Before leaving Mildura, we had a superb meal at Stefano’s Restaurant in the basement of the Grand Hotel. For Jill to get down to the basement, it meant riding down in the service lift through the kitchen. But the effort was worth while with the five-course meal being a gastronomic delight. There was no menu – just a series of dishes that Stefano had sourced from what ingredients were available on the day or seasonal. Amongst our dishes were a savoury mouse with buffalo mozzarella cheese, a pasta with a delicious goat ragout and a main course of beautifully tender roasted lamb shoulder. Desert was an ice cream and a second dish of stewed quince in a sweet pastry basket.
Leaving Mildura, we drove west along a well made highway that followed the Murray River downstream. We were interested to see some warning signs that were new to us, but spoke about the local semi-arid climate.
It was a different story along the river where irrigation was available. We passed massive vineyards and citrus orchards. The orange trees were laden with fruit and it was very tempting not to stop and pick a few. With Australia’s borders closed due to Covid, there is a shortage of itinerant workers and backpackers on which these growers usually rely to harvest their crops.
In the middle of one remote area near Renmark, we came across the historic Overland Corner Hotel. When the New South Wales gold rush began in 1851, Overland Corner developed as a point where timber was supplied to fuel paddle steamers taking prospectors up the Murray River. A small police post was established here in 1855, but closed in 1894. A school was opened and remained open until at least 1904.
With sly grog shops appearing in the area in the late 1850s, there was a recognised need for a licensed hotel and the first stage of construction of the Overland Corner Hotel was completed in 1860. In 1897 to 1913 the Hotel became a post office, witnessing the transition from horse-drawn coach to motor-mail and ‘modern’ coach services. The hotel was reopened in 1965, at the centre of what is now the National Trust of South Australia’s Overland Corner Reserve. It is listed on the South Australian Heritage Register. The current owners tell a a good story about its history as witnessed by a couple of dozen people travelling through the area who had stopped for a drink, or an early lunch.
Near Renmark, we passed through the permanent quarantine station that prevents the import of fruit fly into this vast fruit producing area. An infestation would do serious damage. We knew not to take fruit through this checkpoint as it would have been confiscated and our car was thoroughly searched including the glovebox, centre console and boot.
At Waikerie, we crossed the river by ferry (in the old days, we would have called this vessel a ‘punt’). It carried ten cars and made constant back and forth trips between each river bank. I doubt that the skipper ever got lost on these trips.
We found a newly painted art silo in Waikerie. This one was different to the others that we had seen as it was painted on both the road side and the river side of the silo. On the side by the river, it featured an endangered Regent Parrot and on the other a Giant Yabbie (a form of small freshwater crayfish). Another silo was painted by a different artist and featured an abstract depiction of various forms of wildlife that can be found along the river.
At Morgan, we crossed back across the river by ferry and stopped for a look at the remnants of the old river wharf and rail freight terminal that was built under a tall cliff. At the height of the river trade, from the 1880s to around 1910, Morgan was the busiest inland port in Australia. Waiting steamers and barges often lined the river bank for half a kilometre. The port became a significant trading hub in the colony of South Australia, second only to Port Adelaide. The combined river and rail system was cheap, quick and reliable. During the high-water season, gangs of up to 40 men worked 24-hour rosters to handle the volume of goods crossing this wharf. Up to six trains per day travelled to and from Adelaide carrying much of the wool produced in inland Victoria and New South Wales.
Between Morgan and Burra (our overnight stop) the land was mostly flat and uninteresting. This is very marginal grazing land with very low density sheep grazing. Along the way, we came across a number of homestead ruins. These were the homes of the original pioneers who settled on the land in good times but found it untenable when the first drought struck. They had no choice but to just walk away and leave everything behind.
We found the town of Burra to be full of old and historic buildings. The town began as a single company mining township that, by 1851, had become a set of townships (company, private and government-owned) known collectively known as “The Burra”. The Burra mines supplied 89% of South Australia’s and 5% of the world’s copper for 15 years. In the 1860’s Burra was the largest rural town in South Australia.
The Burra Burra Copper Mine was established in 1848 mining the copper deposit discovered in 1845. Miners and townspeople migrated to Burra primarily from Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and Germany. The mine first closed in 1877, briefly opened again early in the 20th century and for a last time from 1970 to 1981. When the mine was exhausted and closed, the population shrank dramatically and the town, reverted to supporting local pastoral and agricultural activities.
Many of the miners emigrated from Cornwall, hence the tall engine houses that are typical of Cornish tin mines. One outlying locality was even named Redruth after the tin mining centre of Cornwall.
We had a good, but giant, meal in a local pub for dinner. Not all od the pubs in the town are open as they can’t find kitchen staff because Covid is resulting in severe labour shortages in the hospitality industry.