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

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