The Hunter Valley is an 'old' Australian region; one that everybody's heard of, even if they don't know exactly where it is. Up a bit from Sydney? And inland? It's famous for its vines – principally Semillon and Shiraz – and long-established wineries. The region's river-flat soils and gently undulating hills meant agriculture developed here soon after 1800, and the first vines were planted in 1832 by George Wyndham. But today, coal mining is a far, far bigger business. The Hunter River was called the Coal River, in fact, before it was renamed in honour of the Governor of New South Wales at the time (1797).
Travelling down the New England Highway, we entered the Hunter around about a little place called Willow Tree. Forty kilometres further south, between Wingen and Parkville, we turned off on to Cressfield Road, largely unsealed, for Towarri National Park. I think this must be little-visited territory, or our map of 20 Great Hunter Region Walks was out of date, or both. True, it advised the Middle Brook track was not well marked, but local information signs suggested this was for highly experienced bushwalkers only, presumably equipped with compass and large-scale map. Since we were running late as a result of an unscheduled excursion, we had to settle for an amble along Middle Brook Creek rather than views to the Liverpool Range. We found mint and watercress growing wild, dragonflies and watery delights.
We resumed our journey by striking across country to Scone through New South Wales's prime thoroughbred-rearing country. It was reassuring to see that horses have demons as well as cows.
Between Muswellbrook and Singleton we hit coal country. I've seen large opencast mines in other regions of Australia but the scale of them is always a shock, especially when you've spent days travelling through beautiful country. Rix's Creek opencast coal mine sits either side of the New England Highway. The spoil heaps rise steeply and starkly, and giant dumpers tipping over the tops appear Dinky-sized.
Coal is mined in every state, and three-quarters of it is exported, mainly to Asia, making Australia the largest coal-exporting nation in the world. Newcastle (upon Hunter) is the largest coal-exporting port in the world, even bigger than Hay in Queensland, and much bigger than Gladstone. More than four-fifths of Australia's electricity generation is from coal. Given all these big numbers, it's not surprising that coal mining is controversial. Apart from unsightly scars on the landscape, there is competition between the mining and agriculture sectors for land and water; contamination of water and dust pollution; not to mention the dependence of electricity generating companies on coal and their consequently huge carbon footprint. In addition, the exploitation of coal-seam gas is increasingly occupying environmental groups and generating protest groups, but that's another story in the litany of Australian resource development.
We were glad to turn off the Highway just before Branxton, on to Hermitage Road, off which lay Pokolbin and the Berenbell Vineyard Retreat where we were staying, and where the evening light over the Brokenback Range and a glass of Petersens red on the terrace of our cabin soothed our troubled minds.
We'd forgotten all about coal by the time we were having dinner at Il Cacciatore, a northern Italian restaurant that is part of Hermitage Lodge (boutique accommodation, vineyard, conference facilities). My chicken fettuccine with a local Margan red was thoroughly enjoyable, although my friend was less impressed with his lamb. I have to mention the state of Broke Road, however. This purports to be a main road, but the corrugated, pitted and potholed surface has to be felt to be believed. This must be a wealth-generating area: what a pity the New South Wales Road Traffic Authority does not see fit to maintain the roads properly for the Hunter's residents and its visitors. A dirt road would have been more comfortable. We came across bad roads everywhere we went in the state*.
Wine country is a peculiarly unique landscape. It's far from unattractive even though it's unnatural.
Pokolbin doesn't have a centre as such. In fact, it's hard to grasp where the place actually is, because some if not all of the services for the community are provided by the wineries: accommodation; cafes or classy restaurants; bars; delicatessens; conference rooms; entertainment venues. I've noticed this phenomenon before but never so markedly as in the Hunter Valley. The next day I said I wanted to go into Pokolbin, but whether or not I achieved this aim remains a mystery. The most normal thing seemed to be the polling station set up in the Community Hall – it was state election day. But we had difficulty finding a sandwich lunch anywhere... except in the Hunter Valley Wine Country Visitor Information Centre cafe.
Hunter Valley Gardens Village is another strange beast. Here you can have a coffee or a feast (with live music mid-morning); buy rocks and gemstones or art or chocolate or a T-shirt; get married; or visit 'Australia's Largest Display Garden', which consists of 10 feature gardens – Rose, Storybook, Oriental or Italian Grotto, for example. It took at least 40 gardeners four years to create them, and I'm sure they're lovely, but we're not formal garden fans and we didn't feel like paying nearly $50 for a short visit, which is what it would have been. We had wine-tasting on the agenda, as well as a rock concert.
We'd chosen Brokenwood cellar door (below), strongly recommended by Australian wine critic James Halliday. Not too surprising, since he was a co-founder in 1969. The land was cleared of Spotted Gums in 1971, hence the name of the winery, and produced grapes a couple of years later. We sampled three Semillons, a Chardonnay and two Shirazes, and even managed a sip or two of the renowned Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz, which is in a different league from all other Shirazes, with the exception of a Coldstream Hills (from the Yarra Valley of Victoria), Halliday's winery. We sipped and savoured so long we didn't have time for any more cellar doors.
Fairs, festivals and concerts occur throughout the year in the Hunter Valley. There's the Harvest Festival in April; wine shows in August and October; jazz at Tyrrell's and opera at Wyndham Estate in October; and rock concerts featuring top international acts at wineries such as Hope Estate, Bimbadgen Estate and Wyndham's. We were there to see Carlos Santana (below middle) with the Doobie Brothers (below bottom) in support at Hope Estate. A fleet of buses ferried concert-goers between their accommodations and the venues (Lionel Richie was appearing at another vineyard) in a highly organised operation. I didn't really know what to expect of this kind of venue, but it was well organised, we were able to pre-order a hamper of food and get the T-shirts (but not CDs), the stage accommodated Santana's 11-piece band snugly, and the sound quality was good. (There was even a firework display as we walked to the bus.) The bands were pretty impressive, too. Santana seemed reluctant to stop playing on what was the last night of their tour, so they didn't, until about 11.15 – late by Australian standards. My chief disappointment was that the audience seemed content to remain seated throughout. Salsa dancing in a sitting position is extremely frustrating.
The next morning we moved on from Pokolbin, with last glimpses of the Hunter's vines, but with lesser-known parts of the Region beckoning. This would not be the only time during our New South Wales trip that we felt we needed an extra day.
Next up was Barrington Tops National Park, a couple of hours to the north. This is a World Heritage wilderness on the Barrington Plateau, which rises to almost 1,600 metres. There is rainforest with huge strangler figs and Antarctic Beech and what is known as sclerophyll wood- or heathland. This is characterised by hard-leafed plants that are more resistant to seasonal drought and soil deficiencies, so thrive in the Australian Bush. Once you cross the New England Highway – we took the Gresford Road from Branxton – you're soon into middle-of-nowhere land. The roads are deserted, there are cute wooden bridges over creeks, and gently rolling, velvety green uplands and valleys.
We climbed towards Dungog, looking back over endless ridges.
We turned on to the Chichester Dam Road just before Dungog. Once again, we had difficulty with one of the 20 Great Hunter Region Walks. The Jerusalem Creek Track was not signposted off the road and neither was it 'easily accessible'. I asked a man in a car park and fortunately he knew where it was and kindly led us there. But in missing the turning we had a delightful wildlife moment in the Chichester Dam picnic area where we stopped for coffee. A gang of seven kookaburras was hanging around and one of them sat right above us, hoping for brownie remnants perhaps. In the trees close by were some Bell Miners. These birds make one of the most extraordinary sounds – and there are many contenders among Australia's bird population. Our bird book** describes 'an abrupt, clear, penetrating "peep", which in the distance becomes a "tink"; the calls of the hundreds of birds in a large colony make a continual tinkling.' I don't know how many of these birds there were, but the sound was magical, mesmeric and relaxing. We've heard them before – when climbing towards Cunningham's Gap, for example: they seem to be located at a specific altitude, but forest type determines their distribution – wet eucalypt forest.
Jerusalem Creek is a dense rainforest gully, with ferns, large eucalypts and a waterfall. It was interesting enough but unfortunately marred by the presence of leeches. My friend has not quite got over his Mount Mee Forest experience, and feels about these particular blood-suckers as I do about mozzies. You have to keep moving through leech-infested country and try not to brush against undergrowth, which can dull one's enjoyment somewhat. We tried to spot Antarctic Beech and Sydney Blue Gums.
We were right at the southeasterly tip of Barrington Tops National Park and, as we travelled north towards Gloucester along Bucketts Way, and caught tantalising glimpses of serious distant peaks, I felt thoroughly thwarted by my lack of means to get inside this remote country; namely, a 4WD. Still, there were other distractions along the way...
The place names around here fascinated me more than usual. 'Tops' cropped up a lot – Copeland Tops, Tapin Tops, Dixies Top Ridge and Scattered Top Mountain. Then there were the Gloucester Buckets, and Vinegar Mountain, Mount Adventure, Spectacle Mountain and Terrible Billy. The little town of Stratford was on the Avon river, of course.
As we headed north from Gloucester to Armidale via Nowendoc and Walcha – along Thunderbolts Way, no less – the landscape grew ever more beautiful in the goldening light. From high above the Barnard valley, looking west to the Woko and Curracabundi national parks, the views defied description, so I will let the photographs speak for themselves.
* As I write, former Liberal New South Wales Premier Nick Greiner has been appointed chairman of Infrastructure New South Wales, but whether he will be heading up new road and rail projects rather than mending the crumbling existing structures remains to be seen
** Field Guide to Australian Birds by Michael Morcombe