Good weather, good wine, beautiful scenery.

*WARNING* Grab a cup of tea, make yourselves *very* comfortable. This is a long one…

Last Monday we checked into our campsite in the Hunter Valley, or the Hunter Region. The Hunter Valley is a 2-hour drive north of Sydney, and is most commonly known for it’s wineries, and “wine tourism”. The whole area feels very much like Tuscany in Italy; it is utterly gorgeous, and is famous for it’s Shiraz and Semillon wines.

There are approximately 150 different wineries within the Hunter Valley – ranging from very small boutique to international bestselling labels – each with “Cellar Doors” that are open daily for tourists; providing an insight into the work that they do, the wines that they produce, as well as an opportunity to sample and buy their produce – the majority of which is not available outside of the winery itself. The price of these wines is not particularly cheap, so we only bought one bottle, which we enjoyed with our food at a Thai restaurant on our campsite that night.

On that note, BYO – ‘Bring Your Own’ – is a big thing at many of the restaurants over here, where you take your own booze (usually wine only) to the restaurant, and they charge you a corkage fee of about $2 per person. Not sure why they do it, but it does mean that you avoid paying 20 quid for a bottle of wine worth 1/4 of that price – pretty cool!

We enjoyed a day trip out to the wineries, with James’ Hunter Valley Wine & Vineyard Tours (James was also a Pom, from Kensington, now living in the Hunter), where we visited a number of boutique wineries. Our favourites were Ernest Hill Wines, a lovely family business that actually exports a Cyril Semillon; and Iron Gate, which was run by an arrogant and obnoxious, but harmless, Pom (who was as keen to tell us about how rich he was and how he had imported the Spanish roof tiles on his roof, as he was his wines), who produced wine ‘the way that he liked it’, and made some amazing, and ‘very different’ wines such as his sweet Shiraz. We also visited Pooles Rock Wines, who export some of their wine to the UK, so you may be familiar with that name…

Interestingly, having discussed the ‘cork Vs. screw cap’ debate with the owner of Ernest Hill (the first winery that we visited), after I suggested that it was a snobby English thing to not like screw caps, Mr Iron Gate lived up to the stereotype when he brought up the subject when we visited him later in the day, telling us how bad screw caps were. Enough said…

I think that we mentioned that we were looking into the possibility of doing some grape picking in the Hunter Valley in February. Anyway, we thought that we would use our winery tour as an opportunity to ask questions and to look for work. We were overwhelmed by the response that we received, which said that we were totally crazy to be considering doing this work. The Hunter is one of the only, if not the only, region to pick grapes in the height of summertime, when the average temperature regularly hits mid-40s in that part of Australia! A guy at one of the wineries told us that he lasted all of 15 minutes before he called it quits! Basically, the “uniform” consists of work boots, long trousers, long sleeves, hat, scarf and gloves – yes, scarf and gloves – which you have to wear for your daily 8 hour shift in the sunshine!!

Needless to say, we have now changed our minds about working in the Hunter Valley in Febraury. Of course! However, we both really want to experience this kind of work, so will be looking for other opportunities on our trip around Australia. We will, of course, keep you posted…

Unfortunately, we faced more adversity in the Hunter Valley. We stayed at a beautiful campsite, which also produced it’s own wine, and had grape vines everywhere. However, when I woke up after our first night there, I got out of the van and waited for Sarah to surface. When she did, she opened the door of the van, and the first thing that she said to me was, ‘I see that someone has stolen the esky’. For those that don’t know, an esky is a cool box. Having been given a cheap, and relatively useless, one as part of the kit included with the purchase of our van, we forked out about $200 for a 47 litre (imagine a small coffin!) esky. Suddenly, it hit me. The esky was not where we left it before we went to bed. Someone had stolen it!

Panic set in. Initially, I wondered if we had been the subject of a practical joke. But, no, the esky was nowhere to be seen. What had we done to upset someone – was it personal?! I went to report our loss to Reception, at which point I was told that I was the third person that morning to report a missing esky. Reception blamed the local kids, and didn’t really seem to be too concerned by the matter. The other two eskies were actually found around the campsite, but ours was gone. Ours had grog in it. About $100 worth! Hence, the kids had decided to keep ours…

We suggested to Reception that, perhaps, they should advise the Police. Eventually they did so, at which point the Feds returned our empty esky to us. Unfortunately, the booze had been stolen (no surprises there), but the esky had been dumped on the side of a road. I guess kids have no use for a $200 esky, or for a $300 barbecue that had been left outside the van next to the esky that they had pinched… Idiots! But hey, a good result for us.

Obviously, this left a bitter taste in our mouth. It also brought us back to earth – with a bang – and the realisation that there are thieves in Australia too – not just in Shitty Britty! On top of that, we had also learnt that it rains here too – who’d have thought that?! =)

We got chatting to the owner of one of the other missing eskies – they have been on the road for 2 years, travelling around Australia, and they have never had anything stolen before. So, yet again, we had been caught out by bad luck. On the grounds that bad things happen in 3s, we are hoping that we have had our fair share – two tow trucks and a stolen esky – for a while…

The camp sites in Australia are, generally, excellent. We have to say that our experience of campsites in the UK is *very* limited, so we have very little to compare these places with. Most campers – if not all – leave stuff, such as eskies, bbqs, tables and chairs, outside their van / tent overnight. This is probably due to lack of space in their van / tent, but also due to the mutual trust that seems to exist between holidaymakers.

Some campsites are free, some are cheap (say, $20 per night), others are expensive, at $65 per night. The price does not always reflect the quality of the on-site facilities, or the location of the site, like you would expect, although this does tend to be the case. The site that we are currently staying at, in Narrabeen, was one of our favourites so far (based on our previous experience when the site was very quiet). This time round, the site is packed, which means that it is noisy, there is a queue for the showers, and the bathrooms need a damn good clean! Suddenly, $65 per night feels much more expensive… The last campsite that we stayed at was quite busy, but was quiet, and the bathrooms were of a hotel standard – we were paying $44 per night. We are anticipating that the campsites will quieten down next week, as the kids are returning to school after their summer holidays. Bless their hearts…

After our stay in the Hunter, we set off for the Blue Mountains. But not before we went horse riding. This was Sarah’s idea. Bet you didn’t see that one coming?! I have to say, though, that we had a great time – even if my “trusty steed”, ‘Fred’, was a miserable sod – Sarah says ‘a match made in heaven’; I don’t know what she means! We spent about two hours riding (generally at walking pace) around some beautiful scenery, with views of the mountains, herds of kangaroos (complete with Joey in Mum’s pouch!!), and huge eagles flying above us. It was truly amazing, although we both suffered at the end of the ride – walking like cowboys, and nursing tender buttocks!

Similar to Barrington Tops, elements of the Blue Mountains reminded us of England – spectacular scenery, green fields and mountains. We spent three nights here and visited Echo Point and Scenic World, where we could view the famous ‘Three Sisters’ rock formation; as well as Jenolan Caves, where we did a ghost tour on Saturday night; and the Zig Zag Railway, where we went on a 90-min round trip on a steam train. We were very lucky with the weather, as the Blue Mountains are notorious for having their own microclimate, and there are road signs everywhere warning that the roads are slippery when frosty?! Fortunately, it was not at all frosty during our visit!

We are now back in the suburbs of Sydney, where we have been to see our concert (Plan B) in the city, and we are going to a friend’s birthday party in the northern beaches at the weekend. Yesterday the van was in the garage for minor repairs (nothing to worry about, just more things on our snagging list), so we used the opportunity to complete a number of “chores” that we needed to do whilst in town. We have now have Australian driving licences, tax numbers, and our MediCare cards are en route to us. We do, however, still need to buy hiking boots…

We anticipate that we will hit the road in early February – heading south – although we are currently contemplating whether to visit Tasmania and / or New Zealand at this stage, or whether we will do this when we pass the south coast again (perhaps this time next year, roughly…).

Which leads us onto some exciting news. We are welcoming our first guests to Australia next Easter, when we expect to be in Queensland (QLD). No, not Mag, but Sarah’s family are coming out to visit us for a few weeks, which we are really looking forward to. We now have 15 months to prepare some kind of itinerary, and to brace ourselves for “the invasion”… Seriously though, we can’t wait!

On that note, we will leave you in peace. Today, January 26th, is Australia Day, so we are off to celebrate with the locals! In the mean time, we have uploaded more photos to Flickr, so click here to have a look.

We will be in touch again soon, once we have more exciting stories to share with you. Having not made it to Byron because of the weather, we are now looking into learning to surf in Manly, possibly next week, so watch this space for more details…

As always, lots of love to everyone!

xx

On the road again…

G’day!

In our last update we told you that our van had broken down again, and that the NRMA had provided us with two nights accommodation at a motel in Port MacQuarie, as well as a hire car. The good news is that our van was repaired by the end of the week, and we were soon back on the road again.

Initially, the roadside assistant suggested that the distributor had failed. However, on closer inspection, the diagnosis was that the timing belt had snapped. Long story short – the guy that we bought the van from paid for the new belt, whilst we paid for the labour costs of replacing the part, which was a compromise that we were happy with.

The guy at the garage told us that he was very impressed with the condition of our van and felt that we should have no more problems with it. He told us that we had been extremely unlucky in terms of the problems that we have already had, and he explained that these things could have happened on any car, at any time. This obviously boosted our confidence in the van – which had been declining – although we are still going to get it checked over independently.

We were able to see some of the area once we took delivery of the hire car; we visited a koala sanctuary, picked our own strawberries (a first for Sarah!), and we visited the rainforest experience, which turned out to be a walk around the local rainforest – stunning, but for the leeches that took a shine to me!

Back on the road, we headed for Barrington Tops , which is 3 hours north west of Sydney, and is absolutely stunning! It looked very much like Wales or the Lake District, but the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the temperature was about 30 degrees! Plus, there were no sheep… We stayed on a beautiful camp site, down by the river, in a field full of cows! Despite it’s beauty, we were put off by the muggy-ness of being inland, and the number of mosquitos and cow pats, so we returned to the coast the following evening to one of our favourite places, Port Stephens – which we have now visited three times!

We would have liked to have stayed longer at Barrington Tops and to have seen more of the area, however, we were not properly equipped to make the most of the numerous walks, and decided that we needed to invest in a couple of pairs of hiking boots. We still haven’t done so, by the way…

After two nights of relative luxury on the beach, we returned inland to the Hunter Valley, home of Rosemount and Lindeman’s wineries, and then onwards to the Blue Mountains. We will tell you about these trips in the next update…

Thanks again for the comments about the blog and the Pickle Productions movies, as well as emails that we have received. We especially enjoyed reading the email (complete with photos) from our little niece, Megan, which brought a tear to her Uncle’s eye… Great news, too, Rach, about your business – you know that we wish you the very best of luck, and we know that you’re going to have some very happy customers!

Lots of love, xx

Every cloud…

So, here we are, still grounded in Port MacQuarie! The van was collected by the tow truck at about 9am this morning, and was taken – with us – to the garage up the road. We were told that they would look at it this afternoon and would call us when it was ready for collection. Unfortunately, we did not hear from them again…

We spent the day wandering around the “town” (village), and we put ourselves through ‘The Little Fockers’ at the local cinema to kill some time. When we had run out of things to do, we walked back to the garage, only to be told that they had been unable to source a new distributor ($500 for a new part – ouch!), and that they could not get hold of one until tomorrow at the earliest.

We were obviously *very* frustrated! After all, we had only planned to spend a couple of nights here as a stopover on our trip up north. Anyway, it turns out that some of the benefits of our shiny new NRMA membership includes overnight accommodation and a hire car. Result! So, we have just rocked up at a rather hideous-looking motel, but are loving the luxury of a bed, air con, a private bathroom, and a balcony with views of the main road. To emphasise on the positives, we also have a bottle shop over the road and an adult shop next door. How’s that for luck?! =)

We also encountered some true Aussie hospitality when a guy at the garage, also waiting to collect his car, offered to take us back to our camp site so that we could pick up a few bits that we had left there this morning, and then onto the motel. What a nice guy! He even gave us his business card and said to call him if we needed any further assistance or a place to stay at night. Wow! The only condition of him helping us was that we did not mention the cricket. Cricket, what cricket? =) His wife is a pom from Tottenham, and his sister is from Send near Guildford. Rick was a star – thank you!

In other news, we take delivery of our hire car tomorrow, and plan to explore the local area, visiting the koala hospital and the rainforest experience (whatever that is?!).

We hope to be back on the road by the end of the week, and we have semi-planned a weekend stay in a place called Barrington Tops, which is in the middle of nowhere, and south from here. We have brought forward the date of our stay in the Hunter Valley to the beginning of next week, when we are planning to explore the area and find out about picking up some work there for another trip at the end of Jan/beginning of Feb. We hope to be able to earn approx $125 per day, each, for picking grapes. Apparently the benefits are – ‘weight loss’ and ‘toning up’, and having an ‘average to good level of fitness is necessary’ … Oh shit! Watch this space…

Despite our trials and tribulations with the van, we have to say that regardless of the frustrations that we have experienced, and the days that we have “wasted”, we still count ourselves *very* lucky and really wouldn’t change it for the world! Not only are we experiencing the trip of a lifetime and, perhaps, the daily “traumas” of a backpacker; our situation is not even remotely bad compared to that of the residents of QLD and northern NSW, where cars and houses are being destroyed, and lives are being lost. The situation with the floods has been declared a natural disaster, and a massive number of homes are expected to be lost in Brisbane tonight. It really is terrible! We are very lucky not to be caught up in this, and our thoughts are with the people that are…

On that sobering note, lots of love to everybody back home! xx

The best laid plans…

In our last update, we were telling you about our plans for the next few weeks. Wow, how things can change in such a short space of time…

Well, today we received details of a severe weather warning, and a strong recommendation that we should not be travelling north of our current location. This is why…

We are currently at a lovely camp site in Port MacQuarie – situated in a $million-per-property residential estate – and we are due to be heading north to Coffs Harbour tomorrow. Coffs Harbour is about 250km south of Byron Bay, which is to be our next stop. The Pacific Highway, which is the main road up the east coast from New South Wales (NSW) to Queensland (QLD), is currently under water at a place called Grafton, which is about midway between Coffs and Byron.

So, this afternoon, we have changed our travel plans. And not just because of the weather…

We set off from the camp site this morning, heading for a rainforest experience and a koala hospital, both of which are in Port MacQuarie and about a 10 minute drive away. Unfortunately, we got 5 minutes up the road and the car died! We then spent all afternoon parked on the side of the road, overlooking the crashing waves on the beach below, waiting for the NRMA (AA equivalent in NSW), for which we had only obtained our membership a few days ago. The guy from the NRMA suspects that the coil pack has gone, which, believe it or not, is something that we are actually quite familiar with as our car suffered from the same problem not long before we left the UK… Anyway, a tow truck was called, and we were returned to our camp site. As we are now likely to spend all day tomorrow waiting for the car to be fixed, we have extended our stay at the camp site for another couple of nights. Thankfully, there are worse places in the world to be stuck without a car!

Anyway, we are reconsidering our position with the car. Not for the first time either. We are planning on having it checked over by the NRMA, so that they can tell us exactly what is wrong with it and we can then make a decision on whether we will keep it or not. After all, we have had the car for about one month and it has been on two tow trucks and has spent about 3 or 4 days in various mechanical workshops. We haven’t even hit the road yet! If it proves viable for us to keep the car, we will do. If not, we will sell it and look at other options – possibly rental, which, although very expensive, will provide us with comprehensive post “sale” support. Given the potential for extra outgoings, we may also have to review our grand plan and make changes to fit within our revised budget – i.e. possibly spending less time moving between places, and not exploring as many places as we would like. Watch this space…

As we have put our trip north on hold, we will be heading south to the vineyards of the Hunter Valley and the scenery of the Blue Mountains a little earlier than we had originally planned. We have even discussed looking into the possibility of doing some grape picking whilst we are in the Hunter Valley, as with the cost of more van repairs looming, we could certainly do with the cash!

As far as exploring the east coast goes, we will be back! However, we may now not get to explore the likes of Coffs Harbour, Yamba, Byron Bay, Nimbin and beyond until next year, when we plan to venture further north to QLD – Brisbane, Fraser Island, Whitsunday Islands, Cairns, Great Barrier Reef, Cape Tribulation, etc. As we are learning though, things can happen that mean your plans have to change, so we wont set any timescales on this, but will look forward to it for sure!

Driving north from Shoal Bay (which was another stunning place!) yesterday was the first time that we have really seen glimpses of the “real” Australia – lots of beautiful views, long roads, stunning beaches with dozens of surfers waiting for the huge waves, as well as beautiful nothing-ness. We also saw our first wild kangaroos – three of them sitting in a field – as well as a field full of camels. Yes, camels. In a field. Random…

As ever, we love hearing from you guys back in the UK, and we will, of course, continue to keep in touch with you all.

Lots of love, xx

Another Pommie update.

G’day, how you goin?!

It’s a while since we last spoke, so we wanted to say ‘hi’ and let you know what we have been up to, and what we have planned for the start of 2011.

We had a great Christmas, if not a little unusual. By that we mean that we enjoyed glorious weather – clear blue sky, temperatures in the mid-30s, and a walk along the white sands of Jervis Bay. But it was just the two of us, and no chaotic family gatherings, or games of wink murder – although we did have a couple of hectic Skype conversations with the family, so we didn’t miss out too much! It was really nice to experience an Aussie Christmas, and something that we would recommend to you all… The barbie is on us next year, for those of you that can make it out here!

Speaking of bbq’s, having spent however-many-dollars on a lovely charcoal barbie, we have realised that we actually need to swap it for a gas one! The camp site that we are currently staying at has a “no open fires” policy and, apparently, even our little barbie qualifies as being an open fire. I think this is something that we are likely to have more problems with as we travel around the country, as the last thing we want to do is cause a bush fire!!

Back to Christmas – we headed south to Jervis Bay (about a 3 hour drive from Sydney), and we stayed at a place called Huskisson Beach, where the sand was white and the sea was crystal clear. It was beautiful! Before we left the city, we braved the “36-hr Sydney Fish Market Marathon” so that we could pick up our festive foods – XXL prawns and lobster for our Christmas Day bbq. The market was manic, and like nothing we have ever experienced – it made the Christmas Eve pilgrimage to M&S and Tesco seem like a walk in the park! But it was all well worth it…

We started our Christmas Day with a walk along the beach and a paddle in the sea, followed by a lunch time barbie, and a rest in the arvo with a few beers and homemade Egg Nog (it seemed like a good idea at the time!!).

The temperatures cooled down on Boxing Day, which prompted a case of the man flu for Simon! A few days later Simon had recovered from his near death experience (!!), and we returned to Sydney for the New Years Eve celebrations…

An Aussie friend had recommended that we watch the fireworks from a place called Mrs MacQuaries Point, which is a vantage point in Sydney Harbour that overlooks the bridge and the Opera House. When we turned up at 10am, knowing that we needed to be there early to beat the crowds, we hadn’t counted on the fact that 5-10,000 other people had been queuing through the night – we have never seen such long queues for anything! We finally entered the park after more than three hours in the queue, and instantly realised that we had to leave. This was a “tourist haven” of a vantage point and was just too busy – we couldn’t even see the Harbour Bridge, and people were packed in like sardines! So, we packed up our stuff, and moved on… We returned to the camp site (an hour on the train), collected our van, and drove to a place called Vaucluse, which is on the eastern side of the harbour, where we were sat on the side of the road, on our deck chairs, with two old ladies. We had a perfect, if not distant, view of the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, and of the fireworks that followed throughout the night.

We are please to report that the relationship with our van is improving. We had the new stereo fitted (no subwoofer yet…), as well as our trucker-style CB radio – which we haven’t got a clue how to use, although we believe to be essential Outback-survival kit…

We are currently staying at a campsite on the outskirts of Sydney. When we checked in a couple of days ago, the sun was so hot that we were unable to put up our awning without burning our hands on the metal poles and pegs! The temperature must have been pushing high-30’s, if not higher, although Google suggested it was much cooler… What does he know?!

We had to make an emergency visit to the chemist today, as Simon’s last remaining snore spray has been misplaced, and a few local children have been heard laughing at his snoring in the mornings… Little bastards, I’ll show them!

This afternoon, we have confirmed our travel arrangements for the next month or so. Next week we will be travelling up the coast to Byron Bay and Nimbin, with stops at Shoal Bay, Port MacQuarie, and Coffs Harbour, before returning to Sydney through Yamba and the Hunter Valley wine region in time for our Plan B gig and Australia Day celebrations at the end of January.

We will be hitting the road and heading for Canberra in early February; then onto Melbourne and Adelaide, and we will, of course, keep you updated on our progress… To give you some idea on the timescale for our travels, we anticipate that we will be heading north from Perth, up the west coast, in April/May time, but, as ever, these “plans” will remain *very* flexible…

We are enjoying life on the road, and whilst the esky is full of ice cold beer, and the fridge is full of steaks, we will continue to do so! We had a “learning experience” (which I think is what the occupational psychologists out there would call it) during our stay at Jervis Bay, when we realised that the second battery in our van would only last for a couple of days without being recharged by the main van battery. Effectively, this resulted in a fridge full of gone-off meat, after the fridge had stopped working without us realising. We now understand this system much better, and will not let this happen again!!

The kids go back to school after their summer holidays at the end of January, when we will then be able to visit the zoo, climb the Harbour Bridge, etc, without the little darlings getting in our way!

Finally, we have uploaded some more pictures to our Flickr account, which can be viewed by clicking here.

We hope that you are all well, and are enjoying being back at work after your Christmas holidays!!

Lots of love from us both xx