongbok cabbage, tofu and chilli hits the spot and at night, my favourite, jaffles cooked in the fire. Food tastes so good in the open air.
Camping by the river is one of the best ways to enjoy the Australian bush, especially in September when you have the place to yourself, along with the birds, and the silence of the slow Murray River. As the night descends, it’s time for a glass of local wine and perhaps a hummed tune, ‘Take me to the River’ ,after the wine has disappeared.
The banks of the Murray River at Lyrup, South Australia
Two excellent books on the Murray River:
Slow River, A journey down the Murray, Steve Strevens, Allen and Unwin 2006
The River. A journey through the Murray- Darling basin, Chris Hammer, Melbourne University Press, 2011
The history of settlement of the outback, South Australia, particularly around the Flinders Ranges, is intriguing, especially if you have travelled north of Quorn or Hawker and noted the many abandoned stone cottages. Idealistic farmers, many with German background, hoping to make their fortune in wheat growing, took up large tracts of land in this semi desert area, believing that ‘the rain would follow the plough’.
The basic premise of this theory was that increased human settlement in the region and cultivation of soil would result in an increased rainfall over time, rendering the land more fertile and lush as the population increased. The theory was widely promoted in the 1870s as a justification for settlement in the Great Plains of America and was also used to justify the expansion of wheat growing on marginal land in South Australia during that period.¹ Despite the warnings of climatologist, George Goyder² in 1865, farmers continued to believe this fallacy and took up land north of Quorn, near the Flinders Ranges in South Australia.
I am currently surrounded by orange. The rock faces of the Flinders Ranges, South Australia are bathed in orange at different times of the day. The road to Brachina Gorge is an orange drive all the way.
And I just cracked a large Kent Pumpkin. As we are camping off the grid and have limited cool storage, orange cuisine is on the agenda. Recipes will follow another time. Camp cooking is never dull. Thanks Ed from Sunday Stills for the suggestion.