South Australia's understated Yorke Peninsula
Author: Max Anderson
Photography: Jonathan Cami
Two surfers in their 50s stand sentinel over Chinaman's Beach. A morning swell gives a bottle-green yawn and spills lazily into a curl of noise and power. The surfers murmur approvingly.
Since there's no one else around, we start chatting. Turns out they're locals, and I ask if they can recommend any great restaurants on Yorke Peninsula.
For a moment they look at me like I've asked them to recommend a great opera. Then a light goes on: "Y'tried one of George's curries?"
The other laughs. "Y'gotta try one of George's curries! He does home deliveries, only he's the Curry Nazi. Remember that Seinfeld episode? Well, if the surf's pumping" - he mimes a phone being slammed down - "no curry for you!
"He's always out on the middle of that break," adds the first. "That's George's spot. That's the G-spot. If you can get him off that, he'll make you the best curry you've ever had."
"But, y'know, the funny thing about George," they're into it now, "he's never been to an Indian restaurant in his life!"
Their hoots of laughter spill and roll like the morning waves.
Walkway to the beach at Port Vincent.
There are no hipsters on Yorke Peninsula. None. There are surfers straight out of The Endless Summer. There are grain farmers and fishermen. And there are working families from Adelaide who haul their boats to rental shacks in small seaside towns. But anyone wearing a groomed Ned Kelly beard on "Yorkes" is probably Ned Kelly.
The peninsula is an hour's drive north of Adelaide and 50 years behind. It dangles under the belly of the continent, looking a little like Italy. At 200 kilometres long and (mostly) 40 kilometres wide, it's one of the few places in Australia where you can watch the sun rise over the sea, then drive half an hour and wait for it to set over the sea.
The 25,000 inhabitants live in two dozen small towns that are barely known outside of South Australia. Most are ranged around the 700-kilometre coastline looking onto either the Gulf St Vincent or the Spencer Gulf.
"Buck a Shuck" at Stansbury's Dalrymple Hotel.
Inland, the country is fertile, the topography sensual, and each summer the South Australian sun spanks the green fields of wheat and barley until they're shimmering and gold. Biscuit-coloured dirt roads criss-cross the long leg like the straps on a Roman sandal. They're die-straight and the only hazards are shingleback lizards doing their fat scuttle between verges of mallee.
These roads are the key to the treasures of Yorkes but, be sure, they will not lead you to boutique lodges. They will not lead you to fine-dining restaurants. And they will not lead you to pop-up bespoke gin bars.
They will, however, lead you to places that are abundant, Arcadian even, and distinctively Australian. They may even lead you to George.
PORT VICTORIA is a tiny town with a monster jetty. Locals and holidaymakers drop lines off the old blackened timbers to hook big Tommy ruff. It's also home to a small cargo shed converted to a museum, which retiree Roy Dutschke unlocks for me.
Inside is a photo of the jetty taken in 1933. It shows nine ketches running grain out to four magnificent windjammers anchored in deep harbour. "These windjammers had masts twice the height of the town's Norfolk pines," says Dutschke. "They sailed from Cornwall, using the trade winds to take them around both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. It was 100 days of heaven and hell, and it earned their crew the nickname 'the Cape Horners'."
Steve and Gerri Bowley of Pacific Estate Oysters at Stansbury.
Between 1879 and 1949, clippers arrived in Port Victoria under "clouds of sail" to collect Yorkes' massive grain harvests, bagged and waiting in colossal stacks.
Bizarrely, by the '30s, most of the big windjammers flew the flag of Finland. A photo from 1934 shows this strange intersection of worlds with eight Finnish skippers standing in suits and fedoras outside the Port Vic Hotel. On the return leg, captains engaged in unofficial "grain races", competing only for prestige. Working on one of the last windjammers to race from Port Victoria was a young Englishman, Eric Newby. After undergoing the trials of the twin-cape voyage, he wrote his first book, The Last Grain Race.
The grain harvests are no less massive but now they're shipped out of Yorkes from huge white silos in Wallaroo, Ardrossan and Port Giles. The old timbers are retired to gentler pursuits. Wool Bay has a champion jetty for jigging squid at night. From the pylons of Port Vincent wharf, holidaying kids can do "bombies" all day long. And beneath Edithburgh jetty, snorkellers poke among the kelp hoping to see a wraith-like seahorse called a leafy sea dragon.
Within a gull's cry of the jetty in Stansbury is the Dalrymple Hotel, and on an especially lively Friday night I share a drink with local girl Brooke Liebelt, who works for Yorke Peninsula Tourism. Liebelt says jetties occupy a special place in the hearts of peninsula communities. "We grow up with them," she says. "We learn to swim off them, we learn to fish off them, we have our first pash on them. I remember making a really bad life choice when I was 13 and my dad took me to the end of the jetty. He said, 'If you don't wake up to yourself, you may as well jump off now.'"
"So we even use them as parenting tools," she adds.
Port Vincent Wharf.
The pub swirls with locals greeting each other and congratulating Ellie Vince, a member of a big farming family who is getting married tomorrow. (Everyone knows the Vince family on Yorkes - and that was before brother Bernie became a midfielder for the Melbourne Demons.) Adding to the happy ruckus in the Dalrymple is Buck a Shuck, a trading table where fresh oysters are being opened by an ebullient Steve Bowley. "All money to the Stansbury sports club!" he spruiks. "Everyone wins!" It's true: 12 dollars the dozen is a steal.
Barley Stacks Wines.
Bowley and his wife, Gerri, own 20 hectares on three of five commercial leases that effectively feed-lot oysters in Gulf St Vincent. After a year's growth, 80 per cent of their oysters are trucked to neighbouring Eyre Peninsula, where they finish growing to become the more famous (and more expensive) oysters of Coffin Bay. "The difference is Coffin Bay can grow them to restaurant size in half the time," says Bowley.
Next day I join the Bowleys on their oyster boat as part of Deckie for a Day, a two-hour experience as a deckhand. Once we're moored at the lease, two kilometres off Stansbury, I suit up in waders and stand waist-deep in crystal waters, unclipping black baskets and handing them up to the boat. The experience is raw, lively and seasoned with salty banter and, since we're working on racks where oysters are reaching full term, I get to guzzle all I like.
"We grow them above seagrass meadows," says Steve, "and I think it gives them a richer vegetal flavour with a hint of iodine. Coffin Bay oysters are grown over sand, giving them a more flinty mineral flavour. It's like terroir in wine."
Yorkes' terroir expresses itself in other ways, too.
Barley Stacks Wines began in 1996 when farmer Rod Gregory gamely planted vines in a sea of barley. His wine wasn't exactly subtle, though neither was Gregory; in 2011 he won fourth place on Channel Seven's Australia's Got Talent as stand-up The Old Fella.
New owner Lyall Schulz has brought in Eden Valley winemaker Colin Sheppard. Sheppard not only gave Barley Stacks its second brush with reality TV (he was 10th in 2014's Masterchef), he helped expand and elevate the range to critical acclaim.
"Some say Yorkes could be the Coonawarra without the water," says Schulz. "We're low yielders so we're getting intense, bold flavours from the fruit. It's also suggested our flavours are being influenced by grain pollens sticking to the fruit."
In the farming town of Minlaton is another unlikely champion, Minlaton Chocolaterie. Winner of 19 medals from the Royal Adelaide Show, chocolatier José Milhano was a cabinetmaker who retired to the peninsula so he could go fishing. Then he got bored.
"One day my wife and I were watching our favourite movie, Chocolat. And I said to myself: 'I can do that.'"
And indeed he can. When I bite into an apricot truffle, it's a puff of fruit with a tangy brandy finish. "I don't use liquid flavourings, only real ingredients. The apricots, lemons and limes are grown in our own orchard; same with the figs and almonds." He offers me a chocolate that's swirled and polished like a marble. "My wife, Leanne, is an artist and she does all the pretty things."
"How does she get that amazing glaze?" I ask.
"I don't know," he replies.
"No, seriously, how does she do it?"
"Really, I don't know. We have separate recipe books. That way we don't have fights."
Cape Spencer lighthouse at Innes National Park.
The road to Moonta is sealed and fast, serving a population of 700 that was once 12,000. In 1861 a wombat hole rimed with greenish ore was discovered and became the Wheal Hughes mine, and northern Yorkes became the largest copper-producing region in the British Empire. The wealth is still reflected in Moonta's improbably ornate civic architecture, looming over humble cottages that once housed Cornish miners.
Among the pubs and (surprisingly good) boutiques is The Cornish Kitchen, which turns out 300 Cornish pasties a day. Visitors watch bakers working to an authentic recipe, chopping pumpkin, swede and turnip to produce the same kinds of pasties that went down the Wheal Hughes mine 150 years ago.
Volunteer Fred Wake still works at the mine. He drives the tourist train, and he's happy to shine light on this traditional meal. "It's all about the crimp," he says. "The men underground worked with arsenic and couldn't wash their hands. So they'd hang onto the crimp as a handle and eat the pasty. When they finished, they'd grind the crimp into the ground - there was also arsenic in the ground so that kept the rats down."
Ron Knott of Moonta Mines Tourist Railway at The Cornish Kitchen.
Does Yorkes have upmarket ambitions?
Actually, it does, though I have to head to the wildest part of the peninsula to find it - to Innes National Park, at its very toe.
From Cape Spencer cliffs I look over a landscape of waves and islands that warrants not one, but five lighthouses. Serried swells march on sands, and in a cove lie the whale-like bones of The Ethel, one of 85 historic wrecks sunk during violent nights off Yorkes.
Nearby is the ghost town of Inneston. Until it was abandoned to the roos and ospreys in 1930, this was a community of 150 gypsum miners and their families, an outpost of oil lamps and Scottish reels.
When I arrive on a warm, still evening, the old stone bakery is again fragrant with scents of cooking. Amanda Cleland and Jo Sandercock from Minlaton are owners of Yorkes Uncorked. "We've been dying to try this place," says Cleland.
The ruined bakery has no roof, so the dusk light pours in, splashing across an old fire surround and the original oven. The space is dressed with candles, cushions and antiques.
Yorkes Uncorked scouts unusual locations and serves the best regional produce. "There are great places to eat on Yorkes," says Cleland, "but we always missed that special fine-dining experience you can get in Adelaide. This is our answer to that."
Yorkes Uncorked's Amanda Cleland (left) and Jo Sandercock with chef Mathew Pulling at the old bakery in Inneston.
Sandercock says the locals are loving it. "We recently had a 90th-birthday party in an old machinery shed on a farm. We've also set up in beach locations, bush settings, old shearing sheds... once, we did a surprise marriage proposal on the Port Hughes golf course."
Chef Mathew Pulling is turning locally grown rib-eye on a brazier fashioned from a washing machine tub. His starters are finessed, the likes of Stansbury oysters salted with foraged samphire, bug tails from Spencer Gulf, and fresh pasta made with bantam eggs. The food is sensational.
On request, the team takes its brand of barefoot black-tie to a self-catering retreat called Yondah Beach House.
Located 15 minutes' drive from Innes National Park, the architect-designed "shack" is owned by Adelaide graphic designers Michele Bain and Nick Cureton, and, at $300 a night, is easily the most expensive property on the peninsula. It's bright and white, an ocean-facing bubble of light on 120 hectares.
"Really, Yondah is about beach and privacy," says Bain. "We've got our own beach so you can skinny-dip with impunity. It's also about dogs, because the house was built robust enough so guests can bring pretty much any pet they like."
"We've had dogs, cats, parrots and a turtle. And one of our regulars brings their horse each year," she adds, "though not inside."
Yondah Beach House.
Talk turns to local growers and producers, and I ask Bain if she knows someone called George who makes curries.
"Yes, I've heard about him. He's in Marion Bay, isn't he?"
GEORGE LOOKS like an old rocker, but he's softly spoken and thoughtful. "Yeah, I'm the Curry Nazi," he chuckles, revealing gaps where teeth have been knocked out by surfboards. "But I never promise anything. 'No expectation, no disappointment' - that's what I say."
George Peart came to Marion Bay when he was 27 and discovered surfing on legendary Chinaman's Beach. He's now 54 and has left the peninsula for only five days since then.
Over the years he found he enjoyed making curry, especially the business of fine-tuning flavour. He talks avidly about using quandongs and lemon myrtle, smoking his own spices, using the best-quality local meat and growing chillies, including the Trinidad scorpion, one of the world's hottest.
Curry maker George Peart.
Three years ago he got a licence to prepare food in his home kitchen. He posted a small menu around the town of Marion Bay and now, each day after surviving the G-spot, he returns to cook dishes such as Sri Lankan coconut pork and Thai Massaman beef. From 5.30pm to 9pm he takes orders for home delivery.
"I keep a tally, and in three years I've done around 4,500 curries," he says. "So I make enough money to keep surfing. And that's what I live for."
Back at Yondah Beach House, under a syrupy sunset, I eat straight from George's takeaway tubs. The roo vindaloo is lush and chunky, laced with lemon myrtle and bush tomato, the chilli tempered with a little brown sugar; the coconut dhal is delicate; the mascarpone-quandong-biscuit dessert is a sweet-sour tonic for anyone who's been riding barrels all day.
And it's true that Peart has never been in an Indian restaurant. But his meal becomes the perfect cipher for Yorke Peninsula: no expectations, no disappointments. Modest as a field mouse yet rich as Croesus. Aware of a world out there, but happy just the way it is.
From Adelaide, the turn-off to Yorke Peninsula is 100 kilometres
north, at Port Wakefield.
Eat & drink
The Dalrymple Hotel at Stansbury does cones of fish and chips, and serves locally sourced food in the dining room. St Vincent St, Stansbury (08) 8852 4202
The salty old Port Victoria Hotel serves meals on a deck made from recycled jetty timber. Main St, Port Victoria, (08) 8834 2069
Minlaton Chocolaterie Open Mon-Sat. 38 Main St, Minlaton, (08) 8853 2935, minlatonchocolaterie.com
The Cornish Kitchen is open six days, closed Sundays. 10/12 Ellen St, Moonta, (08) 8825 3030
Also in Moonta, the Coffee Barn and Gelateria serves excellent traditional gelati. Warren St, Moonta, (08) 8825 2315
Barley Stacks Wines cellar door is open daily. Minlaton Rd, Maitland, (08) 8834 1258, barleystackswines.com
Yorkes Uncorked arranges special meals in fabulous locations for groups of any size. 0427 399 841, yorkesuncorked.com.au
Marion Bay Tavern serves good pub food in contemporary surrounds. 90 Stenhouse Bay Rd, Marion Bay, (08) 8854 4141, marionbaytavern.com.au
George Peart delivers curries daily from his Marion Bay kitchen. 0427 792 602
See and do
Deckie for a Day departs from Stansbury Jetty by appointment. Harvest a dozen oysters during a two-hour experience for $60. 0467 485 291, pacificestateoysters.com.au
Port Victoria Maritime Museum Open weekends. portvictoria.org.au
Innes National Park and Inneston environment. sa.gov.au/parks
Moonta Mine Tourist Railway moontatourism.org.au/attractions/tourist-railway
Bublacowie Military Museum is the largest military museum in South Australia, housed in an old school and established by veteran Chris Soar. Bublacowie Rd, Yorketown, (08) 8853 4379
Walk the Yorke
A 500-kilometre walking trail around the peninsula coast opened in December 2015. It's divided into 16 sections, and well marked.
Redwing is a working farm that's as appealing to couples (wine, decks) as it is to families (farm animals galore). From $165 per night. 226 Pipeline Rd, Weetulta, 0408 252 128, redwingfarmstay.com.au
Port Vincent Caravan Parkand Seaside Cabins is on the town's quiet back beach. Cabins from $55 per night. 12-17 Minlacowie Rd, Port Vincent, (08) 88537011, portvincentcaravanpark.com.au
Stay overnight in beguiling Inneston to grasp how isolated this community was. Restored buildings in the national park have accommodation, from $115 per room per night. environment.sa.gov.au
Yondah Beach Housecosts from $300 per night, with a minimum stay of four nights. Foul Bay, 0417 829 010, yondah.com.au