Judy Bailey experiences a South Australian treasure.
The countryside is full of the promise of spring as we head out of Adelaide for the short drive to the Fleurieu Peninsula. McLaren Vale's almond trees are in full bloom, standing out like beacons among the sleeping vines. This is the heart of South Australia's wine country.
I'm joining the Heysen Trail, one of the world's great walks, stretching 1200km from the Flinders Ranges in the north to Cape Jervis on the southern point of the peninsula.
The wonderful thing about this trail is its diversity, passing through farmland, over golden beaches, gum and pine forests, up rocky escarpments, waterfalls and major peaks - Mt Lofty, Mt Remarkable and Mt Magnificent. (You can almost hear those early pioneers marvelling at the sheer grandeur of the landscape.) There's a real sense of history as you camp in tiny stone shepherd's huts and pass by the remains of old gold mines. The walk also climbs along some of the most spectacular coastal cliffs you're likely to experience.
I'm mesmerised - but there's walking to be done. We're heading for the cliffs at Waitpinga. Spring is whale-watching season, when the female southern right whales journey through the Southern Ocean from Antarctica to the Great Australian Bight, where they will give birth and raise their calves.
Our sense of anticipation builds as we near the coast at Middleton, a tiny beachside town with a cranking surf break at the eastern end of the cliffs, where we hope to spot the whales from the shore.
And there they are. At least five giant females rolling in the bay's deep, clear waters, their babies by their sides. Lazily arching and turning, their blowholes are like fountains reaching for the sky. It's a remarkable sight.
A handful of locals are watching, happily sharing their wonderment with us. The whales are a couple of hundred metres offshore, side by side with a group of surfers keeping a wary eye on them. The whales will stay here for several months until their young are old enough to avoid falling victim to hungry seals and other predators, and then they'll return to the ice.
One of the things I love about travel is the people you meet along the way and, if you're lucky, on this clifftop section of the trail you may chance upon a petite bundle of energy by the name of Elizabeth Steele-Collins.
Elizabeth's property, Sea-wings, borders the Waitpinga Cliffs. She's a gifted photographer, whale watcher, researcher and conservationist. She is also a committed member of the Friends of the Heysen Trail, an organisation of around 800 volunteers who administer and maintain the trail.
Elizabeth is often to be found on the track photographing the glorious birdlife as it swoops and dives in the swirling currents above the cliffs. This area is home to the only pair of white-bellied sea eagles on the South Australian coast - and planes now fly high over here so the eagles are undisturbed. There are brash, brightly coloured parrots, too, and laughing kookaburras, delicate firetails and new holland honeyeaters.
Also special is the vegetation. Mostly native, its biodiversity boasts a number of rare plants. Come in spring and you'll enjoy the display of the wildflowers.
The trail is named after South Australia's landscape artist Sir Hans Heysen, which is fitting as it was Sir Hans who introduced the world to the beauty of the gum tree, capturing its glowing trunk and graceful limbs. He also painted prodigiously in the Flinders Ranges.
The trail passes through the picturesque town of Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills, where Sir Hans lived and painted. You can visit his Arts and Crafts bungalow set in a lush country garden.
He welcomed artists and musicians from all over the world. Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova apparently danced in his living room and coveted the still-life painting above the fireplace in the drawing room, but Sir Hans refused to part with it. The house is much the same as it was in his day and his descendants still use it as a weekend retreat.
Also just off the track, at Kuitpo, you'll find Geoff Hardy's K1 winery. A fifth-generation member of the famous Australian wine family, Geoff moved to the Adelaide Hills in search of a cooler climate to grow his new Gruner Veltliner and Arneis grapes. He and his delightful family have turned the estate into an award winner, taking out both the Australian winemaker of the year and the Australian wine company of the year awards. (If wine's your passion, a section of the trail passes through the Barossa Valley.)
The Heysen Trail is graded easy to strenuous. Some basic navigation skills would be handy on the long stretches. To walk it in one hit would take two to three months - most people do it in stages.
The best walking season for the trail is April to November. Outside those times it's considered dangerous because of the threat of bush fires, snakes and dehydration.
I didn't see any snakes - too cold at this time of year - but I did see kangaroos and wallabies. Echidnas are common, too.
They say the Heysen Trail is a South Australian treasure. Now I know why.
Where to lay your head
The many options for accommodation on a wonderful nature walk
• South Australia has a wide variety of accommodation options, from hotels and motels to self-contained apartments, holiday homes, bed and breakfasts, camping grounds or even quiet vineyard cottages.
• Judy stayed at The Haus Studio Apartments in Hahndorf, about a 20-minute drive from Adelaide.
• Hahndorf is a small town in the Adelaide Hills and Australia's oldest surviving German settlement. During World War I, the South Australian Government changed many German place names and Hahndorf's was altered to Ambleside. This name remained until the late 1930s, when it reverted to Hahndorf.
• From Adelaide Hills you can reach the wine regions of Barossa and Clare Valley, houseboat or cruise the Murray River, enjoy the coastlines of Fleurieu and York Peninsulas and the wildlife on Kangaroo Island.
Take a walk on the Heysen Trail
• You can choose to walk a half-day or a full-day section of the 1200km Heysen Trail ... or to hike it from end to end.
• Walking the entire trail would take between 50 and 60 days.
• The southern section, from Cape Jervis to Spalding in the Mid North, is ideal for beginners and people walking with children, and follows the Mount Lofty Ranges. The northern section, from Spalding to Parachilna Gorge, is more isolated and can be rugged at times. It is more suited to experienced walkers.
• Up to four litres of water a day is needed if you're walking the track.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Adelaide four to seven days a week. Pick up a rental car and make your way to one of the many sections along the Heysen Trail.
Find out more at: Australia.com.
Judy Bailey travelled to South Australia with the assistance of Tourism Australia, the South Australian Tourism Commission and Air New Zealand. For more information see Australia Passion: Nature and Wildlife.