Give way to penguins

June is one of my favourite times of the year. I love the change in seasons, I love winter fires, and I particularly love the long weekend that always falls on the second Monday of the month. The Queen’s birthday weekend is the one that I tend to be a bit more adventurous on, and has lead to some pretty interesting trips: I can’t help but remember the year when Ross and I decided to drive to Tamworth from Sydney and got caught in flooded waters in Muswellbrook and fog that came straight from a John Carpenter film over the Great Dividing Range near Murrurundi. It was the first time I’d seen snow as close as it was to the town at that time of the year, and it was also a fairly eventful weekend for others: many in Newcastle will remember it as the weekend they finally got a (albeit temporary) tourist hot spot with the Pasha Bulker running aground. Oh how they flocked to that one…….


For our 2011 winter long weekend, we drifted to regional South Australia, heading east down the Fleurieu Peninsula. It’s one of the oldest regions of the state, and the eastern coast has a notorious history as being part of the successful whaling industry in the 1800s. It’s also home to the mouth of the famous, much loved and maligned Murray River. We headed towards Strathalbyn via the Adelaide Hills, with a view to be there by lunch. Maps of South Australia need to be treated like cars with side windows: ‘Objects may be closer than they appear’. I thought it would take us 2 hours to get to Strathalbyn; 45 minutes later I was dragging Ross through every antique shop I could find! Alas, I wasn’t in the market for a Charles and Diana commemorative wedding plate or a hideously tacky Toby jug, so we left empty handed. (Toby jugs are the ones that are sculpted ceramic in the shape of a character’s face and then hand painted. Highly sought after and collectable, I personally find them the height of tack-a-rama. They can fetch upwards of $500, so apparently others don’t agree with me.) The town of Strathalbyn is unbelievably quaint. The River Angas cuts it in half, with the historic old centre on one side (complete with sandstone bank buildings and antiques shops galore) and the new centre on the other. A beautiful church stands just near the main park right on the river for ample duck feeding opportunities. Just under 4000 people live in the main town, with nearby Langhorne Creek and Currency Creek wine areas making up extra numbers and tourism opportunities. It was here that we would be based for two nights while we explored other areas of the peninsula.

Strathalbyn is just a little bit……odd. Borrowing a line from Dennis Denuto, it’s ‘the vibe’. It’s gorgeous, it’s very twee, but there’s just an overriding sense of ‘you’re not from around here’ that seems to permeate when you arrive. Only one restaurant in town (another warning sign: it wasn’t a Chinese… something is definitely wrong here), four pubs in town and the same five people in each pub that we went to meant we ended up enjoying a ‘quiet night in’ barricading the doors the second night.
As a base for exploring, Strathalbyn is brilliant. Langhorne Creek is a stone’s throw away, and as one of the less well known wine regions you won’t be lining up for tastings or competing with others for spots. Twenty minutes driving south will take you to Milang and Lake Alexandrina, where the Murray flows before reaching its final resting place on the coast. Cold weather and windy days meant the lake was relatively quiet. Further down south, you will eventually reach Goolwa, perched on the banks of the Murray. Paddle steamers operate tours, and Hindmarsh Island (a large island in the middle of Lake Alexandrina) is accessible via bridge. Goolwa is also a station on the famous SteamRanger train line; South Australia’s first railway (and Australia’s second: yep, Goolwa and Victor Harbour had a train line before Sydney did. How’s that for progressive?!).

This is where the fun bit of the trip starts. From the day we moved down here, I’ve tried to keep the attitude of exploring South Australia without relying on maps or Wikipedia for tourist information. We just wanted to ‘drift’ from place to place, without making huge plans or exhaustive itineraries (hence the title of the blog). We knew we wanted to see Victor Harbour and Goolwa, but at no stage had either Ross or myself actually stopped to read about the towns, so we had no idea there was a train line connecting the two. When Ross discovered the train was a steam engine and only took 40 minutes to reach Victor Harbour, I thought he was about to wet himself! Plans for driving around the whole day were abandoned, and the train was our new mode of transport. On top of having a fully functioning steam train on hand, Goolwa also turned out to be the surprise home of the Steam Exchange brewery; people who read my post on Adelaide will notice a photo of Ross sampling a boutique beer, which happens to be a Steam Exchange variety! Add into that a railway souvenir shop run by an almost blind granny and you have a tourism winner. Our challenge of finding the daggiest ornament for our display cabinet was well and truly fulfilled with the purchase of not one, but two new additions: a goggley eyed stone with a crocheted Adelaide Crows beanie, and a goggley eyed walnut in Port Adelaide colours (to dispel favouritism). Ross also made sure he grabbed a take away beer from the brewery before we headed off on the train.

The train line cuts across a small strip of the peninsula, before eventually following the coast down to Victor Harbour with views of sandstone pioneering huts on one side, and dairy cows dry humping above the ocean on the other (don’t laugh, I’m not kidding: the strangest part of the whole weekend was walking away knowing I’ve now witnessed a bull mounting a cow, while I was riding a steam train). VH is a popular seaside town at the bottom of the state, connected to Granite Island via a horse drawn tram line. It’s the stuff of children’s holidays: mini golf, camel rides, Shetland ponies, jumping castles and hot dog stands, right next to the beach which has a permanent beach volleyball court, croquet club and lawn bowls club. 

We walked out to Granite Island in the hope of seeing penguins. The Little Penguin is a native to Australian and New Zealand waters, and is the smallest in the penguin family. Consequently, it’s also the easiest to catch, and each year the number of breeding pairs grows smaller; whether this is due to a reduction in fish for food, or an increase in fur seals (who’s favourite meal is little penguin sashimi) isn’t really known. Granite Island currently has approximately 77 breeding pairs who come back every night after a hard day fishing. The penguin centre houses some of the not so lucky ones (or perhaps extra lucky ones), who almost ended up as lunch. Penguins on Granite Island get right of way: if one crosses your path, humans must stop and not disturb them. No dogs or cats, no overnight stays on the island, and no feeding penguins are some of the rules in place to protect them. We spent the whole day wandering around the island and enjoying the view.
The trams take passengers all the way up to the main information centre on Granite Island, and are pulled by Clydesdale horses, making for a beautiful view of old fashioned service against the backdrop of wild seas. And just to make the day even more perfect and unimaginable, a pod of dolphins decided to join us for lunch, catching fish and causing havoc for the local fishermen just off the rocks! If you’d told me I’d be sitting down enjoying wine while watching dolphins play in the ocean, I wouldn’t have believed it. I also wouldn’t have believed it if you’d told me I’d be aiming a golf ball at a whale’s backside, but it’s rural South Australia, so stranger things have occurred!

Wine of the week: 2007 Bremerton Wines Coulthard Cabernet Sauvignon
Check out the Granite Island website for info on penguins, cormorants and history
Information on the Goolwa Barrages and the Murray River mouth
Strathalbyn Villas, our beautiful base for two days.
The famous SteamRanger train line and the Cockle Train

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