Dinosaur for dinner?

"Look at them burgers," yelps the young bloke dressed in working clothes beside me "they'd be bloody good ones!"

We're standing at the counter of McPhee's Meats in Burra. And if you don't know where that is, more of that later.

Right now we are both looking at the biggest burgers either of us have ever seen. A ticket calls them 'diprotodon saltbush burgers' and they certainly look as if they could have come from the prehistoric animals that once roamed these parts.

Next to them in the showcase are 'diprotodon' steaks - gargantuan offerings that Fred Flintstone would have appreciated.

The guy behind the counter, owner Gary McPhee, just grins. It's all a bit of fun, he admits. Of course he's not really selling antediluvian tucker, but the meat is certainly 'bloody good'. It's hogget which has been allowed to graze on local saltbush on the nearby plains, so the flesh comes already seasoned and quite delicious.

Elsewhere I pinch myself believing I've wandered off towards Lands End. Local cafes advertise Cornish pasties on signs and menus because there's a nostalgia here for the mining days when Cornish, Welsh, Scottish and Irish accents filled the town's many pubs. Even today there are still five that more than deal with the thirst of Burra's one thousand residents.

Yet despite the early UK settlement, the name of Burra came courtesy of the Afghan cameleers who roamed this area and dubbed it in Hindustani - burra burra meaning 'very great'.

Burra is an easy drive from Adelaide, the 170 kilometres taking approximately two hours. It's officially in the Clare Valley, although on the eastern edge of it, and we pass a sign on the way to the town which gives us a reality check. It announces we are on the Barrier Highway, and that the next major town is Broken Hill, 360 kilometres north-east. Yet here the pastoral countryside is still lush and undulating and in 1988 Burra was proclaimed 'Merino Capital of the World'.

It was copper mining that put this place - originally just a series of townships in the early days, collectively called The Burra - on the map. It's hard to believe now as we wander the streets of this town snoozing in the hot sunshine that for 15 years Burra supplied five percent of the world's copper needs, mined from geological faults in the local dolomite rock. The low grade copper sulphate oreoccurred 300 to 400 millions of years ago, a guide book tells us, mega-ages beforethose prehistoric creatures roamed this area.

Fossil remains of a diprotodon, the world's largest marsupial, were discovered at nearby Baldina Creek in 1890 and there are specimens at the local Regional Council office.

In the beginning, after copper was discovered in 1845, there was intense rivalry between the Nobs (members of the Princess Royal Mining Company) and the Snobs (belonging to the South Australian Mining Association). Common sense or economic rationalism won out in the end and they joined forces to purchase the Burra Creek Special Survey which became known as the Monster Mine, drawing lots as to which part each group would investigate. As luck would have it, the Snobs did better from the deal.

In North Burra we visit the huge open pit which was enthusiastically mined from 1851 to 1877, then reopened from 1970-81. Today it lies abandoned, half-filled with water, the tall brick buildings around it empty, except for Morphett's Enginehouse, now a museum with three floors of displays.

Of course when we stop for lunch at Polly's Teashop in the main street we step back in time and order a Cornish pasty. It's very good, the pastry suitably flake, the filling hot and hearty, and the salad which comes with it as country-fresh and crisp as you'd hope for.

It needs a glass of good south-country cider though, to get us in the swing of the place, so straight after lunch we drive a couple of kilometres to the outskirts of town and visit Thorogoods cidery. At the doorway a sign reminds us that this simple brew is common in many countries in the world. Anywhere that grows apples, basically. The Thorogoods have been doing this since 1990 and their ciders, apple wines, even liqueurs and apple beer are legendary.

Clare is 43 kilometres south-west of Burra, and while many push on to enjoy the greater selection of restaurants and check out the region's wineries, there is much to make visitors stay put in Burra. The town and environs have plenty of cottages, guesthouses and bed and breakfasts, cafes, restaurants, and antique shops and others selling geological specimens and fossils. Visitors may even tour a gold mine.

The tidy but not twee town, with its restored National Trust buildings, market square, and obvious pride in its heritage offers much. Breaker Morant was filmed here and the town is a favourite with producers looking for an 'authentic' historic backdrop.

Then, if you are curious about the hard-working heritage of the place, there's the Burra Heritage Passport available from the Visitor Information Centre. For a small fee the Pass gives you a key to eight locked sites including the town's four museums, Redruth Gaol (the first one built in the state outside of Adelaide) miners' dugouts, and an amazing underground brewery. There's a lot to see, and visitors don't have to finish their explorations in a day. They may keep the key until they leave.

I'd always wanted to visit Burra, yet somehow the map and my mind's eye had drawn it dull and dusty. Instead a short detour from the planned Clare Valley destination proved me very wrong. 

So much more than copper and Cornish pasties, Burra is a cameo country town, coming to terms with its history and the present. Even if it does have to call in help from the occasional megafauna.


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