Autumn swathes the Barossa Valley in heavenly colours, writes Fergus Blakiston.
"Beer is made by men, wine by God." — Martin Luther
A thousand feet above the Barossa Valley the sky is cool and quiet. Our balloon drifts languidly northwest on an ephemeral wind current, held aloft by nothing more than a few tonnes of warm air. The pilot, Justin Stein, maintains the temperature in the giant yellow envelope above us with regular bursts of flame from the twin propane burners.
The rising sun appears from behind the hills of southern South Australia. Its light floods the landscape, transforming it, moment by moment, from indigo and mauve to maroon and gold. The sunrise is so spectacular on this April morning that even Justin, who has seen his share of Barossa sunrises, is impressed. "I've been doing this for 25 years," he says. "But that is one of the best sunrises I've ever seen."
Big eucalypt trees, growing along the valley bottoms, trail their shadows through skeins of mist draped over the vineyards below. Kangaroos hop through the clearings. Another balloon, bright orange in the dawn light, hangs in the sky over Tanunda. A bell tolls from the tower of a church on a hillside striped with vines.
At the edge of the valley, we fly over a low, rocky ridge. The vineyards abruptly give way to grain fields. In minutes we have moved from the orderly, bucolic Barossa to the flat, uncluttered expanse of the Outback. We land in a field of barley stubble stitched into the rich, red soil. Crows gurgle in a lone gum tree growing beside a derelict windmill. After a glass of champagne (a long-held tradition observed by balloonists) we pack up the balloon and drive back to Tanunda for breakfast.
Autumn in the Barossa Valley is a season of wonderful afternoons. The broiling heat of summer has cooled into dewy mornings, mid-20s middays and warm, languid evenings.
Colour seeps through the landscape as the vine leaves turn to russet and gold. The aroma of fermenting grapes fills the air as the "angel's share" of the 2016 vintage evaporates into the sky.
Northwest of Tanunda, the Sturt Highway conveys me into the desert. Grey saltbush, interspersed with clusters of eucalypts, grows in the coarse, chilli-red soil beneath a hot sky the colour of burnished pewter. The neat landscape of the Barossa, with its orderly rows of vines, and its air scented with the angel's share, seem to belong in another world.
At Morgan, the Murray River appears like a vision of paradise in a parched land. The river flows between grassy banks broken by escarpments of ancient, weathered sandstone.
Willows trail their leaves in the water. A flat-bottomed ferry conveys me and my rented campervan across the river; the ruddy-faced ferryman wears an Akubra the size of a wagon wheel.
The Caudo Vineyard overlooks a bend in the river 10km upstream from Morgan. A lawn runs down from the cellar door to a narrow strip of pink sand. The river slides sinuously by, its waters opaque and glossy. Giant river red gums stand brooding on the far bank.
Christine and Joe Caudo bought the land for their vineyard in the late 80s. Back then it was a derelict farm, with an old stone hut and nothing else. With patience and water, they have made the land fruitful. Vast acreages of chardonnay, shiraz and merlot grapes now cover the gentle slopes of the river bank. Beyond the vines, groves of oranges and limes erupt from the red soil.
I camp for the night in a clearing overlooking the river, a few hundred metres from the vineyard's cellar door. After dark, Christine brings me a little charcoal barbecue with a selection of meats to cook, and a bottle of shiraz. The campsite at Caudo is part of a network of "Wine Havens" the campervan company Maui, has created in South Australia.
Travellers in self-contained campers can stay in these places while they enjoy the fruits of the local landscape.
I am awake at dawn. The river steams gently in the pale light; dragonflies hover above the water on translucent wings. I relight my fire, brew some coffee and watch the day arrive. I am reluctant to leave the river: the Caudo Vineyard's winery haven is the sort of place you could sit all day. But I have an appointment with the ancient rocks of the Flinders Ranges, far to the north.
Back in Tanunda after a few days in the deep Outback, I sit at a bright yellow table on the street outside Pod Cafe. A cool autumn breeze bustles fallen leaves along the footpath; the veranda posts of the cafe are festooned with vines turned maroon by the season. My latte tastes like a gift from God.
Later, I drive up to Mengler's Hill Lookout to watch the sun set.
The evening air is warm and quiet. The sun hovers on a horizon striped with purple and gold. There are a few other people, locals mostly, sitting on the rock wall at the edge of the carpark. Everyone has a bottle of wine and some local produce — cheese, grapes, pate.
I get talking to an American couple, John and Sarah Pinto, on holiday from their jobs as IT consultants in Hyderabad, India.
John pours me a glass of merlot. The sun withdraws silently from the day; the birds fall silent. I swirl the warm wine around in the glass, releasing the angel's share into the warm air. And night comes down like a benediction.
flies non-stop 4-7 times a week between Auckland and Adelaide.