Adventure Down Under, In My Own Backyard
It’s a week after winter solstice here in Southern Australia; the days are characterized by a cold winter brilliance, and the nights by chilling frost and clear skies brimming with millions of frozen stars. Despite joyfully immersing ourselves in the local wines of the Clare Valley, especially the Watervale Rieslings, the iconic Barossa Valley is within a day’s ride of our home, perfect for a little local cycling adventure. So, despite the less than reassuring weather forecast for the weekend (showers, wind, and possible hail), the Swiss Mountain Goat and I brave the chill to explore our backyard by bike.
The rail-trail that traverses the north-south length of the Clare Valley, aptly named the Riesling Trail, runs through our backyard. The greyhound lady who lets us live with her has been carefully ensconced in the home of her favorite person, a person who keeps her cupboards well-stocked with doggie treats. So, Saturday morning finds us with nothing to do but roll out the door, be pinched on the cheek by the cold, and set off for the first 7.5 miles into Auburn.
Leaving the car behind is a fantastic and slightly self-righteous sensation. In Auburn we leave the southward-leading rail trail behind and strike out on a secondary road for another 7.5 miles west into Saddleworth. The road west quickly takes us up and over the hills that define the Clare Valley, and beyond those hills the rolling sheep pastures stretch out in a seemingly infinite fashion. The road from Saddleworth is in good condition and we are only occasionally passed by a bemused but considerate local in the very large ute (translation: utility vehicle, or pickup truck). The 7 miles from Saddleworth to Marrabel are shadowed by side winds and threatening clouds; we stop, add a wet-weather layer, refuel, and watch the weather approach. But luck is with us and the winds that buffet against us also push the rain past us. We catch only a sprinkle.
Marrabel, population 147, is also home to a larger-than-life statue of Curio, a famous brumby mare. Feature of the Marrabel rodeo, from 1945 until 1953 she was described as “unridable,” until the 10-second success of Alan Woods. There is a great poem describing this colorful history.
The Swiss Mountain Goat and the Australian brumby.
On the horse-ridden, sheep-laden plains between the Clare and Barossa valleys we enjoy some lovely, if chilly, riding over rolling small hills. Hills which, surprisingly in this semi-arid region, are green with the winter rains. And we take much joy in just being out in it, hearing the bleating of the late autumn lambs, feeling the warmth of some much appreciated sunshine, and soaking in the quiet, understated beauty of the landscape as we roll past.
The hills grow perceptibly as we broach the lip of the Barossa Valley itself, and what else to do here except stop for lunch at a bakery and then escape a passing weather front by sampling the fine wines of Torbreck. I am quickly won over by their Grenache, but it is a Muscat called ‘the bothie’ which is packed into our saddlebags -- its smaller size and weight making it today’s winner.
With the rain front mercifully crossing our path while we were happily sipping, the wet roads and quickly darkening day find us pedaling somewhat harder towards our hotel in Tanunda. We arrive, 58 miles from home, with numb fingers and toes to a less-than-warm reception by hotel staff; I suspect this impression has much to do with the much more enthusiastic reception we often experienced while traveling by bike in the States. I have to admit that I initially thought we should have spent this evening camping, in the true spirit of outdoor adventure. But with the heater switched on and a big bath full of steamy hot water waiting, I am very glad to leave the rapidly dropping temperature outside and slowly and deliciously defrost my happy but weary body.
Rosy-cheeked and shiny after a long soak, our grumbling stomachs make demands for dinner. Pizza is the unanimous decision and a quick pedal through the dark and cold finds us on the doorstep of the oddly combined Italian and German local diner, Amanti. There our faith in good service is restored, and we smile at our surreptitiously shocked fellow diners as we polish off a large pizza each.
Thus restored, we face the real nighttime chill of freezing temperatures for an even faster ride back to the warmth and comfort of a big bed and the kind of deep sleep that you can only achieve after a day of physical effort.
Sunday dawns slowly through heavy fog and freezing temperatures. The Australian foodie mecca Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop inspires us to pedal towards breakfast. We are so inspired that we arrive before opening, but find ourselves easily distracted by the lovely grounds and the range of pheasants bred at the farm, who watch us as curiously as we watch them. We linger over a perfect coffee and, in all seriousness, the most fantastic sultanas I have ever eaten, as well as bread, cheese, quince paste, and a divine fruit tart.
Well fueled, we investigate the Barossa further, and stop for a second wine tasting at Two Hands Wines. Steeped in their huge Shiraz range, time flies past us, and it is after one o’clock before we genuinely start pedaling homeward.
The wind and cold team up against us again; I tuck myself in behind the Swiss Mountain Goat and try to stay with her. The kilometers steadily click over, but we still must stop to refuel, this time with a traditional Swiss snack, ‘Schoggi und Brot,’ or chocolate and bread. Take a stick of really good quality chocolate and a fresh bread roll; using a (hopefully) clean finger, make a hole through the center of your bread, insert chocolate, and eat! It’s all about quality in Switzerland, and this little surprise package can be a quick gourmet delight if the quality is there.
We are still 15 miles from home when the short days of winter start to bite. Riding out on these country roads at night is unsettling; there is no street lighting and the roads are narrow, rolling, and currently undergoing roadwork.
We decide it’s time to phone a friend, the very lady who is currently watching our greyhound sleep by her fire. She is generous enough to drive out into the approaching evening and collect a pair of partially frozen cyclists. So as we approach Saddleworth again, a light rain begins to fall and a pair of welcome headlights make a promise of friendship, laughter, and big bowls of soup. A very suitable ending for a weekend full of local adventure by bike, and a reminder that it is the simple things in life that deserve the most appreciation.
Tip for this adventure: As much as I enjoyed the challenge and exhilaration of the bracing winters days on the road, I advise ideally to plan the trip for the longer days of spring or summer (or be prepared to cycle in the dark).
Favorite Bike Shop: Unfortunately, rural South Australia has a sad absence of bike shops, regardless of the many bike trails there are to be explored. I have no local bike shop; consequently, my mechanical skills are getting better!