Weekend ride


The resting place

Uruguayan muleteers liked it so much they gave it a name. Now it’s waiting for you just a short ride from Adelaide

“Mintaro is a thoroughly charming and largely untouched historic town lying to the east of the Clare Valley, some 125km from Adelaide,” according to the internet. “It has the great benefit of being removed from the Main North Road and consequently has missed the inevitable changes that occur on transportation routes,” adds the description.

That might make for a picturesque townscape but it’s not always good for the locals, of course. It’s called “becoming a backwater” or “being left behind”. But that hasn’t been bad in the case of Mintaro.

The town has been there a while. It was laid out in 1854 and it became popular with the Burra Mining Company’s muleteers from Uruguay, who transported copper from Burra to Port Wakefield. It seems from the town’s early records that as many as 100 of the Spanish-speaking mule drivers were passing through each day. They called it Mintaro, the resting place, and it prospered.

The town’s economy collapsed when the railway was built to move the copper from Burra, and there were no more muleteers. In 1984, Mintaro became the first entire township in South Australia to be classified as a State Heritage Area.

And it deserves it, too. Not just for the pretty houses with their lush gardens, but for the people. I stopped to take some photos and a gentleman walking his dog made a point of crossing the road to tell me that the big church on the hill outside town would make a good subject.

“It’s the oldest Jesuit church in Australia, you know,” he said conspiratorially. “And there are two more churches up that laneway, but you can’t go in.” He gave me a rundown on the non-religious parts of town as well while his fat, blue cattle dog waited patiently.

The heart of Mintaro is the Magpie & Stump Hotel. Licensed since 1851, it was a wild pub catering for the needs of the itinerant bullock and mule drivers who passed through the town. Over the years it has changed name — it was once known simply as Mintaro Hotel — but in recent times it has been carefully revived as a South Australian interpretation of a typical English village pub.

There are a lot of other historic buildings in town. Between the Magpie & Stump and the Council chambers are the old bullock stables. If you go around the back and look at the wall that faces onto the street you can still see huge rings where the bullocks were tied up at night time, presumably so the bullock drivers had only a short walk to the pubs on either side. You can buy a pizza cooked in the town’s original baker’s oven out the back of the pub.

Among the town’s other charming buildings are Reilly’s Cottage Gallery and Wines (Hugh Reilly built the cottage in the 1870s — he was a cobbler and harness maker), the Teapot Inn, The Old Manse, the Pay Office Cottage, The Mintaro Institute (1878) and Mintaro Mews. Sadly, the old General Store is now an antique shop.

But the main attraction of the town is the range and variety of accommodation that’s available. The Olde Devonshire Arms pub, built in 1856, is now a bed and breakfast. Once it had a shooting gallery and a skittles alley below the bar. The Teapot Inn across the road also has accommodation, while Martindale Hall is a superbly preserved Georgian-style mansion that featured as the mansion in the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock, and is now a guest house.

If you play serious snooker you may well have played on a bit of Mintaro. The slate mine has a world reputation for its Cambrian-era slate, which has been used in the production of billiard tables. So good is the slate that Walter Lindrum, the great Australian billiards champion (and, I must admit, one of my personal heroes), once wrote to the Quarry to congratulate them on the quality. Slate has been mined in the area since the 1860s. There is a lot more, including several wineries, but let’s close on a motorcycling theme.

The simplest way to Mintaro from Adelaide is straight up the Main North Road. Turn off to the right just before Watervale and you’re there. If you are in a hurry that’s probably the way to go, but a motorcycle destination should really involve a bit of a ride — and the better the ride, the better the … well, the ride.

What I’d do is make my way up through the Adelaide Hills on any one of the half a dozen great bike roads — the A11 comes to mind — and then I’d continue either via Mt Pleasant or through Williamstown and the Barossa to Nuriootpa. From there it’s a quick, exhilarating ride up to Kapunda with is Big Miner and then up through Saddleworth to Mintaro.

The roads are good, the towns are interesting in an historic sort of way, and while most of the scenery isn’t precisely exotic it is attractive in a sweeping, open field sort of way. There are enough choices to make sure you don’t have to go back the same way you came, and you can pick up a few choice bottles from one of the many cellar doors along the road.

But the real attraction, apart from the ride, is Mintaro itself. Those mule drivers from Uruguay knew a top place to stop when they saw it.