Good Country: Mullet, mower races and an ostrich-riding bushranger in Meningie

Throughout his travels in regional South Australia, Michael X Savvas finds plenty of good country. Coorong mullet, mower races and tales of an ostrich-riding bushranger dominate his time in Meningie.

My learning curve was steep during a recent visit to Meningie, the laid-back Coorong town by Lake Albert. For example, I learnt that the Coorong mullet has nothing to do with Greg Rowe’s haircut in Storm Boy. Rather, it’s a truly scrumptious fish with a taste to die for – or (if you’d prefer not to die) to at least make the comfortable two-hour drive from Adelaide to experience.

The Coorong holds much significance for the Ngarrindjeri people. Derek Gollan (known locally as Uncle D), a Ngarrindjeri elder and former park ranger around the Coorong and lakes, explains: “Ngurunderi came down the river and created the fish and the lake by throwing a spear into the river. He speared a giant cod and cut it up, making different species of fish from the pieces. You get the Coorong mullet and the sea mullet, which is much drier.”

Indeed, the Coorong mullet, far from being dry, is tender and succulent. But why?

Glen and Tracy Hill, from Meningie’s award-winning Coorong Wild Seafood, know why. “Being at the bottom end of the Murray, we don’t have pollution,” Glen says. “Normally, a river flows in one end and out the other. With us, our river flows in one end and out at the same place, so you avoid sediment. In the estuary, all the water is pristine and nutrient-based rich. Only the fishermen go up the Coorong, so you don’t get the ‘kerosene taste’. [In Melbourne, the fish taste horrible.] The Coorong mullet have an underlying sweet taste. If you have one bite, you crave to have another bite.”

“Some people say it has a strong taste because it’s an oily fish,” Tracy adds. “We process it as close to the source as possible, so the oil doesn’t oxidise.”

Getting away from the Coorong mullet for a minute (if we must), Meningie has other attractions that qualify it as good country. It’s built alongside Lake Albert, a rich ecosystem, particularly for pelicans and other birdlife. There’s also something incredibly soothing and meditative about its grey and often serene waters; gazing at the lake at sunrise or sunset feels like gazing into clouds of the subconscious.

A room with a lakeside view, from the warm and welcoming Waterfront Motel, allows you to absorb the ethereal charm of this liquid zen garden. Nothing beats the peace of watching a pelican float across the water. Meningie also has the Pink Lake, which, as its name (more than) suggests, has a pink hue.

Meningie is close to the historically rich town of Raukkan (home of writer and inventor David Unaipon) and the spectacular views from Port Malcolm, Australia’s only inland lighthouse, where Lake Albert and Lake Alexandrina meet.

Meningie is also home to Mowers @ Meningie, where modified lawnmowers race. With colourfully named mowers such as Meningie Monster and (my favourite) Chopper Weed, this forum is perfect for showcasing that Aussie country practical humour, relaxed and friendly Meningie residents and the best variation on a Bunnings sausage sizzle ever: generic white sliced bread filled with coleslaw, lemon juice and (drum roll, please) Coorong mullet.

Mowers aside, Meningie has another connection to pimped-up rides. South Australia’s only bushranger was a diminutive Irishman, John Francis Peggotty, who performed his bushrangerly deeds around Meningie on the back of an ostrich. Peggotty was a gangster prototype: he held up and killed people while covered in bling – jewellery and gold chains up his arms and chest.

Apparently, the speed and dexterity of the ostrich made it perfect for the soft sands of the Coorong. In relation to whispers that there are still ostriches in the Coorong, Uncle D says “I never saw an ostrich, but migratory birds come here from Siberia in the summer. Also, in 2016 and 2017, we saw two big leopard seals from New Zealand. And I’ve seen wild deer around Salt Creek and up in the scrub in Meningie.”

To me, this is a perfect segue to ask more about the Coorong mullet. But Uncle D looks at his watch and politely excuses himself to leave …

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