Friday, 13 May 2016

Cycling the Clare Valley: Part 2

Gingerly. That’s how three of us mounted our bikes the next morning. One of us didn’t even get that far. Liz had suffered during the night, her leg muscles cramping badly.

[On the Trail again, Day 2] 
But we had a plan. Firstly her bike needed upgrading, as its sticking gears were the main cause of her problems. A call to the bike hire place resulted in a bike swap. But the bonus was that they would also give Liz a lift to Sevenhill, saving her the morning’s uphill climb. We would meet her in the small town of Sevenhill for morning coffee.

[Heading back to the Trail through the historic Sevenhill vineyard] 
By the time we’d pedalled up the hill, we’d hardly earned that refreshment break. But we didn’t let that stop us having a long and relaxing break. When all four of us resumed riding, we were pleased to see that Liz’s bike change had made a difference. We rode back up to the trail, and straight across it to the Sevenhill winery.

Lynne and I had visited this place in the late 1970s, and all I remembered was that it was run by members of the Jesuit order. As we rode up the beautifully cared for grounds of the old winery, nothing looked familiar except the imposing sandstone chapel.

[The chapel at Sevenhill Winery] 
The Jesuits (aka The Society of Jesus) have always fascinated me. The order was founded by St Ignatius of Loyola in 1540. He was anything but a plaster saint. Born into a well-to-do family in the Basque region of Spain, he grew into a strutting and somewhat vain nobleman. He turned to soldiering for the glory it might give him. After being severely wounded he had a religious conversion, and decided to be a “hero” in the style of St Francis of Assisi, devoting his life to helping others. He eventually developed the “Spiritual Exercises”, a compilation of meditations, prayers, and contemplative practices. They are still used by millions nearly five centuries later.

Jesuit intellectual rigour, and their habit of remaining involved in everyday life, also appealed to me. The mayhem of the cellar-door – with people standing literally three or four deep for wine tastings and sales – was somehow off-set by the knowledge that proceeds from sales funded Jesuit charitable work in Australia and Asia.

[Bikes and palm in the grounds of Sevenhill Wines] 
Having “contributed” generously to their work, we rode on. We were already a little late for our lunch at O’Leary Walker Wines. But hurrying seemed wrong somehow, on this beautifully fine day, with nothing but a few strands of cirrus cloud to off-set the brilliantly blue sky. Even better: after Penwortham it was also mostly downhill.

[Cellar dwellers at Sevenhill Wines] 
If we were late for lunch, the folk at O’Leary Walker didn’t seem in the least perturbed. They showed us to an outside table, and supplied us with some welcome cold water. And then some sumptuous tasting plates, with wine of course. The expansive views across rolling hills covered in a patchwork of autumn-tinged vines completed the picture.

[Reluctantly leaving O'Leary Walker Wines] 
The shadows were already lengthening by the time we took to our bikes for the final push on to Auburn. That was less than 5km, and with our bodies now tuned to the bikes, it took no time at all. 

[On the Trail between Leasingham and Watervale]
We’d called the bike man, and he just beat us back to our hotel for the bike collection. We’d made it: Auburn to Clare and back, via quite a few by-ways, and rather more vineyards. That left tomorrow for a bit more exploration of the valley by car. There were still plenty of places we hadn’t been to, and I guess you could say we’d developed a bit of a taste for the wonderful Clare Valley. Cheers!

[Tigerlily the cat assists with tastings at Crabtree Wines] 

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Cycling the Clare Valley: Part 1

We’re driving north of Adelaide on a warm, dry autumn day. The flat, straw coloured landscape is more parched than usual following a long, hot summer. How, we wonder, can a world famous wine district exist in the unpromisingly dry and low hills ahead of us?

[On the Riesling Trail]  
There’s a bright side. The relative lack of hills suggests easy cycling. And that’s one of the main reasons we’re here. That and the wine. After a little more than two hours we arrive in Auburn. It’s not quite sunset, so there’s time to sort out our accommodation before dinner. We’d expected our hire bikes to be at the hotel. But not for the first time, we find arrangements around here are “relaxed”.

The bikes turn up in good time the next morning, and we’re briefed on the cycling trail ahead of us. It goes by the promising name of The Riesling Trail, and follows an old railway route between Auburn and Clare. We’re on a self-guided trip, with bikes, accommodation, luggage transfers and some meals organised by the Tour de Vines company. Once our bikes and helmets are fitted, we’re off into the morning chill – all of 50 metres to the coffee shop. They did say it was self-guided, and Andrew must have his caffeine hit before the day goes on!

["Hard-earned" stop? Our start is visible 50m behind us.] 
The vineyards commence soon after we do. Although the cycle trail is dry and a little dusty, the vines are surprisingly lush. Some have had over 150 years to get used to the region’s Mediterranean climate: dry and hot in summer; cooler and wetter in winter. Despite their age the vines are blushing with autumn colours. We too are red-of-face as we pump our legs and expand our lungs with unexpected effort. It’s strange how an incline of 1.5% can make you work.

It’s strange too how the names of places and wineries we’re passing are so familiar to me, a relative late-comer to wine drinking. We wobble past signs to Leasingham and its vineyards, but don’t resist the turn-off to Watervale. It may not be midday yet, but we’re up for refreshments, which Shut the Gate Wines supply with style. As we stand at the bar for a tasting, we hear the kind of talk we’ll get used too over the next few days.

[Among Clare Valley's blushing vines] 
It’s not just about grape varieties and vintages, but aspects, micro-climates, minerals and more. It also seems “soils-ain’t-soils”. The depth, type and mineral make up of the soils contributes characteristics to the wines which even we can discern. We thank Richard for the informative tasting – which included cheese and biccies – and promise to be back in a few days to buy some wines. We’re not keen to weigh down our panniers with too much just yet.

[The Old Grammar School, Watervale] 
We have to ride uphill to get back up to the trail, although the fascinating buildings of Watervale give us an excuse to do that slowly. Then it’s on to Penwortham. And now the landscape tightens up, and there’s a greener tinge to everything. It’s the high point of the trail, so higher rainfall might be expected.

[Dining al fresco at Skillogalee, Clare Valley] 
Lunch is booked for us at Skillogalee Wines, a bracing downhill ride from the trail. We don’t want to think about what that means for our post-lunch ride, but it becomes a long, languid lunch, and the wonderful food and setting of Skillogalee fuels us for any coming pain. So too does a stop at beautiful Kilikanoon Wines.

[Autumn at Kilikanoon Wines] 
After the pain of regaining the trail is endured, we cross over the high point and make a downhill beeline for Clare. It’s not quite as simply done as written, and it’s not all downhill. But as the afternoon shadows stretch out, we close in on our overnight stop. And stop is what we do, glad in both heart and buttocks! We only hope we’ll be able to ride again in the morning.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Return to Blue Peaks 3: Bluffed

I have a great affection for printed maps. I pore over them in the lead up to a walk. To me they’re a bridge between imagination and place; between mind and foot. And on the walk itself paper maps and a compass are my chief navigation tools. Strange then, and probably significant, that on this Blue Peaks walk not one member of our party is carrying a paper map.

Between us we have at least five devices with digital maps and/or a built-in GPS. And we have backup batteries so our devices don’t become useless lumps of plastic and metal. Of course I can hear voices warning how this could go astray. But ironically, on this occasion it’s actually the lack of paper maps that keeps us on track.

[Jim asks "Where Are We?"] 
What follows then is the tale of two 21st century moments, two literal turning points, that illustrate how bushwalking is changing.

* * *

The first moment comes as our party, walking off-track in search of Fisher Bluff, starts to wander like the Israelites of old. Or less grandly perhaps, like Brown’s cows. Mick and TimO are heading south of our rough bearing; the rest of us are strung out along a more northern route. Somewhere over the humps and bumps ahead is Fisher Bluff. But in this plateau country one high point looks much like the next. So which one is it?

[Mick and Tim take their own bearing towards Fisher Bluff] 
If we’d been looking at a conventional flat map, we’d probably have convinced ourselves that the northern eminence is Fisher Bluff. We just need to keep climbing. That’s when Mick’s digital map, with its GPS dot indicating where we are, puts us in our place - literally. It shows us we have to go further south. We do so, some of us contritely. Eventually, high atop a southerly bluff, we see a good old-fashioned trig point – that commonplace of highest points – and our digital hunch is confirmed.

We skirt a large linear forest of pencil pines, blessing its health and unburned state, and trudge towards the trig. It’s uphill of course, but we don’t need any form of map to tell us that.

Fisher Bluff, being one of the western most mountains of the Central Plateau, has broad views south to the Walls of Jerusalem and south-west to the highest mountains of the Overland Track. We also have close-up views of the nearby Mersey valley, one of the epicentres of the recent fires. It’s a brutalised mess of burned and blackened forest.

[Central Plateau fire damage around Last Lagoon] 
Nearer still we can see where the fire has broken out onto the higher plateau. The area around Last Lagoon has been hit hard. We see what we guess to be dead cushion plants and incinerated peat. If there’s any compensation, it’s that the fire got no further into this part of the plateau.

Our second 21st century navigational moment comes the following day. An old Irish folk song has it that “going to a wedding is the making of another”. It’s the same with mountains. From Fisher Bluff we’ve looked out on Turrana Bluff, Turrana Heights and one or two other reachable mountaintops.

Our agenda is set, and in the morning we make a surprisingly early start (for us). We progress quickly towards Turrana Heights which, being the nearest, is our first target. We're fairly sure of where we’re going. After all we’ve spied this mountaintop, shapely and prominent, from both Little Throne and Fisher Bluff. But as we’re climbing towards it, passing a nearby high “lump”, Mick pulls us up again. His digital map tells him the lump is actually Turrana Heights. We each consult our own digital oracle, and come to the same conclusion. We’re heading for the wrong high point. The mountain we’re aiming at has no name.

[Getting closer to the unnamed peak] 
We decide we’re with Shakespeare (“What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”) and keep heading towards the more “fragrant” top. The nameless mountain’s flanks, sloping slabs of dolerite, are steep and challenging, but when we get there the summit offers more than enough compensation.

[Libby and lakes from atop the unnamed peak] 
We settle on top, feeling like royalty on a high throne, lords of all we survey. Below and all around us are thousands of lakes, both near and far. And dozens of mountain tops, from the nearby Walls to the far distant peaks of the south and west, stand out like familiar faces in a loyal throng.   

[Looking towards the Walls of Jerusalem from the unnamed peak] 
Two other things are remarkable to us. The first is that this sweet mountain isn’t honoured with a name, at least not on any map we possess. And the second is that it is still morning! We will have time to visit the “lump” – Turrana Heights – for lunch.

After a long and relaxing visit, basking in bright sun beneath benignly blue heavens, it’s decision time again. Is Turrana Bluff within our reach? Opinions vary from “definitely not/no way” to “we could give it a crack!” Rather than split into two groups along these lines, we delay the decision and wander down from the heights in a vaguely bluff-ward direction.

Eventually the sheer distance involved in getting to the Bluff, let alone getting all the way back to our camp, dissuades even the keen from going there. When clouds start to build and rain threatens, that looks a wise decision. We still split into two groups, the one keen to explore the high rim of the plateau, the other wanting to make a bee-line for camp.

[Libby photographing cushion plant, with pineapple grass in the foreground] 
In the end the “low roaders” are back at camp less than an hour before the “high roaders”. And we’re both there before the rain, which is kind enough to hold off until after dinner.

[As close as we get to Turrana Bluff] 
The wind is another matter. It strengthens all evening, and makes for an unpleasant night. I’ve been trying out my lightweight gear, including a tent with a mesh inner, and a summer weight sleeping bag. For three out of four nights this has worked well. But in the cold windy weather that hits us on the final night, I become a cold and unhappy camper.

Early the next morning shouted, wind-muffled conversations tell me I wasn’t the only one. We decide to break camp and make a run for it, without even having breakfast. Our brilliant run of weather and the magnificent time we’ve had together, have come to a brisk end. Sitting around in this biting wind is an ugly option.

With heads down and the wind still tearing at us, we quickly retrace our steps back to Lake MacKenzie. There’s not a lot of talk, so I can’t be sure. But the chances are we’re all thinking about that big cooked breakfast we’ll have once we’re out. And we don’t need a map to show us where either.