Wind of Change: Mum in Sydney (Part Three)

Friday 3rd January
We had been going full pelt since the first day and after late nights and early starts we needed some time to unwind. Mum had postcards to write and I the penultimate leg of my walkabout to plan because it ended somewhat abruptly in Perth. Thanks to Karen on my New Zealand tour I had a recommendation for Kakadu and Litchfield National Park right up in the Tropical North though I knew I’d be travelling out of season. I’d also been toying with the idea of doing part of the west coast since planning the whole trip and obviously there was Uluru and the ‘Red Centre’. After about 2 hours of looking at tours, greyhound coaches, flights and the ghan (the train right through the centre of the country) a rough plan began to emerge. It would however take many more hours and we had exploring in the here and now to do.

There was a company that offered free (you can pay a tip at the end if you want) 3 hour walking tours of the city and whilst Sydney had been the base to explore from I felt mum hadn’t really seen much of the city itself. As it was a nice day this therefore seemed the perfect way to capture all the main sights and to get a better understanding of the history.

The guides were all very friendly, and the one we had was one of those who had started the concept. Throughout the day they do two 3 hour tours of the city and one 1 hour 30 minutes tour of ‘The Rocks’, the cities original settlement. Considering all of this he still appeared enthusiastic to share his knowledge of the city and to give his own opinions. We started off at St Andrew’s Cathedral, the oldest church in Sydney before passing the Town Hall and through the Queen Victoria Building. Somewhat bizarrely the clock here on the stroke of the hour showed scenes from English history, including one of Charles 1 being beheaded. I made a mental note to see this for myself at a later date to check it wasn’t a joke. There was also a letter from Elizabeth II which can’t be opened until I’m 100 and It’ll be interesting to know what she has said to the people of Sydney that means it needs to be secret for so long.

Leaving the QVB we headed past the Sydney Eye Tower which mum and I were doing that evening to get a birds eye view of the city. We headed on up to and through Hyde Park towards St Mary’s Cathedral which was only finally completed in 2000 having been started in 1868. We then carried on past the Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney Hospital, The Mint, NSW Parliament House and the State Library. The final 3 buildings had all originally been part of the hospital which had been commissioned by Governor Macquarie to provide better care for the settler’s. The funding for this had mainly come from a tax on rum as the British Government was not prepared to provide the resources. The hospital when finished was to big for what was required which is why some of its buildings were converted to other uses.

We then headed down a random side street where bird cages were hanging down from strings above and a recording of various bird songs played. This was a piece of modern art. A recently married couple were having some photographs taken and can’t have expected a huge group of sightseers to pick that side street to explore at that moment but we did. We carried on down the somewhat now misleadingly named ‘Bridge Street’ which one would expect to lead directly to the Harbour Bridge or at least a bridge but doesn’t before reaching Customs House and Circular Quay.

We now headed ‘The Rocks’, passing Cadmans Cottage which must be one of the oldest buildings in Australia but unfortunately like in London some of the oldest buildings have been lost. Fortunately despite attempts by the strate government to clear what was left, the general public and various groups protested and the remaining buildings seen today were saved and have been developed for other purposes. I want to do a more atmospheric evening tour of this area at some point and It’ll be interesting to hear a few more details. Also 3 years ago I took myself on a self guided walk using my Lonely Planet guide and to this day I’m not entirely sure if I saw ‘The Cut’ a tunnel dug by convicts despite searching at least 30 minutes for it.

The tour finished on top of the Overseas Passenger Terminal which offered a nice view of Circular Quay and the Opera House to one side, the Harbour Bridge and the Rocks to the other. Thanking the guide and giving him a tip we headed back towards the Sydney Eye Tower. It looked like it was going to be perfect weather.

We were a bit early so I collected the tickets and we then went to find some food eventually settling on a place selling savoury pancakes before making our way back to the entrance. Although we were still a bit early we were allowed in to the 3D cinema and took up some seats near the front. Mum therefore suggested we move as it appeared as though we were going to get wet. The movie was really just various bits of nice video footage of Sydney converted in to 3D and as we passed along Bondi beach the sea waves came out towards us and real water was sprayed at us. I appeared to bear the brunt of it.

We were then directed to the lift and it wasn’t long before we were inside. The lift was triangle shaped floor and the shape of it meant only 6 people at the very most could fit in; the crowd below us would be waiting a bit longer yet. We got to the top and exited. The view that met us was unexpected.

The windows were all misty, art first I genuinely thought maybe the windows were dirty, then I thought maybe it was like Scenic World and someone would press a button and the beautiful view of the city below would be displayed in all its glory. Then I accepted it was actually cloud swirling all around us which meant visibility was pretty much zero. We looked at the visual displays and straining my eyes I could just make out the Anzac memorial directly below but any further than that was just mist.

The queue of those to get back down was already big when we arrived and continued to increase as those that had probably only just come up realised there was no view so opted to get back down to do something else. There was however a problem which meant the lack of a view was the least of everyone’s troubles. Although we had got up ok the lifts had I assume almost immediately broken due to the high winds outside which meant no one could get back down.

There wasn’t much point in just standing in a queue so mum went to buy all her souvenirs and I offered my advice which meant between us we’d got something for everyone. Mum also decided to buy our souvenir booklet because it gave a information on Sydney and the surrounding area and the photo shopped picture of us and a oversized Koala was funny. Whilst we’d been in the shop the lifts had reopened and after being at the top for an hour and 30 minutes we were back at the bottom. Looking up the top the tower could only just be made out through the mist. Arriving back at the hotel we saw some bats flying around and mum tried to make a recording of the insects that make such a racket in the trees.

Saturday 4th January
Out of all the tours we had planned, a trip to the Jenolan was last minute, so last minute we’d only booked it two days before despite it probably being the one we were both interested in doing most (maybe Port Stephens just edged it for me).

Luckily mum was on the ball and awake before my planned alarm because whilst I had set one, it was for the following day! We actually ended up leaving the hotel before I had planned and arrived at the pick up nearly 30 minutes early. This was however better than being 30 minutes late…

We had the very from seats however unfortunately I don’t feel I fully utilised the position because as had become the norm I fell asleep. In my defence so had the person behind and they get snoring and waking themselves up. For the first part of the journey to Echo Point I felt this was acceptable because I’d done the journey twice and once already that week alone. I’m sure the commentary would have been similar as well because it was the same company.

It was however on this tour I began to appreciate just how ridiculously big Australia is. Here we were doing a day trip to some caves, considered to be within the Sydney area and they were 3/4 hours away. Would you travel 3 hours in the UK and consider it local? Only if you were in a traffic jam outside your house for all that time probably.

We arrived at Echo Point where I remembered from 3 years ago that there was a walk down to the 3 sisters so that you could stand in front of one of them. We had about an hour but by the time we’d grabbed a tea for mum and a pastry we had 45 minutes. Unfortunately in my haste I took us to the wrong viewing platform as neither of us saw the path I was looking for. The view was however very nice and a bit closer than the one from scenic world a few days before. It was only after we got back to the top we saw the correct sign.

We had 25 minutes and the walk advised a 30 minute round trip but I knew once we were back on the coach mum would agree it was worth it even if we were going to tire ourselves out in the process. We walked incredibly quickly even jogging at one point. I mentioned a few blogs ago each walk seemed unbearable and I felt I wasn’t getting fitter however I think I’m over the hump now. I think I’ve got my old walking pace back though my general fitness is probably still only average at best. It’s a bit of a joke that I’ve had a gym kit with me most of the trip and still not used it…

We made it to the steep steps and whilst we’d made good time, it was going to be pushing it to get right to the bottom (only because of the crowds in our way). We therefore decided to go down about half way. This was still impressive and I’d forgotten just how big the formation is when you get up close (and how steep the steps coming back up are). Taking photographs meant we had to continue our fast pace and we even made it back to the bus with time to spare.

Once we were back on the coach we commenced the long journey to the caves. We were told to watch out for wild life and a wallaby very nearly decided to jump out in front of us. The road down to the caves was very narrow, steep and winding so the guide had to stay alert. Apparently the company that owns the caves has considered spending money to have a chair lift from a car park at the top to the caves at the bottom but the plans have not developed. Therefore the current solution is for no road traffic to return up from the caves between certain times and it is during this window of opportunity which allows coaches to get down without any issues.

After getting some lunch we had an hour to explore before we had a guided tour of the Lucas Cave. It appeared as though many of the footpaths were closed but we were not aware of that when we set out to find the platypus that lives in the blue lake near the caves. It appeared from the map that there should have been a simple circuit but when we got to the reservoir the bridge over it seemed to be closed off. We therefore carried on walking thinking at some point there would be another crossing.

Gradually the crowds decreased as the majority had remained by the main lake. We passed a number of nice waterfalls and mum gave me a geology lesson on why the formation was unique. There were 2 guys that were climbing over of the waterfalls and I love that out here it is possible to risk getting totally wet safe in the knowledge you’ll probably be dry within the hour rather than catching hyper-thermia.

The next path crossing over the river was also closed so we decided to head back along the path we had taken. Still the platypus was in hiding but as it was around mid day with lots of people making noise the odds of one making an appearance were against us. I then attempted to go up one of the other paths to get a look of the lake from above but that was closed as well. Giving up we took our seats in the waiting area for our tour of the Lucas Cave.

At one point the guide turned off what lights there were that had been on and played some dramatic music whilst I light display attempted to portray what it was like for the explorers who first discovered the cave. It was quite amazing to see what appeared to be a candle (due to the way the lights operated in sequence) slowly winding its way down from the original entrance before the whole room was lit up with atmospheric lighting.

Whilst I was walking along a bridge over an underground river I hit my head slightly as I got to the other side then as I instinctively ducked (obviously a bit late for that) I heard the dramatic sound of plastic hitting the ground and disappearing in to the abyss below. My first thought was that I’d hit the lens of the camera but it was safely in the bag, then my next thought was I’d dropped my mobile as someone else had done earlier at a viewing platform but that was also ok. I began to think it was the person behind but as I checked the front of my camera bag realised it was my old UV filter that I’d taken off with the intention of cleaning later that day. I suppose it will turn up one day and possibly create a archeological question as they attempt to figure out what it was once used for.

Everyone was back on the coach on time except for the group that had gone caving even though they should have been back before us. Our coach guide was informed that their guide hadn’t returned either and I think there was a bit of worry that something bad had happened so another guide was sent to find them. Eventually they all returned to the coach however we never did receive an explanation why they were so late.

The drive back up the hill was fairly eventful as a number of cars were coming down the hill as we were going up and this surprised the coach driver. We made it to the top in the end and as as we began the long drive back to Sydney without any breaks we saw another wallaby. As we got in to the outskirts of Sydney the guide pointed out a “dirt track?” to us. He told us he was meant to have been going to watch the event but unfortunately it was clear that the stadium was already filling and he knew that he was going to have to miss it. Once we were back in Sydney we brought some more fresh cheese, olives, sun dried tomatoes and baguettes and enjoyed that with the wine we had brought at the Hunter Valley.

Sunday 5th January
Checkout was at 10am and the plan was to leave the bags in storage at my next hostel so we could explore Manly. It was amazing just how much we had done over the previous days and it was amazing that even on the day of departure (22.15) we had a whole day planned. Once we were ready I again made another unsuccessful call to the taxi company. I walked back to the hotel and asked reception if they could help. Maybe they spoke to someone else because they had no problems and didn’t have to give a street number (see previous blog if you missed the background).

Arriving at the YHA I was told it wasn’t possible to check in but luckily after two girls kindly shared a locker it meant there were some available. My new hostel was located right next door to the train station so it would be easy to get to the airport and I was staying in a carriage converted to sleep 8 people. Considering 2 months ago I was on a similar sized coach sleeping 48 or more this was luxurious.

The free bus to Circular Quay arrived just as we got to the stop so we caught that and it quickly filled up. The bus driver refused to open the back door because people were getting on there as well as the front but I don’t really get the issue in that because it was a free bus. It also meant, because people didn’t move right down that the front was packed. If we were cattle the front was like a battery farm whilst passengers at the back were free range. It was reassuring to know that jobsworths don’t only work on the London buses and I’m saying that as a neutral because I had no strong intentions to use the back door.

Once we arrived at Circular Quay the queue for Manly was huge. Luckily a ferry came in not long after we arrived which meant that the line moved quickly and it wasn’t long before we had been let on to the pier to wait for the next ferry. The ticket machine seemed to be counting down how many spaces were left and it was quite surprising how many people they could fit on.

We managed to get a seat on one of the sides and were promptly joined by 2 backpackers that were staying at the hostel on the island. Mum went to find some food whilst I saved her seat using my bag. it wasn’t long before someone tried to take it. First I was asked if I could put my bag on the floor and when I explained someone had been sitting there only a minute before they said “what all that space?” Now I don’t know about you but I’ve always felt a small day pack is probably about the width of the average human. It isn’t like they stick out at the side is it? Then during the 5 seconds between the bag being taken off and mum sitting down someone tried to nick which nearly resulting in tea being spilt over them. I must add neither of these were locals, as the Australians I’ve encountered so far seem a lot more laid back and respectful of space. The first gentleman was British and i don’t know about the second.

Manly was also busy but I had expected that. A hot Sunday, a beautiful beach setting where else were all those tourists that were still in the city after fireworks going to go? I can’t imagine a single person living in Manly was there though – considering there were boat loads heading towards Circular Quay they’d probably made a mass exodus to somewhere more secluded.

Despite the main beach being busy I wanted to take mum on the small walk I’d done 3 years before. On our way to the walk we saw a ?? Lizard sitting on a wall and carrying on we saw 3 more of them sitting on some rocks including a baby. The walk itself really started from ?? Before we then took a path that looped through a very small bush area around ??.

After the walk mum had one more final swim in the sea before we headed back to Manly Wharf. The return trip wasn’t such a mad scramble for space though it was still surprisingly busy considering the population on the beach seemed to be growing rapidly.

We returned back to the hostel and I was finally able to one of the 8 beds. We also had to store mums bag in the locker for another hour so we ended the session and left the bag in the locker thinking it would give us the choice of “free lockers” available. It didn’t, it randomly allocated one and we then realised the locker with mum’s suitcase had locked itself. As far as the machine was concerned empty and available wouldn’t unlock until it was randomly allocated. We had been trying to be discrete about mum using the locker so when I asked the reception for help I said it was my suitcase. They made no comment when the locker was opened to display a bright pink suitcase and a bright blue day pack.

The journey back to the airport was much less eventful and I helped mum check in. Her suitcase that I’d commented on the first day which had felt fairly light now felt like it had put on weight. Eventually it was time to say goodbye. Mums down under adventure was over. For me I was just under halfway through. Next up is a trip along the East Coast where I should finally see some dolphins up close.

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 Gew├╝rztraminer 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.