“We can stop here, this is wine country!”
Three of my favourite things are:
- Camping adventures
- Activities that don’t cost a lot of money
- The occasional alcoholic beverage
Like vinyl collectors at a Newtown vintage store, I racked my brain in search of a weekend trip near Sydney that would encapsulate these three desires whilst befitting a group of friends who wanted a fun adventure, but not one where drinking your own body fluid to survive would be a genuine possibility.
When it came to me it was like finding an immaculate copy of Sex Pistol’s “God Save the Queen”: an Escape to the Hunter Valley on Bicycles.
(If you’d like to win one of these bikes but cant be bothered to read, scroll to the bottom of this post!)
The Hunter Valley lies 3 hours north of Sydney depending on how eager you are to get there. Many people go hammer and tong up the highway to Newcastle and then cut across to wine country, but these people need to have a long hard look at themselves in the mirror. Tourist Drive 33 is one of NSW’s great drives, sending the more adventurous road cruisers along the Old Convict Trail – a 240km track built between 1826 and 1836 from Sydney to the Hunter. Those hard grafting do-gooders didn’t sweat like a herd of fat birds at a disco for 10 years just so you could take the motorway!
This alternate route weaves through idyllic farmland that appears manicured by some higher power with a taste for landscape gardening. We crossed rickety old bridges, snaked through overhanging forests and passed the occasional rustic watering hole (one such being the Wollombi Pub serving famous Dr Jurd’s famous “Jungle Juice”). We soon passed beneath the dramatic backdrop of Yellow Rock and rolled into McNamara Campsite, a beautiful and 100% free spot in a tranquil town unfairly christened, Broke.
The weather this time of year can be more unpredictable than Tom Cruise on a chat show, and our weekend was no different. Thunderstorms were forecast throughout our trip, which concerned me sightly as I was sending four of my best friends (including my wife) into open fields sat upon a few tubes of highly conductive metal.
I was however confident that a few wine tastings would take the edge off their concerns.
As it turned out, the weekend was hotter than the molten insides of a freshly served McDonald’s Apple Pie. We erected our huge canvas Bell Tent (courtesy of Wow Tents) and suddenly it looked like we belonged on the Mongolian steppe! Our yurt morphed into a Swedish sauna (minus the blondes) almost immediately so we loaded up the car and ventured 24km through the valley towards the start of Palmer’s Lane Wine-Eco Trail.
Dubbed the Hunter’s best kept secret, this bicycle ride is briefer than a Conor McGregor fight but nothing short of stunning in terms of location. Approximately a 6km round trip through 3 boutique wineries, on either side of the lane lie rolling vineyards that appear modelled on watercolour paintings; the traffic free lanes and paths had us questioning whether we were in fact riding through a Turner masterpiece. In hindsight, the heat and wine combo was working it’s psychedelic magic.
We started at Worthington’s Vineyard on the West side of the route, and had an amazing experience with the owners who seemed to shower us with VIP treatment. They also explained that due to a freak hailstorm in 2015 that destroyed the grapes, it had been a particularly tough season for the industry. To the end-consumer it certainly wasn’t tough to drink.
We hopped aboard our super trendy REID vintage bikes and then hit the undulating cycle trail, which morphed as we progressed from grassy side roads and sandy fire-trails to narrow tracks that wound through the grapevines. We dipped into unseasonably quiet wineries for tasting sessions that went something like this:
Winery: “Are you ready for the Semillion sir?”
Me: “I thought we just had the Semillion?”
Winery: “No, that was the Shiraz.”
Me: “Shiraz? Of course it was. Let’s try the Semillion then please”
I’d swirl my glass confidently, stick my hooter in it and make a loud sniffing noise that erred on a snort. Next, I’d wash the grape juice between my cheeks like a tangy mouthwash and maintain eye contact with the wine-server for several awkward seconds whilst deeply analysing the complexity, connectedness and character of the vintage. She was witnessing a pro in action. (Of course, I haven’t got a Scooby what I’m doing and deep down I know she knows it. I’m in fact thinking of a half-intellectual comment to make that would maintain the illusion.)
Me: “I believe this Pinot has reached it’s harmonious fusion!”
Winery: “That was the Semillion sir”
We gobbled up an over-priced picnic at Calais Estate and played a curious chequers game under a weeping willow at Gemelli Estate that Susi seemed to make up on the fly. It was surprisingly good fun.
Our bikes were head-turners to say the least – one of the vineyards was even wanting to buy a fleet of them for their visitors! For those unable to bring a bicycle with them there are two companies you can hire from: Grapemobile and Hunter Valley Cycling.
King of the Ginge (Mick Hucknall) and his band were performing at one of the local wineries that evening and so McDonald Road started to fill up towards the end of the afternoon. The irony of having a band called Simply Red playing a gig in a wine region known largely for it’s whites didn’t go unnoticed.
After a sweat-filled afternoon we returned to the car and headed back to our campsite for a BBQ feast around the campfire under the warm glow of a mid-summer full moon. B.E.A.UTIFUL.
Conveniently there’s a local petrol station next to the campsite serving hangover-quelling coffees and curry pies. We chatted with the owner who pointed to the Yellow Rock we’d driven past the day before, standing guard above the township. He said that a huge chunk of it fell off recently; the locals believe the mountain is weeping following a local coal mine doubling in size.
With an uncontrollable craving for a wild swim and deep soul cleanse, we were on the hunt for somewhere special to sniff out on the way home. I got in touch with the oracles over at Wild Swimming Australia who suggested Somersby Falls in Brisbane Water National Park. Although busy at the main falls section, if you scramble down the rocks a few hundred meters you’ll uncover your own little pocket of paradise.