Good Country: Bikes, beers and barrows in Melrose

No air’s as crisp and fragrant as the eucalyptus-infused mountain air on Mount Remarkable after fresh rain.

This was my thought as I hurtled over the handlebars of a mountain bike towards the rocky ground and inevitable pain. The setting was a bike track on the charismatic mountain that looms over Melrose, Flinders Ranges’ oldest town and the focal point of mountain biking in South Australia.

In 1840, explorer Edward John Eyre gave Mount Remarkable its name, clearly impressed by this natural splendour in the lands of the Nukunu people. A settlement soon emerged, and early industries in the area included farming and copper mining.

Someone else who was instantly entranced by Mount Remarkable and the quaint town beneath it is likeable Aussie larrikin, Warwick ‘Wozza’ Buckland. Originally from the Victorian town of Sunbury, Wozza reminisces over a tinnie about when he and Melrose first met six years ago. “I just got this weird feeling when I drove in from the north, just following this mountain that didn’t seem to end. It’s like being in love or something. I walked around a bit and saw the old bank was for sale.”

On a whim, Wozza bought the bank (built in 1881) and converted it to Wozza’s BnB and Vault Café, with the theme being Australian banks. Being an ex-builder, who’d run a building company for 26 years, Wozza did all the renovations himself. Although Australian banks are not typical destinations for romantic country getaways, Wozza explains his inspiration: “When I have a drink, I have these ideas and come up with all this quirky shit. People get a laugh out of these things. But seriously, I like taking a punt and I’ve found that when you do, things seem to work out.”

One of the locals at Mount Remarkable (Photo: Michael X Savvas)

Wozza’s punt to relocate to Melrose did pay dividends. Both Wozza and his bouncy Jack Russell, Charlie, appear happy – particularly Charlie when he gets to ride in the milk crate on Wozza’s scooter.

Wozza explains: “I love Mount Remarkable and I love the Melrose community. The best thing about small towns is that people don’t talk bullshit about themselves. If you talk bullshit, they’ll see through it. And when I first arrived here, I couldn’t understand why the bike shop had $8000 to $10,000 bikes in the windows and no bollards outside. But everybody trusts everybody here.”

There may be truth in that, as Melrose doesn’t have a police station. But it wasn’t always the case. Indeed, Melrose once had a police station, set up in 1848, with the biggest ‘beat’ in the world, reaching to the Timor Sea. The former police headquarters is now an excellent museum, which includes a photo of Mount Remarkable being even more remarkable and snow-covered in 1908. The museum also outlines colourful crimes committed in Melrose. For example, in 1859 a man who assaulted police was transported from the pub to the cop shop in a prototype paddy wagon – a wheelbarrow.

Although Melrose folk still like to keep and ride horses, the favoured mode of transportation has shifted from wheelbarrows to mountain bikes in modern times. “This town’s all about bikes, and it brings 15,000 to 18,000 people with bikes each year,” he says. “It’s the bike hub of SA.”

Mount Remarkable (Photo: Michael X Savvas)

The varying slopes and landscapes of Mount Remarkable make it ideal for the high-adrenaline sport of mountain biking. But another natural feature of the area lends itself to a different local activity: brewing beer. The constant supply of high-quality water from the Mount Remarkable creek enabled Jacka Brothers Brewery to produce (from 1877 to 1934) an award-winning beer, described as the “best beer ever made”. The good news is that the mill and adjoining buildings from Jacka Brothers Brewery are being restored and will re-open as a microbrewery, function centre and place to stay, creating jobs and even more tourism in the town and region.

I can’t wait to return to Melrose, replace my bruises with brews, have a Jacka’s beer with Wozza and rechallenge the mountain bike tracks that defeated me.

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