Australia

Hunter Valley wine tourism tips for self-drivers

David Whitley looks at how to do a day out wine tasting without going over the drink drive limit

The appeal of going to a major international wine region and going round all day sampling wines is fairly obvious, and few places do the wine tourism thing better than the Hunter Valley.

This is partly due to its proximity to Sydney – it’s two to two-and-a-half hours’ drive out of the big city, which ensures a steady stream of people on short breaks and the infrastructure to cater for them. 

The major problem, however, is that the Hunter is not well served by public transport – both in terms of getting there and getting around the sprawling vineyard area. And this means that, without military style planning, you’re probably going to have to go there by car.

There’s an obvious flaw to this – if you want to go round tasting wine, then you’re very quickly going to be over the drink driving limit. 

The easy way to deal with this problem is to take the car, park it up and go out tasting on a tour. There are numerous tours available, and the general rule is that the bigger the bus, the more bog standard the wineries you’ll go to. Going for smaller local operators who have relationships with the wineries is more rewarding. The Hunter Valley YHA does its own tours for from $55 – usually with small groups, visiting the smaller wineries.

Splashing out a bit more (think $400 per couple), Aussie Wine Tours will take you round in a private car, tailoring the wineries visited to your tastes. 

But if going it alone, it’s that selectiveness that is key. One of the Hunter’s great selling points is that there’s very little wine snobbery. The wineries know that the whole gamut will walk in through their doors – from serious wine buyers to people who basically know it’s made out of grapes and nothing else. The people at the cellar doors will happily guide you through the best ways to taste, and point you in the direction of the sorts of wines that’ll suit your palate.

As a general rule, you’ll get to taste five (roughly) 20ml samples at each winery. That comes out at approximately one standard drink. So for drivers, a rule of thumb is that men can get away with two full tastings, and women one. Add an extra one if you spread it over a few hours and eat in between. 

So you can’t go OTT, but you can still do a few tastings while driving yourself round.

The key is in picking the right wineries. I dropped into the tourist information centre on the way in and asked which wineries do the big, gutsy reds I prefer and which do unusual varietals – such as Zinfandel and Viognier. The woman recommended Piggs Peake, Ivanhoe and Peterson’s – which proved to be spot-on choices. 

 

 

It’s worth asking similar questions at the wineries themselves. Most cellar door workers will happily make suggestions for the best of the rest.

The other, and probably rather obvious tactic, is to extend the day by limiting the number of wines you sample at each winery. 

Three wines at five wineries will give you a better sample (and day out) than five wines at three wineries. Narrow it down to the ones you’re most likely to buy or enjoy – if you’re not a white wine drinker, just stick to the reds for expediency’s sake. Similarly, there’s no point trying ones that are out of your price range if you’re narrowing down which to buy. It’s also worth asking the person serving them which three in particular they’d recommend trying.

And, if you want to extend beyond the drink driving limit, check which wineries are within walking distance of your accommodation. Tackle them last, after you’ve visited wineries further afield and parked the car up, on foot. 

 

Handily, you can get Australia included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

We also sell breaks in the Hunter Valley

by David Whitley

  

On the New South Wales Central Coast, David Whitley discovers the grizzly truth about where antivenom comes from

 

On the New South Wales Central Coast, David Whitley discovers the grizzly truth about where antivenom comes from

 The funnel web spider is clambering around a little too freely for my liking. It may be surrounded by a Perspex square that’s too smooth for it to climb up, but nonetheless, I’m not getting any closer than I have to.

Kayleen, however, seems considerably braver. One of the professional venom milkers at the Australian Reptile Park on the New South Wales Central Coast, she is prodding the tips of its legs with a pipette. It’s attached to a suction system, so she’s effectively using it like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up the venom.

The Sydney funnel web spider is not to be messed with. Kayleen says a bite can kill an adult human with 76 minutes, and a child within just 13. “But we’re pleased to say that there’s been a fatality rate of zero since we started our programme.”

That programme involves a roomful of highly dangerous spiders in plastic tubs being milked once a week. The venom is collected, then sent to a biopharmaceutical firm called CSL in Victoria, where it is used to make antivenom via the medium of rabbits.

Antivenoms, it turns out, are not made using chemistry sets. They come about via a six month process of injecting the poor bunnies with increasingly high doses of the milked venom. They gradually build up a resistance to it, and then their blood is centrifuged – the red blood cells go back into the rabbit, and the resistance-carrying white blood cells become the key ingredient in the antivenom that’s injected into humans. A similar process is used with snakes – although the taipans, tiger snakes, death adders, eastern browns and black snakes have their fangs pressed into plastic film covering a shot glass, and horses are used instead of rabbits.

The Australian Reptile Park has a substantial snake milking operation behind the scenes, but it’s the spider milking that’s on public view – they hold special displays every day that less arachnophobic visitors are welcome to gawp at.

 

 

The problem, however, is getting enough male spiders to milk. “We rely on people handing them in, but a lot of people are so terrified of them that they don’t get this far,” says Kayleen.

The males are smaller than the females, but six times more venomous – and that makes them better for milking. “But part of the problem is that they – and we – don’t know they’re males until they’re two-and-a-half years old. They only live for a year or two after that – and their life is spent hunting a female to mate with.”

So while the females are happily burrowed in the ground, the males are crawling around trying to find them. The boys, when they’ve found a likely sweetheart, will twang away at her web until she thinks she’s caught some prey in it. He’ll then hold back her fangs, do what grown-ups do when they love each other very much.

Once they finish, he’s stupid enough to walk away. She then attacks him, kills him and feeds him to her children. Who said romance was dead?

 

 

 

 

Handily, you can get Australia included as a stopover (plus get another 9 around the world) on a Navigator RTW We also love Australia (Go Aussies!) and sell very well priced breaks in Coastal New South Wales

 

by David Whitley

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The land of fire

 

David Whitley visits the bushfire-hit Blue Mountains to discover the extraordinary eco-system that such fires have created

“When I took my first tours through here, everything was black,” says Evan. “But there’s not been a fire for 14 years here. And you can tell.”

Evan Yanna Muru runs the Blue Mountains Walkabout tours through a patch of thick forest near Faulconbridge station. It feels a world away from modern life, but is surprisingly close to residential areas. The residents in those areas, of course, generally see fire as a bad thing.

But for the ecosystem of the area, fire is an essential ingredient, needed every four or five years. Evan points to the shrivelled fruit pods and lack of wildflowers. They’d be booming in the year after a fire, he says. The destruction is necessary for the regeneration. And when the regeneration happens, it does so with extraordinary energy.

The next day, heading down into the Megalong Valley on the way to a campsite breakfast among the kangaroos, Tim Tranter from Tread Lightly Eco-tours tells of the 2002 bush fires. They scourged the area we’re driving through, lasted weeks and covered Sydney’s Bondi Beach in a thick black cloud on Christmas Day. “Within a year, you couldn’t actually see what had been burned,” he says.

Nature works in truly remarkable ways in these parts. “You can walk through six different biospheres without changing altitude, he says. “You go from tall eucalyptus forest to ancient Gondwana rainforest from the Jurassic era just crossing the road.” Trees don’t lose their leaves every year – they lose their bark. It’s the only country in the world where you smell the leaves rather than the flowers – the oils in the eucalyptus leaves have that distinctive nose-clearing scent.

But much of it wouldn’t be there without fire.

The Blue Mountains aren’t mountains at all – the area’s made up of a series of plateaus created through an uplifting of the ocean floor 150 million years ago. Over time, rich layers of iron formed within that dominating sandstone. And the iron brings lightning.

“The area gets 100,000 to 200,000 lightning strikes a year,” says Tim. “And 100 million years ago, there was so much lightning that a new genus of tree was born.  This is the birthplace of the eucalyptus, of which there are thought to be 103 different varieties in the Blue Mountains alone.

 

The oils in those leaves, which give the area its blue haze and clear up colds throughout the world, are highly volatile. They go up in flame terrifyingly quickly, spreading the fire through the canopy. This is evolution in progress. For the tree, fire could mean death. So having leaves that pass the fire on as quickly as possible is simply a survival strategy. The bark falling off is much the same thing. When it goes, the tree trunk is smooth and it’s much harder for the fire to take hold on it.

But the tree must reproduce leaves remarkably quickly to be able to survive. It needs them for photosynthesis. And within 100 days, you’d hardly know they’d gone in the first place.

Australian nature logic doesn’t fit that of the rest of the world. People assume that once a fire rips through, an area will be a blackened ruin for years. It’s an assumption that’s been made with the 2013 Blue Mountains bushfires (which didn’t affect any of the main tourist areas anyway), and visitors have stayed away. But this is land that needs fire, and thrives on fire. The acres that burned are already on the way back to being far more vibrant and beautiful than they have been for years.

After the burn comes the birth.

Handily, on a round the world ticket you can get Australia included as a stopover (plus get another 9 around the world) on a Navigator. We also love Australia (Go Aussies!) and sell very well priced tours in The Blue Mountains

 

by David Whitley

   

 

It’s not so grim up north

  

The kestrel soars on the updraft, slightly frantic wings betraying a sense of cool. Suddenly it dives down, presumably having spotted a skink on the rocks. Bad luck and RIP, little lizard.

Theoretically, we’re standing on the Long Reef headland looking for whales. They migrate up the coast in June and July, coming back between August and October. But in the absence of the big boys, it becomes clear how much wildlife there is, sneaking into the gaps between the flash seaside houses of Sydney’s northern beaches.

For most visitors to Sydney, there is no real call to head north of the harbour. Perhaps the ferry to Manly, then back again in the evening. Or an afternoon outing to Taronga Zoo. Beyond such tickboxes, there’s little apparent reason to venture upwards. It’s not just visitors either – the harbour provides such a natural barrier that those living south of it tend to regard northern Sydney residents as “living overseas�?.

Damien McClellan, who runs Eco Treasures Tours, is Northern Beaches born-and-bred, however. And he makes a living of showing off the bits that many people don’t bother to go to. The beaches themselves are clankingly obvious – anyone with a functioning pair of eyes can see they’re better than the more lauded ones in the eastern suburbs – but it’s what’s in-between that proves to be more interesting.

 

 

The Long Reef headland is a mini-nature reserve, and an excellent indication of how the coast works around here. It is not one of the more dramatic headlands – it offers a relatively gentle, tapered slope down to the crashing Tasman Sea. Brown sediment in the water shows how the rock is weathered away. It’s a gradual, relatively smooth process, due to the type of rock. The big sandstone cliffs on other headlands work differently – they’re cut away at from underneath and eventually the overhangs crash into the water.

“The indigenous people of the area divided the year up into seven seasons,�? says Damien, reaching for the wattle plant. “When it flowers in September, for example, it usually coincides with mullet fish running. It’s a good indicator of a change of season - and plentiful food.�?

Looking down towards Dee Why beach, Damien explains how the rhythms of nature affect the entrance to the small lagoon lying behind it. “Small waves gradually build up sand and close the gap. Then a storm comes along and knocks it down again.�?

He’s a man who spends a lot of time studying waves. Surfing is his real love, and the Northern Beaches has a strong surfing scene. Narrabeen is arguably the most beloved hotspot, but the best breaks can vary from day to day.

The surest sign of dedication is when someone prefers to surf. Logic would dictate that the summer months and warmer water are the best bet, but McLellan spends more time on his board in the winter. The prevailing winds are more conducive to consistent breaks, and if that means donning a wetsuit, so be it.

Being close to the sea is a fundamental part of Northern Beaches life. The inconveniences of getting into the city are happily traded off for the chance to hear the waves crashing. The further up the coast you go, the more detached from the rest of Sydney it feels. There are fewer commuters and more self-employed businesspeople working from home. The houses, some bought by rich blow-ins, others passed down through the family from the days where this was a cheap place to live, get ever more spectacular.

It all ends at Palm Beach, better known to international audiences as Summer Bay, the fictional setting of Home And Away. The gloriously long stretch of sand goes up to the lighthouse on the Barrenjoey Headland, while the Bouddi National Park on the Central Coast can be found on the horizon.

The place has a smug contentment about it, the knowledge that it’s about as far from hardship as it’s possible to get without entering the world of private helicopters and superyachts. Novice surfers attack the waves at the relatively tame southern end of the beach, dozens of dogs walk their owners and residents with seemingly not much to perturb them graze on flat whites and eggs benedict.

It is at the same time very separate from Sydney and the absolute embodiment of it. If you’ve got the money, the Northern Beaches have the dream. Well, unless you’re a soon-to-be devoured skink, anyway.

 

 by David Whitley

 

 

The best town in Australia?

David Whitley takes a detour on the road north to find the surfers’ magical fantasy land that is Yamba

It doesn’t take long after veering off the Pacific Highway to realise that there’s something a little bit special. Sugar cane fields appear, interspersed with cobalt blue channels branching from the Clarence River’s fabulously messy delta. Enormous pelicans glide along the water, unaware of how marvellously ridiculous they look.

And at the end, as the Clarence finally meets the sea, is Yamba. It has long been a sleepy little surf town, with basic cabin and holiday park accommodation along the river shore, but in the last five years or so, people have begun to take notice. In 2009, Australian Traveller Magazine named it the best town in Australia, and since then more upscale restaurants have opened, while backpackers have started to trickle in.

Shane Henwood, who co-owns and manages the Yamba YHA with his family, says he initially came to the town for the surfing. He’s not the only one – Angourie Point is one of the world’s most feared and salivated-over surfing breaks, while the founder of the Billabong surfwear empire has a huge mansion on the hilltop.

Big waves make Yamba a key surf spot, but having ten beaches rather helps too. Four of them can be reached within a fifteen minute walk of the main street, and the crucial thing is that they’re all facing in different directions.

“Locals call Yamba the Byron Bay of 20 years ago, or the real Surfer’s Paradise,” says Shane. “And we’re proud to say that we get the longest stays out of any YHA in Australia.”

Many of those long-stayers are people who get bitten by the surf bug, but Yamba does have that magical traveller gravitas to it. Not everyone has head of it, it’s not quite on the obvious backpacker trail, living is relatively cheap once there and it’s just hard enough to get to for visitor numbers to stay relatively low.

For the newcomers, however, there is the rather jolting introduction of Shane’s ‘legendary’ $15 tour of the area, which includes feeding fish and – more pertinently – cliff-jumping. The man is rather unnerving, largely because he has far, far too much energy. “I never, ever get sick of pushing people off cliffs,” he says with excitable zeal. “But if someone cries, they ban me from the Red Bull for a few days.

“Yamba is a relaxing place, unless you’re hanging with me and I’ve had Red Bull. I do stupid stuff when I’ve had Red Bull.”

This becomes apparent when he spots a snake. “If it’s a brown, it can kill you within 47 minutes. If it’s a red-bellied black snake, you’ve got a day.” He then throws himself into a little cavelet, Steve Irwin-style, to see if he can catch it.

It would be fair to say that the tour is far more about what isn’t advertised than what is. At the first cliff, a relative tiddler, he’s absolved from pushing anyone off. Everyone’s game enough to take the heels-first plunge into the pool created long ago when townsfolk quarried out the rock to make breakwaters.

 

 

When it gets to the 12 and 18 metre cliff jumps, however, it’s an altogether different story. Without adding spoilers, let’s just say things don’t quite go as billed.

On the way back, we stop by the waterside tavern to feed bread to fish – “Clarence River piranhas”, Shane says not altogether convincingly – and drop by the golf course. Forget the water traps and bunkers – there’s an altogether more Australian hazard for Yamba’s golfers. The course is absolutely riddled with kangaroos, and they’ve frankly no intention of moving on the cry of “fore”.

They’re not the only locals that are difficult to budge either. The residents of Yamba seem, almost universally, to know they’re on to a good thing. The mission now is to stop the entire world finding out about it.

  

by David Whitley 

Disclosure: David stayed at the Yamba YHA as a guest of YHA Australia. 

   

  

  

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