From Vineyards to Coal mines..... Life in the Hunter

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April 20th 2007
Published: August 7th 2007
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I'd last seen Sam about a year ago as she jumped in a taxi to Kuching airport, leaving little old moi behind in Borneo to continue my travels alone :0( So I was really excited about her coming to visit and catching up on all the gossip over the odd bottle of vino or two ;0) I've met lots of people in the 5 months or so that I've lived in Sydney, mostly other travellers that I've shared a beer or three with and who have come and gone, some after a few weeks, others a few months. That's all been heaps of fun but I have to say I was really looking forward to seeing someone I'd known for longer and being able to chat about things other than the usual where are you going, what are you doing type conversations..... although given she's heading back to Blighty for a while and I'm getting itchy feet again that was covered too ;0)

I'd managed to get a few days off work so we could do a mini road trip up the coast, but we also had a couple of nights out in Sydney - trying the restaurants and bars of Surry Hills, dinner at Darling Harbour and sitting outside the Opera House with a glass of vino waiting for sunset over the bridge. The highlight for me though was the night that we went to the opera. I'd planned to do one of the guided tours of the Opera House whilst I was here... that was until I saw an advert for the opera season and decided that actually going to see an opera at the Opera House was a much better plan! As it turned out Sam had the same idea - we started the evening with dinner and raspberry mojito's in town, followed by a glass of champagne at the Opera House - by then it was dark outside and as we stood outside on the balcony sipping our bubbles we had an amazing view of the harbour/city lights - and then finally there was the performance itself, the Marriage of Figaro.

In January 1956 the Australian Government announced an international competition to design a "National Opera House" that would be erected on Bennelong Point.... the competition winner, announced in 1957, was Danish architect Jorn Utzon. In 1966 he resigned from the project after quarrels over costs and designs for the interior - some seven years and three more architects later it was finally completed at a total cost of $102million, just 10 times the original estimate. Inside wasn't quite as I expected - I guess I'm more used to London theatres with their heavy curtains, rich dark colours, velour materials and ornate ceilings. This was very different - industrial is the best way of describing it, wooden beams, concrete and a lack of ornate decoration make for a definite contrast, but one which was in keeping with the exterior.

Saturday morning saw us up early and off to Kings Cross to collect the hire car... a short time later we were driving across the harbour bridge and starting our journey north, along the motorway as far as the Gosford turn off where we swapped speed for a far more scenic route through the country and some pretty coastal towns. First stop of the day was a place called Terrigal, a cute little seaside town which it seemed was full of northerners.... the English kind that is. As we sat having coffee we got chatting to a couple who were originally from Yorkshire but who had moved to Australia for a change of lifestyle, then as we lounged on the beach we met another northern guy.... in fact I think I heard more English accents than I did Australian! Back in the car we drove round to the headland so I could take some photo's of the view, except I got rather distracted by the gathering pelicans instead. My guide book had recommended a spot further north as the place to see pelicans, the daily 3pm feeding there making viewing virtually guaranteed. What I hadn't appreciated is just how many of them there are along the coast... no need to go to a special spot it seemed, just head down to the local jetty, find a fisherman chopping the heads of his catch and there's bound to be a few pelican's around!

From Terrigal we continued on to Cave Beach, a small coastal town where Sam's relatives live... and after a quick hello they had us straight back in the car for a guided tour of the local area. First up was the beach itself, beautiful and empty apart from a few kite surfers out making the most of the winds. And then there
were the tankers. Sitting on the beach at Terrigal we'd noticed a line of 4 or so large cargo ships out at sea but hadn't really thought much else about it. According to Sam's uncle they'd probably been at the end of a very long line. About 40mins drive away is the port of Newcastle, home to the largest coal exporting dock in the world. Some 80million plus tonnes of coal pass through here each year but the fact that there are just two loading bays to load it all creates a bit of a bottleneck, so when ships arrive they have to join the queue and wait...and wait and wait and.... and maybe 6 weeks later they get into port to pick up their load. Standing on the cliff top at Cave Beach we could see 20 or so ships out at sea with the queue extending out of sight in both directions, down to the end of the line somewhere passed Terrigal and further north all the way up to Newcastle.

We left Cave Beach, passing by the massive Lake Macquarie (at 24km long and 3km across at its widest point, it's over four times the size of Sydney Harbour and the largest coastal salt-water lake in Australia) and continued up to Newcastle itself. This is NSW's second city and the developers have definitely moved in, regenerating the waterfront and replacing what I assume were once old warehouse areas with nice new sea facing apartment blocks.... lots of them. We just couldn't work out where all the people were going to come from that could afford them, or indeed want the view of coal dock....... European settlers first discovered this area towards the end of the 18th century, quickly recognising its value for the natural resources found here, namely coal and timber. The first settlement was abandoned in 1802 after a revolt and a second established in 1804 when it was re-named Newcastle and developed as secondary punishment colony for particularly rebellious convicts. It remained a penal colony for over 20years, notorious for places such as Limeburners' Bay where prisoners were sent to burn oyster shells for making lime. The lime corroded their hands and eyes and some, already worn down by hunger and beatings, collapsed in the lime and died. The lime made here was taken to Sydney and used in the construction of numerous buildings,
My, my what a big mouth you haveMy, my what a big mouth you haveMy, my what a big mouth you have

Pelicans have a very distinct bill and associated pouch which can hold 6 litres of water. They have a wing span up to 2.6 metres
including the old Supreme Court and St James' church.

Back at Sam's aunts place we demolished a plate of scones and a cup of tea (so English but so welcome - it had been a long time since brekkie and the cookie we'd had at Terrigal for lunch wasn't quite enough!!) before heading over to her cousins house for an Aussie BBQ. We had the log fire, lots of wine, endless amounts of yummy food and much talk about local life - it was one of those nights that was completely unexpected but great fun. Alas the hangover the following morning wasn't quite so good, neither was the weather - the blue skies from the day before were replaced with grey clouds and rain :0( So back in the car we made our way to the Hunter Valley, home for the next two nights. We'd booked ourselves into a 'luxury B&B' in the middle of nowhere having decided that we didn't fancy the main town of Cessnock, although when we arrived we looked at each other and wondered if we'd done the right thing... the terrace of 10 or so units that formed th 'B&B' reminded us of a Butlins holiday camp :0( Inside it all was good though - we had a nice little verandah area, perfect for watching sunset with a glass of vino, and as we were the only guests, or the only social ones, we had the shared kitchen/lounge area to ourselves... and control of the TV remote! Before we got to any of that though we needed lunch and ended up at the winery at the end of our road, simply because it was closest. The food was great and sat out on the balcony we had a lovely view out over the vineyard. It took us a while but eventually we realised we weren't alone.... and I don't mean the tour groups and other diners, but rather the family of Kangaroo's who were lazing around @50m away in the bush that surrounded the property. The perfect photo... except I'd left my camera back at the B&B :0(

9.45am the next morning saw us standing at the end of our driveway waiting for our Cheers bus... the winery tour that we'd booked yesterday. When we'd been in the Marlborough region in NZ we'd spent a hilarious couple of days cycling round the vineyards there and had contemplated doing the same here... but the wineries of the Hunter seemed to be just a bit tooo spread out so we went for the lazy option instead ;0) Our favourite winery was the smallest one we visited, although when we first pulled up outside the small corrugated iron clad building that houses the tasting area (a few rows of seats located next to the olive press machine) we did wonder what was going on - it was very different from the landscaped gardens, wooden tasting rooms and beautiful views of our other stops. But then that was all part of its charm. The owner, a former airline pilot who had moved there with his wife as part of a lifestyle change some years ago, was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about his products and had endless funny stories to tell about life here. And his wines were really good! This one wasn't on our map but if you can find it I'd definitely recommend Lucy's Run as a change from the norm.

Next day we headed off towards Port Stephens. Lunch time saw us sunbathing on the beach at Little Bay before we moved on to Stockton Beach for a coffee - at 32km long and with sand dunes up to 30m high it was massive. Alas we didn't have time to try sand boarding or one of the 4WD tours which all looked great fun but if I end up back in the area again.... And alas that was the end of Sam's trip... she headed over to Perth for more adventures and I went back to work 😞

Additional photos below
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The vineyards of the Hunter ValleyThe vineyards of the Hunter Valley
The vineyards of the Hunter Valley

rosebushes are traditionally planted at the end of the rows to give advanced warning of disease and parasites
Stockton Beach.... Stockton Beach....
Stockton Beach....

the sand dunes here comprise the largest continuous mobile sand mass in NSW

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