North Bundaleer Homestead, Clare Valley,South Australia, late April 2013.
The subtle signs were there: an absence of traffic lights, long stretches of charcoal grey bitumen almost empty of cars save the odd 4WD or ute*, paddocks dotted with muscular looking cows and grazing sheep, rusty old windmills turning slowly in fields shimmering gold in the afternoon sun. But the real indication we were in country Australia, and the source of much amusement and childish giggles between us, was the finger wave**. Those who have travelled in rural areas of Australia will know exactly what I mean. A car approaches from the opposite direction, both drivers assume the position - right hand at the top of the steering wheel with elbow resting comfortably on the window sill*** - and at the fitting moment each driver gives a lazy raise of the index finger in friendly greeting to the other driver. The most highly prized salutation being a raised index finger combined with the subtle nod of an Akubra-topped head.
And so with me keeping score (drivers who did not return the index finger salute were dismissed as rude or obviously not from around here) we made our way to our final destination in South Australia, North Bundaleer homestead. Located halfway between Adelaide and the Flinders Ranges, the glorious North Bundaleer homestead is on the cusp of the Australian Outback, and just outside one of Australia’s key wine growing regions, the Clare Valley. Turning off R.M. Williams Way (named in honour of the legendary Australian bushman whose boots are recognisable the world over) into the long driveway leading to the homestead, it struck me that this is the landscape that defines Australia in my mind. The sunburnt fields: a palette of golden brown, buttermilk and pale saffron against rich ochre coloured soil, the wide-open skies and rolling hills flecked with towering silver-grey gum trees and the paddocks sprinkled with thick-fleece Merino sheep and their tiny newborn lambs. A landscape immortalised by artists like Hans Heysen, and given a starring role in the 1980 Australian film, Breaker Morant (albeit doubling for the South African veld), and a landscape that was ours to explore over the next three days.
A majestic pastoral homestead built in the early 1900’s, North Bundaleer had us enraptured from the moment we motored through the beautiful old iron gates….. and that was before we had even met the wonderful owners, Marianne and Malcolm Booth and their two adorable Jack Russell terriers, Archie and Tilly. Greeted warmly by our hosts (both two and four legged), we were soon ensconced in our exquisite suite (the “Red Room”) with its grand canopied four-poster bed, adjoining sitting room decorated in the Chinoiserie style and gorgeous ensuite bathroom. Although calling the bathroom an ensuite is perhaps understating things a little: the airy light-filled space is actually an entire room, a stunning conversion of the homestead’s former conservatory. Lined by windows (with half-blinds for privacy), it affords wonderful views of the surrounding hills, sky, treetops and walled formal garden whether you are luxuriating in the deep bath or splashing about under the freestanding shower. Contemplating just how many soaks in the tub I could squeeze in over the next couple of days without turning into a wrinkled prune, I was roused from my calculations by a soft knock on the door. Malcolm appears bearing a silver tray laden with goodies: Would we prefer to take afternoon tea in the sitting room or in the garden? The afternoon is a glorious one so we take our expertly made lattes and individual chocolate cakes out onto our private veranda which looks onto the garden. The eucalyptus trees and Bunya pines are brimming with birdlife: pink and grey galahs, brightly coloured rosellas, magpies and cheeky kookaburras, two of which keep a watchful eye on our movements hoping for a few leftover crumbs. Sated by Marianne’s excellent baking and recharged by Malcolm’s wonderful barista skills, we set out to explore the homestead with our new best friends, Archie and Tilly, in tow.
Set on 400 acres of bush and farmland, the grand homestead with its sandstone chimneys, dramatic deep-crimson roof, delicate lace ironwork and stately towers is awe-inspiring particularly when you consider that it was an abandoned ruin, occupied only by sheep and the odd snake, when Marianne and Malcolm acquired it in the late nineties. Painstaking restoration took 3 years and was clearly a labour of love. Armed with photographs of the homestead dating back to 1910, a National Trust conservation management plan and a team of tradesman, Marianne and Malcolm worked tirelessly to return the homestead and gardens to their former glory. At the risk of sounding like Kevin McCloud****, it is obvious that North Bundaleer was never going to be just a home for Marianne and Malcolm but instead a chance to preserve a significant piece of South Australia’s rural history and create a legacy in the process.
A grand ballroom forms the centrepiece of the homestead with the 4 guest suites, a magnificent drawing room, dining room and library leading off it. Exploring each room, it is clear that Marianne, a former management consultant, has exquisite taste. Each room is beautifully decorated with antiques, paintings and books collected over a lifetime of travels (collectively the couple have lived in the UK, Ethiopia, Kenya, New York, Sydney, Brisbane and the Southern Highlands in NSW). Chandeliers hang from the soaring ceilings, delicate period wallpaper (some rescued during the restoration process) line the walls, lamps cast a golden hue over each room, vases brim with freshly cut flowers and wonderfully-scented roses. It is sumptuous, yes, but the atmosphere is warm and relaxed rather than formal and stuffy.
Outside, a stroll around the walled garden reveals the source of those gorgeous roses: hundreds of David Austen rose bushes frame the circular driveway. At the back of the garden, lemon trees overflow with fruit, fragrant lavender and rosemary bushes are bursting with flowers and hum with the sound of busy worker bees. Just outside the walled garden is the Booth’s organic olive grove where we first spot the family of kangaroos that call North Bundaleer home. Despite my best stalking efforts, I manage only a couple of photographs before they bound off. Rather despairing of my wildlife photography attempts, we return to the homestead where my spirits soon lift: Lucinda, an orphaned joey Marianne and her lovely daughter Katie are caring for, has awoken. Nestled in her cushioned fabric pouch, she is the sweetest little thing and on a par with Archie and Tilly as things I wish desperately to smuggle back to the UK with me.
As night falls, the homestead glows warmly with light. Candles and fires are lit, and soft music from the library wafts into the ballroom. At 6:30pm we gather in the drawing room with the other guests for pre-dinner drinks and canapés. Malcolm’s excellent sommelier skills are accompanied by canapés made by Marianne: smoked salmon with horseradish cream crostini, South Australian goats cheese with olive tapenade, and fried olives stuffed with gorgonzola. Our hosts are wonderful conversationalists and helped along with generous pours of Clare Valley wine from Malcolm, we are soon engaged in fascinating conversation that spills over into dinner. And supper really is something special at North Bundaleer. Served in the elegant dining room under candlelight (so flattering!) along a superb 18-seater Irish Georgian table, we are treated to the most delicious food cooked by Marianne in her handsome Aga. Local ingredients are the focus of each course with vegetables, fruit and herbs grown in the garden, eggs from their free-range chickens, olive oil from the olive grove, beef from their own herd of Shorthorn cows, and honey from a neighbour. Our favourite dishes during our stay? Meltingly tender rack of saltbush lamb served with a zippy capsicum sauce, green beans and spiced couscous, aromatic truffled mushroom soup, crispy skinned duck with pickled red cabbage, an impossibly light and fluffy chocolate soufflé (I spent a good few minutes quizzing Marianne on how to achieve such a feat….mine tend to deflate woefully in the middle), and the pièce de résistance, a decadent, buttery, perfectly caramelised apple tarte tatin with cinnamon ice-cream. Simply the best apple tarte tatin I have ever eaten.
Marianne also puts on a ravishing spread at breakfast: homemade bread and jams, freshly squeezed orange juice, poached fruits (silky pears in a syrup rich with cardamom and spices, and perfectly poached rhubarb), homemade muesli and yoghurt, together with a hot breakfast cooked on the Aga (an embarrassingly large serve of eggs, bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms which we both polished off leaving nothing for the ever-hopeful Archie and Tilly).
While the temptation is to remain at North Bundaleer just relaxing with a good book and a glass of wine, there is much to explore in the area. We visited the historic towns of Burra (where much of Breaker Morant was filmed) and Mintaro, and wineries in the Clare Valley. Further afield, the Southern Flinders Ranges, Port Pirie and Port Augusta are do-able if you have a little more time than we did.
Before we arrived, I mentioned to Marianne and Malcolm that I would love to see a sheep being shorn. They contacted their neighbours, the Ashby family, who run North Ashrose Merino and Poll Merino Sheep Stud, and who very kindly organised for a couple of their merino sheep to be shorn. It is hard, backbreaking work (my back was aching just watching) but the sheep were remarkably calm and relaxed while they were being shorn – I always thought they would be rather tetchy and indignant! I am so grateful to Graham and Tom Ashby for showing us around and introducing us to their magnificent sheep. I ♥ ♥ ♥ sheep.
Eat + Drink:
Breakfast, dinner and afternoon tea are taken care of at North Bundaleer but we also tried these places:
The Black Sheep, La Pecora Nera, Burra. Recommended by Malcolm, this is pizza straight out of Italy (the owner/chef is from Tuscany). It is utterly bizarre, in a very good way, to be eating proper Italian thin-crusted, wood-fired pizza doused liberally in olive oil on the edge of the Australian Outback!
Wild Saffron, Clare. Coffee addicts are catered for here ;)
Sevenhill Hotel, Sevenhill. A decent char-grilled steak although the service was a bit shaky.
Mr Mick, Clare. Another recommendation from Malcolm and Marianne. Unfortunately it was booked out the day we wanted to go (a good sign!).
The Commercial Hotel, Jamestown. A good Aussie pub to stop at for a refreshing beer or double-Sars (sarsaparilla). The lady behind the bar knew exactly what I meant when I asked for a double-sars!
*a “ute’ is a tray-back/pick-up Australian style of car most commonly seen in country areas where the tray can be loaded with hay, farm equipment, and most importantly, a blue heeler or Australian cattle dog.
**not to be confused with the other, rather more uncivilised finger “wave”
***I am not advocating that anyone drive with an elbow out the window though!
****from Grand Designs
We stayed as guests of North Bundaleer
Thank you also to the South Australian Tourism Commission for assisting with travel arrangements