From Melbourne to Coober Pedy!!
Well, I can't believe that we have been on the road in our campervan for 16 days now. We have tried at various points to get internet access to update everyone, but it has been quite sparse, I must say. Even now, at a backpacker's inn in Coober Pedy, in the middle of the desert - it is $2 for 15 minutes and the connection is painfully slow...having said that, this is going to be a rather short update.
We are alive and well and have had some really amazing adventures over the past 2 weeks or so. Melbourne was cold and rainy, but we managed to take in a few touristy sites, such as the Old Melbourne Gaul (Jail) where many criminals were housed over the past 150 years or so and several executions took place. You may be aware that many criminals were shipped over to Tasmania from England and Ireland back in the day...but when they finished serving their sentence the nearest port was Melbourne. Needless to say, it became a rather shady town. It is quite nice now, with lots of cafes and museums...
After Melbourne, we headed down the famous Great Ocean Road, which was built to rival the Pacific Coast Highway in California. At first, we weren't too convinced that it was as beautiful as the California one, but after a few hours we could see why...we made it to several beautiful rock formations just off the coast...including a group called The Twelve Apostles and they were quite stunning.
We had rainy weather all the way to Adelaide, where we stayed at a lovely caravan park just 2 kilometers from the city center. We really fell for Adelaide as we could easily walk everywhere and it is surrounded by greenery and botanical gardens on all sides...what a great city. I would recommend it to anyone! We found several yummy restuarants there, including Thai and Malaysian and lots of trendy cafes, shops, and movie theaters. We saw an interesting documentary on the Patty Hearst story that left us with more questions than answers.
We found it hard to leave Adelaide, and even though it was rainy we managed to take in the South Australian Wine Center and the South Australian Museum (lots of info on Aboriginal Culture) before we left. We headed north to a town called Tanunda in the Barossa Valley...
Ah, the Barossa...just the name conjures up so many fond memories for us now. We absolutely loved it there - everyone was soooo friendly and unpretentious...we had a complete education in wine making and tasting and every tasting was free! Imagine that in California! It wasn't very crowded, as it is winter here, and we spent so much time at each of the 10 vineyards that we visited....the speciality in the Barossa Valley is Shiraz *one of my favs* and Port. We both fell for the Port there -especially the chocolate Port and the 21 year old port we tasted at one vineyard. We stayed an extra day in the region just so we could get around to a few more vineyards. We also went to a cheese factory and sampled some delicious soft cheeses *yum* and to a gourmet foods products store called Maggie Beers. All in all, we purchased something like 14 bottles of wine and spent at least 3x our daily limit in a single day. Ah, but it was quite a good day and we vow to come back and to send all of our friends and family here if they are in the area...we will definitely be keeping an eye out for Barossa Valley wines when we visit the shops at home - we will have several recommendations when we return....some of the more famous vineyards include Peter Lehmann, Seppelsfields, Stanley Brothers, Chateau Tanunda, and St. Halett's. There is so much more to tell about the Barossa, but my time is short so, I will leave you thirsting for more!
We sadly left the Barossa Valley, but on our way North we found another wine producing region: the Clare Valley! Not too far from Barossa, the Clare Valley is famous for its Reislings *one of Mike's favs* We only stopped at one vineyard here - but it was quite interesting: Seven Hill Vineyard which is owned and operated by Jesuit priests. There is a church and a retreat house on the same property as the vineyard and you could buy sacramental wine along with regular wine in the "cellar door" or tasting room. All of the wines were quite good and you can be sure that we left with a few bottles from here as well! We now have enough wine (and beer) to last us through the desert as we head north...we hope.
From the Clare region, we headed to the southern end of the Flinders Ranges National Park and stayed in a small town called Melrose at the base of Mount Remarkable. We did a nice nature walk here and saw loads of kangaroos, sheep, and birds along the way. We explored some old historical buildings including an old abandoned brewery (the Jakas Brewery) that went out after the Depression here...we briefly entertained the notion of buying it out and starting up our own brewery, but then we noticed that a lot of the businesses in town were either for sale or boarded up and even though this was the first Frontier town in the area, there's really not a whole lot going for it now...mostly tourists passing through and having a look at the authentically restored Bluey Blundstone's Blacksmith Shop and Cafe, which serves up a mean scone with cream and jam, I must say.
From Melrose, we headed on to Wilpena Pound - inside the Flinders Ranges National Park. Quite a remarkable place - another beautiful environment that is reminiscent of Arizona with the red clay rocks all around. We did a couple of really good hikes here, including one to a lookout over the ranges and another to some Aboriginal rock paintings.
The next day, we planned to only go as far as a place called Woomera - a small military town - but when we got there, it was one of the most depressing places on earth - nothing but old abandoned houses and closed shops and a few old planes scattered about. This was once an area for bomb testing and was completely closed to the public. After the Barossa and the Flinders Ranges, we couldn't bear to stay, so we pressed on another 336 kms and rolled into Coober Pedy just as the sun was setting.
I could spend the rest of this blog explaining all about Coober Pedy - you may have heard of it or seen it in some movies...it is the center of Opal Mining in Australia and since it is in the middle of the bloody desert, it experiences many extremes in climate...so, after military men returned from WWI, they used their knowledge of living in trenches to build underground homes...and that is how people live today: underground where it is cool and they get a sort of natural air conditioning. Amazing, really. The town itself doesn't look like much at first...but after closer inspection, there is really a lot to see. We spent all morning at an underground mine and museum learning all about Opal Mining, the history of Coober Pedy and living underground. There are definitely some hardy people around here. It is hard to believe that over 4000 people live here and most are trying to "stake a claim" and strike it rich by digging for opals. The last major claims were found in the '70s but people are still digging. The landscape is dotted with old abandoned opal mines and currently functioning ones as well. For just $45, you can get a permit to dig in a 50x50 meter plot and strike it rich as well. One of the hardest parts of living here is that fresh groceries are hard to come by: a refrigerated truck brings fresh food just once a week on Thursdays. And, for entertainment, there is a drive-in movie theater, but it only shows movies once "every couple of weeks."
This afternoon, we experienced Coober Pedy as the locals do: at the local Motor Club. We saw an advert posted in the local grocery so we headed out to the dirt track and watched old beat up cars with reworked engines drive around a dirt oval while drinking cans of beer and eating hot dogs and chips (french fries, for you Americans). It was quite an interesting experience and one we will not soon forget.
After that, we headed over to the Cooper Pedy Nature Reserve, which is still actually a work in progress, so it is free to visit. Full of kangaroos, birds, reptiles, sheep, horses, and roosters - it was quite a fun place to see. The owner, Dawn, came out and gave us a personal tour. We got to go right into the enclosures with the kangaroos and pet them as well as feed a lamb that was only 4 days old! It was really great to see someone taking care of all of these abandoned and/or injured animals that would otherwise be left to die in the outback.
Well, I know you are thirsting for more details, but there's no time and my $2 coins are running out. Know that we are safe and very well and we will be heading on to Uluru (Ayres Rock) in the next 2 days. We have heard that even the most jaded are awed by it...we've seen a lot in Australia that has made our jaws drop and made us say "wow" and we are pretty sure that this won't disappoint.
Stay tuned for tales of our drive up the Stuart Highway through the middle of the desert...hopefully, we will make it up to Katherine, Darwin and Kakadu National Park within the week and maybe send along another update....until then, enjoy yourselves and keep emailing! If you've written us and we haven't written you back, we promise we are thinking of you, but there's just no time to write!!!!!
Cheers and take it easy,