The hidden freshwater playground in South Australia’s backyard

Written by a self-proclaimed freshwater advocate and lavender enthusiast (Image Source: Jonathon Poulson)

By Jonathon Poulson | @jonoriley97 

I looked across the lake and felt the canoe come to a complete standstill.

I’ve never felt more proud to be South Australian.

The sun glistened on the water more than I’d ever seen it do on the ocean. Time felt as still as the canoe, as still as the lake; a stark contrast to the repetitive rat race of work and study.

It’s funny how a weekend away can inspire such a strong sense of adventure. It’s an exciting time, especially when you make the most of it. But sometimes the change of seasons can be awkward. We’re fresh out of winter and September arrives with a hard hit of spring air (mainly whiffs of pollen and moisture). The weather begins to warm and for us Adelaideans, that means coming out of hibernation. We trawl the shops, streets and beaches and stay out later and later as soon as daylight saving hits. We seem to have more money at our disposal after the colder months, which draw much thinner crowds and fewer events, as locals refrain from indulging in any form of fine food, drink and fashion.

For young people and families with children, it’s when the mid-semester and term three holidays fall. By this time of year, most people have either already gone on holiday or are desperately craving one. This year I found myself in both positions. The work and study hours felt long, but the days felt short. A fun and easy weekend away has helped change the pace in the past.

My partner was in the same boat and willingly agreed to accompany me.

“Where shall we go?” he asked.

I knew I wanted quiet—but fun and rural—and less than three hours away; warm, but not the beach because we treat it like our backyard already.

I travelled around SA quite a lot as a kid. My parents would often make bets on the TV Travel Auction ads and take my sister and me on short getaways around the state. We often spoke of fond memories of those cute trips when we all caught up for dinner. It was in this exact setting that I had a moment of pure nostalgia as I recalled quite possibly one of the oldest memories I have.

“Do you remember our trip to Barmera?” A question I knew would lead to a wonderful discussion.

My parents spoke of the trip as if they were in the moment again. It was a powerful and vivid memory, a treasured family moment. They painted a picture of us having a picnic together by Lake Bonney. They recalled swimming, canoeing, fishing and warm hazy nights at the local pub. Either they sold Barmera extremely well to me that night, or I had just found my next holiday destination…or both.

Like anyone keening themselves up for a holiday, I trawled the Internet in search for as much information on the area as possible. To my surprise, my search was not all that successful. Why has this area gone so under-reported or more pertinently: how? General information was easily found, but I couldn’t read about people’s experiences, and I could barely find a news article. Were tourism and promotion not needed? Or maybe the people who go there protect it from becoming popular so they can keep it for themselves? There was only one way to find out, and that was to go there myself.

Like most Aussie towns, Barmera had a preserved historic narrative which laid the foundations of the town’s very existence. Lake Bonney was first seen in 1838 by British pioneers Charles Bonney and Joseph Hawdon. In 1921, irrigation was installed, and the town was gazetted. An influx of World War One veterans settled with promises of irrigated land from the government. In World War Two one of the largest internment camps in Australia was established just south of Barmera in Loveday…oh the irony.

Today the Barmera area is a substantial service area of surrounding citrus, vine and orchard fields. With a strong agricultural feel, the town relies on irrigation from the River Murray and Lake Bonney for tourism. An article published by The Australian explains how the lake had been drought-affected for years up until 2011. During the worst part of the drought, the river dropped to such low levels that the irrigation pipes failed to even connect to the lake. In 2007, the Rann government installed a regulator to save water, disconnecting the lake from the system altogether. The article labelled the lake a “hyper-saline puddle”…a discouraging label for tourists and a depressing time for the town.

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Flavours of the Riverland, Home of Backyard Bread Café sign, Sturt Highway, Barmera (Image Source: Jonathon Poulson)

“It was terrible really because the stories were out that the lake was dry. People would cancel their bookings because they thought there was no water in the lake which just wasn’t the case,” Barmera local Colleen Johnson said.

She’s been running the iconic Flavours of the Riverland, Home of Backyard Bread Café with her husband for 13 years.

“It all started with a wood oven!” she said with such enthusiasm that I felt my first hit of SA pride.

“Back in 2005, we built a wood oven in our backyard. We started doing ordinary bread and then dried breads in different flavours. We wanted to do something that would complement the cheese and olives, wines and beers and coffees that were being produced here.”

A local culture built around creating and complementing local fine foods—it doesn’t get much more South Australian than that.

“We were doing farmers markets, Main Street markets, packaging and sending our stuff all over the Riverland, SA and Australia. It got to the stage where it was just getting too busy so we had to move.”

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Inside Backyard Bread Café (Image Source: Backyard Break Café)

They’re situated on the Sturt Highway and have a vintage café space with a shop alongisde. As well as selling their own products, they sell other regional products and have created platters and baked goods to showcase the Riverland. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling adventurous enough to try their signature emu and saltbush pie with bush tomato relish.

“We haven’t really advertised a lot, we’ve sort of gone on word of mouth and just let it grow on its own,” she said.

“We really didn’t think it was going to be as busy as what it’s become.”

Colleen told a refreshing success story of how a small business was able to grow and export local produce nationally, which in turn helped the Riverland survive a lean drought period. As conditions slowly improved, the Barmera community put pressure on the Rann government to remove the regulator in December 2010, allowing the water to return to the lake. Since then Collen said they had noticed a significant increase in tourism in the area.

In searching for more of what makes SA great, my partner and I travelled eight minutes up the Sturt Highway to a Lavender Farm that offered so much more. The owner of Berri Lavender Estate, Mario Cenofanti, spoke of just how much tourism had boomed in recent years.

“Why I know is because we get a lot of bus tours from all over the state like Probus from Mount Gambier would come up, and we get a lot from Victoria too which is good” Mario said.

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Mario and Lucy Cenofanti holding some of their own lavender products (Image Source: Bella Lavender)
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Berri Lavender Estate minigolf course and playground (Image Source Bella Lavender)

He and his wife Lucy distil lavender to create their own oils, hand cream, body wash and other products. The estate boasts an Italian restaurant that serves authentic wood oven pizza and a broad range of locally brewed beers and ciders. Their outdoor seating overlooks the lavender farm, onsite playground and minigolf course as well as local vineyards.

The idea came to them while on holiday at Moonta in SA’s Yorke Peninsula. They saw a lavender farm and felt it would be a great tourism site for the Riverland, and so they transformed their struggling fruit block into the Berri Lavender Estate.

“Ten years ago I pulled out half of my fruit vines and planted lavender because at the time we had a severe drought and our water allocation was right down low,” he said.

“It was a good time to start and now it’s running very well.”

It was my second injection of pride: The SA culture of local fine foods, drinks and products, born out of a desire to help the Riverland.

The Barmera Main Street Sunday Markets had the first event of the season while we were in town. The markets turned the deserted main street with countless empty shop windows into a much fuller scene. Mario had a coffee van and waved to us as we strolled through the stalls.

The busy campsite levelled out the deserted town streets by offering the full lake experience. I could see why it was titled a discovery park as I bounced from activity to activity: the air pillow to the water park, swimming pool, canoes, paddleboats, lakeside swimming and a water trampoline. The choice can be overwhelming. Canoes and paddleboats came at an additional cost, but the rest inclusive with the campsite fee. Life jackets were free and compulsory for any lake activity with a $10 deposit. You could observe all the water activities from your campsite, or the lush green lakeside lawn provided the perfect picnic spot. Those fortunate enough to have boats and jet skis were terrifyingly fun to watch as kids and adults out on the water made hilarious crash landings.

Barmera Discovery Park managers Sharon and Karen were run off their feet over the weekend but in a brief quiet moment, Sharon was able to tell me about the types of extra activities she had personally added to the park. The moonlight cinema was a daily evening event that occurred with weather and audience permitting. A chalkboard sat out the front of the reception building and read what movie was playing that day. Next to it, another chalkboard read what local food trucks would be visiting the park, and that day, it was Greek cuisine. A coffee caravan was there early the next morning.

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Night and day at Barmera discovery park (Image Source: Jonathon Poulson)

We discovered on social media that a club night was being held at the Barmera Hotel Motel on the Saturday we were in town. We went and saw a booming rural nightlife as local punters young and old came to socialise and support the local DJ. From one drunk conversation to another, I was happy to hear an event like this was not uncommon.

I’d never felt more proud to be South Australian. It came from the people, tourists, and community. It came from the different generations of campers all functioning together in such a versatile space. Young families, groups of young adults and couples were sharing and thriving comfortably. The lake was the focus and shared respectfully. Colleen and Mario showed me how the area encapsulates everything that makes SA great, and why it should no longer remain a secret.

My attempt to capture the essence of Barmera through poetry…

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(Image Source: Jonathon Poulson)

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