Land of Plenty
Heading south from Adelaide, it seems as if you’re transporting yourself into another place and time. But despite the Mediterranean feel of both McLaren Vale and Kangaroo Island, Australia still looms large on the landscape. Story and photos: Cam Cope
It starts out like stepping onto any Australian beach in summer, which is its usual intensity on this cloudless Adelaide day. There is so much space I can hear it. The broadness of Gulf St Vincent echoes into an amphitheatre of pale yellow cliffs. The sand neutralises my thongs with a sublime softness, and each singeing-hot grain forces me to the water’s edge.
Above all is the brightness. The water reflects sparkling white and it’s impossible to tell if the beach is the same colour or just an overexposed standard yellow.
A few visible figures affirm the Antipodean setting: a silhouette with a surfboard, a father and son cricket match and a Lycra-clad mother-toddler combination. But the unlikely sound of an uncorking transports me from Port Willunga, on Adelaide’s southern outskirts, straight to the Mediterranean. In one of many eroding caves once carved into the cliffs to house fishing boats, a tanned, lithe woman in her 40s ducks the sun with a book, a chilled glass of white wine and an assortment of cold cuts. It could be a scene straight from the cave colony at Matala, Crete – and it’s an impression helped along by the renowned Star of Greece restaurant that overlooks Aldinga Bay (although a few unmistakable Norfolk pines do creep into view).
This is one of my first stops on a four-day road trip snaking down the Fleurieu Peninsula, over the Backstairs Passage across the 150km breadth of Kangaroo Island. And it’s not the last time I encounter a European feel, paradoxically, amid the typically Australian.
From Adelaide airport, it’s 45 minutes heading south before the suburbs give way to a mosaic of tinder-dry wheat fields, eucalypt scrub and hillsides of ripening green varietals. I’m aiming for Ekhidna Wines in McLaren Vale for lunch, but serendipitously stumble into a beautiful Georgian era homestead named Ingleburne. It’s not open to the public, but you can walk through the gardens, and the double-storey stonework heralds the entrance to the cellar door at Penny’s Hill winery, where I get a hot tip on a $10 rose and find out that the homestead dates back to 1846.
At Ekhidna Wines I learn – counter-intuitively – that they’re just as well-known for beer. The 5.8% ginger beer I try pairs much better with my lemon myrtle chilli rubbed kangaroo than my blood alcohol limit.
Predictably, I get lost en route to my last destination on the Fleurieu, Chapel Hill Retreat, where I’ve booked a cooking class with executive chef Rebecca Stubbs.
“If there’s an accident, we have a kitchen first aid kit consisting of gaffer tape, salt, and pepper,” Rebecca advises, to chuckles from the would-be chefs. “But on a serious note, we’re expecting hot weather so in the event of a bushfire we’ll all have to drop our recipes and assemble for marshmallows.”
The jokes set the tone for a relaxed evening of wine accompanied by (almost) perfectly prepared venison tartare, grilled kangaroo with preserved lime, char-grilled chorizo and a watermelon and feta salad. For dinner we retire to the restaurant overlooking the vineyards at sunset, and we’re all that much more animated in the eating for having made the food.
After a 45-minute ferry ride and a half-day driving through rain, Kangaroo Island (KI) at first appears unremarkable. The landscape is sedate. There is no prominent mountain range, no tall timber, and the stands of narrow-leaved mallee, twisted from the wind, look no different to the mallee a few hundred kilometres east on the mainland. But a few days of switch-backing over the island from one specialty producer to the next dramatically alters the narrative.
At Island Pure sheep dairy on the banks of the Cygnet, I taste the softest fried haloumi (the secret – apart from using sheep’s milk – is to cook slowly on a low heat). I can’t believe their style of Mediterranean cheeses and yoghurts aren’t more popular in Australia, and that this is the only sheep dairy in the state (and one of only a few in the country). The dairy changed hands five years ago, but the first owners originally switched from wool to milk on a gamble they could build a unique product less pervious to global market fluctuations and the inhibitive cost of exporting from an island. It’s a story I hear in various incarnations all over KI.
At Clifford’s Honey Farm, Sharon Simons is a third-generation honey maker whose father started diversifying from wool to honey in the 1970s. They extract more than 20 tonnes a year and produce an exhaustive array of honey-related products. They also take full advantage of the fact that KI is the oldest bee sanctuary in the world, home to the only pure strain of the Ligurian bee, an esteemed honey producer.
The diseases that have ravaged bees on the mainland and elsewhere in the world have not reached KI, partly because it’s too far for them to fly in from the Fleurieu, but also because strict controls are in place for visitors.
It’s this taking advantage of KI’s strengths that’s also on display at The Oyster Farm Shop in American River, The Marron Cafe near Vivonne Bay and Kangaroo Island Spirits outside of Kingscote.
Amanda Rowe from the Oyster Farm Shop explains that water quality around KI is incredibly high, and although they’ve mostly farmed Pacific oysters, they’re now experimenting with native Angasi oysters and abalone. At the Marron Cafe – which also serves an excellent selection of Two Wheeler Creek wines – I learn that the luxury freshwater cray they farm, while introduced to KI, is endangered in its native habitat in Western Australia and that populations here have safeguarded against its extinction. Guiltily, I’m more excited to find a team at KI Spirits experimenting with native liquor (let’s face it, craft beer has hit saturation) and am impressed by their Wild Gin made using KI native juniper.
After yet another locally inspired meal – this time of goose on quinoa at Kate Sumner’s KI Source farm-based kitchen – it clicks what really sets KI, and in fact most of South Australia, apart. There is a European style of regionalism here that’s less developed in the other states. They celebrate – fiercely – the quality of local produce, show a real awareness of what makes it special in the world and come together to build umbrella brands – formal and otherwise – around it. The Barossa, the Clare, the Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale and the Coonawarra are successful examples, but none is endowed with such a tangible, recognisable appellation as the country’s third largest island.
And it turns out the KI landscape actually is spectacular, as soon as you hit the coast. It’s a fact capitalised on by one of Australia’s most expensive luxury experiences, Great Southern Lodge, that’s built on a rugged set of clifftops overlooking one of the wildest stretches of ocean on Earth.
Next-door is Flinders Chase National Park, which takes up the western quarter of the island. Driving in, the coastal drama at the Remarkable Rocks conjures fly-over car commercials and wilderness hikes. It’s exactly the kind of big, rugged environment that Australia is known for. There’s so much space that, if you close your eyes, you can hear it.
For more on these destinations, visit www.southaustralia.com.
For accommodation options, see Classifieds.
The author travelled with the help of SA Tourism Commission and Audi Australia.
RACV MEMBERS CAN SAVE
RACV Cruises & Tours has the six-day Sealink Kangaroo Island City, Wine & Wildlife Tour from $710pp twin share, leaving from Adelaide. Call 1300 850 884 or email email@example.com.
RACV members save 10% on passenger and vehicle fares on the Kangaroo Island Sealink ferry when pre-booking with RACV. To get the discount, go to racv.com.au/tickets, call 13 13 29 or visit any RACV shop.