Beer is made by men, wine by God”
– Martin Luther
A thousand feet above the Barossa Valley the sky is cool and quiet. Our balloon drifts languidly north-west on an ephemeral wind current, held aloft by nothing more than a few tonnes of warm air. The balloon’s pilot, Justin Stein, maintains the temperature in the giant yellow envelope above us with regular bursts of flame from the balloon’s twin propane burners.
The upper limb of the rising sun appears from behind the hills of southern South Australia. Its light floods across the landscape, transforming it, moment by moment, from indigo and mauve, to maroon and gold. The sunrise is so spectacular on this April morning that even Justin, who has seen his share of Barossa sunrises, is impressed.
“I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years,” he says. “But that is one of the best sunrises I’ve ever seen.”
The big eucalypt trees, growing along the valley bottoms, trail their shadows through skeins of mist draped over the vineyards below. Kangaroos hop through the clearings. Another balloon, bright orange in the dawn light, hangs in the sky over Tanunda. A bell tolls from the tower of a church on a hillside striped with vines.
At the edge of the valley, we fly over a low, rocky ridge. The vineyards abruptly give way to fields of golden wheat stubble. In minutes we have moved from the orderly, bucolic Barossa to the flat, uncluttered expanse of the Outback. We land in a field of barley stubble stitched into the rich red soil. Crows gurgle in a lone gum tree growing beside a derelict windmill. After a glass of champagne (a long-held tradition observed by balloonists) we pack up the balloon and drive back to Tanunda for breakfast.
Autumn in the Barossa Valley is a season of wonderful afternoons. The broiling heat of summer has cooled into dewy mornings, mid-twenties middays and warm, languid evenings. Colour seeps through the landscape as the vine leaves turn to russet and gold. The aroma of fermenting grapes fills the air as the “angels’ share” of the 2016 vintage evaporates into the sky.
North-west of Tanunda, the Kapunda Road undulates through rich farmland. Fat Hereford cattle graze in the valley bottoms; big-framed Merino ewes mooch the margins of harvest-bare fields. Farmhouses stand at the end of long driveways lined with trees. I cross the River Light (surely the best name for a river ever) and pass through Eudunda, birthplace of Colin Thiele, author of the famous Australian novels Storm Boy and Sun on the Stubble.
Beyond Eudunda, the landscape flattens into the Outback. Grey saltbush, interspersed with clusters of eucalypts, grows in the coarse, chili-red soil beneath a hot sky the colour of burnished pewter. The neat landscape of the Barossa, with its orderly rows of vines, and its air scented with the angels’ share, seem to belong in another world.
At Morgan, the Murray River appears like a vision of paradise in a parched land. The river flows between grassy banks broken by escarpments of ancient, weathered sandstone. Willows trail their leaves in the water. A flat-bottomed ferry conveys me and my rented camper van across the river; the ruddy-faced ferryman wears an Akubra hat the size of a wagon wheel. On the eastern bank, a flock of snow-white cockatoos take raucous flight as I drive off the ferry.
The Caudo Vineyard sits overlooking a bend in the river ten kilometres upstream from Morgan. A grassy lawn runs down from the cellar door to a narrow strip of pink sand. The river slides sinuously by: its waters opaque and glossy. Giant river red gums stand brooding on the far bank.
Christine and Joe Caudo bought the land for their vineyard in the late eighties. Back then it was a derelict farm, with an old stone hut and nothing else. But with patience and water, they have made the land fruitful. Vast acreages of Chardonnay, Shiraz and Merlot grapes now cover the gentle slopes of the river bank. Beyond the vines, groves of oranges and limes erupt from the red soil.
At the vineyard’s cellar door, a crowd of people are enjoying a Sunday barbeque on the lawn. Most of them have arrived by boat. A couple of jet skis tow water-skiers upriver. The Caudo’s two Border Collies, Lachy and Caesar, patrol the grounds like a pair of maître-d’s, tidying up scraps and making friends with the customers. The cellar door closes promptly at four. Within minutes the revellers and their boats are gone and silence returns to the river.
I camp for the night in a clearing overlooking the river a few hundred metres from the cellar door. After dark, Christine brings me a little portable charcoal fire with a selection of meats to cook, and a bottle of Shiraz. The campsite at Caudo is part of a network of “Wine Havens” that the camper van company, Maui, has created in South Australia. Travellers in self-contained campers can stay in these places while they enjoy the fruits of the local landscape.
Later, I sit by my campfire drinking coffee and listening to the sounds of the river. Barramundi splash unseen as they catch their supper; the zick-zick-zick of cicadas echoes the crackle of the burning firewood. Across on the far bank a kookaburra gurgles resentfully at some invisible intruder. With no coverage to detect, my phone is silent.
I am awake at dawn. The river steams gently in the pale light; dragonflies hover above the water on translucent wings. I relight my fire, brew some coffee and watch the day arrive. Over by the cellar door, Lauchie and Caesar are doing a dawn scrap patrol. I am reluctant to leave the river: the Caudo Vineyard’s winery haven is the sort of place where you could sit all day. But I have an appointment with the ancient rocks of the Flinders Ranges, far to the north.
Back in Tanunda after a few days in the deep Outback, I sit at a bright yellow table on the street outside Pod Café. A cool autumn breeze bustles fallen leaves along the footpath; the verandah posts of the café are festooned with vines turned maroon by the season. My latte tastes like a gift from God.
Later, I drive up to Mengler’s Hill Lookout to watch the sun set. The evening air is warm and quiet. The sun hovers on a horizon striped with purple and gold. There are a few other people, locals mostly, sitting on the rock wall at the edge of the car park. Everyone has a bottle of wine and some local produce – cheese, grapes, pâté – to eat. I get talking to an American couple, John and Sarah Pinto, on holiday from their jobs as IT consultants in Hyderabad, India.
One by one, the other watchers depart until it is just the three of us left. John pours me a glass of Merlot. The sun withdraws silently from the day; the birds fall silent. I swirl the warm wine around in the glass, releasing the angel’s share into the warm air. And night comes down like a benediction.