Stanthorpe – The Granite Belt Bike Ride

Over the Easter weekend I visited Stanthorpe, in Queensland’s South-east corner.  My visit was partly nostalgic – I lived in this small town for three or four years when I was a child – and partly because I had been drawn by advertisements promoting a bicycle ride through apple orchards and local vineyards:  Castles, Cafés and Cabernet.

I was at first a little disappointed by the tour prospects, but I guess I had been expecting a sort of jaunt through Bordeaux with a few Rhine River châteaux thrown in for extra excitement.  While this was not to be, the day was still thoroughly delightful.

Jon Hendry, manager of the company, collected cyclists from several local hotels and drove the group to a meeting point by the Summit Railway station.  This tiny country station is not very busy – an historic steam engine excursion from Stanthorpe to Wallangarra calls here occasionally – but it at an altitude of just 950 metres it is apparently the highest railway station in the State.

Castles

The Château de Chenonceau in France, Delhi’s Red Fort in India, and Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany may leap to readers’ minds … but none of them popped up on this bike ride.  However, the first “castle” on the itinerary is far older than any of these more famous places and dates back millennia.

Granite Belt Bike Ride group at Donnelly’s Castle: author fourth from Left, Jon Hendry far Right (***)

Donnelly’s Castle near Pozières was formed in the late Triassic to early Jurassic period and is a magnificent collection of granite boulders piled on top of each other.  The natural fortress is named for one of the early European settlers in the region – Ned Donnelly.  After a short climb to the top of the highest rock, visitors gain great views over the nearby countryside.  It was an interesting place to start a day of cycling through lush countryside, stopping every now and then (of course) to sample local food and wine (of course).

Another “castle” on the way was Castle Glen in Thulimbah.  A 1990 creation by a local winemaker, it loomed out of the mists on the cold and rainy day, looking a bit like a misplaced Scottish laird’s summer house dropped into a very Australian landscape.  For me this was little more than another attempt to lure visitors – like the Big Pineapple at Woombye or the Big Banana at NSW’s Coffs Harbour – in the hope that they would load up on locally made drinks … or like the Lorelei trying to lure hapless mariners onto a perilous rock in the Rhine.

Castle Glen

If you enjoy lurid, multi-coloured liqueurs with names including Sex on the Beach, Sex in the Mud and Sex at Sunset, and vividly coloured wines of various denominations, this might be the place for you, but it was not for me … or for any of the other cyclists on our tour.

The tour wound through green and damp countryside, with occasional glimpses of alpacas or kangaroos.  At one stage a mob of ‘roos slowly bounded across a paddock by the road, appearing and disappearing in the softly swirling mists and rain,  and poking their way through slowly drifting aromatic clouds of smoke from gum tree stumps being burned by local farmers. 

Kangaroos in the morning mist (***)

If Monet, Renoir and Manet had ever visited the Granite Belt on a chilly autumn morning, they may have painted such a scene as the one that delighted us that morning.

Apples

When I was growing up in Stanthorpe in the early 1960s, the apple industry was just starting to find its roots. 

One day my father – manager of a local bank – had to visit a property whose owner had applied for a loan to extend his orchard.  Our whole family piled in the car to visit Stefano (not his real name), and while our parents were taking tea with Stefano and his wife, my brothers and I “explored” the property.

To our horror we found some old bags smouldering and about to burst into flame in one of the old wooden sheds on the property.  Heroically, we put out the fire … but realised many years later that we may have foiled by accident an accidental fire insurance scam.  I hope Stefano and his family managed to expand and flourish despite our misguided efforts!

Originally a tin mining area (“Stannum” is Latin for “tin” – hence “Stanthorpe – “tin town”), declining mineral prices in the second half of the Nineteenth Century saw residents taking advantage of the cold climate to grow stone fruit, grapes and apples – mainly for home consumption.

Today there are about forty vineyards and over thirty apple growers in the region. 

A Nicoletti apple crate

We visited one orchard – belonging to the Nicoletti family – where we sampled several types of apples and a delicious apple and ginger fruit drink.  I noticed a poster that showed the orchard (www.divinefruits.com) was established in 1950.

  • So, Toni, yours is quite a young orchard then?

This was quite the wrong thing to say, and quite the wrong assumption to make.  I was quite forcefully corrected by Toni Nicoletti:

  • No!  We are the third generation of our family to be running this orchard.  There are one or two fourth generation families in the area, but not many …
Toni Nicoletti

Nicoletti is a good Italian name – and there has been a strong Italian community in the area for almost a hundred years, starting with those early tin miners, and then including local Australian Italians interred during World War I as Prisoners of War …

After the war and an overdue release, these PoWs joined many other Australians who formed part of a major resettlement program for soldiers returning from the war.  They brought with them memories of battles won and lost, and the area now has locations called Poizières, Paschendale, Amiens and Baupaume …

Fruit waiting to be picked …

COVID-19 has had an appalling impact on the world and even in small regional areas such as the Granite Belt its impact has been felt.  COVID means that international borders have been closed.  Closed borders mean that thousands of young backpackers cannot visit Australia.  No backpackers mean no fruit pickers.  No fruit pickers mean that hundreds of tonnes of fruit around the nation have been allowed to fall from the trees to rot on the ground.

According to Queensland’s horticultural body Growcom, revenue losses totalling at least AU$50 million have been endured by regional growers.

Cheese and Wine

I hope we helped redress a (very) little the financial difficulties facing local growers and producers, as several bottles of apple and ginger cider found their way into our bicycle saddlebags, and after a visit to the Stanthorpe Cheese company, lots of cheese was added for later snacking.

Sampling cheese, Stanthorpe Cheese (***)

At Stanthorpe Cheese we were served a very generous Ploughman’s lunch (lots of cheese and sliced meats, crusty warm bread, local pickles and relishes, and mugs of HOT chocolate to fight off the chilly day) after we had sampled half a dozen or so locally made cheeses – all made by one family using the milk from a single herd of pure-bred Jersey cows.

Stanthorpe Cheese for sale

Just as Champagne and Camembert are names that can only be used for wine produced in the Champagne district and for cheese produced in Camembert in Normandy, the Stanthorpe cheese producers have made similar-tasting cheeses but dubbed them with local – and lawsuit-free – names such as Blue Lagoon, Thulimbah (“a rich buttery texture and flavour”), Brass Monkey Blue and Outlaw – a nod to the infamous gentleman bushranger Captain Thunderbolt who is said to have holed up in Donnelly’s Castle and other haunts in the New England area before his death at the age of just thirty-five in 1870.

Each of my legs was feeling at least thirty-five years of age as we again clambered onto our bicycles and were led by our indomitable and very knowledgeable guide Jon to our next stop – the Cabernet part of the tour’s title – the Summit Estate Wines cellar – for some enthusiastic sipping, swilling and spitting – and buying.

Summit Estate tasting room

The centre used to be known as the Stanthorpe Wine Centre but became Summit Cellars in 1997 or 1998:  I forget which.  Perhaps I should not have had the second tasting of the superb Wild Fermentation Syrah!  The 2016 gold medal winning Queensland Cabernet is available from their online store (www.summitestate.com.au) for AU$65.00 but most of their other wines are in the $35.00 to $45.00 per bottle range.

The Summit Estate cellar door is very well presented and the staff very helpful and informative.  At various times during the year the estate offers Sunset Sessions (bring a basket, buy some wine, enjoy the grounds), a Harvest Dinner and in June, the superb Winter Solstice celebration of food, wine, a bonfire … and the burning of the Wickerman:  there is no need to go all the way to Black Rock City, Nevada, USA for the Burning Man Festival!

Stanthorpe Regained

Ray Costanzo of Golden Gove Wines (***)
Adrian Tobin of Tobin Wines (***)

After a lovely day of riding through and past many vineyards and orchards, the bike tour ended where it started – at the Summit railway station – where there was still no sign of that puffing and huffing steam train … although there was plenty of huffing and puffing from some of the older cyclists in the group.  A short drive back into the lovely town of Stanthorpe, a long hot shower to get some warmth back into old legs and backs … and a leisurely evening of sipping Summit wines, nibbling on Brass Monkey Blue cheese and enjoying a Pink Lady or two.

  • Apples, of course

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Journey April 2021

Text and photographs (excluding ***) © Christopher Hall May 2021

Other photographs:

Cycle group by granitebeltbicycles.com.au

Featured image and cheese sampling pics from granitebeltbicycles.com.au

Photographs of Ray Costanzo and Adrian Tobin from gourmettraveller.com

Kangaroo photo from The Canberra Times / Carol Elvin

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In my blogs I try to present a snapshot of the places I have discovered during a brief visit.   I am not trying to present a detailed picture of the whole city or the whole region or the whole country.

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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.

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