The mists were lying heavily in the valleys as we started our journey across the Wollemi National Park. Mark had recommended we follow the Bylong Valley Way, and it was a beautiful sweeping drive that took us over the hills of Wollemi and down into the Hunter Valley beyond – the oldest wine region in Australia. Now, for those of you that may not know, Helena and I enjoy the occasional glass of wine; especially red wine; especially good red wine. This probably stems from wine tastings we used to do while both working in the same restaurant during our holidays from university. We developed our flavour further in South Africa a few years ago, visiting the famous Stellenbosch wine region with a few of our fabulous BRAT mates. The Hunter Valley then, was high up on our list of places to visit on the East Coast.
Here comes the next huge bonus for having your own transport – you can stock it up with a load of your chosen wine! Had we visited the Hunter on a tour, or as a stop off on a journey north on public transport, there’s no way we’d have been able to buy more than a bottle or two of wine for the simple fact that we wouldn’t have been able to carry it around with us.
Descending into the valley then we got a really good feeling – there were vineyards everywhere! We may have been at a loss as to where to start, (the Hunter is a very large region) but we had received a few tips from a helpful chap in a wine shop in Manly a few days before. ‘Would you like to taste some wine?’ he asked as we were walking back through the drizzle to get the ferry back to Sydney. Hels and I looked at each other for a split second before I said, ‘Why, yes. Yes, I do believe we would!’ As we bluffed our way through discussions about tannins, blackberry notes, and the merits of ageing in French as opposed to American oak, we gleaned a few vineyard tips and consequently when we arrived, headed straight for a small boutique winery called Capercaillie. (Incidentally, we had no idea where we were going to stay yet either, but… wine first! Priorities, right?!)
Pulling into the car park, Helena was worried she wasn’t dressed nicely enough, so as she scrambled around in the back of the car practising her contortionist skills to get herself into a dress, I popped in to see whether we could get a tasting. In Stellenbosch, we had visited four or five vineyards. In each one, we paid a small nominal fee and were given a selection of wines to taste.
Going into Capercaillie, I was greeted by a very helpful lady called Tina. ‘Hi there. Are you here for a tasting?’ she asked. ‘Er, yes please, if that’s ok?’ I replied. ‘Of course, of course,’ she said enthusiastically, ‘Just for yourself?’ I explained that Hels was in the car trying to make herself presentable so it would be for the two of us, but I also wanted to check the price before we got ourselves locked into something too expensive. ‘I was just wondering,’ I said, ‘How much is it for a tasting?’
‘It’s free,’ came the reply.
As I choked down my shock, Tina went on, ‘Pretty much everywhere in the Hunter does free tastings.’ Oh my word – it seemed we had just landed in wine heaven!
It turns out that she was absolutely correct on the free tastings front – we visited ten or so vineyards over the next couple of days (I lost count, unsurprisingly!) and were only asked to pay for tasting at one – and even then, the cost was waived if you bought wine from them – which we did, clearly.
So we started our Hunter Valley experience with the ever enthusiastic Tina, who spoke so quickly that I lost quite a bit of the detail, but the genuine energy and passion she showed for the wine was intoxicating. She made sure we were tasting it properly: give it a good swill around in the large globe glasses before going in with the nose, get a couple of good nosefuls before trying it on the palate, making sure you suck in air with the wine, making a sort of slurping noise that would be considered rude in any other scenario, to open up the flavour in your mouth. ‘For most wines, you’d need three sips to get the full flavour,’ she said, and we happily obliged, taking deep inhalations of aroma and sipping contentedly. She even went as far as to get smaller glasses out to show us the difference in flavour you get when you give wine room to breath – the contrast was extreme. And she offered small bites of cheese and crackers to demonstrate the effect of proteins on the wine in the mouth, and therefore the importance of combining specific wines with certain foods. Oh man, wine and food – this was going to be good!
The only problem for me at this point was that we still had the van with us! We came very close to asking if we could park it in their car park, but managing to hold back from this cheeky request, I went with option two which was to use the spittoon. It was heartbreaking! Never before have I wasted good wine – and it is such a waste, isn’t it – by pouring it away while tasting! Helena put a spin on it though, ‘Just think,’ she said, ‘You’ll know which wine to buy – it’ll be the one you can’t bear to pour away.’
In the end, there were two in this category, one Merlot and one Shiraz, so rather than decide between them, we bought a bottle of each. Happily, despite the tasting being free, we never felt under any pressure to buy, which is the beauty of the Hunter. Apparently, there are some who come and abuse the free tastings – which is unfortunate but to be expected I suppose – but for the most part, it works well for both the vineyards and the customers. Before we left, we picked up a map from Tina with a load more hints for the best small wineries to visit.
Helena had a rosy glow when we got back into the van. ‘I love it!’ she exclaimed as we drove away and then, browsing the map, ‘Right, where next…’ ‘Next, my dear, we need to find somewhere to stay,’ I said, not enjoying being the harbinger of bad news.
After a short search, we found a well equipped camp site and set about deciding which of the two Capercaillie reds we were going to drink that night and, importantly, what meal we were going to cook to team it with (we went for burritos, a decent enough choice) and so began a routine which pretty much carried us through until we dropped the van off in Brisbane ten days later!
The other thing we found in the camp site office was a leaflet for bicycle tours of the Hunter. Perfect! With a bike, we can cover miles, go to a load of different vineyards, and stock the van properly! We called and booked the tour and were picked up by another fast talking Australian, Glen, who greeted us with a huge grin and a firm handshake. Glen ran his own vineyard, Pokolbin Brothers Wines, but this was originally only really as a second venture to his bike tours. He picked up a few other customers and drove us up to his ‘cellar door’.
Each vineyard in the Hunter has a cellar door, which isn’t the door to the cellar at all, but the term used to refer to the shop – or any other place – from which the vineyard sells its wine. Glen’s cellar door was in stark contrast to the one at Capercaillie. Where Tina had welcomed us into a rustic chic environment – flagstone floors, big fireplace, woven baskets about the place holding wine, bare wooden tables, leather sofas – Glen’s place looked like my garage. There were bikes everywhere, it was cluttered, dusty and chaotic; not really what you’d expect from a boutique vineyard.
Glen was such a character though that it didn’t matter a bit. He dived behind his counter and grabbed a bottle of his sparkling Moscato. Popping the cork extravagantly, he sloshed it into the glasses and offered them to us, ‘Here, drink this,’ he said. It was about ten am, perfect time to start on the wine! And what a wine it was – light, fruity, bubbly – liquid perfection having a little party on our tastebuds. Glen was looking at us intensely, ‘It’s good, isn’t it,’ he said, with a knowing glint in his eye.
As he was getting the bikes sorted, he continued to talk non-stop, rolling story into story, re-telling a little of his history. He told us how he’d been planning to bulldoze the vines on his land because he didn’t really want to make wine, but the local people had protested, saying it would be a travesty to do so. So Glen had relented and started working the vines properly. The only thing is that in order to make wine, you need a vintner, somebody skilled in the art of oenology – or winemaking to you and me! Rather than employing someone to make wine on his behalf, Glen just decided to have a bash himself, which apparently infuriated the locals more than bulldozing his vines would have done. I got the impression that he basically googled ‘how to make wine’, watched a few videos on YouTube and just went for it. The results are pretty spectacular and he now has a number of award winning wines including a Merlot/Shiraz blend that he accidentally made by throwing both types of grape into the same barrel. Some would say reckless. Some now say genius.
Soon enough, we were equipped with helmets, a hand-drawn map of a suggested route and our tandem – ahhhh, how romantic! A quick photo in front of the vines, and we were off.
Glen’s route was very short – about 12km – which he thought would take us all day. Pah! Doesn’t he know we’re athletes…?! We had Glen’s map, but we also had the map of the whole region, which as I said, is huge. We had grand plans of visiting loads of different vineyards in far flung corners of the region – piece of cake, we thought. As it turns out, we barely made it around Glen’s route to get back in time for the sunset. There were two main problems, you see. Firstly, this tandem was as heavy as a tank, maybe even heavier. Despite our best efforts, we never travelled at any great speed on this thing, unless we were going downhill. Secondly though, the vineyards were sooooooooo good, and offered so many wines up for tasting (usually at least eight!) that we spent ages at each one.
Our favourite turned out to be our first stop, which I suppose is both fortunate and unfortunate in equal measure. It was called Worthington’s and was run by Mike and his wife Julie. Their cellar door was a medium sized barn type structure very beautifully laid out nestling in between their two fields of vines – Semillon on the right, and Shiraz on the left. We were offered seats on the patio at the rear, offering views out over the vineyard, and moments later were sipping a fabulous, crisp Semillon in the winter sun.
We stayed at Worthington’s for well over an hour, chatting and tasting, admiring their beautiful balloon design labels, and marvelling at our luck with the blue sky day. In the end, we settled on buying their dessert wine – an unconventional choice for us seeng as we’re normally more into red, but we were on a mission to extend our experience and not fall into the trap of limiting ourselves to trying what we knew we liked.
This turned out to be a good strategy. At the other vineyards, we bought a wine called Verdelho, which we’d never heard of, a Port called ‘Swagman’s’, a Barbera, a Semillon/ Chardonnay/ Gewurtztraminer blend – the list goes on. It was such a treat for us to be able to buy something and take it with us, that we bought a bottle from every vineyard – well, we had to stock the van! Returning to Glen’s at the end of the day, he offered us more sparkling Moscato and it was so good that we bought two bottles to add to our collection there and then. That evening, we took our Verdelho to the local Thai restaurant and ate and drank like kings.
So, for all you wine lovers out there who are reading this and screaming, ‘Where can I buy these wines…?’ Well, that’s the thing. For the most part, these are boutique wineries whose wine gets no further than their own cellar door. So if you want it, you have to go to the Hunter Valley and get it. And go you must!
The following morning we dragged ourselves away (squeezing in another two tastings on our way out of the valley) and headed for the coast. We had the distinct impression that if we didn’t leave then, we may not leave at all!
We were aiming for Port Stephens, one of Janelle’s recommended points on the coast, and after a few hours in the car we made it fairy comfortably and checked into a friendly hostel that had a few van parking spaces. These kinds of places were awesome really, because you got to use all the facilities but as you were sleeping in your camper, it was really cheap. We decided on the Barbera from First Creek and cooked spicy chorizo, chicken and tomato sauce with pasta. (You’re going to have to excuse me this indulgence of re-living our wine and dinner choices over the next few days!)
At the hostel, the guy tI’m here gave us a map of a few places to go and see around Port Stephens but he also introduced us to our next favourite activity for the week after drinking wine, spotting migrating Humpback and Southern Right whales. Port Stephens has a headland that is one of the most easterly points in Australia. Consequently, the whales come very close to the shoreline here, taking the racing line as they head up to their breeding grounds in the Great Barrier Reef. Happily, as a result of protection, in the past few years whale numbers have swelled and this year they were expecting 20,000 whales to make the journey.
Slightly skeptical of our chances of seeing anything, we visited the headland the following day and as we crested the hill, a whale breached the surface in the ocean ahead of us. It was a wonderful sight and led to our staying there, perched on the rocks for the next few hours, spotting the spray from their blowholes and occasional breaches. I’m happy to say that there were indeed lots of them, travelling in pods of varying size, ranging from pairs to large groups of twelve or more. We didn’t really get any pictures worth posting, as spotting where and when a whale is going to jump out of the ocean can be the tiniest bit tricky!
After climbing the headland at Shoal Bay and finding the huge sand dunes of the Woremi Conservation Lands , we got back on the Pacific Highway and headed north. You see, apart from our beautiful day in the Hunter, it was a still a tad chilly in New South Wales!
We got as far as South West Rocks and found another little camp site in Arakoon National Park. Now though, it wasn’t just cold, it was raining; really, really raining! Not to be disheartened, we grabbed our raincoats and found a covered area where we could cook some dinner. I whipped up a pasta carbonara and we popped the cork on one of Glen’s sparkling Moscato.
More whale watching ensued in the morning before going north. Again. Ballina, just south of Byron Bay is supposedly a chilled out version of Byron, so we headed there, only to find ourselves in a deluge heavy enough to cause flash floods in our chosen campsite.
Not to be deterred, and with dreams of warm summer evenings, we selected an unwooded Chardonnay from Ernest Hill and cooked barbecued Salmon, with lemon, herbs, veg and new potatoes on their handy hotplate style barbecues.
Over dinner, we discussed our options. We were still south of Brisbane, and so still ultimately planning on going north, thinking optimistic thoughts like, ‘There must be sun up there somewhere’ and incredulous ones like, ‘It never used to rain on Neighbours!’ However, rather than another drive straight up the coast, we ventured inland to a town called Nimbin.
Nimbin – a funny name for a very strange place. It’s a traveller’s favourite though mainly for its attitude to, well, how shall I put this – herbal medicine? You see, it was back in 1973 when Nimbin hosted the ten day Aquarius music festival, a veritable orgy of love, peace, harmony, and near enough every narcotic substance you can imagine. As the famous saying goes, ‘If you can remember the Aquarius festival, you weren’t really there!’
Apparently, a load of hippie students turned up from Sydney, and basically enjoyed Nimbin so much that many of them never left. We only stayed one day and managed to avoid the call of the herbal remedies, despite there being bags of it being sold openly in the Sunday market – only a couple of hundred yards down the road from the police station. It was a very interesting place though, the land where time stood still, and a must see stop on any East Coast road trip.
One last story for this post – the guy in the Nimbin YHA recommended the local Thai restaurant, which is inexplicably called ‘Spangled Drongo’. Where they got that name from, I have no idea, but we ordered Pad Thai and green Thai curry. The lady behind the counter brought them over and presented us with two massive meals – enough food to feed six or seven people at least. I looked at them, and then at her and said, ‘Wow, it’s like Thai food but with Australian portions.’ Without flinching she replied, ‘Oh yes, we’re fusion here.’ We had a real giggle at that as we tucked in. It was indeed a good recommendation.