Our “dark” experiences: a must-do according to two of world’s best chefs

We truly do live in nature’s playground out here – and it’s not just the locals who know it. A recent visit to the region from two of the world’s best chefs (Mark Best and Duncan Welgemoed) confirmed this fact, yet again.

As Duncan says: “The beauty of the [region] really took my breath away. The dark sky reserve was just magic and the cultural experience at Ngaut Ngaut blew my mind. If I was coming from outside of SA, I would beeline to that region in a heartbeat, it’s just so rich.”

The pair of renowned foodies were travelling through the Murray River, Lakes and Coorong on a food safari of sorts. Between meeting chefs and tasting local food, they were also treated to a sample of our best immersive nature experiences. And while the crowd favourite was the overwhelming beauty of the River Murray International Dark Sky Reserve (RMIDSR), their time spent exploring the history of nearby Ngaut Ngaut Conservation Park, fishing in the Lower Lakes and Coorong, and close-up encounters at Monarto Safari Park  came a close second.

Now both Mark and Duncan are planning their next trip back, and they’re bringing friends and family.

The friends started their experience with the award-winning ‘Gold Stars Tour’, run by tour guide and all-round local legend Kelly Kuhn from Juggle House Experiences. On this trip, the group travelled in the famous ‘Staria Limo’ (a customised limo bus)  to some of the iconic lookouts along the Murray River, taking in the sweeping views as they turned around bends and on parked on top of the oche clifftops as the sun was setting.

Following their slow meander along the Murray, they landed at Ngaut Ngaut Conservation Park, with local Nganguruku Elder and site custodians Ivy Campbell. Along with her family, Ivy has been taking care of Ngaut Ngaut for decades and as the light faded she told the two chefs about the history and culture of the First Nations people who lived here many years ago.

During the tour, guests were treated to close-up experiences of traditional wayfinding, exploring the drawings and carvings into the river cliff, and learning about the people who lived there and the wildlife that sustained them. Ivy’s ability to narrate her culture’s rich history and at the same time spin a few yarns to keep the crowd on its toes is one of the highlights. She encourages visitors to “walk together” and learn the shared history of Australia, so that we can collectively share a stronger future. Her passion for the park, the region and her people is evident, and after spending a few hours with Ivy at Ngaut Ngaut, you’ll never be the same.

From here, the Juggle House Experiences Staria took the crew out to a traditional country pub at Swan Reach – an iconic Murray River venue perched atop of the Murray River cliffs, overlooking the ferry as it slowly crosses from one side of the river to another. Right here in the Swan Reach township, people are close to the ‘core zone’ of the dark sky reserve, and it’s only a few short minutes’ drive to one of the most spectacular places on the planet, to view the stars. Depending on weather and availability, the tour group may also sit on the front deck of the Bowhill General store to enjoy their evening meal en route to stargazing. Either way – the view, food, service, and company are guaranteed to be great.

After dinner and drinks at the country pub, the group is taken to a clifftop lookout, complete with a telescope – and even an astronomer to talk them through exactly what they’re looking at as they gaze at the myriad of twinkling stars within the Milky Way. Some of the more incredible viewings of planets like Saturn through the telescope lens is an experience to behold.

And to give you a quick lesson in ‘darkness’, you can measure darkness in ratings from 0-22, with 22 being complete darkness. As the uses of artificial light and pollution grows, getting to visit places even nudging that 22-level are becoming less common – 1/3 of the world’s population can’t see the stars from light pollution. Hard to believe for us Aussies, and especially hard for those local to our region (having some of the best night skies in the world).

Out at the River Murray International Dark Sky Reserve – the first of its kind in Australia – the consistent measure of darkness is 21.9 – but astronomers regularly claim to have measured 22 during past visits.

The reserve was fully accredited back in 2019 as a way to protect the night’s sky – it’s a bit like ‘heritage listing’ it you could say. Now, the 320sqkm of land encompassing the townships of Swan Reach, Palmer, Tungkillo, Nildottie, Cambrai, Sedan, Bowhill, Walker Flat are protected from artificial light – giving us all the best chance to view the night sky and it’s twinkling masterpiece in all its glory.

As Duncan encouraged others to come for a visit, he reminded us just how close these experiences are to Adelaide. “Our perceptions of the region have been smashed this week, and I can’t believe this is sitting on my doorstep.”

Those on the Gold Stars Tour have more than hour of taking turns to gaze through a telescope under the guide of an astronomer. It’s not just for those interested in the science of the sky – but also for those who love the outdoors, photographers, bucket-list seekers, explorers, adventurers… and even our two world-travelled chefs.

After the star session, the travelling group jumps back on board the luxury of their Juggle House Experiences limo bus before cracking a bottle of local SA bubbly and heading on back to their accommodation. And if you are staying in the area, some options to consider (in order to make the most of the night sky gazing), include:

  • River Shack Rentals:These locals offer everything from simple to luxury accommodation rentals along the waterfront and within the RMIDSR core zone. Their property map makes it easy to score your dream location.
  • Unforgettable Houseboats: This is the premium houseboat experience for river lovers, featuring king and queen-size beds, jacuzzis, fitted kitchens with dishwashers and microwaves, and ducted air-conditioning. On a 4-day cruise, you could head from Mannum into the RMIDSR for a panoramic view of the stars. Truly a holiday to remember.
  • Houseboat Hirers Association: With over 60 fully licensed River Murray Houseboats to choose from, HHA are flexible to your needs. All houseboats come equipped with quality facilities to ensure that you’re cruising the majestic Murray in comfort. You can depart from Blanchetown to experience the dark sky magic every night.
  • Mannum Motel: If you’re wanting to be close to all the action of the Mannum township, while still being less than 10 minutes from the RMIDSR, the Mannum Motel is for you. This establishment provides spacious rooms with a river view. It’s right in the town centre and only a short stroll to bakeries, pubs, museums, and even a day spa.
  • Bridgeport Hotel:Attention Adelaideans, for the most convenient accommodation coming from the toll gate, look no further. The award-winning Bridgeport Hotel is 48 minutes from the start of the freeway. After your short drive, you’ll be welcomed with warm country service, and showed to your river-view suite (the best view in the town of the famous Murray Bridge). You’ll be in the centre of the region, with it all in the palm of your hands.

So that was day one of the exploration for Duncan and Mark – next they moved from the skies to the water, and onward to a safari park like no other.

On day two, they spent time exploring the gems of the Coorong with the team from Coorong Wild Seafood (on board their new venture, Coorong Wildside Tours). During the tour, Mark and Duncan got close up to the precious ecosystem that sits at the end of the Murray River system as it flows from the river to the Lower Lakes, Coorong lagoons and then out to sea at the Murray Mouth. It’s here in the Coorong (or as many know it – ‘Storm Boy Country’) that our nature really comes to life during the day.

The much-protected Coorong National Park is a globally recognised environmental asset. It’s the home to more than 240 species of birdlife, other land-based wildlife, and of course a lot of freshwater marine life. For tour owners and fishos Glen and Tracey Hill – it is the sweet flavour of Coorong Mullet that they’re chasing most days, but they’re also licensed to catch other fresh fish. And in an even more curious case with the chefs on board, Glen was out to catch himself some carp. To many, carp is known as a pest species – but to these two chefs – it can be an essential and delicious tasting part of their award-winning menus – just as it was at a recent up-river Tasting Australia event.

As Mark describes it: “The carp experience with Coorong Wild Seafood in Meningie was also something special. Spending time with Glen (fisherman) and Duncan out on the water just reiterated why it’s so incredibly important for us to get sustainable carp on more menus around Australia.”

During the on-water expedition with Coorong Wildside Tours, they explored the wild and rugged beauty of the Coorong, and managed to catch themselves some dinner. On a typical tour, Glen and Tracey will then take you back to their venue for a masterclass in filleting, preparing, cooking, and tasting their catches of the day – but of course for these chefs, they decided they would cook it up themselves.

Next on the agenda was a final visit – for Mark only – to the largest open plain safari outside of Africa. Monarto Safari Park is part-way through a multi-million-dollar redevelopment. This will open up areas of more land for an on-site accommodation resort and new animal exhibits. The first step – being a major upgrade to the visitor centre has just been completed and is wowing everyone who drives through the gates.

Here at Monarto, Mark spent time exploring the Indigenous produce patch with his local Ngarrindjeri guides, before heading on a more extended tour of the park to meet giraffe, meerkats, chimps and the beloved white rhino. But this experience isn’t only extended to VIPs, it’s also available to all of YOU – and at only a 40-minute drive up the freeway from Adelaide, there’s absolutely no reason you can’t visit this year.

Mark, currently based in Sydney and travelling around the world for business pursuits also has local connections to the region. He was born in the Mallee town of Pinnaroo, but also lived in Meningie and Murray Bridge – so knows the area well. In fact, his Mum still lives there – so while he had a bed ready for him, Duncan stayed at the luxurious $42million Bridgeport Hotel, which overlooks the historic twin bridges (car and rail bridge).

The Bridgeport is one of the more luxurious stays in the region and is a short drive to all of the iconic experiences the chefs took part in during their stay. And while they didn’t have the time, other places you can visit from here include the adrenalin-fuelled The Bend Motorsport Park (for a heart racing hot-lap or karting fun with the kids). Otherwise, you might like to spend some more time on the water, taking a boat cruise with The Proud MaryPS MarionCaptain Proud or Four Knots Cruises (simply choose the adventure that suits you best).

With all of this on the doorstep of South Australia’s capital city Adelaide, it should be on your adventure travel itinerary for 2022. So jump over here and start planning.