New heights, a German village, a house on water – and ghosts at the end of the road…
Sunday 8th March 2020. Our Wedding Anniversary! And it’s Number… er… (hang on a sec…) Number 6. Who’d have thought we’d spend our special day driving 240 kilometres (150 miles) along a road halfway round the world – and still be talking to each other by the end of it?
But the day started with a hearty breakfast and a fond farewell to the Glenelg Motel, then driving off into the unknown with The Three Bears dozing quietly in the back. Negotiating the traffic around Adelaide was relatively easy now, and would be a lot easier if I could just stop trying to indicate a right turn with my wipers. The Adelaide Hills were our first destination, the forested uplands beyond the City recommended by our fellow passengers from Dubai, what – four days ago now? How could time be going so fast?
To get there we needed to use the M1 motorway. In the UK that’s a three-lane, often congested, thrill ride between London and Leeds usually serving as an endurance test for drivers with a death wish. In South Australia it’s a picturesque dual carriageway, and a pleasure to use. Snaking gently upwards into the foothills, it takes around twenty minutes from leaving the motel before we reach a turn-off marked “Mount Lofty”.
We’re not talking Everest here. This particular Adelaide Hill is a mere 727 metres (c 2,400 feet) above sea level, but is the loftiest of its neighbours, and has a car park near the summit. Revelling in the contrasting scenery to that on the coast, we left the car somewhere around the 700 metre level and made a steady pace to the top.
And that’s the view of Adelaide from Mount Lofty. Note the band of green parkland, the thrusting ‘skyscrapers’ and the sea beyond. A panorama shot on a clear day might have picked out Kangaroo Island in the distance to the left, but not today. There’s a café and a visitor centre to explore too, but again, not today. We’d still got a long way to go.
We re-joined the humming silence of the motorway, but in ten minutes we left it again for another place we kept hearing good things about – Hahndorf. The guidebooks will tell you this is Australia’s oldest surviving German settlement, built by Prussians in 1839. They came by ship under the command of Captain Dirk Hahn, who gave so much practical help to the settlers in finding land to lease, they named the village after him. And it is a very pretty place.
The German heritage is self-evident with a host of small businesses (cheesemaker, leathersmith, candlemakers, galleries etc) lined up on either side of the single, tree-lined main street.
The next stretch would be longer, with our two-lane motorway merging into a single lane highway all the way to Keith. Broken regularly by short stretches of two-lane to allow passing opportunities for anyone unhappy with the 110 kph speed limit, the countryside flattened out, and the road ahead became almost painfully straight. Either side of us the scene matched the one I had described in AKIMS, as witnessed by Mollie and Eric Veale during their own train journey to Keith: The literature Eric picked up at the hostel suggests the enormous expanse of flat earth we have been crossing for the last two hours is termed “mallee-heath”. It isn’t what I would describe as desert, but a vast stretch of low-lying shrubs clinging to a pale earth that looks parched of water. While the leaves are probably green underneath, they look to be permanently grey with dust.
Half an hour passed, during which time we had our first sight of kangaroos… dead ones. Roadkill here is often a little on the large side, and emails from Linc had described the damage done to cars from such encounters. Both of us needed to keep our eyes open, although we had been advised the risk was greater at dawn and dusk. But we reached our next stop (Murray Bridge) unscathed, and by now we were ready for a bite to eat as well as a stretch of the legs.
Here's a little geography lesson for UK readers: Murray Bridge is a place where there’s a river called the Murray, and once upon a time (1836) someone built a bridge over it. That’s typically direct of the Aussies. In England, we’d probably have called it ‘Bridgetown Upon Murray’. Anyway, the river is big and wide (South Australia’s largest), and it was here it began to dawn on us that we were in the middle of a public holiday (the Adelaide Cup). So most places were closed.
In one respect that was fine with us, especially as we were able to park close to the river and not suffer any restrictions no matter how long we P’d. We also found we were right next to a shopping mall that was open, and which served excellent Asian street food at $9 a punnet. But if we’d wanted to post a letter or borrow a library book… tough.
Instead, we wandered alongside the river for a while. There was a wide, grassy area by the bank, occasionally speckled with the shade of gum trees, and a number of families enjoying the holiday sunshine. We spotted a paddle boat heading downstream, and then a similar large craft coming the opposite way. As it moored up near to us, we could see it was a houseboat – but unlike any I had seen before.
One of Elaine’s charms is her ability to talk to anyone (try and stop her). In a flash she was calling out to people on the boat, and before I could remind her what her mother had said about talking to strangers, we were walking across the gangplank and exploring a 6-double bedroom (each with en-suite) floating bungalow. The welcoming crew were all from New Zealand, three couples enjoying a holiday together cruising the Murray River, and we were even invited to a barbecue… These Aussies… (sorry – Kiwis) I tell you!
We had to decline any further hospitality and get back on our road trip, but our experience today had just added to the enormous bonhomie of the whole adventure: every day a different surprise had put huge smiles on our faces.
It was now mid-afternoon, and our eventual destination was just over ninety minutes away along the long straight and hot bitumen surface of the Dukes Highway. We were following the railway line that, if we continued, would eventually take us all the way to Melbourne, but trains were entirely absent that day. We were soon to realise something else was missing – anything on two legs.
On the approach into town, there was a sign welcoming us to Keith, where the population was declared to be 1,089. That figure has dropped by about a hundred since I first researched about the place in the late nineteen eighties. When my Mum and Dad arrived there in 1949, it was probably nearer to 500. Today, after checking in to the Keith Motor Inn, we went for a walk around town and found it virtually empty of people.
The ghost town that was Keith that Sunday night did at least look to have progressed since my parents left seventy years ago. We passed what I can only describe as two championship-level bowling greens made out of Astroturf, then a huge sport facility next to a modern high school (with community library). Like Glenelg, the housing appeared to be universally single storey, each with plenty of ground. We turned onto Makin Street and found our first human. He was staring mournfully through the window of a bakery (closed of course), and when asked, he told us it would be just the same tomorrow. “Where can we get breakfast, then?” “Not here, mate! The other one might be open up the road. Or you could try the pub?”
So, we crossed over and found the pub, complete with six punters – all male. (Note that, including the barman, the population of Keith now stands at eight.) The beer was chilled, but the welcome was other-worldly. Have you ever fallen asleep and had a nightmare where you enter a bar and everyone in it is a Martian? This was a little like that. The guys had a (shall we say weird?) sense of humour, delighting in our failure to guess that one of their number hailed from Finland of all places (I didn’t like to guess Mars). But they were chatty enough, sympathising with my personal connection to their home town, and one of them theorising he might just know a descendant of Hurtle’s, but he didn’t live here. Aside from the company, our attention was drawn to the multiple display of TV screens around the bar, each streaming sport events. It seemed the pub was happy to encourage its guests to bet on the results.
Fancy your chances on the 3.30? Not today!
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