Seeing a human skeleton for the first time brings a flood of questions. How did it happen? What was the person like? How old were they when they died?
I stand beside brittle white bones cocooned in fine grains of yellow sand and a shiver runs through me despite the intensity of heat on a cloudless sky.
I’m atop Cattle Point along the Coorong River in Goolwa. It’s day two of my week-long trip following South Australia’s Murray River through charming, burnt-amber towns.
Local guide Matt explains the bones belong to someone from the Aboriginal tribe, Narrinduri and could be more than 800 years old.
The ancient grounds are fascinating and I imagine a world of women weaving, children watching and men hunting food.
That evening I check in at the beautiful Australasian Hotel. My room in the historic 1850 pub is nicknamed ‘The Juliet’ as it has a quaint balcony similar to the one in Shakespeare’s iconic romance.
Following the river north-east towards Mannum the next morning, green hills blend into vast orange plains stretching for miles without a building in sight. Herds of cattle graze on dry, spindly foliage.
I stop in a small town called Strathalbyn to stretch my legs. I pass a young man walking his puppy which bounds up to me for a scratch behind the ears. “What’s her name?” I ask. “This is Shazza,” the man replies in a strong southern accent. I suppress a laugh.
For many years the Murray River was a lifeline for residents who hunted and gathered for their families, explorers who sought new horizons and traders who transported grains, nuts, citrus and other produce on its waterway.
It’s obvious that people hold the river close to their hearts; on more than one occasion, locals describe it as South Australia’s heartbeat.
I stop for lunch at a pub perched atop a cliff overlooking the river in Swan Reach, a small town about an hour’s drive from Mannum. There’s a sign taped to the window: “If your clothes are wet, please take a seat outside.” I smile as I imagine boaties trudging up the dirt track to quench their thirst.
Kangaroo is on the menu and having never tasted it, I ask the waitress to describe the flavour. She’s not a fan, but I order it anyway. The flavours are smoky and rich and unlike the waitress, I thoroughly enjoy it.
My final destination for the day is Waikerie. The long, straight, dusty roads get the better of me and I become disoriented. What should have been a straightforward stretch turns into a panic as I flag down a passing driver, asking if my destination is near. I’m told that it’s just a few kilometres away and that one hasn’t fully experienced South Australia until they get lost. Which makes me feel better.
The next morning I follow the river further east to Paringa for an afternoon on the water. Chugging upstream on a cruise through backwater creeks, my host Cathy nudges me when there are creatures to spot. We see a sleepy koala nestled in a gum tree, kangaroos basking in the sunshine on the water’s edge and several inquisitive emus strut up to the boat for a nosey.
I hear Rustons Rose Garden is a must-see, so the next morning I drive the six kilometres to Renmark. The 85-year-old founder still lives in the family farmhouse on the 27-acre block. The land was initially used by his father as an orchard. Once a fruit tree died, a rose bush was planted in its place. Needless to say, the soil provided a healthier home for flowers than fruit as 45,000 bushes now make up the largest rose garden in the southern hemisphere.
This part of the country is particularly impressive with dusty dirt roads weaving in between rows of green vines dripping in purple. I pull over to pick a few delicious grapes before calling into boutique winery, 919 Wines.
Driving west across the country towards Adelaide, I didn’t think it possible for the land to turn a richer, more beautiful shade of orange – nor for the vines to stretch a greater distance. But the closer I get to Barossa, it becomes all the more evident that I’m in wine country.
Palm trees line the road to Seppeltsfield Winery. I wander through the old homestead built in 1851, still with its original furnishings and am astonished by history there. Seppeltsfield is the only winery in the world to release a 100-year-old wine. I’m lucky to try its sweet and pungent flavours in the form of a tawny port. To think the grapes were harvested the same year as New Zealand troops fought at Gallipoli is mind-blowing.
I see flames coming from an old workshop on site. Inside, cooper Andrew Young is shaping whiskey barrels from oak trees grown on the winery grounds. He explains that by charring the inside of barrels, the wood’s natural sugar is caramelised which gives the whiskey its flavour. A sweet, candy scent fills the air. Andrew says he’s made thousands of barrels over the 40 years he’s been working – one of which was for Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Settling in for the night at The Louise and Appellation, picturesque villas overlooking neat lines of grapevines, I reflect on my time spent in a vast and beautifully raw country.