Don and I arrived a day ahead of Steve and Rachel. We set up the tent in a pleasant, maple-shaded caravan park right in town, and set out in the afternoon to explore the main street, pick up a little something for dinner, and get Don a haircut. The town was gearing up for the weekend's big event, a film festival out at one of the wineries on Saturday night, which explained why Steve and Rachel had had a hard time finding accommodations.
Don and I had never done the winery thing. Our knowledge of wine goes only a little beyond the basics of red and white, and more practically usually focuses on bottles or boxes! Saturday morning, we poured over the pages of wineries in the Mudgee regional magazine trying to decipher how one goes about it. I mean where do you start? We ended up putting ourselves in the hands of the local "I" center host who sent us off to the Pieter Van Gent Winery and Vineyard which offered a "spit on the floor" indoctrination on Saturday mornings. We called and spoke to a sexy voice named Luciano to see if there was still space available, and he said, "Come now." It seemed like a good way to get a start on things before Steve and Rachel arrived midday.
There are vineyards and wineries and cellar doors, but not all proprietors do all three. The Pieter van Gent operation did. The winery and cellar were set under some trees right amidst the grape vines. We were welcomed by two unexpectedly young men, one of whom was Luciano of the sexy Italian voice, who turned out to be the assistant winemaker. Luciano was looking a little worse for wear, but we didn't find out until later that it was because they had harvested four tons of grapes the day before and had had to load them into the crushing vat without the use of their normal forklift! Luciano took us outside to show us a vat of freshly crushed red grapes, in the first day of fermenting, which emitted a most heavenly aroma.
The juice is then strained, mixed with yeast, and put into 300-liter oak barrels. There followed an explanation of the different yeasts used for various wines and of two different kinds of oak barrels: French and American. The American ones are made from raw wood and impart a more "aggressive" flavor, while the French oak is aged two years first. About this time we were joined by another couple just as Luciano started extracting tastes of young wine cloudy with yeast from different barrels.
From the keg room we moved into the cellar tasting area. Let me remind you that it was barely ten in the morning, but we proceeded to sample pretty near every one of about sixteen of the wineries products, from their famous Chardonnays, through some reds, straight into their equally famous Mudgee White Port. They even had a spiced vermouth I thought intriguing. The young fellows produced an endless supply of tasting glasses, and let me tell you, nary a drop ended up on any floor.
We tottered out to the car (having boughttwo bottles), and managed to dial the phone and determine that Steve and Rachel were just moments away from their nearby B&B. Somehow the Grey Nomad conveyed us to the correct location. Hopefully no one was watching. It was quickly decided, after greetings and hugs, that lunch would be a prudent next move! We ended up at the Blue Wren Winery's pleasant café and spent about two hours there sobering up while catching up. (The process involved a nice luncheon and some Mudgee ales and a couple glasses of their Merlots!)
Readers may recall that Steve and Rachel were at Vuda in Fiji at the same time Tackless II's paint job was happening. Their boat Apogee was also on the hard, awaiting the installation of a new engine, a project in the hands of Baobab Marine who just didn't seem to be able to get around to it. As it turned out, Steve's employer had once again offered him work he couldn't turn down, so it wasn't the disaster it might have been. And as that turned out, it was just as well they were in Australia rather than out cruising because Steve's Dad was found to have lung cancer and Rachel was able to be with him throughout the duration of his illness while Steve commuted between Sydney and Perth. A tough year for them, this weekend was one of their first getaways together since his passing.
We spent the remains of the afternoon visiting three other wineries, one specializing in French varietals, one in Iberian Peninsula varieties (Spanish and Portuguese), and one in Italians. We were much more restrained in this second go around, but all voted the DeLusso Estate's Italian reds our favorite. After our elegant lunch, we did a more homely dinner at one of the town's pubs. Unfortunately, Steve and Rachel's dinners were served about forty minutes after ours, a situation that is always irritating.
Certainly a highlight of our time with Steve and Rachel in Mudgee was as their guests at the B&B's sumptuous breakfast the next morning. Called the Myan Breezes Guesthouse, the house was a lovely modern estate with six rooms, surrounded by gardens and a vista across the valley. The hosts, Michael and Ruth, turned out to be former cruisers themselves, and so made an exception in our case allowing us as non-guests to join Steve and Rachel for breakfast. Our table commanded the premium view out the window, and the meal began with fresh brewed coffee and fresh fruit salad (with wild blackberries!) with yogurt, all ready at precisely the moment we arrived. Then we had a plateful of eggs, Aussie style bacon rashers, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, garnished with sprigs of thyme, and home baked toast. It was altogether heavenly. I know we spend a lot of time talking about food, but, you know, when it's good, it's worth celebrating!
After breakfast we drove in two cars east to the village of Rylstone, gateway to Dunn's Swamp, a campground in the foothills of the Wollemi National Park on the west side of the Blue Mountains. We paused for a coffee in a small café with two friendly couples that rode in on their motorcycles. They pulled a table together with theirs so we could chat about their bikes – a BMW 1200RT and a Honda 1300ST – and about the famous Ulysses motorcycle club of which they were all members. The Ulysses Club has a minimum age of forty (for junior members) and claims a motto of "Growing old disgracefully," but they are a pretty upstanding group. I point this out because during this whole month Aussie outlaw biker clubs have been in the headlines daily for an ongoing gang war erupting in public places around Sydney. The Ulysses bikers are like us: "boomer zoomers" enjoying the riding for the riding's sake.
Dunn's Swamp was reached by another long, dusty dirt road. The remote campground is situated on a sinuous waterway created by a dam down river to provide, we understand, a steady water supply for a nearby cement works. We were concerned that the "swamp" might be as dry as Yarrie Lake had been, since bodies of water seem to be having a tough time surviving in Oz. We worried for naught, as the lake snaked away through yet another striking gorge, this one composed of limestone "pagoda" formations.
What was unexpected was the crowd! No place we had previously stopped had more than a handful of campers. The sites here were packed, and what empty sites there were were mostly "closed for native plant rejuvenation". Hoping most of the crowd would leave by evening, we parked the car without setting up and took off on a short walk along the lakeside path. Rachel is a great photographer and the winding lake and the unusual pagoda rock formations made great subjects. We also scared up a pair of lyrebirds, large birds reminiscent of roadrunners. While tracking them through the rocks, there suddenly came a great crash. Whipping around we caught a most embarrassed possum who had either fallen out of his tree or whose branch had broken off under him.
The good thing about arriving Sunday afternoon was the guys with the watersports concession were still there. Closed during the week during the off-season, on weekends they run a river cruise on a pontoon boat and rent out a fleet of canoe-kayak hybrids. We caught them in time to work a deal for use of a canoe on Monday, else we would have been up Dunn's creek without a paddle. (Sorry, couldn't resist!) They asked if we could swim, and we answered, hell yes, and licensed captains, to boot. They said, okay, you run the cruises and leave us the money. Unfortunately, they were just kidding!
Saying goodbye to Steve and Rachel that afternoon was the first farewell in Australia that we pretty much knew was going to be final. It was rather sobering. They have been in our lives for three years. We were very grateful they were willing to make the drive up to see us.
As hoped for, the campground gradually cleared out through the afternoon. Don and I stalked the campsites trying not to miss the ideal one. There were lots of tent sites networked into the woods and rock formations as well as along the water's edge, but we didn't want to get too far from the car where all our clothes and food would stay stashed and we didn't want a major midnight hike to a loo. We would have liked to pick a site down by the water, but several large groups lingered to the last minute, so we ended up picking a spot up the hill along the road where we figured it would be easiest for Mike and Kathleen to spot us if they made it in.
This was our first night bush camping on our own…and it was quite inconvenient without Matilda, because the campground was one of the ones with no picnic tables. We muddled through a pasta supper, and we did manage our own campfire, but the evening was marred by the crying of an unhappy child late into the night. We admit to un-grandparent-like thoughts. The next morning, we simply climbed out of the tent and into the car and drove down to a water-side picnic table to make coffee and breakfast.
How beautiful the "swamp" was in the morning mist. It was quite chilly, and we huddled around our mugs in all our clothes. Our cooking activity quickly drew the attentions of the local bush hens, a chicken-like bird with deep black and blue feathers and red legs and heads, and they amused us with their stalking. We were quite surprised then to see one fly across the water, although its water landing was essentially a belly flop.
We decided a brisk walk would warm us up so we set off down the trail for the pagoda formations. A short while and a little scrambling later, we were high above the gorge with a stunning view.
Later we ventured out in one of the plastic canoe-yaks. In the morning we paddled left a couple of kilometers down the twists and turns of the gorge to the dam, keeping our eyes peeled all the while for the elusive platypus. (Unfortunately, I forgot to bring the camera!) Not only was there no platypus, but, surprisingly there seemed very little wildlife around at all. Not even obnoxious cockatoos. In the afternoon, after several hours reading in chairs which we'd carted to a waterside campsite (by the time we were done we pretty much used the whole park!), we went for another paddle upstream, where it does finally become a little swampy. Swamp in this case, is tall dense grasses, gradually filling in the watercourse, but this direction also gave some great views of waterside rock formations.
As the afternoon waned the skies grew threatening, and we had a stiff paddle back to the campground. I landed Don on the nearest beach so he could dash up and close up the tent. When he got there, Matilda was squeezed into our niche and Mike and Kathleen were just zipping us up. Whew! We were back in the hands of professionals!
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