A River Runs Through

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Andrew E. Hall returns to his birthplace for family, friends, fantastic scenery and fine food and wine.

DATELINE Perth, Western Australia: Flying into WA from Bali on a clear morning I am struck, once again, by the vastness and barrenness of the continent on which I was born.

And somewhere beneath our flight path there is another, older, continent buried within the visible landmass of the northwest – a fact recently discovered after the deployment of some impressive scientific whizbangery.

Two continents for the price of one … sweet mate.

Perth – the world’s most isolated capital city – is only three-and-a-half hours flying time from Denpasar. And airfares can be remarkably inexpensive if you shop around.

It’s officially winter (June) – decidedly nippy but the clear, (impossibly) blue sky whispers the promise of a beautiful day which would warm slowly to somewhere in the vicinity of a comfortable temperature for someone who has spent the past 17 years or so in the tropics – if that someone is wearing multiple shirts and a hoody.

Perth is an aesthetically pleasing city bisected by the beautiful Swan River where dolphins can be seen to frolic, that attracts an abundance of birdlife which is simply stunning.

My mother’s home is located on a bank of the river and from her garden one can watch endless numbers of cyclists zipping past on a bike path that (with very little diversion to roads) runs all the way (mainly along the river) about 30km south to my former home of Fremantle – a beautiful city richly endowed with colonial architecture, cafés, eateries and a dazzling array of micro-breweries. Perth and surrounds is an excellent place to cycle, if for no other reason than it’s pretty flat.

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Within walking distance of the Perth CBD is the glorious Kings Park that contains a world-class botanical garden. Further west you will find the Indian Ocean and some of the best municipal beaches to be found anywhere – not that I was tempted to go for a swim in winter (we call it “spanner weather” because it tightens the nuts up). There are more hardy souls than I who do though.

But Perth is gripped by an existential crisis. On the one hand those who promote the place like to create an image of a happy-go-lucky, laid back city that welcomes all comers – and this is true in most circumstances. On the other, there is an incredible amount of signage telling people what they’re not allowed to do. And if you read the Monday newspaper you could be forgiven for thinking that Australians are incapable of the social consumption of alcohol without giving in to the urge to punch the person closest to them in the pub.

Being one of those hideous humans who both drinks alcohol and smokes cigarettes I got into a bit of a pickle in Perth. I was with some friends on the open-air veranda – which was bounded by a footpath (or “sidewalk” if you come from other places) and a street – of a wine bar in an inner-city suburb. Amiably chatting amongst my mates with a glass in one hand and a cig in the other. Enter the bouncer – a Kiwi (they always are) who was as broad as he was tall (they always are).

“You can’t smoke here,” says he.

“No worries,” says I, “where can I smoke?”

“On the other side of the (veranda) post.” . . . about 30 centimetres away, on the footpath.

A short stride sideways and I thought everything was hunky dory.

Re-enter the bouncer: “You can’t drink here.”

“Where can I drink?”

“On the other side of the post . . .”

I thought about straddling the imaginary line and doing a sort of Egyptian head wobble thing between my cig and my wine but the bouncer (who resembled a Rubik’s cube, and was of similar height) had an evil glint in his eye.

Time to hit the road.

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My hire-car company of choice is called Bayswater, where you can get a zippy automatic Toyota for about AUS$30 a day. These cars, importantly, are equipped with cruise control. The reason I mention this is that the WA police are fierce, and, backed up by the ever-lurking speed camera, will nail your arse (and wallet) for driving over the speed limit.

You can forget about the way we deal with the Rozzers on Bali – hand over some cash and go happily on your way . . . no, no, no friends, do not try that one in WA – they carry guns that actually contain bullets.
And don’t even think about drinking alcohol and driving.

I use cruise control in the city!

Destination: Margaret River via the Kwinana Freeway out of Perth, which turns into the Forest Highway – about a 300km drive. The cityscape gives way, soon enough, to sprawling bucolic farmlands that, in winter green, are home to the cattle that provide us with the famed Harvey beef.

In spring (October-ish) the fields erupt in a cacophony of multi-coloured wild flowers.

My first pit-stop on the way “down south” is always the Miami Bakehouse in West Pinjarra – which is basically a caravan that serves the most exquisite prandial pleasure, Aussie cuisine icon, the meat pie . . . which our aforementioned bovine friends have generously given up their lives for.

Bless them.

Onwards, ever onwards, past large roadside signs that inform you that the police are ever vigilant . . . and one peculiar sign which occurs at regular intervals that asks drivers: “ARE YOU AWAKE?” I wonder if the sign-maker understands the irony.

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There are other signs – among them a yellow warning sign with a caricature of a kangaroo, and “next 15km” written underneath. Which begs the question: do the ‘roos understand the boundaries in which they are supposed to confine themselves … and what happens to them if they forget?

Outside Busselton – not far to go now – another sign that sends a warning to slow down because road works are taking place … from the usual limit of 110kph to 50. Being the law-abiding citizen I am, I reset the cruise control and watch in the rear view as a line of vehicles banks up behind me. Unfortunately the road workers have neglected to erect a sign that tells me I can speed up again at the end of the road works so I cruise on listening to my music, feeling at ease with the world.

Several kilometres later, at an overtaking point in the road, a little blue car that resembles a roller-skate draws up beside me and an apoplectic individual – his body fully half way out of the passenger window – gesticulates wildly and yells obscenities … so much for observing the rules of the road, and so much for the laconic, laid-back Aussie.

The road rage whooshes straight over my head and makes me laugh … but I do speed up again.

About 40 minutes down the road – out of Busselton – the landscape changes from rolling farmland and vineyards to a road-ribbon that is snuggled in a wondrous forest of Karri trees: the third-tallest tree in the world. I’ve arrived in Margaret River and head straight to the house of my dear friend, Leanne, which is also nestled in the forest on the outskirts of town . . . sensational, beautiful, and very close to the river that bestows its name on the town.

I’ve been on the road for about five hours.

Catching up with my friend of 25-plus years in the warm embrace of her slow-combustion wood stove, I reflect on the fact that while I have an excellent life on Bali, there are other places in the world that possess similar magic. And that enduring friendship is a truly amazing and lovely thing.

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We’ve made a plan – tomorrow we will visit one of the places that Margaret River and its surrounds are (amongst other things) famous for – wineries and fine food outlets. And the one we have chosen is Aravina Estate . . . which owns 50 per cent of Canggu’s Bali Equestrian Centre.

Truth be told it was our (The Yak’s, that is) Sophie who hooked us up with Aravina coordinator Sandra Newland and winemaker Jodie Opie. Sophie had a rollicking time at Aravina but I’ll let her tell that story in her own time …
The estate is located near the town of Cowaramup – some 12km from MR and the route is festooned with some of the most recognisable wine brands of the district and the discerning wine-tasting world. It is also gorgeous and tree-lined with all manner of hardwoods and other peculiarly Australian shrubbery yearning to bloom when the time is right.

Aravina Estate is set on sprawling acreage amongst its vines, large lakes and a hydrangea garden that, according to my mother, grows the biggest hydrangeas anywhere on the planet . . . but you can’t always trust your mother.

Entering the “Hamptons-style” building that is the centrepiece of Aravina, Lee and I are greeted by Sandra and Jodie who begin to reminisce about Sophie’s visit a year or so previously. My eyes wander to the long bar where patrons stand tasting the Aravina range of wines. I want to be one of them!

I don’t know why but I was somewhat struck when Jodie was introduced as the estate’s head winemaker . . . perhaps because in my experience that position has always been reserved as a male bastion. We were, soon enough, to find out why Jodie had put yet another crack in the so-called glass ceiling . . . and good on her for doing so.

But first Sandra and Jodie take us on a tour of the premises – although passing the bar I felt a magnetic tug that threatened to take me off course. Through the gift shop that offers all things wine and some finely crafted souvenirs from the area, we find ourselves standing in a large gallery that contains an impressive sports car collection belonging to Aravina CEO Steve Tobin. If you’re into iconic cars from the 1960s to the present, you will linger in this space for a long while.

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We did a quick recce through the various vaulted-ceilinged indoor, and outdoor, spaces that can host hundreds for weddings, parties, anything – all with sweeping and spectacular views over the estate.

And hence to the bar to taste the results of Jodie’s alchemy.

Margaret River is typically known for wine varieties like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon but Jodie is an adventurous soul and has turned her attention to some European grape varieties such as the Spanish Tempranillo – which is a recent addition to the vineyard – that, when blended with traditional varieties, can produce a remarkably full-bodied wine within a relatively short cellaring period.

Lee was the designated driver and, as such, was fairly temperate in her tasting. I, on the other hand, wanted it all. We started with a 2008 vintage sparkling made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made in the traditional méthode champenoise – and a fine beginning it was too. We moved on through Semillon Sauvignon Blanc and onto Aravina’s 2011 Chardonnay – a robust and complex wine with a spicy oak finish.

I won’t torture our beloved readers with the whole range we tasted because I don’t want to be responsible for you heading to the nearest wine shop and spending your life savings at Bali prices.

But Aravina’s red zone (a place close to my heart) was a pleasure to be in – particularly the 2011 Shiraz, the 2010 Cabernet Merlot, and heaven on a stick, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon.

From the tasting area our friendly foursome moved to the dining area for a much-anticipated sampling of the fine fare of executive chef Tony Howell. There is an extensive outdoor balcony area but my thin Bali blood – despite the fact I was rugged up – subtly suggested that indoors was the place to be. This space features a substantial fireplace with a roaring blaze that brought back memories of my childhood. A fabulous collection of original movie posters decorates the walls . . . and one can still take in the magnificent panorama.

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We embarked on our luncheon with fresh bread accompanied by olives and truffle butter and, to be honest, I could have just kept going with that. Truffles are indigenous to WA’s southwest and are exquisitely and delicately flavoured and the olives are grown locally. We had freshly made feta cheese with olive oil and herbs plucked from Aravina’s extensive garden. Next from Tony’s kitchen came the sashimi of the day; fresh tuna – line-caught from Rottnest Island (off Perth) and served with ginger jelly and Asian omelet on a bed of sushi rice. I was well happy to have moved on from our entrée.

Having decided to stay with seafood Tony sent out dish after dish of the world’s freshest fish cooked and seasoned in various and very creative ways. And salads that contained a floral theme, which made Lee very happy indeed.

And of course throughout we (well, I, really) sampled Aravina’s magnificent wines.

A highlight of the meal was marron with apple and cucumber, caviar, remoulade, lime juice and capers served on brioche and garnished with macadamias. Marron is a freshwater crustacean unique to this part of the world and is deliciously tender and somewhat sweet. As we say here on Bali “enak sekali”.

I actually had to hold my hands up in surrender to the amount of amazing food that was being served to us. But Tony insisted we try his dessert of chocolate fudge cake garnished with strawberries, blueberries and orange, and garnished with rose petals. Okay Tony, you win . . . accompanied by a 2011 Botrytis Semillon with its opulent flavours of sweet fruits. I’m pretty sure I had more than one of them.

Even the espresso at the end was exceptional, accompanied by some of Tony’s sweet nibbles – the man just wouldn’t stop!
I rode back to Lee’s place as a passenger in a state of grace. The sky was emphatically blue, the trees were emphatically tree-like and I was happy as a clam.

There are many, many other things to do in and around Margaret River – but don’t miss visiting Aravina Estate while you’re there.

www.aravinaestate.com

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