Port Fairy in Victoria will never be associated with rugby league.
But, when I hear any reference to the pretty seaside village, I immediately reflect on November 26, 2005, the day our Kangaroos suffered a humiliating 24-0 loss to New Zealand at Elland Road, Leeds in England, in the final of the Tri-Nations tournament.
The Kiwis, captained by the legendary Ruben Wiki, playing his 50th Test, scored four tries and had the crowd of 26,534 on their side, with the Australians, captained by Danny Buderus, given a right tough time by the fans, as English referee, Steve Ganson blew full-time.
My wife, Marie and I were on a motoring trip from Adelaide to Melbourne, and had booked into a caravan park at Port Fairy for four nights.
On the final morning I woke in time to tune into the telecast of the Tri-Nations final, with the Kiwis leading 8-0. There was no need to panic, I thought. But things went from bad to worse, with Australia showing a lack of discipline with the football.
I felt sorry for our son, Damien, who was in the crowd. Teaching in England, he has now had to endure the barbs of Pom supporters at the Ashes cricket and the rugby league. The Wallabies also had had a bad trot in the northern hemisphere, losing to France, England and Wales, while having a win against the Irish, who we all love. At least Damien saw the Kangaroos beat Great Britain 20-6 in one of the preliminary, Tri-series games in Wigan.
I also felt sorry for the Sydney Daily Telegraph’s Dean Ritchie, who was covering the tournament for News Ltd, just as I had done the previous year, when Wayne Bennett took on the national coaching job. I had entered a victorious dressing room at Elland Road, with music blaring, champagne corks popping and lots of back slapping. Back at the team hotel, the atmosphere was electric.
What was Dean confronted with, I wondered?
Oh well. Such results are good for the international game. That is the usual lament of Aussie supporters.
I suspect no-one at Port Fairy even knew the game had been played, as I walked for the Sunday paper, sheltering under a Norfolk pine, with a local chap, a cyclist, who was involved in athletics. I walked to the main street with a bloke who had moved to Port Fairy from Alice Springs to research a movie.
Our South Australian/Victorian adventure had started on November 4. Our cabbie to Brisbane airport was a former RAAF pilot, who had flown VIPS such as Prime Ministers, Sir Robert Menzies, Harold Holt and Malcolm Fraser, as well as Governor-General, Lord Casey.
Marie and I had explored Adelaide on our first day, and signed up for a bus tour of five wineries in the Barossa Valley, plus Maggie Beer’s Farm House. Our driver, Marc, a former car plant supervisor, who was married to a Pom from Dagenham, did a great job.
Our group included a doctor from Boston in the United States; Zac from New York, who was studying at the University of Queensland in Brisbane; a girl from Mississippi; a couple from Strathpine in Qld; two ladies from ‘Oakover Winery’ in Perth, as well as an English couple from Perth. He was a Warrington rugby league fan, and used to watch Australian superstar, Brian Bevan play for ‘The Wire’.
We had morning tea at Lyndoch and lunch at Nuriootpa – beautiful butter fish.
Sunday in Adelaide and I was able to get a leave pass from Marie to watch the last session of a Sheffield Shield cricket match between South Australia and Queensland, at Adelaide Oval.
We spent three days on Kangaroo Island (see ‘Don’t Skip This Island’), and then more time back in Adelaide, before setting off in our hire car on Monday, November 14, driving to Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills, via Bridgewater Mill winery.
We dined at the Hahndorf Inn – beef stroganoff moi; Limestone Coast lamb, Marie – to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary.
The next three nights were spent in a cabin at Victor Harbor, the highlight a guided tour of ‘The Coorong’, a coastal national park famous for its wildlife, especially pelicans. The movie, ‘Storm Boy’ was filmed here. We brought back a bag of pippies, which we had dug up with our feet, from the surf shallows, with the permission of the National Park people.
Most of my mates regard pippies as only good for bait, but they taste beautiful, especially with pasta, which is how Marie cooked them.
There also was a day trip to McLaren Vale, via a walk in Deep Water Conservation Park. In McLaren Vale we tasted wine at Fox Creek, Wirra Wirra and Hugh Hamilton, signing up as ‘Black Sheep’ members at the latter. The lass who looked after us at Hugh Hamilton was New York born, to Brazilian parents, and was an absolute charmer, one of the reasons we signed up for regular wine deliveries to Brisbane.
On leaving Victor Harbor, we headed for the coastal village of Robe, via Strathalbyn, just missing the ferry across the River Murray at Wellington. When we caught the next one, our skipper was friendly and informative, telling us this was the oldest crossing on Australia’s greatest river. Picnic lunch at ‘Coorong View Point’, and then lobster at Kingston.
Robe is lovely, and busy, with two weddings. Two drinks at the Robe Pub, where there was lots of swearing from front bar patrons. Further drinks at Caledonian ‘British’ pub, where the restaurant was fully booked. The barman came from Roma in Queensland and had attended the University of Queensland.
The following day we drove to Penola, where we visited the Mary Mackillop School, which I found a moving experience. The religious social reformer, was born in Australia to Scottish immigrants, was canonised in 1995, becoming Australia’s first Saint. At Penola, she had established the school, which Marie and I visited.
Lunch at Hollicks Winery in the famed Coonawarra region, where red wine is king. Marie had calamari while I had a duck dish – food by Sean Emery. Also tasted wine at Jamieson’s Run and Wynns.
On Monday, November 22 we drove to Mt Gambier, our last overnight stay in South Australia. We undertook the tour of Umpherstone Sink Hole, for the ‘possum fest’, which we thought was over-rated. Pizza at the pub, but had to wait until 10 p.m. to be served because the place was booked out by travelling reps.
The next day there was a guided tour of Mt Gambier’s Blue Lake and its power station, with ‘Barry’, a man who hated bureaucrats.
We had morning tea at a cafe on the esplanade at Port MacDonnell, where the owners asked us for ideas for a name for the joint. She liked Mariners, he didn’t. I suggested ‘Rockys’, ‘Lobby’s’ ‘The Moorings’.
Lunch at Nelson in Victoria, at the mouth of the Glenelg River as people boarded for a cruise. We saw the boat at Mary Rose Cave, during a walk in the nearby national park.
Back in Mt Gambier, we had drinks with the Federal Hotel publican, Barry Sutcliffe, who said he hated Brisbane because he always got lost there.
On November 24 we drove to Fort Fairy, via Casterton, Wannon Falls, Hamilton (where we had lunch in the botanic gardens) and Mt Eccles National Park, where we had a nice walk around the lake.
Port Fairy was just as pretty as I remembered from my only other visit in 1974, after attending the Melbourne Cup. Local Aussie rules footballers were having a workout at a riverside park. I don’t think we ever started that early (in the off-season) at Murwillumbah.
Local bream for dinner at Caledonian Pub (also known as ‘The Stump’) after checking out the ‘Royal Oak’. ‘The Stump’ is the oldest continually operating pub in Victoria.
The next morning, I braved the waters off East Beach for a swim, before a drive to Warrnambool, where I had seen Victoria Country play the touring English cricket side in 1974. Returned to Port Fairy, via Koroit, where we had a drink at one of the local pubs.
Saturday, November 26 – fish (flake) and chips for lunch from Crags, before a trip to Portland, via Cape Nelson, where we chatted to a couple from Yorkshire (Halifax and Bradford) who were keen league supporters. They tipped an easy win for Australia in the Tri-Nations final the next day!!! Instead, it turned out to be a fairy tale for the Kiwis, with big Manu Vatuvei scoring two tries in their 24-0 win.
1 Marie Ricketts in the Adelaide Hills
2 The Coorong
3 Steve Ricketts at Hugh Hamilton’s McLaren Vale
4 Wannon Falls
5 Marie Ricketts at Port Fairy.