Heading for the Adelaide Hills

Emma Warren — 21 March 2019
From family time to drinking wine, the Adelaide Hills have all the makings of a memorable camper holiday.

Growing up with the Adelaide Hills as my front yard encouraged an early admiration for the outdoors and a persistent craving for fresh air and tranquillity. All throughout my early years, the Hills were there, visible above the low suburban lots, reassuring outside of the classroom window, and always only a few minutes’ drive away; but it was only when I moved interstate that I realised the backdrop of my childhood was among the most charming landscapes our country has to offer. 

I have become surprised at the number of people across Australia who aren’t familiar with the Hills, beyond a few hotspots. Adelaide is rarely thought of as a touristy destination, and those that do holiday in SA often only undertake the peninsulas or the Barossa. That incomplete image is largely inevitable; our knowledge of destinations is sure to be shaped by proximity, marketing limelight and the like. But as keen campers, we should aim to venture into the unknown and reveal places that, without a little bit of effort, we might never have experienced.


ARE THE HILLS APPROPRIATE FOR CAMPER TRAILERS?

The short answer? Yes. The long answer? Yes, mostly!

The Hills offer plenty of activities that suit the camping lifestyle, including the discovery of history, food and wine, hiking, and sightseeing. Plus, activities like wildlife interaction, strawberry picking and visiting toy factories are bound to keep the younger ones grinning.

Amongst it all, there are plenty of places to stay, both in caravan parks and in off-the-beaten-track sites. 

The region is a timely detour on any Big Lap, geographically speaking. By the point you make it to Adelaide, you’ll have completed the Great Ocean Road and the Limestone Coast, and ahead of you you’ll have the Eyre Peninsula and the coast-hugging Nullarbor – or vice versa. So you’ll need a break from all the booming swells and sand in your underpants. Why not head inland (but never more than 50 kilometres) and experience another kind of setting completely?

There are a few minor imperfections – nothing to worry about really, just things to keep in mind. Firstly, there are not many public unsealed roads and those that do exist are predominantly easy-going. Rest assured, private options for minor fees at both JAKEM Farm and Saunders Gorge Sanctuary can fulfil your offroad needs.

Secondly, there are some rather winding, snaking sealed roads in the Hills. Skinnier and smaller camper trailers are best-suited, but even those with bordering-on-caravan campers can simply unhitch to travel freely. 

Now onto the fun part – what to do there.


HISTORICAL AT HEART

Ruins and reminders of a rich past are scattered throughout the Hills.

In 1838, a boat of 38 Lutheran families arrived in South Australia from Germany. They came with the South Australian Company, a group of British merchants intending upon developing a new colony and thereby selling land. Supported by the company, these German Lutherans settled Hahndorf, which in no time became the fruit and veggie hub of the region. 

Nowadays the small town is the beating heart of the Hills and Australia’s longest standing German town. It’s constructed on a traditional Strassendorf (street village) design, with chestnut, cork and elm trees lining the main strip, and is complete with cuckoo clocks, wooden folk art and German-style pubs.

Lesser known is the town of Lobethal, which was similarly constructed with German inspiration. If you’re visiting in December, you’ll find a hub of Christmas lights and festivities. In Winter, absorbing the warmth of a crackling fire while taste testing a paddle of beers in the Lobethal Bierhaus makes for an idyllic afternoon. 

Other shades of history appear elsewhere: darker tales, abandoned dreams – for example, near Red Creek, where barren land often stretches to the horizon and ruins of old stone homes can be found beside dry creeks and vacant paddocks. Exploring the dirt roads toward Wistow will expose you to these apocalyptic, drought-ridden scenes. There’s negligible action surrounding, only dust blown up by strong gusts and galahs fluttering in overhead gums. 

 

NO NEED TO W(H)INE

I was in a small, snow-coated ski resort in the middle of Sweden when the prominence of South Australian wine dawned on me. What stood behind the bar were, you guessed it, wine bottles originally produced minutes from my home suburb. Tasting the wine from afar was one thing; being at the wineries, among the rolling vineyards and the passionate folk who do the work, is another completely.

An undeniable, widespread trait of the Hills’ resident wineries is a compelling passion for the industry. You can visit Pike & Joyce in Lenswood, a winery built on five generations of horticulturists. Or Nepenthe in Balhannah, where the name refers to an Egyptian herbal drink with the power to banish sorrow. Or K1 in Kuitpo, where you can taste wines while sitting on a bench made from a 400-year-old local red gum. These places are just a handful of the 48 cellar doors and 90 different wine labels in the Hills. Expect a unique, world-class taste, thanks to the higher, chillier and wetter climate in comparison to other regions.

To accompany great tasting wine, you’ll need some great tasting food. Good news; seemingly endless rows of apple and cherry trees line the undulating terrain of Lenswood. In nearby Forest Range around the Christmas period, fussy folk and those who enjoy an obscure experience can do their own cherry picking. It’s available at Stella Creek Orchard or Forest Range Cherries. There’s also summertime strawberry picking at Beerenberg Farm in Hahndorf, a smallholding that has been operated by the same family for six generations. 

After a laborious while sourcing fruit, classic bakery tucker is likely what your tummy hankers. Top picks would be the Banana Boogie Bakery in Belair, for their mouth-watering vanilla slice, or the Meadows Bakery, for their homestyle sausage rolls. Although, if greasy bakery bags ain’t your thing, you can opt for high calibre fine dining at Pike & Joyce, or a classic schnitty at Crafers Hotel, named Australia’s Best Pub in 2018. By the way, it’s parmi in South Australia, not parma. 

 

LACE THE BOOTS

I attended university at Magill, at the base of the Hills. Attended is a word used lightly, as the temptation of absconding into echoing gullies and up to serene mountaintops often won me over. The Third Falls track through Morialta Falls Conservation Park was always a post-class favourite, with the epic trail leading onto numerous rugged ridges and scenic quartzite cliffs. 

For a popular view, you’ll be satisfied climbing the steep track from Waterfall Gully to Mount Lofty Summit. Though, if you’d prefer a quieter location with a few less fitness buffs bolting past, a similar vista can be obtained at Mount Osmond Summit along the Centre Track. The extensive 360-degree lookout at the top allows you to see it all: the coast, the city and the undulating hills around you. Get there at sunset, bring a picnic, someone to propose to, and you’ll be set. 

The Heysen Trail, extending a total 1,200km through South Australia, partly weaves through the Adelaide Hills, exposing exclusive bushland and stellar views. The trail first opened in 1976, and was named after a famous painter. It spreads through Kuitpo Forest, Cleland Conservation Park, Belair National Park and beyond.

Another option is to drop by Jupiter Creek – you might leave lucky. This hiking route sends you downward to an old gold digging mine. More than 150 years ago, in 1868, two farmers located the first piece of golden metal. Some say there are still nuggets being uncovered today. Considering there’s no nearby McDonalds in this outback locale, we can assume they do in fact mean shiny, precious gold. 


WANDERING WILDLIFE

The vast open spaces of the Hills allow plenty of room for farming. Hence, a run-in with animals is inevitable. Kids will enjoy the hands-on experience at the Hahndorf Farm Barn, where they can witness the milking of a cow (featuring a few inevitable shrieks from the crowd) and get the chance to roll in hay with baby goats. 

Alternatively, The Wildlife Park at Gumeracha offers intimate encounters with wallabies and emus. It’s situated behind Australia’s Biggest Rocking Horse and the accompanying toy factory. I suppose climbing a ginormous rocking horse nearly counts as an animal escapade, too. 

Speaking of stallions, I recall begging my parents for a pony as a youngster. Instead, I got horse riding lessons at Templewood, in Inglewood. It not only shut me up, but gave them peace for an hour while I trotted into the backcountry. The Riding Centre is positioned on an impressive 200 acre property, owned and operated by the same family since 1970. 

However, nothing conquers the exhilaration of spotting a furry friend in the wild. Locals know that kangaroos are regularly spotted at the peak of Chambers Gully, particularly at dusk and dawn. To spot a cuddly koala, you’d be best craning your neck at Morialta Conservation Park or Anstey Hill Recreation Park. Alternatively, birdlife can be effortlessly spotted at Laratinga Wetlands or Playford Lake in Belair National Park. 


ASPIRING FOR ADRENALINE

For many, the narrow, winding bitumen of Greenhill Road or Snake Gully is sufficiently thrilling. Especially when you’re towing the camper, the formidable challenge might leave passengers cursing. Personally, vertigo atop Mount Barker Summit is enough blood-rushing fun. Although, there are solutions for those seeking a bit more oomph out of the Hills. 

For starters, the words Fox Creek often get mountain bikers drooling. The vertiginous MTB park, which has hosted a number of national events, incorporates trails from easy to extreme difficulty, allowing amusement for a whole family (every kid hopes their dad doesn’t get too cocky and embarrass himself on a medium track. Been there, done that). The trails will send you flying past pine forest and native vegetation and if you slow down, you might even catch some scenic vistas over the valleys and verdant mountain peaks. 

But, the bigger the wheels, the better, right? JAKEM Farm in Saint Ives is a four wheel driving playground. A multitude of arduous muddy and rocky tracks at the farm make it the ultimate destination for testing your offroad ability. One day might not be enough for the 50 kilometres worth of trails in this purpose-built four wheel drive park, so you can camp overnight at the farm and conquer more gruelling tracks the following day. 

If that’s still not your style of grit, rumour has it, according to my boyfriend and his brother, that trout and redfin flap about in the high Torrens River and a few secret damns. I’m still trying to work out if that one is a cracking local secret or a tall fisherman’s tale. 


SEE YOU THERE!

Ready to run for the Hills? In the middle of the year, the region is encompassed by a lingering mist. Golden tree leaves cover walking trails and bold green grass rolls over the mountains. Streets and parks are quiet, but cosy with dawn fog. The smell of wood fires seeps through towns and merry birdlife echoes through damp forests. 

In warmer months, the greenery is washed out after battering from the sun. People bleed into townships and the atmosphere is loud with markets and the festivals. Heat gets encapsulated in the dry bushland and the spectrum of browns is unusually aesthetically pleasing. 

Over the years, travelling to similar inland destinations around Australia has left me underwhelmed. The charisma, community spirit and homely nature of the Hills is rare. When I visit the region now, I am hit with a hefty smack of nostalgia, but also a bubbling anticipation for the making of new memories and yet more new discoveries. 

So, regardless of who is in your party, the time of year or the purpose of your trip, make sure to put the dynamic Adelaide Hills on your list of places to travel. 


WHERE TO CAMP

Cosily positioned amid the dense Kuitpo Forest is Chookarloo Campground, with 23 generously spaced sites. The pine trees in the air truly touch the clouds, offering a sense of enclosure and secrecy. Sites are first in, first served, and cost $5 per adult and $2 per child per night. Obtain your permit at the Kuitpo Forest Info Centre and call 8391 8800 to check availability. 

Another pick of the bunch is Chalk’s Campground in Mount Crawford, a large grassed area with 25 sites and ample room. The red gums surrounding the area cast an all-day shade over the camp. Sites are first in, first served, and cost $5 per adult and $2 per child per night. Obtain your permit at the Mount Crawford Forest Info Centre and call 8521 1700 to check availability. 

Head to forestrysa.com.au for more information about both of the above sites. Note that between December to March they are closed due to bushfire risk.

You also have the options of camping at JAKEM Farm and Saunders Gorge Sanctuary. JAKEM Farm has 15 sites and will cost you $40 per day, which also allows access to the 4WD tracks; head to www.jakemfarm.com.au or contact 0409278123 or jakemfarm@gmail.com to book or enquire. 

Saunders Gorge Sanctuary will cost you $60 to access with your 4WD, with a $10 per night per vehicle camping fee after that. Head to www.saundersgorge.com.au or contact 0439275500 to find out more. 

Ample caravan park options also exist should you wish for a few more comforts.