Australia, Part 3 - wines, dives, and hippys.

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Aug 20, 2007

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Flag of Australia  , New South Wales,
Sunday, February 11, 2007

What I needed after such a week was a good drink. Lucky, then, that the Hunter Valley, one of Australia's best wine producing areas (and New South Wales' largest) was a relatively short drive up the coast. With well over 100 vineyards in a relatively small area, it was not so much a case of driving to the next one, but rolling down the hill. Mike's dislike for wine was no real problem, as he provided an extremely efficient taxi service between vineyards, brewery, and chocolate factory (infact, what more could you ask for in a valley?). Not only does the Hunter produce some of Australia's best wines, but the Upper Hunter is one of Australia's biggest coal fields, with coal heading from there to Newcastle, the world's busiest port for exporting coal. Environment fans should note that Australian coal is supposedly responsible for 1% of global warming. Fact. You only really get a sense of the scale of Newcastle's trade when at the beach, where you see at least 30 66,000 ton mega-ships waiting to come into port. That is all I managed to count from the shore, but you could just make out more on the horizon, so who knows how many there were.

Back in the Hunter Valley, we went to a mix of huge vineyards from some of Australia's most famous houses (eg Lindeman's) and some more boutique vineyards, such as Drayton's Wines (they've been in the valley since the 1850s, so know a thing or two about the area and the wines). The big difference between the Australian vineyards and the European ones is their Cellar Door policy - you can go round pretty much all of them and try everything they have to offer for free. The wines they produce have a really distinct flavour - extremely earth and almost peaty, a bit like the aftertaste from a decent whisky. Most of the vineyards also produce different types of port and other wine-derived drinks. The Tawny Port at McGuigan wines (second largest wine group in Aus behind the Fosters group) was absolutely fantastic - like a smooth velvet running through you. One that I will probably not be trying again in a hurry was the Chilli Schnapps from Golden Grape - absolutely blows your head off, and you're unable to taste anything at all after it. They produce it by placing several large chillies into the Schnapps, leaving it to fester for a while. It's called 'Dragon's Breath', and after tasting it, for good reason.

Hunter is also home to the Blue Tongue Brewery, highly recommended by George. Though mixing grape and grain is not always a good idea, I was not driving so it was not a problem. Though much Australian beer can best be described as flavoured lemonade (polite way of putting it), some of the Blue Tongue stuff was relatively comparable to the proper beer of England (though fans of Real Ale (especially Timothy Taylors) beware - non of the good stuff over here. supposedly the heat (or the locals...) can't take it). In order to get a full appreciation of the beers, I thought I should try all of them. Quite fortunate then that they did a 'paddle' which had all 6 varieties. I could have done without a couple of them, but on the whole they were some of the better Australian beers I've tasted.

Our next port of call up the coast was the area around Seal Rocks and Myall Lakes national park. Though people say that the East Coast is really developed compared to the rest of Australia, we were often the only people on many of the beaches we went to. Many of them go on for miles (such as 'seven mile beach', '35 mile beach' (you get the picture)), and whilst they are not as empty as something you'd find in the west, the sense of space is fantastic. George had recommended that we try and do some diving up at Seal Rocks, mostly for the sharks and other sea life that is there. The area around Forster and Seal rocks is where the tropical and not so tropical waters meet, so you get a good mix of the cooler water acquatic life, as well as tropical fish. We only went diving for the morning, and whilst we didn't get down to Seal Rocks (more of an entire day) we did see some pretty cool stuff. This was the first dive either of us had done that was not in freezing English water. My previous dives had been in a gravel pit in Wraysbury, under the flight path of Heathrow. The visibility was about 3-4 feet, we had to wear the full wet-suit geat (two layers, hood, gloves, etc) and it was relatively miserable. Here, the water was 21 degrees, visibility about 45 feet, and the sea life amazing. Though we did not see any of the areas famed Grey Nurse sharks (look a bit like they could eat you, but we were assured that they wouldn't) there were a couple of Port Jackson sharks, quite a few rays, sea turtles, blue gropers (see earlier entry on these), and loads of other tropical fish, the type that you would expect in a fancy fish tank back home. The Port Jacksons were initially quite hard to spot, looking a bit like rocks. We did two dives here, (both at different locations) and hopefully the things we'll see when we get to the Great Barrier Reef will be just as spectacular.

Heading inland and up from Forster, we went to somewhere highly recommended by the manager of the Newcastle hostel - Bellingen. Bellingen appeared like a mix between west Wales and Cornwall - relatively 'alternative' (healers, herbalists, dreads, going green, farmers markets), but still reassuringly cosmopolitan, attracting as it does people from the cities wanting to 'downsize' but without wanting to loose all their creature comforts. Perhaps one of the prettiest towns we went to in NSW, our initial entry into the town could have gone so wrong - an attempt to take a short cut led to a 10km dirt track going down some mountain (not a 4*4 track, thankfully, just gravel) with sheer drops on one side, and mad locals going at ridiculous speeds coming at your round 180 degree bends. As to why the town is 'one of the prettiest', you could have gone in a time warp back to the start of the twentieth century, as many of the buildings are as they were when built - conservationists got in early here. As a result, there are loads of impressive colonial style buildings with their verandahs lining the main street.

We'd decided to camp here to save a bit of money, and the campsite at the hostel overlooked the valley (which the hostel also overlooked), with mountains in the background, and trees with perhaps up to 40,000 flying foxes (fruit bats) in them. At dusk these come alive, and the amount of bats in the air made it seem like something out of a horror movie. However, it was the morning that you noticed the noise they made the most - from about 5 till 7, there was an incessant shreiking that echoed through the valley. One way, I suppose, to wake you up.

Sticking with the hippy side of things, the names given to areas of rainforest and associated parts seem to fit - we went to 'The Promised Land', with its crystal clear stream fed swimming pools, and 'Never Never River', again with more swimming. Though much of the area was covered in Red Cedar until logging started in the mid 19th century, there is little left now. The only area is the National Park, and the size of some of the trees there make you realise why the loggers came here to seek their fortune. Walking through what is left of the the original landscape, it is quite incredible how the initial pioneers survived and got through the area. Though back-tracking a week or so, it is quite incredible how the initial party developed/got through the six-foot track. It took them 11 days to do what we did, and they had to cut their way through the rainforest, and due to the density of vegetation would probably not have had the views of the landscape (and subsequently where they were relative to everything else) that we had.

Going from one extremet to the other, we left the quirky but extremely pleasant atmosphere of Bellingen for the heady, tacky nature of Byron Bay. A bit like Costa del Sol (del Pacifico) but without the high rise buildings, the place is swarming with tourists, tourist shops, learn to surf places, and all that goes with it. Though it was 'alternative' like Bellingen in the 60s (nearby Nimbin was where the Aquarius festival was held in the 60s), it is perhaps now as alternative as a trip to McDonalds. Having said that, it makes an ideal place to book what else we are going to do in Australia, especially for diving, sailing, and tours of really quite inaccessible places, as all the places sell the same stuff, so it is a question of finding something decent amongst the tat and getting the backpackers travel agencies to compete against each other to get you the best price. Today's our last day in Byron, and we're heading not too far up the coast to Murwillumbah, and will probably climb a mountain tomorrow.

Finally, thanks to everyone for the 'Happy Birthday' messages. Had a pretty good time here (was in Byron Bay), and this was buoyed by the destruction of Australian cricket yesterday. At last they might stop their, frankly, rather lame jokes. I'll wait to see if this is the case...
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