It is a century and a half since The Spectator noted the exceptional qualities of South Australia, a colony of free settlers untainted — unlike the rest of the continent — by the convict stain. ‘Everywhere … the enclosures over miles of plain, the hedged gardens, the well-grown orchards and well-appointed homesteads, proclaim the possession of the land by an industrious and thrifty yeomanry,’ wrote a Mr Wilson in these pages in 1866. ‘It is England in miniature, England without its poverty … with a finer climate, a virgin soil … more liberal institutions and a happier people.’
These days, alas, the ‘thrifty yeomanry’ has to support a ballooning public sector, and the state, once a manufacturing powerhouse, wrestles with Tasmania to stay out of last place in the league table of Australian prosperity. Yet this misfortune has an upside. There has been no money to demolish anything in South Australia — it’s like an antipod-ean Havana. The first place in the world to allow women to stand for parliament now feels like the land that time forgot.
This time warp is intoxicating in the Clare Valley, a wine region settled in 1840, only four years after the colony was proclaimed. In the 1840s, South Australia was described as a land of ‘chapels, bibles and religious enjoyment’, but don’t be deceived — as soon as the Jesuits arrived (after being kicked out of Austria by the Habsburgs in 1848), they built the Sevenhill winery. It’s still going strong. Other settlers planted more vines and built sandstone homes and five small towns, none of which has been much changed since. Now there are almost 50 wineries — it’s southern France, but with added kangaroos. This is the home of Australian Riesling.
When a bush fire destroyed the old railway line, it was turned into a cycle route called the Riesling trail. This is a convenient way to tour cellar doors, sample wines and gourmet goodies, see the scenery and get slowly sozzled without running foul of Australia’s strict drink-driving laws.
Skillogallee is a winery with a restaurant in an old stone cottage in the prettiest landscape in the Clare. Sitting under the old olive tree in the garden, eating figs from the orchard washed down with a local Riesling and gazing out over the vines to the Skilly Hills is as good as it gets. If you can’t bear to leave, they have luxurious rooms for rent.
Yet the state’s impecunity casts a shadow. Beautiful Martindale Hall — a replica of a house in the Lake District with lake, cricket pitch, polo field and racecourse — was built by a lovelorn settler trying to persuade his fiancée to join him. She didn’t. Bequeathed to the state, it operated as a museum where you could sleep in the creaking heritage bedrooms. Now the cash-strapped government might sell it off to be turned into a spa and wedding centre. Martindale featured in Picnic at Hanging Rock and — like the ethereal schoolgirls in Peter Weir’s film — looks oddly out of place, as if it too has slipped through a wrinkle in space-time. Let’s hope that it won’t be destroyed.