Home Again - Part 2

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Oceania » Australia » New South Wales » Hunter Valley
December 15th 2009
Published: January 12th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

A Sign of Things to ComeA Sign of Things to ComeA Sign of Things to Come

We turned a corner, following the GPS's very odd yet effective directions, and came upon our first dirt road of the trip. We thought that it was a significant moment, and took a photo, so that the moment would last longer. Looking back, it's just a rather nice scene.

A Taste of Wine-country

Jeff and I headed down out of the Blue Mountains via a slightly different path than usual. Thanks mainly to a GPS system with a passion for backroads, and a concept of exploring the most random niches wherever we go, we turned off the highway and went down a small road which splits two National Parks from each other. Essentially we were cleaving a path right between two pristine wildernesses; what better way to begin exploring Australia. Just getting down off the plateau was an adventure in itself as the road twisted and turned like a curled snake on its way downwards. Each turn afforded a view out over the valley below and for the first time on this trip I felt as though I was truly out in the middle of nowhere. In my experience there are very few places where you can feel as though you are truly in the middle of nowhere when, in fact, you are little more than an hour from the biggest city in the nation; it is a novel experience.

We drove on through the countryside, here and there passing small pastoral townships, the odd cleared field and
Newcastle's BeachNewcastle's BeachNewcastle's Beach

Nice place to wake up to, eh?
such, before we again rose up onto a small plateau with nothing besides preserved National Park lands around us. It was quite a beautiful place and the drive, although long, was a very pleasant one. However, all good things must come to an end and by four o’clock we were back into the farmlands of the Hunter Valley. The Hunter, as it’s known covers a very large area stretching north of Sydney, but to most the name refers only to the small pocket of land at the northern extremity where some entrepreneurs discovered they could make really great white wines. To be honest, at first the land there didn’t strike me as good wine growing land. The lands left uncleared were dry and grassy, with the occasional gum tree, not the lush green valley of Eden look one would expect for a fertile land to have, but then again, I know nothing about growing grapes which may explain a lot. Nevertheless, the valley is quite beautiful. It fits neatly around a rocky outcrop and the rolling hills look distinctly Australian, with the occasional field of vines standing out very green against the yellow backdrop to accentuate the wineries themselves.

Jeff and I began our wine experience with a meat pie. Ostensibly to feed our growing hunger pains, but we labelled it as “cleansing the palate” thanks to our location. Yes, I am aware that nothing could be less appropriate for the task of cleansing, but if you think about it, I’m more likely to drink a bottle of wine while eating meat and gravy than I am to drink one immediately after having washed my mouth with water. It makes sense, kind of. The afternoon was getting on quite a bit, for we’d done a lot of driving, so unfortunately most cellars had closed by the time we arrived. Undeterred, we managed to find three places that were still open for business and we dutifully tasted each wine that they offered. Unfortunately for Jeff, who likes his dry whites, the Hunter valley is known for making an exceptional collection of dry whites. Yes, I am aware that this should be a good thing, but the look on Jeff’s university student face after he walked out of the third winery with yet another expensive bottle tucked under his arm was a perfect mix of “I’m so excited” and “I’m so
The Blue Mountains in All Their GloryThe Blue Mountains in All Their GloryThe Blue Mountains in All Their Glory

The fantastic view out over the valley... oh my, the splendour.
broke and we still have how many wineries to visit?”

I must admit that I was similarly uncontrolled on the purchasing front, even though my tastes usually lean towards the Shiraz grapes, which are in general quite awful in the Hunter.

Eventually we ran out of open wineries, much to our chagrin, so we hopped back in the car with a slight buzz going and drove the short distance to Newcastle where we stayed the night. The question hardly needed to be raised: the following morning we would have to return for more, as our brief stop in the Hunter had barely wetted our tastebuds.

The Perfect Way to Start a Day

There are several ways in which you can wake up in the morning. A lot of these, I think we can agree, end up with you feeling downright awful, such as when a shrieking alarm drags you out of bed, into a bleary shower, onto a bus, and eventually behind a desk where work related emails await your attention. Our morning in Newcastle was the exact opposite of this, and if I lived there, I think I would choose this to be my
Jeff and the ViewJeff and the ViewJeff and the View

If you have a great imagination, maybe you can see the mountains in the background. If not, look at the sign, it shows the same thing, only without the clouds.
normal routine rather than a holiday exception.

I woke up nice and early; a positive result of the six hour time difference afforded by my international flight and the fact that I was actually excited by the prospects of my day. I skipped the option of a shower and instead pulled on my board-shorts which would be an almost constant feature of my attire for the next week or two, washed my face, and met Jeff in the foyer of the hostel. First stop was a café two streets over from the hostel, that Jeff had rather conveniently located for us, where we drank yet another undeniably fantastic cappuccino and ate a delicious eggs breakfast. The view from the café was positively awful: it was a white sand beach. I know, life is tough sometimes.

By the time we had finished breakfast the view had degraded further as the beach was now starting to have a handful of girls scattered across it (just one or two really, not like Manly or Bondi or any such) so Jeff and I made the most of the situation by heading down for a dip. Pretty soon we realised just what a
One of the Three SistersOne of the Three SistersOne of the Three Sisters

Walking down the great staircase in the Blue Mountains, we actually walked down the side of the Three Sisters, and this is one of them.
great idea that was. Besides the obvious fact that I’m playing up here, that of us being on holiday and having the luxury of going to a beach in the first place, it turned out to be a great time to be at the beach. The weather wasn’t perfect, thanks to a somewhat overcast sky, but the waves were brilliant for body surfing: not so big as to be painful (well, not seriously painful, as we did get dumped more than once), yet big enough to catch and ride for a long, long way. In fact, our “quick” dip ended up lasting nearly two hours because we were having so much fun.

In the intervening time since that morning in Newcastle, during which I have been to 14 separate beaches, I have been trying to figure out precisely what it is about body surfing that makes it so uniquely enjoyable. Let’s see if I can express it in words here. On a base level, all you are doing as swimming, realistically speaking, in a strong current. Yet swimming downstream in a river isn’t nearly as fun. Actually, if you ask me, swimming downstream in a river can be one of the most frightening things imaginable - this is something I discovered on my first trip to Laos when Jeff, two kiwi friends of ours and I decided to swim down the Khan River. This insanely dark brown tributary leads directly into the ludicrously fast flowing Mekong at the town of Luang Prabang in a confluence that only fools would attempt to swim in; hence we were swimming in it. The alternative was to climb back up the thorny and pain-inflicting path through the jungle that we had foolishly descended to “see the river”, so we chose the more adventuresome, yet ultimately much more risky way out by swimming downstream a ways. Just after pushing offshore and getting caught in the current of the river someone pointed out that there were probably flesh eating fish, deadly bacteria, and innumerable other nasties floating with us, which was knowledge I was trying to be blissfully unaware of as I tried desperately to keep my head above water, my thongs (flip-flops, not the other kind) in hand, and the shore in sight.

I should mention here that not only am I a bad swimmer, but that I also sink quite rapidly even in sea water.

To bring a long story to a quick conclusion, there was good minute or two where I was sure that I would not be able to swim strongly enough to break out of the current and make it ashore at the appointed disembarkment point, or anywhere for that matter, prior to my lifeless body being fished out of the Mekong somewhere near Ho Chi Minh city. Gray, a third friend of ours has an hilarious video shot from the hill above the river where everyone seems chipper and happy, except for one poor soul who appears to be out of control and drifting to his demise - that would be me. However, through sheer perseverance, and certainly no skill, I made it to shore at the last possible minute and lived to tell the tale as one of my many “I nearly died” stories. So, clearly swimming in a strong current isn’t much fun, yet that’s precisely what body surfing is.

Thus, there must be something else going on to make it all so much fun. I think perhaps it’s the illusion of control. That is, when in the surf you can convince yourself that

Compared to the cloudy valley, everything else looked surprisingly colourful.
no matter how out of control you may be, the current is always going to be pushing you towards the safety of the beach. Yes, we all know that this is very far from the truth as one quick rip and you’re way out to sea, however, the mind does play tricks so the illusion seems to be strong enough to remove my fears. Thus, I can quite happily find myself caught in a devastating wave where I am completely out of control, hurtling towards the beach, rolling around underwater without the faintest idea of which way I am oriented or actually moving, and yet still think that everything will be fine and dandy. If only I could catch a breath without a wave smashing its way down my throat.

This leaves me with one last thought on the subject of what makes waves so darn fun. It is the possibility of controlling something uncontrollable. Once in a while I can catch a wave properly, get caught in just the right place on the wave with the perfect forward velocity, and find myself hurtling forwards faster than I could ever dream of swimming while feeling perfectly in control of things. For those three or four seconds where everything feels perfect, all of the other, less fun parts of swimming in the ocean are made up for and them some. Perhaps it’s just a native desire for speed and control, that sounds plausible, or perhaps it’s just social conditioning, but what is for certain is that after catching a wave I stand up feeling giddy and excited before turning around and running head first back into the waves to try again. It is impossible to leave the ocean after catching a wave as I’m just too thrilled to give up; I have to have another go.

Anyway, I just wanted to talk through that concept while it was fresh in my mind, for I do love the beach and the ocean quite dearly, as you can probably tell. Now on with the real story.

Back to the Hunter

After a good long swim, lots of waves caught, and more than a few laughs (plus a few painful moments when Jeff got his hand caught in the sand and put his back out, and when two waves tried to catch me at once and had a tug

I really do wish that I had brought a video camera with me, or at least a sound recorder, as the sounds that were coming from his beak were ludicrous.
of war with my arm somehow), we got cleaned up, packed up and headed out of town. We quickly stopped by a nearby viewpoint to take some pictures but were soon on the road back to the Hunter Valley for me wine tasting fun. Now, to ensure that we tasted all wines on an even footing, for we didn’t want to be biased in our judgements of this day’s wines, we stopped in for a meat pie en route. Once again, I realise that this is poor form, but hey, no one was there to stop us. The lamington was probably excessive though, as was the coke.

First stop that morning was at the Wyndham estate, a vineyard touted as the “birthplace of Australian Shiraz”. This title was more than enough to convince me that we needed to stop by, and even Jeff was keen to taste their wares. The estate, where the first Shiraz vine was planted in Australia, is a ways off the main road and is much more grandiose than any of the other establishments we visited. It was immediately clear that Wyndham has been doing well in the wine trade. The cavernous cellar where the tasting was held could easily have contained a party of several hundred, yet when we arrived it was deserted apart from the two of us and the helpful (and awfully cute) woman who served us.

Two thoughts spring to mind when I think back on that tasting. One was that by the time we left the cellar, there were about 20 used glasses in front of us, thanks to the sheer size of their range, each of which had been filled with a wine that was more expensive and better tasting than the one before it. It was simply staggering how she managed to keep producing new bottles that were more flavoursome and delicious, especially considering that the first one was itself a good few steps above drinkable. My second thought is that none of the wines really came from the Hunter Valley. I can’t be 100% certain, but I don’t believe that a single bottle was made from purely local grapes. Not that this is a terrible travesty, but it does rather defeat the purpose of travelling all the way out there for the tasting. On the other hand, it did make the wines considerably better than any
The Australian CountrysideThe Australian CountrysideThe Australian Countryside

Not the dry and dusty place you might expect.
other red that we tasted that day (with one odd exception).

Eventually, and with much effort, we dragged ourselves from that fantastic tasting which was a clear highlight of the day, and we very soberly drove onwards into the very heart of the valley. Each country road in the area seems to wend through the bush with an occasional pocket of grapes here and there, or some other agricultural endeavour. It isn’t as I had expected, as a lot of the land remains unused. Actually, on most of the roads I would say that hardly any of the land is actually used for growing grapes, which makes the small, isolated pockets where the vineyards are stand out among the bush in a most pleasant way. There is something nice about driving down a road, seemingly in the middle of the Australian bush, and then saying “oh hey, let’s stop at that chocolate factory”, or “I think we need a rest stop from all this driving, let’s try that winery over there”. The fact that you can taste everything for free. . . well that is just a bonus.

Before I bore you too much with my textual salivation over crushed grapes, which I know most of you may not appreciate to the extent that I am just by writing this, I’ll skip over the details of the next six or seven wineries that we visited. One last note should be all that is necessary to make some of you jealous while not boring the rest of you, which would be our quick stop in at Lake’s Folly. This tiny winery was created by one Doctor Max Lake and is a rarity in the valley in that it makes a good cabernet, along with a fantastic chardonnay which both of my parents are mildly obsessed with (I think my Dad’s obsession runs stronger than this, but I don’t want to presume). Because my Mum suggested it, we stopped in with the intention of picking up a present for my Dad and to just generally have a look at the place. Unlike some places we had visited, Lake’s Folly is clearly a small, local operation. The single, small building on the estate looks more like a house than a winery and the small field of grapes in front is rather modest. To put it simply, it felt a whole lot
Down the MountainDown the MountainDown the Mountain

I love driving, and even though Jeff didn't let me do it a lot (fair enough) it was still a lot of fun to be cruising around in the passenger seat. Especially on twisty roads like this one.
more friendly and interesting than some of the big name companies about the valley.

Inside the small, white building we were met by a friendly man, who actually seemed to be the one who makes the wine, not just a pretty face put out front. By the time we left I had learned more about the wines of the Hunter Valley, and Australia in general, than I had in all of the other places combined, just from talking to him. We tasted both of their wines, for they only make two: the first was the most recent Chardonnay which was, without question, exceptional, but expensive of course. The second though, the Cabernet, was quite the oddity for it was ten years old! Ten? Really? I had to ask more than once to be sure of that, because really, I don’t deserve anything that good.

The reason was explained shortly: the most recent vintage had sold out ridiculously quickly, so in order to sate people arriving at the cellar door they had resorted to selling off the 32 cases saved from the previous year for “historical purposes”. Of course, that didn’t last very long, so they had moved to the previous year, and so on, until this cheap backpacker happened to arrive at the 1999 mark. It wasn’t just tasty, it wasn’t just amazing, it was by far the best grape product I’ve ever tasted in my entire life. Period. I didn’t dare ask the price, I’m sure it was well outside of my means, but if you’re rich and happen to be in the area I’d highly recommend stopping by for a taste at the very least. It’s a rare opportunity for sure.

Moving on, as we all must at some point, Jeff and I decided that if we stayed any longer in the valley we most certainly would not be able to legally drive out, thus resulting in us buying even more bottles than we already had, and considering that I had already exceeded the customs limits for the USA by a factor of two, it was only prudent that we head on out. To that end we drove northwards towards a beach, as that sounded like the best available option.

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


Beach DayBeach Day
Beach Day

Despite the clouds, the water was warm and people were starting to come out in droves.
A WineryA Winery
A Winery

Hmm... doesn't look like a green and fertile place now does it? Yet, it truly is.

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