P1020252Maybe you’ve never heard of Meningie, a neat little town on the shores of Lake Alexandrina on the near-side of South Australia, but if you’re into birds, windswept coastline, heritage and plain old kicking back it’s hard to beat.

Meningie is the natural base for exploring the Coorong, that vast wetland where the Murray feeds into the coast forming lakes, backwaters and swamps. It’s a rich and reliable area for birdlife and along the way there are hides where you can camp out with coffee and a telephoto lens. It won’t be long until you’re hard at work with pelicans, ducks, swans, cormorants, terns, grebes and more than 230 migratory birds hailing from Siberia, Alaska, Japan and China.

But while there are lots of birds up here, Meningie has lots more than birds.

Go up to the Raukkan Ngarrindjeri community about 45 km from town on an outreach into the lake and introduce yourself at the local community centre. Then go for a wander. If you recognise the church it’s because it’s on the $50 note.

So is David Unaipon, preacher, author and prodigious inventor, hailed as Australia’s Leonardo da Vinci. He came from here. His most successful idea was a shearing machine which still forms the basis of modern mechanical shears. He received no money for it and the only acknowledgement he ever got was in a single newspaper report in 1910.

He had a number of other ideas including a helicopter based on the principle of the boomerang, a multi-radial wheel (tyre companies are experimenting with these at the moment) and a centrifugal motor. He spent much of his life trying to develop perpetual motion.

Coorong (30)I’ve been to Camp Coorong, about 12 kilometres south-east of town, twice and both times we were the only tourists there. Get past the rather grim exterior and the deserted inquiries desk and you’ll find the people are friendly and enthusiastic, and the local history displays are absorbing. The weaving coming out of the camp is intricate and quite beautiful and you’ll probably catch weavers at their work.

The Coorong is an easy seven hour drive from Melbourne through Ballarat and Bordertown, even easier from Adelaide. Turn off at Coonalpyn to Meningie where the pelicans out-number the people about five to one. The town has a good caravan park but we scored a terrific two-bedroom cottage called Dalton on the Lake, just over the road from where the pelicans live. Well, some of them anyway. Get a place with cooking facilities because the pickings are thin for eating out, but there’s a good butcher and a couple of small supermarkets. The Langhorne Creek wineries are 80 km away via the free ferry at Wellington and don’t miss the Newmans horseradish farm. No, seriously.

Give yourself a couple of nights in Meningie and a couple more in Robe, one of those seaside towns where time doesn’t matter much and you wistfully check prices in real estate agents’ windows. Interesting galleries, good fish and chips, great pizzas and proper dining too. And there’s a friendly pub.

Mosey on back to reality along the Great Ocean Road.

A bushranger the size of a boy bedecked in expensive jewellery, holding people up from the back of an ostrich. Call me cynical, but I wonder if John Francis Peggotty ever existed. The folk in Meningie are true believers though and have even erected a statue of saddled ostrich that you can sit your kids on for pictures.

pegAsk and you’ll be handed a photocopied story that looks like it’s come from an old magazine. It seems to be the only thing ever written about Peggotty.

It claims he was born in Ireland in 1864 and learned to ride ostriches in South Africa. After being jailed as a thief in England he came to South Australia and terrorised the Coorong, riding an ostrich that had escaped from a farm set up to sell ostrich feathers. A dozen robberies and two murders were put down to him.

His last victim managed to shoot him twice at long range, but never found the body in the soft, shifting sands of the Coorong. So, the story goes, somewhere in there is a skeleton draped in jewellery worth a fortune.

The trouble is that learned histories of Australian bushranging don’t mention Peggotty and the only decent hits on Google take you to the story they hand out in Meningie. As the veteran of hoaxes like a sheep-killing cougar said to have escaped from a circus and the semi-naked Nullarbor Nymph I suspect Peggotty is the figment of some Adelaide PR guy’s imagination.

Published January 2016


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