Sophisticated Supping in The Hunter Valley

Trip Start Feb 05, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Bottlebrush Backpackers

Flag of Australia  , New South Wales,
Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Hunter Valley, one of Australia's most famous wine growing regions, lies 150km North West of Sydney. Such a prime location makes it a big attraction for daytripping Sydney visitors; despite it not being the finest of the country's vineyards. According to wikipedia, The Hunter Valley is the 6th most visited place in Australia.

Despite this evident popularity, it is a right mission to organize any trip that isn't aboard a regimented, air-conditioned tour bus. For starters, there are no direct public transport routes. We had to endure over 4 hours travel time (split between 3 trains and 1 bus) to get to there.

Additionally, there is a complete lack of budget accommodation across the valley - which seems to suggest an assumption those with an appreciation for wine, have bulging waistlines and wallets to match. There is one YHA, but this imposes a shameful two night minimum stay. After much searching we had no option but to settle for a shady sounding hostel in the middle of the very French sounding Cessnock - the main town serving the valley. 

We had timed our trip to coincide with Jono's, (one of our more sophisticated friends) birthday. And with such a setting and company were expecting a civilized, cosmopolitan jaunt. I had forewarned the birthday boy that the hostel was not going to be quite what he was used to and he accepted with good grace. Nevertheless we were all slightly alarmed to discover our 8 bed room was 2 beds short and in one of these precious beds a Chinese man lay sound asleep. Upon hearing our shrieks the owner barked at the man who woke and hastily stripped the bed, while we all stood watching, our mouths agape in unison. Our chic trip had gotten off to a splendid start.

Events took a turn when we were picked up from our hostel by Glenn from Grapemobile Cycling. Grapemobile operates from Pokolbin Brothers Wines in the centre of all the action. The majority of the vineyards, cheeseries and other delicious outlets are dotted along or off the valley's main artery - Broke Road. As we passed it Glenn called the road The Hunter's equivalent of Pitt Street (Sydney's main throbbing, shopping street).

We arrived at the vineyard and were issued us with our bikes, helmets, maps and recommendations. Glenn told us that he'd pioneered a new type of wine by accident and now has a huge contract in Japan supplying it. He gave us a private tasting of this special brand to get us going and so with a few swags of wine in our bellies we set off to make our late assault on the cellar doors of The Hunter.

We headed first a few hundred metres down the road to a homely boutique winery named Littles. Here we tried amongst others a sparkling red wine, which I was assured is very unusual. 

We stopped next at a big commercial winery named First Creek, where we tried another novelty wine, a chilled red, which I glugged down, along with Macky's discarded glass, appreciatively.
Two of our party are quite the connoisseurs and took great pride in remarking on 'the nose' and 'bouquet' of the wine and other such alien qualities. It was useful to have people who knew what they were on about with us. The main two factors I have relied on when selecting wine in the past have been cost and constitution - how dirt cheap it is and how closely it resembles the taste of fizzy pop. I consequently received quite the condensed education from them. Their presence also meant the wineries had more time for us. It often took them by surprise when an informed comment emerged from the midst of our rabble. 

After leaving First Creek we cycled onto Broke Road and headed to another commercial winery juggernaut, Tempus Two. This winery is joined to The Smelly Cheese shop - a wonderful gorgy, cheesy heaven where an abundance of free tasters delight you from every shelf. A man from our hostel also worked here and gave us a free tasting of the more unusual cheeses. He also shared with us his 40% staff discount which went some way to making up for our earlier welcome. 
We cycled to a few more wineries after this, but none were as notable as the first few. By this point as well, a grogginess induced by gorging made navigating the hills a great deal more choresome. As we headed back, the sky turned a brilliant red, transforming the neglected looking, out-of-season vines into a real sight for sore eyes. We left the main track and to our delight saw several families of kangaroos bouncing around happily in the open fields. Such a sight really topped of the day nicely and we returned the bikes a very contented bunch.

On arriving back at the hostel we checked out the other room we had been swiftly assigned and discovered yet another little treat. A burley, shaven headed thug grunted out at us from the bottom bunk. He looked like he had most likely just been released from the nearby Cessnock Correctional Institute - a mere one bus stop from our hostel. We politely closed the door and not wanting to hang around, headed straight out into Cessnock. 
After a delicious Indian meal we headed to the one of the only places in the village open, the local pub. The entertainment for the evening was a two minute brawl between locals complete with eye-gouging and windmilling. Which we watched with thinly veiled amusement from the other side of the bar.

After a few drinks we headed back to the hostel, everyone too exhausted to continue. So that night as the birthday boy lay his weary head down next to his convict dorm-mate, he was even too tired to try and sleep with one eye open.

On the journey home in the morning, the spirit of the scenes from the previous night continued. We were seated on the bus behind a bedraggled young woman cradling a bleeding ankle and talking loudly on the phone about stashing drugs in her knickers. We exchanged raised brows and wondered if the inaccessibility of The Hunter Valley had something to do with discouraging scrounging heathens such as us, or maybe even the locals themselves from visiting and pillaging all the free booze.
The train journey back solidified these thoughts. For the first half an hour the train stopped at every station on its route. Some of these stations seemed to serve lone houses and towns made from a cluster of ten houses. Fields and fields stretched between them. We jointly observed that with so little to do in this region of the country and with everywhere else being such a bloody chore to reach, it is hardly surprising that people turn to drugs and alcohol for their entertainment. Louis Theroux would have a field day in the fringes of the Hunter.

On the last leg of the train journey the scenery changed drastically once more as the tracks followed the banks of The Hawkesbury River home. The Hawkesbury stretches 120km inland from the Pacific Ocean, 50km north of Sydney. It was once a battleground between the indigenous people and the colonial settlers who travelled from Sydney to gather food from its banks of fertile soil. In the flesh it was much more magnificent then I had imagined and seemed endless, it's different arms twisting off into hidden coves. We enjoyed the view for half an hour as the train chugged along with it. It was a peaceful end to a trip which had revealed the conflicting sides of rural Australia and we topped off this indulgent mood with a banquet of cheese at home.
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