Auld Lang Syne – Mum in Sydney (Part Two)

Tuesday 31st December
After yet another unplanned late night we were slow at waking up as we didn’t have any plans for the morning and needed our energy for the afternoon and evening. I had to make quick phone calls to the tour company we were doing the Hunter Valley with on 2nd January to confirm our attendance and to Nikon who had still not phoned or emailed me back. When I finally got through to Nikon they confirmed to my surprise the camera was ready to collect. Luckily mum agreed it would be nice to have it for the fireworks and tours we still had left so we got ready and began the journey to Rhodes.

After collecting the camera and having picked up some snacks and supplies for the long evening ahead we made our way to Cremorne Point. This involved a change of trains and a ferry ride. We got to Circular Quay slightly later than planned and there was a big queue to purchase tickets which meant we missed the first ferry and had to wait 30 minutes for the next. Whilst the ferry we were on appeared busy, the ferry going towards Circular Quay seemed equally full. We arrived at Cremorne and Nathaniel led us to the camp he had set up. We had front row seats of the harbour with the top half of the harbour bridge on our right.

it felt very hot and there was very little breeze and we sat in the sun for an hour or so eating some of the snacks Nathaniel had prepared for everyone and the crisps (chips) and Tim tams we’d brought along. We then went on a couple of short walks to explore the surrounding area. This included some information about the settlers as the lookout overlooked the point where the first fleet landed and a indigenous tree? which was decaying due to a disease?

We also used the opportunity to buy an ice cream which somewhat miraculously didn’t melt as soon as it left the freezer. After sitting some more mum and I decided to try and buy some special New Years Eve bus tickets. We walked for about 25 minutes before we finally came across a shop but when we asked about availability were told they had sold out and no where else in the vicinity had them. Sydney is great in a number ways but the ease of getting bus tickets does not seem to be one of them as it wasn’t the first time this had happened. Why can’t they have some ticket machines? We had normal bus tickets and had to hope the driver would be prepared to take pity on foreigners who after midnight would be totally lost in an unfamiliar part of the city.

On the walk back it clouded over, it even began to rain and the hope of seeing the sun set over the harbour was unfortunately gone. Due to the time of day everything quickly cooled down quickly despite the earlier heat and I had to put on a jumper. Still, it was no where near as cold or wet as when Victoria and I had gone down to the Thames to see the London fireworks two years ago.

Whilst mum and I waited in the toilet queue a private firework display began off some nearby boats/yachts and as we couldn’t quite see what was happening initially thought the 9pm fireworks had begun early. We got back to our base and as the area behind us was starting to fill up a number of the late comers tried to push to the edge of the cliff. This included a number of people who tried to stand in front of the tent (the other side of the fence) but thought better of it when they realised the ground was unstable and that there was a reason we weren’t standing there. One guy in particular nearly disappeared down the cliff when it started to give way and he had to quickly scramble along the path. We had warned them all but each seemed reluctant to listen, though no one encroached on the areas where we had our blankets laid out and I have to admit it would have been much less civilised in London.

The 9pm fireworks (known as the children’s firework display) were quite impressive and it was nice to have something to keep the crowd occupied. It also meant that families could go home unlike in London where children have to stay up until the main and only display. I don’t really think any description I can give will do the firework display justice, and this wasn’t even the main event. It was quite spectacular to see various fireworks of different types and colours launched in to the air from various places around the bay, not just the Harbour Bridge though of course that was the focal point.

After the fireworks there was an event called the “Parade of ships”. A number of boats had been lit up to symbolise different ships and as we were on the opposite side of the bay it looked fairly impressive. The best comparison I can give (and this will only make sense to those that have seen it) is in Blackpool when all the trams are illuminated to show different themes. There were big pirate looking ships and one that seemed to show the harbour bridge, opera house and the forthcoming firework display.

At 10.30 a further firework display had been scheduled but it was a blink and you’ll miss it job as it lasted about 90 seconds and whilst i don’t mean to sound harsh the fireworks used weren’t overly impressive. In fact all it seemed to do was cause more people behind us to get agitated as the clock counted down to midnight and they began to realise getting there late meant they didn’t have as good a view as others that had set up camp the night before. One lady was particularly vocal asking the people next to us to take their tent down and when it was explained to her children were resting she said “well they should go home, this is the adult fireworks. Not a campsite” or words to that effect. My thoughts are, she should have put in the same effort if she wanted the view; the children were awake by the time the main display began and they had as much right to see in the New Year as the rest of us. As Nathaniel pointed out fireworks are also in the air.

Luckily the approach to midnight began before tensions escalated further. Perhaps it was the area we were in, but it didn’t really feel like that there was a proper countdown and the lack of “Big Ben” or equivalent to signal the New Year felt a bit weird. I suppose the first firework signalled it but it felt a bit quiet. Still the fireworks themselves were worth the wait and lived up to all expectations. I really wasn’t sure where to look and certainly not sure where to point the camera. It really was quite a stunning display. Once it was over I was surprised that people just started heading off, there wasn’t really as much of a “Happy New Year” celebration as there was in London so I played “The Real McKenzie’s” version of “Auld Lang Syne”. This had no effect on the surrounding people though it did make me feel it was finally New Year.

2013 was an eventful year with some real highs and many new adventures beginning with Jordan back in January some great achievements with my work colleagues but also some lows and and the passing of my Grandad who I know would have loved to have heard about what I’ve been up to. Roll on 2014, whatever it may bring.

Once we had packed up the tent (my contribution was minimal as I wasn’t sure how best to help) we helped to carry the belongings to Nathaniel’s car. It seemed the very least we could do and I would like to thank you again for letting my mum and I celebrate the New Year with you and your family and for making it so memorable.

Mum and I then had to catch a bus and because it was so busy just jumped on the first that appeared to be heading in the direction of the city. Using the GPS on my phone it started off heading in the right direction and then veered off away from the bridge. We jumped off and walked around lost for a few minutes asking another bus driver for advice but without much success. Luckily we then saw a taxi and even more luck was on our side when he received notice the bridge had just reopened removing the need to use the tunnel. It felt quite special to travel along the bridge so soon after the display. We got in about 2.30am and knew we’d have very little sleep as the next morning we had a tour to Port Stephens.

Wednesday 1st January
I’m struggling to think of a time I’ve had so little sleep in recent years but as the alarm went off I realised that 3 hours was painfully little. I was operating on auto pilot but i can’t have set it right because despite my hat being effectively glued to my head for 3 weeks I managed to leave it behind. This being a day I would be constantly outside, including out at sea with no shade and to top it off it was the hottest day of the year (boom boom).

Unfortunately this morning I also wasn’t feeling my usual happy, and tolerant self. My first task was to try and book a taxi. I started off polite wishing a Happy New Year but the atmosphere quickly turned sour. The lady wanted a street number, whilst I explained there wasn’t one, it was Wesley College, Western Avenue she kept saying there must be a street number. Obviously I’m not familiar with Sydney, perhaps Wesley College did have a secret street number but frankly I was tired and didn’t care. I wasn’t getting anywhere and I whilst i listened and let her finish my frustration was escalating. I gave her our room number in a very sarcastic tone and when that obviously didn’t register I hung up. Instead we got the bus and any concerns we had that New Years Day would create an issue for us with regards to getting to the pick up were totally unfounded. This wasn’t London. The bus arrived and on time.

Once we had been picked we were taken to the central coach depot where we had to transer. Somewhat amazingly it turned out we were due to have the same guide that we had had a couple of days earlier on the Blue Mountains tour. He seemed pleased to see us and we made a promise to ourselves that we would get back to the coach before the scheduled time to emphasise that we had made a genuine mistake last time.

Our first stop was to a reptile park on the outskirts of Sydney; apparently the park is where they have extracted and or created many of the antidotes for snake and spider venom. We were visiting again the following day with the Hunter Valley tour so we hoped any activities we had missed we would be able to do then. Of course because of the time spent in the Featherdale Wildlife Park there was less urgency and this was lucky because by the time we’d brought some tea and a piece of banana loaf there wasn’t much time left. We did however get to see a ?? spider being milked of its venom; the technique used to create the antidote. We also got to see the platypus swimming in its display tank. I was surprised at just how it looked but the size, roughly that of a large rat did at least confirm that’s more than likely what I saw in Starhan. It’d be nice to see one in the day light though…

After leaving the wildlife park we began the long journey to Port Stephens on the way passing an abandoned theme park that had been created to show how the early European settlers lived. It seems to have been a popular attraction but mismanagement caused it to close. I wish I could say I saw what else we passed and listened to the guide but I was out cold. 3 hours sleep had taken its toll.

I awoke every now and then as you do on a long coach journey but the scenery didn’t look that spectacular (though i accept I’ve been spoilt by New Zealand and Tasmania) and the guide wasn’t talking so that convinced me I wasn’t missing much. When I heard we were approaching Nelson Bay at Port Stephens I finally forced by eyes to stay open.

After mum had made a failed attempt to get some souvenirs we made our way to the boat to have the buffet lunch that was included. Since my Nile Cruise in Egypt I’ve considered myself a buffet expert but my tactics proved useless against a big group that seized 3 plate loads each (one for main, one for salad and one for watermelon). They were never going to eat it all and didn’t. I had on mums advice rushed up to get a second helping of the main course as they entered but it didn’t occur to me to get the watermelon in advance. Unfortunately when mum and I went up to get some it was gone. The staff finally brought out some more but by now there weren’t any plates and as the pile began to diminish again I considered walking off with what remained.

It was around this point I ‘woke up’ and so whilst mum waited to get watermelon I went to find us a good space on the deck as the boat was now filling up with those that from other tours and solo travellers that had not had lunch included. It was a hot day in the summer holidays and it seemed all the locals from the surrounding area were there for a New Years Day outing day with their children as well as coach loads of tourists from Sydney. Eventually however more by chance i found a space for two at the back of the boat which gave a good view of the ocean out to the left and right side.

I had heard good things about Port Stephens being a prime place for Dolphin watching and as my camera had now been returned I had a feeling I might finally be able to, after waiting over 10 years, get a picture of one in the wild. Sure enough it wasn’t long after leaving the bay that we sighted two other boats that were viewing two dolphins just off some rocks. We had to wait for one of the boats to move on and eventually one did. The dolphins didn’t seem in a playful mood like the ones I saw but didn’t photograph in New Zealand that had come right up to the boat. These dolphins remained quite far off and didn’t really come out of the water but it was lovely to see them.

If it had been a smaller group with less agitated children it is possible we’d have gone looking for more but instead after leaving the dolphins behind the crew set a net up on the back of the boat for people to sit in. I have to admit I’d seen a picture of this and it looked good fun so I headed down. I was in competition with the kids but I wasn’t the only young adult that wanted to disappear down the waterslide in to the net below. Once it was finally my turn and I reached the bottom I lay in the net with the edge keeping me up slightly. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience as water kept sloshing over me and the net dug in slightly but it was certainly a different way to be on a cruise. It was just a shame the dolphins which had interacted with the people in the net for the brochure didn’t make an appearance though I suppose also lucky no sharks made an appearance.

After we got back to the harbour we joined a 4WD tour to the Worimi Conservation Lands Sand dunes on Stockton Beach . These are 32km in length and therefore the longest mobile sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere as amazingly they are moving 4m north each year.

At the sand dunes I finally had an opportunity to try some proper sand boarding having failed in my attempt to use a piece of cardboard in Tasmania. I was a face of smiles as I hiked up the steep slope in blazing head. I waved to mum, did some poses and slid down, not putting any effort in to slowing down. I smiled as I headed over. Mum wasn’t smiling, she looked worried. ‘You’ll have to go again, I couldn’t take any pictures, the sun is reflecting off the screen’. So I climbed the hill again. And slid down again. This time mum had a picture of someone coming down but they had long hair and sun glasses. I had neither.

By now I have to admit I was tired from walking the hill twice and i wanted mum to have a go and so she went up. Afterwards she said she only did it to prove to me how hard it was to get a picture though I got a fairly epic one of her face as she came down which I’ve been told is banned from Facebook. I was sent up for a third time and by now I felt like a member of a desert tribe that had been banished, forced to climb a sand dune for eternity. Coming down was always fun though. Unfortunately I walked up and came down so quickly mum hadn’t got in position so I had to walk up a 4th time. Maybe mum just thought I needed the exercise but at last she had some long distance photos. It was all a bit more stressful than it should have been but at least we could make a joke of it.

I don’t remember the journey back, I probably slept most of it. We got some food from a Mexican Restaurant and headed back to the hotel. For the first time in days we were back before reception closed. We had our earliest start yet the next day so we had intended to make sure we had a fairly early night. Though by the time we’d used our share of the internet it didn’t feel that early when my head finally hit the pillow.

Thursday 2nd January
It should be a given that we had another early start again but after going to bed before midnight for the first time in two nights it wasn’t so much of a struggle. Besides the day in front sounded relaxing. A cheese, wine and chocolate tour through the Hunter Valley. Replace the wine with a beer tour and it’s possible you’d have my perfect day. Still, it’s about time I learnt my wines and it was more than 10 years ago that I went to Stellenbosch in South Africa.

The driver coach driver estimated we would Travel 400km to the Hunter Valley and provided us with some information about the different wine and grape types in the region. The main white types are: Semillion, Chardany and Verdello. The Red grape wines are Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet. There are also two types of blended wines, inter regions – e.g mix of ‘grape juice’ between Hunter Valley and Eden Valley and Intra regions – sub regions (e.g mix of sub region juice within a main wine region e.g Hunter Valley)

Finally he gave us the stages to tasting wine ‘correctly’. This involved drinking some water to clean the pallet (but not to much). Hold the glass by the stem. Tip the glass 45 degrees away and look at the wine against a white background to check colour. Swirl the wine and sniff. Apparently most of the taste comes from the nose and there are 5 aromas flavours to smell / taste. Finally and most obviously sip the wine.

With that lesson over we arrived at the Reptile Park. We didn’t have as much time as we had expected so it was a good job we had seen the platypus and the spider demonstration the day before. Tea and a snack were provided for us and once we were given time to explore we only really had time to feed a kangaroo.

Once we were back on the coach the long drive to the Hunter Valley commenced. Unfortunately I slept most of the way and whilst I wrote some notes about the scenery they make no sense probably due to tiredness. What I meant when I wrote “Geographical features of Sydney and Australia including the Snowy Mountains I’d visited a few weeks before” will forever remain a mystery. I do however know that we passed through but did not stop at the town of Cessnock and we saw the Broken Back Mountain Mountain range. The Hunter Valley is also Australia’s oldest wine producing region though it now only produces 2% of the total output, quite a staggeringly low amount considering the number of wineries we seemed to pass.

Finally we arrived at the “Smelly Cheese Shop”. Here we tried some locally produced cheeses which included a pesto fetta, a sun dried tomato and garlic fetta, labna with dukkah and duetto. Mum and I had already decided we’d buy some cheese and wine for that night. Whilst all were very tasty we opted for the Pesto fetta and some brie. We also stocked up on two long baguettes and some chutney.

We then made the short drive to McGuigan wines. Finally the opportunity to try some wines. We started with the whites. A 2013 Semillon Blanc was first up which mum loved but I was a bit in different to. I did however prefer it to the recent “award winning” 2007 Semillon. This made me concerned that my pallet is broken. I tend to prefer sweeter wines and whilst one of the wines in New Zealand was perfect I don’t remember the name or style. The Pinot Grigio was probably my least favourite and the Gewürztraminer was mums least favourite but sadly none of the Hunter Whites had much of an impact on me, though I could have drunk any of them.

On to the reds which I have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to as much as the whites. When I was younger I preferred red but my (broken) pallet now prefers whites. First up was a Malbec, then a sauvignon, and then a vintage Shiraz from 2010 where the probable quality was lost on me. But hang on…What’s that one called?! The select Noon Harvest Merlot was superb, it was a red wine but tasted like a sweet white due to the way it had been produced. It had taken 9 samples but I’d found one that genuinely stood out to me. We finished off with a dessert wine called a ‘Late Picked Traminer’ which was quite pleasant.

I thought that was it for the wines but when we had lunch there were another 5 to to try which had been selected to compliment the different dishes. I’m not sure if they did because I was to busy eating and drinking. By now I like most of the group were well on the way to merriment which was nice because everyone became more social despite the wide ranging age group. We had to watch a movie on how the wines are produced, but I was more distracted by the empty glasses in front of me. Surely not more samples?! The movie ended and the coach driver appeared. No more samples.

I assumed the next stop would be the chocolate tasting but no. There was one more stop for wine tasting, Brockenwood. I don’t have a record of what we tried but I know/remember when ever the group was asked a question I guessed correctly and asked if I’d win a prize. I didn’t. A number of the varieties were called the “cricket pitch” which I joked was easier to stomach than the catastrophic performance of the English cricketers. Apparently it was called this because it was produced in an area of the town that was originally going to be a cricket pitch. When Cessnock became the main town in the region the plans were abandoned.

The final stop was to the chocolate tasting at the Hunter Gardens Village Complex but this felt more like an after thought and I don’t even remember what we tried. When I got back to the coach a guy called Frank I’d been talking to (mainly the cricket) was showing a number of locally produced ales. I had no idea that there had been a micro brewery in the vicinity but I suppose there is a risk I may have exploded with excitement had I been able to taste some beers as well. Not that I’m an alcoholic…

Back on the coach the driver predicted we’d all sleep and snore back to Sydney. I’m not sure if I or the others did the latter but looking around the coach when I eventually came round heads were bobbing around uncontrolled. I’m not sure how many equivalent bottles of wine I’d drunk, probably not as much as I’d like to think i did because somewhat embarrassingly I had developed a hang over whilst I’d been sleeping.

Mum and I headed back to the hotel where on the way we brought some plastic cups and plates for our classy cheese and wine dinner. Lunch had been big so we didn’t need much and despite my best efforts to finish all the cheese and wine a sensible decision was made to save the rest for the final night. A very enjoyable long day, and with nothing planned the following morning a chance to have a lie in.

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