From my first classroom to the Wudinna Club was an Adam Saliba drop punt.
To get there and enjoy a crisp week’s end, West End Draught was a brisk, brief-case in hand, walk across the tennis courts. Despite its brevity it was a fabled journey because I had often heard about how it was conducted by the school’s former headmaster, Brian.
I didn’t meet him until years later, but he was a man of significant proportions and even broader mythology. My boss Richard had told me of the conversations that he’d have with Brian on Fridays at about four bells.
A man with a thirst you could photograph, Brian would say, “Right. Where shall we go? Pub or the club?” In Wudinna there were two options. Life there sometimes seemed to consist of simple binaries.
Brian would then often bark. “Club. There’s no phones. No-one can get at you. Let’s go.” He’d then instruct, “Cross the courts.”
Cross the courts.
School, tennis courts, gravel carpark by town oval and in the door of the club. About three minutes.
What an amusing phrase this is; a synecdoche representing my entire West Coast lifestyle. It was a code and an invitation and the motto of a rich, tiny society. Even now, decades on, if I bump into someone from that part of the world, we nod at each other and say gruffly, “Cross the courts.”
On my first ever visit to Mannum I was reminded of all this as the Club and the Pretoria Hotel are neighbours on the western bank of the Murray. Both are handsome holdings with balcony views over the broad, watery expanse. Here was the old choice: club or pub?
Earlier we’d gone over to Murray Bridge to see the Bunyip in Sturt Reserve. It’s a rite of passage and the boys enjoyed its crude charm and rustic theatre. I hadn’t been to Murray Bridge since my dear friend’s 21st (her nickname rhymes with “Doof”). The Bunyip used to cost twenty cents and is now free, so I may return before another thirty years have suddenly lapsed.
Given the late-afternoon velociraptor hunger of our boys we choose the Pretoria as its kitchen opens half an hour earlier than the club’s.
Happy Hour at the Pretoria is from 5 until 6pm so not wanting to appear overly eager we strolled in at 5.03. Juggling Pale Ale and lemonade we ventured outside. The warm July afternoon was more Maroochydore than Mannum.
Sitting on the back deck, a brisk five-minute walk from our digs at the caravan park, there is an immaculate lawn, ghostly gum trees and a Bali hut in an alluring space that would excite any of the current televisual plague of landscape designers.
Having spent much of the afternoon writing Ben Folds/ Wiggles/ Frank Zappa-esque songs in their exercise books (“Cabbage at Your Door” and my favourite, “Pig, No Chin”) the boys then commenced a WWE tournament on the blue grass. We then went inside and ate.
Surely an indicator of a successful meal is when it gives rise to not one, but two philosophical questions.
Firstly: we can all identify a bad schnitzel, but what, exactly, differentiates a great from a good one?
Secondly: how magnificent is unexpected beetroot?
Salad bars can be like Rolling Stones’ albums. You go into each one with high anticipation, but the results vary. With delicious rice salad, crunchy coleslaw, a jaunty pasta number, and the tour de force, beetroot in a bowl, the offerings were more Beggars Banquet than Dirty Work.
There’s few mornings during our lap of the sun when I awake and think, “Today, I will enjoy some beetroot.” But when it appears at a barbeque, in a burger (please, no pineapple) or sits seductively on the ice within an otherwise modest salad bar, my world is instantly much brighter.
And yes, whole is preferred over sliced.
We worked through our meals in the spacious and convivial bistro. Over towards the front bar a fireplace crackled while the flames leapt.
It had been an excellent hour or so.
My sole disappointment was learning upon pay-waving the bill that happy hour didn’t apply in the bistro. “Why not?” I asked.
“Because the happy hour is only in the front bar.”
“So, because we’re eating in the bistro and spending good money here, I’m penalised?” I asked.
The bar-keep blinked back.
Then I remembered I was in the Pretoria. A certain history of apartheid separation and inequality is not unexpected, even if only of the beverage variety.
However, it’s a terrific pub, on the nearly magnificently-named Randell Street, in a robust town offering good holiday diversions.
Next time though I reckon we should try out the club.