the coonalpyn lawnmower races and other addlepate adventures

you never know where the road to adventure may lead

we arrived in adelaide (not addlepate) on a friday night famished, made a successful pass through the airport COVID screening checkpoint, checked into our room at the intercontinental hotel, (reminiscent of the old “five star” hotels in india), and made a beeline downstairs in search of the nearest decent restaurant.

we found one.

the first thing we stumbled upon was a japanese teppanyaki steakhouse in the upper hotel lobby called “shiki”. (shiggy to our delhi hash house harriers friends)

as we walk in at 10p.m. shiki is shaken (not stirred). patrons all around the room are staring glumly at cell phones, watching an australian rules football match in progress at the oval (yep, it’s an oval-shaped field) just a block away. there are only minutes to go and the local side is/are five points down. after a series of communal groans, someone mumbles “full time” and the cell phones go dark. the title hopes of the home team, port adelaide (not addlepate), are dashed. the visitors, a team from melbourne, are headed to the grand final, the aussie rules equivalent of the super bowl.

pernille and i are seated at a half moon table where a teppanyaki chef is flipping hefty chunks of lobster and gargantuan veggies on an iron griddle.

the chef, who turns out to be a cambodian refugee named buhn, is chattering away about football (and english soccer) while deftly slicing and dicing someone’s dinner into bite-sized chunks suitable for chopsticks.

we’re sitting between two aussie couples. the pair on our left are probably in their 30s. the guy, who’s sitting next to me, is distinguished by a st. patrick’s day green mohawk hairdo with side trimmings.

he goes by the name of “jonesy”. as we introduce ourselves, he tells that he and his wife own a hotel in a blink-of-an-eye town called coonalpyn, (pop. 210) about 140km southeast of adelaide. (not addlepate)

jonesy serves as barkeep; his wife winnie, whose hair is an attractive shade of pink, manages the restaurant. for them, this dinner date in the city and a night at the casino next door is a special treat, a birthday present from her to him.

when it’s our turn to tell our story, pernille mentions she’s a diplomat.

jonesy looks puzzled. “what’s a diplomat?” he asks. pernille explains that she represents denmark in australia, and winnie tells that her mother is from a small place near copenhagen, and proceeds to rattle off a number of phrases in danish she remembers from her childhood. quite a few, in fact. and pronounced well enough that pernille has no trouble understanding them.

jonesy and winnie in a photo poached from the coonalpyn hotel website

as the agony of defeat subsides in the restaurant, and an air of general merriment returns, jonesy talks about his pub, how he came to have green hair, how he shattered his knee (sure enough there is a pair of crutches in the corner), and about the grand racing classic the little town hosted last month, the coonalpyn 500, which was officially sanctioned by the south australian lawn mower racing association, motto “mow your own way”. (seriously!)

photo lifted without permission from the SALMRA facebook page

a word of explanation is warranted here. this blog post started out as a journal of our visit to adelaide, (not addelpate) but it’s been overtaken by jonesy and winnie and lawn mower racing. as we sit chatting around the teppanyaki table, it becomes increasingly clear we’ve encountered australia’s soul; unpretentious, self-reliant people living life to the hilt in the boondocks of a tongue-in-cheek country. they are the kind of folks you only get to know if you go out and find them. and we’ve had the lightning-strike good fortune to be seated for dinner right next to the creators of the soon to be legendary coonalpyn 500.

later that night, with visions of helmeted lawn-mower jockeys dancing in my head, the reporter in me demands a pilgrimage to the scene of the action. the next morning i look up the coonalpyn hotel website, call winnie and make a date for a tour.

the trip out in a rental car is uneventful until the “welcome to coonalpyn” sign comes into view. there’s an old saying that “you only get one chance to make a good first impression,” and coonalpyn gets an “A” for self-deprecating humor. (see above)

it was so perfect i had to wonder if the kangaroo was posing. he wasn’t.

the hotel, like its owners, is unpretentious. the clientele is working class, mostly jobbers employed on nearby construction projects.

when i arrive at midday, the place is quiet. COVID has forced a cutback in the restaurant’s hours. winnie is in the back, preparing for the day’s cooking.

jonesy is sitting in a little office with his leg elevated, but he grabs his crutches and escorts me to the pub. it’s a cozy room centered around a four-sided wood stove that keeps customers cozy as they sip their suds on wintry evenings. and it does get frosty in june and july. (hard to wrap my head around that)

he tells the story of how a friend offered to give him a mohawk haircut but then convinced him it would be cool to cut it in the shape of a lizard. the claws on the side are actually quite intricately carved. the green idea sorta followed on naturally because, well, it’s a lizard.

then there’s the account of how his knee was shattered. it happened one night when another friend suddenly threw his car into reverse while jonesy was standing behind it.

the reporter in me failed to ask whether intoxicants were involved in either event, but there were signs.

then jonesy takes me around back to show me his pride and joy (after winnie), a souped-up racing lawnmower that at first i thought was a kawasaki. i was wrong.

he told me his little tractor can reach speeds upward of 100 kph. (he’s also mowing the lawn in record time.) since he was on crutches, i took his word for it.

next we jumped in my little rental car and drove three blocks to the coonalpyn “speedway”, the half kilometer track he and a few buddies built, and where the grand coonalpyn 500 race was staged a month earlier. like the rest of the town, it’s unpretentious.

coonalpyn speedway

there’s no sign out front (yet). no grandstand. no announcer’s booth or TV camera positions. the coonalpyn speedway is a work in progress. but it’s SALMRA accredited. jonesy let me drive the rental car right out onto the track for a couple laps through the twists and turns. don’t tell avis, but their little hyundai handles the corners nicely.

lawnmower racing has a glorious history in australia dating back to 1988. there are pictures online of the late great formula one driver stirling moss piloting a mower. the sport has spread to the UK and the US as well, so there are expectations of a world championship competition soon. watch for it on your local motorsport channel. and watch for jonesy on his kwikasfaki mower. you’ll know him by the green lizard mohawk on his helmet.

oh, and a final word about coonalpyn’s other major tourist attraction, the silo mural.

painting these 30-meter high grain silos, which are still in operation, was the flagship project of an arts-renewal program called “creating coonalpyn”. it features massive portraits of five of the town’s schoolchildren painted by the australian artist guido van helten. it’s an even bigger tourist draw than the lawnmower races. (so far)

now a word about adelaide (not addlepate) and south australia, which was the subject of this blog post before we were distracted. (ADD, you know, which is the beginning of ADDlepate!)

adelaide’s (not addlepate’s) north terrace, where we stayed, is a bustling hub, home to universities, government houses, a plethora of dining and drinking opportunities ranging from grungy to exquisite, a casino, a sports arena and a bustling train terminal all lining a handsomely manicured riverfront park.

a walk from the hotel to the city’s lovely botanic garden took us through the law school campus where we found a tribute to prominent australian women at the forefront of the struggle for sexual (ok, gender) equality.

as one who has had an unhappy relationship with wine, i was more or less coerced into touring the famed mc laren vale wine region on our last day in adelaide (not addlepate). it was an adventure organized by pernille’s bulgarian colleague svetlozar panov, an old friend from our addis ababa days, who understood that no visit to south australia is complete without a trip to the vineyards.

the first morning i saw svetlozar, he had been out the night before on a “reconnaissance mission” to a vineyard owned by a bulgarian woman. when we met, he was hunched over a deep cup of coffee in the hotel restaurant. i asked how he was doing. “fifty-fifty”, he replied groggily. i feared that if it had been me, the equation would have been more like 10-90.

so it was with some trepidation that a few others and i piled into an SUV, minus svetlozar, to head down the coast to mc laren vale…

…which is heaven.

dandelion vineyard estate’s vista overlooking the sea in mc laren vale

our first stop was the d’arenberg winery, which is distinguished by a five-storey tall rubik’s cube recently described by the new york times (ugh!) as a “zany, adult fun house”. it is a hoot, well worth the price of admission.

the d’arenberg cube rises from the vines

the $15 million d’arenberg cube, the brainchild of winemaker chester osborn, has become the region’s biggest tourist attraction since it opened in 2017 (except for the wine).

chester was there to greet us in one of his trademark wacky shirts and take us on a tour of his salvador dali infused creation.

chester osborn, and our traveling partner sjef ijzermans

as the story goes, chester ran into a lot of opposition to building his rubik’s cube, starting with his father, other family members and business managers who thought it was an addlepate idea. they’ve been silenced, however, by the social media buzz created by the cube, and a 400% increase in cellar-door sales.

not to give too much away, but the cube is choc-a-bloc with wonderment, not least of which is a dali-esque computer generated LSD-trip descent into the inner osborn, which must be experienced to be appreciated. advice: .to avoid an addlepate experience, see it before you start sampling the vino. (or maybe not).

next up on the day’s itinerary was a stop at dandelion vineyards by the sea. we were greeted by our host, the bulgarian born winemaker elena brooks, along with her husband, zar brooks, an authentic south australian wine country character who also turned out to be our chauffeur.

it was curious to note that in the dandelion vineyards publicity brochure, the inside cover is a two page photo spread of elena holding not a wine bottle but a can of spray paint (see above). some addlepated reporters might have been tempted to ask why. not me.

after sampling the rieslings at the vineyard, elena and zar (real name alexander) invited us for lunch at what must be one of south australia’s finest restaurants, the star of greece, perched on a cliff overlooking the sea at a point called willunga.

i knew about the star of greece because pernille and i had received a tip in advance and had driven out for a sample a few nights earlier. seafood par excellence! if i were the michelin man, this place would have a star.

but the restaurant is not what it seems

the star of greece is actually a reference to a three-masted iron ship that broke apart and sank in shallow water just off the coast on friday the 13th of july, 1888. the website of the campbelltown city council, from which this information was gleaned, says locals described the wreck of the star of greece as a shameful day in the history of south australia.

Image of the Star of Greece
State Library of Victoria. (Malcolm Brodie Collection)

apparently the decision to sail out of port adelaide on the night of july 12th was a real addelpate move. the campbelltown website tells the story.

The captains’ idea was to be tacking through Backstairs Passage, in daylight the following day.After the event, men of the sea were consulted as to this approach. Some agreed in its practice, others felt it was foolhardy. But it was the events that occurred ashore, after the beaching, that caused most of the uproar. The vessel sailed into a very strong South Westerly gale, late on the evening of the 12th of July. The wind and undercurrent pushed the vessel 15 miles off course, and towards the shore. In the early hours of the 13th, the vessel was pushed on to the sand, in shallow water, near the town of Willunga. 

a board of enquiry into the shipwreck described the actions its 28-year old captain and crew as “a manifest want of skill”. but a second board of enquiry found a disastrous lack of preparedness among rescuers. the wreck was only discovered by a boy walking on the beach, and it took 14 hours to get the rescue operation underway. one of the first things they discovered was that no lifeboats were available. it gets worse, but there’s no sense dredging up old shark tales. in sum, it was a total addlepate fiasco.

seventeen crew members perished. nine survived.

today it is possible to sit on the patio of the star of greece restaurant and look out at the site where the star of greece sank while enjoying fine wine and seafood. trip advisor, from which the photo below was lifted, ranks the star of greece as #1 of 1 restaurants in willunga.

from the star of greece we headed directly to the adelaide (not addlepate) airport and the flight back to canberra. but i’m looking forward to visiting again next year when i return for the next running of the coonalpyn 500.


P.S. addle pate. (archaic, idiomatic) – foolish or dull-witted. (webster’s new english dictionary)

addle pate is one of those off beat expressions that was handed down to me from my language maven father, who found it amusing. i think of it often, as it seems to apply with frightening regularity.

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