Douglas has been a professional food writer since 1986. He is also an award-winning actor and director in Community Theatre and has been for many years. His blog may be found at: www.urbaneguerilla.wordpress.com
Published February 23rd 2020
On the trail of the lonesome vine
Dr Johnson felt that ultimate happiness could be obtained by riding in a fast pony chaise with a pretty woman. While I really, really don't want to contradict the good doctor, I do think that a pretty good afternoon can be had in a comfortable wagon pulled by two friendly shire horses down the leafy lanes of the Swan Valley.
Swan Valley Wagon Tours offers just this plus a whole lot of other services, of which more later. The most popular tour is 'The Wagon Deluxe', a leisurely three-hour tour stopping at some of the nicest tourist spots in the valley.
Swan Valley Wagon Tours (Photograph courtesy SVWT)
My wife Angela and I were invited to try the tour and we had a marvellous time. We got to the stable in West Swan in time to say hello to the two horses that would have the task of pulling the large, old-fashioned covered wagon. This was Toffee, a roan Clydesdale, with a sweet disposition and Violet, a grey Percheron, new to the team and still learning the ropes.
Both are beautiful and gentle, allowing rubs of the forehead and affectionate nuzzles.
Angela, Toffee and Violet (Photograph by D Sutherland-Bruce)
Our hosts were owners Alida and Peter, long time horse people. Alida grew up on a cattle station in the Pilbara and Peter, a retired police officer who used to race motorbikes. Both have great stories and a vast knowledge of horses and horsemanship.
We all introduced ourselves, climbed aboard, settled into the well-padded seats and we were off. The novelty of clip-clopping along the road swaying gently to the rhythm of the powerful beasts is just enchanting.
Our first stop was the Margaret River Chocolate Factory and Providore for a wine tasting and general browse around the place. The Chocolate Factory is well-known enough not to require talking about but the new extension, The Providore, is exceptional. It's an extension of the Margaret River original, offering jams, jellies, preserves, organic foods and goods as well as a very substantial range of wines, including chocolate liqueurs, so good you absolutely have to try them to believe how good.
From there we took a leisurely drive up to Windarra Honey, where we not only sampled some delicious honey but got a short, fascinating, lecture on bees, hives and why hives have three levels – the bottom one if for the queen and the next up for honey that the bees live on and the top for honey for the beekeeper and us.
Phil of Wildara Honey (Photograph by D Sutherland-Bruce)
The difference in taste depending on the nature of the blossom the bees forage in is quite phenomenal, from light flowery Marri and Wandoo to the full richness of Jarrah – now the most desired honey in the world, according to head beekeeper Phil, who together with his wife looks after the small shop and several million workers.
From Windarra we meandered down back roads looking at the houses, various horses in paddocks who rushed to the fence to peer interestedly at us as we passed. Quiet, shady ways in dappled sunlight, with a light breeze and the sound of birdlife.
We made our slow and stately way to Lancaster Wines for a wine tasting. Located on the banks of the Swan River, Lancaster boasts some of the oldest vines in the Swan Valley, producing outstanding wines including Chenin blanc, Verdelho, Chardonnay, the legendary Old Vines Shiraz as well as the beautiful dessert wine – Late Picked Chenin.
Lancaster Wines (Photograph by D Sutherland-Bruce)
There's a shady tasting bar, with wine barrels and umbrellas to sample or eat the cheese platters and antipasto available. Service was swift, knowledgeable and polite.
Our final stop on the tour, after a pause for Toffee and Violet to munch some grapes left on the vines for them was Yahava Koffee Works for a coffee tasting.
Yahava has expanded dramatically since the new owners took over and now offers tastings, a wide range of drinks, foods and you can watch coffee being made from roasting the beans up to the final cup of golden deliciousness.
Yahava also offer a 'Koffee Safari' an incredible taste adventure around the world's great coffee estates without leaving town. Learn about the different types of coffees, how best to brew them and how to savour the different mouth-watering flavours. Experience coffee in a new way. That's 90 minutes well-spent.
We made our slow way back to the starting point (which has a excellent fresh fruit and veg stand) gave the horses a final pat, said goodbye to our new friends and drove home faster, but a good deal less pleasantly that we had spent the previous three hours.
We went on the Wagon Deluxe Tour ($89 per adult) which lasts three hours, but there is also the Wagon Express for a half-hour ($30 per adult) and their special events – weddings, Private Tours, Corporate Events, Birthdays, Hens Parties, School Balls, Christmas, Halloween, Easter, Fetes, Fundraising, Promotional, TV & Film, Parades and Photoshoots.
The question everyone asks is 'Doesn't it hurt the horses to pull that heavy wagon?' Well, no, it doesn't. Two Shire horses can pull a massive weight, more than two tons with ease for many hours a day – this is what they were bred for, long, hard hours of farm work, ploughing, pulling tree stumps and the like.
Toffee and Violet, for example, were pulling about a quarter of capacity in short shifts. They didn't even break a sweat. I grew up among horses and I can tell you these were in wonderful condition, fat and sassy, coats gleaming, hoofs trimmed and glossy.