Thursday, May 17, 2012

Day 189: The Swan Valley Wine Tour

There are umpteen wine tours on the west coast, mainly because there are umpteen vineyards. The most famous are the Margaret River and Swan Valley tours, and we decided a half-day tour with the latter looked the best value, backed up by Rob and Fi's recommendation. They said that a half-day was enough; the full day started at 9:30 and neither of us wanted to start drinking that early, especially when you can still taste the toothpaste.

Setting off at 12, we bundled into a minibus with 5 other people who had already been to two wineries in the morning, and headed over to Houghton winery. This was one of the more commercial wineries in the area. The host Steph poured us 5 wines to taste here.

The whites were from the Houghton "stripe range" and were all from 2011 and were:

1. White Classic (a mix of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Verdelho)
2. Chardonnay
3. Late-picked Verdelho.

The last white was a little sweeter than I prefer, but had a nice vanilla taste and would probably go well with curries. I've never really been a big Chardonnay fan, and it tasted like every other Chardonnay I've had, but the White Classic was excellent. We were also given a 2010 Shiraz from the stripe range, and a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Moondah Brook brand. Both were nice but I wasn't blown away by either.



The Houghton winery also has a mini museum with some local artwork. I found what I was looking for and was all ready to set up for the day:


Unfortunately the barrel was empty so I had to leave.

The second winery was Jarrah Ridge and was my favourite of the three we visited in the day. Claire was the pourer here, and gave us some interesting tidbits of wine history. For instance, I didn't realise that Zinfandel was actually a Croatian grape, as most people think it originated in California. We were given a whopping 9 glasses of wine plus a port to finish. I should note that these aren't full glasses, otherwise we'd have been on our backs halfway through the second tasting - they're enough for a mouthful each. This is what we were given:

1. 2010 Hartley Classic White - similar to the Houghton White Classic but with Viognier thrown into the mix.
2. 2009 Chardonnay
3. 2009 Chenin Blanc
4. 2010 Rose
5. Sparkling Zinfandel
6. 2009 Cleanskin Cabernet Merlot
7. 2010 Cleanskin Shiraz
8. 2009 Reserve Shiraz Viognier
9. Sparkling Shiraz
10. Port

The rose wines were great, and I was surprised to find I enjoyed the sparkling Shiraz which was served chilled. I'm not sure what it says about my palate, but I much preferred the cleanskin Shiraz to the Reserve Shiraz Viognier which is 4 times the price... As Rob and Fi mentioned they also enjoyed the wines here, we bought a mixed case of 6 Hartley Classic White and 6 Rose to take back with us.


The port was really interesting, as they also gave us a chocolate covered coffee bean to eat after first trying the port. The taste of the port completely changed once we'd eaten the bean, and tasted like a completely different (but still delicious) drink. I generally prefer whisky and brandy to port or sherry, but this was lovely.

They also put on a cracking selection of cheeses and olives to eat with the wine. My dislike of olives was, alas, not tempered by the chilli and garlic marinades they had dunked them in. I guess I'm just not an olive person. The garlic goat's cheese was excellent though, and I'm not usually a fan of that either.

Onto the third winery and we were starting to feel the effects of a liquid lunch. Thankfully, Charlie's Estate Wines had crackers and more cheese on offer for us to try and soak up some of the alcohol. The owner Teresa served up 7 wines, the first five of which were:

1. Homelands Classic White - a mix of Chardonnay, Riesling and Verdelho
2. Origins Chardonnay
3. Homelands Shiraz Cabernet
4. Origins Shiraz
5. Origins Cabernet Merlot


The Shiraz Cabernet was very light, whilst the Shiraz was medium bodied but very peppery and I really wasn't keen on the Cabernet Merlot. The whites were nice enough but not as good as the ones from the previous wineries.

The last two wines served were from the winery's unique "Bambino" range, which were Bianco: a sweet Chenin Blanc that tasted like punch and which the winery made ice pops from, and Rosso: a very sweet Shiraz which seemed to have been developed specifically to chuck into sangria. Neither were wines I was interested in trying again.

The tour also included a trip to the Mash Brewery, which was the next stop. We were given a complimentary schooner of beer or cider (I went for the latter), followed by a basket of things to nibble on, including the best chorizo I've ever eaten. Note:- in Australia a schooner is basically a half-pint and usually costs the same, if not more, than a pint in the UK. A lot of bars only serve schooners, which is a great way to make money and piss off hard-up backpackers at the same time.

The final destination of the afternoon was the Margaret River Chocolate Factory. We were given a single truffle each (they usually retail at something ridiculous like $6 a piece). I went for cookies and cream whilst Gilly chose some sort of raspberry concoction.


They were not terribly exciting. What was exciting were the three huge bowls of milk, white and dark chocolate buttons sat by the entrance. You could scoff as many of these into your fat face as you wanted, so we did.



The factory doesn't have a Willy Wonka-style eccentric owner, but it does have an impressive array of pricey sweets, should you want a memento of your visit.


At the end of the five hour-ish tour, we were a little tipsy and full of chocolate. We got dropped off back in the centre and went out for a drink (well, more of a sit-down in our case as we weren't really in the mood for more alcohol!) with Paul and Fi's friend Liam, at a bar down a tiny side street which had some great art on the walls in the car pack at the back:


Hauling our case of wine onto the bus, we were grateful to Fi picking us up at a bus stop close to their place and then cooking up some cracking fajitas. More wine was drunk; we obviously hadn't had enough earlier in the day. Needless to say, we slept pretty well that night.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Day 182 - 188: The Australian West Coast Road Trip

We picked up our campervan from Britz, an appropriate name given the occupants.


It had benches and cushions on the ground floor which could be converted to a double bed, and another double mattress in a pull-out compartment under the roof. To say the sleeping space on top was small would be akin to saying that Australia is "quite big" or that the Sahara is "fairly dry". Claustrophobic campers need not apply. I don't really suffer from it, but even I had momentary bouts of panic when I woke up in the middle of the night to find myself enclosed on three sides, with a  tiny gap to get out which involved pulling myself onto the kitchen worktop whilst trying not to kick Gilly in the face. Luckily, we swapped each day so everyone got to share the joy of sleeping in a box. It came with a fridge-freezer, hob, microwave oven, kettle, and toaster, as well as all the cutlery and tableware we'd need.

Day 1 - Perth to Waddi Bush Resort

Our first stops were at a small supermarket for food and essentials (including steaks), a Coles supermarket (the equivalent of Tesco in the UK) for other bits we didn't get on the first stop, and Dan Murphy's. Australia has bottle shops all over the place. You're more likely to find a bottle shop than you are a supermarket if you head out into the sticks. I'm not sure if this is because Australians are alcoholics, or if the abundance of cheap wine means that hundreds of shops are needed to sell it all. If you're going to drink on the west coast and you're on a budget, you need to avoid beer and head for wine. Dan Murphy's is the biggest and cheapest bottle superstore in the country, and it's like walking into a Asda-Wal-Mart but with wall to wall booze. And cheap too - bottles of wine start at around $2.90 (less than £2), and it is actually drinkable, unlike the UK where all you can get for that price is a bottle of Lambrini, tooth rot and a hangover. They also have a wall of boxed wine or "goon" as it's known. These are even better value, starting at $11 for the equivalent of 5.5 bottles. For just over fifty bucks, we stocked up the van with a variety of bottles and boxes, and were ready to roll.

Australia's West Coast is isolated in a way that I hadn't actually considered. Perth is closer to Singapore than any of the East Coast cities in Australia which I couldn't comprehend, coming from a country you could drive from the top to bottom of in about 8 hours. Here, 8 hours will get you about 5 centimetres up the map. In that time, you may drive through 3 towns. The roads are barren, and stretch into the distance with nary a petrol station for a hundred kilometres or so.


There was practically nothing to see for the first day's drive. I've never seen a wilderness quite like it. The roads are in fantastic condition, probably because the only people that use them are holidaymakers on a roadtrip and hauliers. The van handled well enough. My only experience driving a large wheelbase vehicle was moving all of my stuff in a Transit from Huddersfield down to Bristol back in 2003. That wasn't too bad except in narrow roads. Whilst this had a better turning circle, the drive itself is boring; the van was an automatic, so all we had to concentrate on was the accelerator. The tedium was relieved by sunset, when we pulled over to get a few snaps.




Fi and Rob had lent us the Camps 6 Australia book - this has listings and maps of the various campsites, rest areas and caravan parks around the country, as well as the facilities they have (power, showers, water, kitchens, etc). It's well worth picking up a second-hand copy if you can, unless you fancy dropping $60 on a new one. As it was starting to get dark, our priority was to find a place to camp out for the night. The nearest place with power and kitchen facilities that we'd be able to comfortably reach was Waddi Bush Resort. This was a campsite in the middle of nowhere, 15km south of Badgingarra. It's also down a 5km dirt track which doesn't provide the most comfortable driving experience for anyone involved. After pulling up and being directed to a spot by the owner Michael who sported a tremendous moustache, I went down to the bar to return the torch he'd lent us to get the power hooked up. The only other people staying at the place were two truckers who were stopping off overnight, and they gave me some tips on places to visit up north as well as treating me to a bit of good-old fashioned racism.

"There's a place up north called Corrogin. You should check it out - there's no Abos. You want to know something weird though? If you spell Corrogin backwards, you get "Nigorroc". And there's no Abos! HA HA HA! Isn't that weird?"

To illustrate his point, he actually got a piece of paper and wrote down the two names to show me, before writing "No Abos!" underneath. Then he underlined it, just in case I wasn't sure of his meaning. After another 10 minutes of awkward conversation, I managed to extricate myself from the bar.

It seems that Aboriginal people (or "Abos" as they're known in derogatory terms) aren't well-liked by many white folk; I didn't find out until about a week or so later how badly the natives were treated by the colonials, but that's for a later blog.

The girls had cooked up a cracking pasta bolognese for dinner, which was enjoyed with some of Mr. Murphy's cleanskin wine. "Cleanskins" are bottles of both red and white which come from a variety of different vineyards, and can contain either really good wine or a potentially poor vintage. They are called cleanskins as they are white-labelled due to the vineyard not knowing how many bottles their current crop is likely to yield, and when they don't order enough of their labelled bottles, they have to sell the wine off to cleanskin distributors who then sell it on to consumers at a discounted price. Therefore, there's a great chance you'll be drinking some cracking wine at 4 bucks a bottle which is exactly the same as the branded stuff for 3 times the price. There's also a risk that you will end up with some crop-end guff which tastes like vinegar, but we've not experienced that yet.

We took the more spacious "downstairs" that night and slept pretty well.

Day 2 - Jurien Bay, Dynamite Bay, Geraldton

Getting woken up at 7am isn't usually my favourite thing. I'm willing to make an exception when the culprit is this:


Even in the arse-end of nowhere, there are plenty of surprises. Green parrots watching us have breakfast: not something you'd find in the UK.

More driving was on the agenda and our first stop was Jurien Bay, the self-proclaimed "Jewel of the West Coast". It was a beach, but admittedly a very, very nice beach.



Soft golden sand for miles around, turquoise (freezing cold) sea, and not a soul in sight. I guess it's too cold for the natives at this time of year. One thing I gleaned from the barfly racists the night before was that it gets a lot hotter up north in the summer months, even hitting the heights of 65 degrees. That's sixty-five Celsius. I simply can't begin to contemplate how hot that is. Enough to fry an egg outside on a rock for certain, which doesn't translate well when it comes to human skin - especially my skin, which believes that the best way to handle the sun is to turn red and then fall off.

Dynamite Bay was the next spot of note on the way up. Located in Green Head, it is an almost circular bay with an open-ended top which some say got its name because it looks like the crater of a huge explosion. We didn't go for a swim; it was too cold and jellyfish abound, but we did walk along the top of one of the bay's "horns" before having lunch at one of the picnic areas there.


A quick stop-off in Greenough for a Magnum Peppermint ice cream was in order, before carrying on to Geraldton, home of the Port Moore Lighthouse. Built in 1878, it's been in continuous use (although the lighthouse keepers have since been replaced by an automated system) and it is one of the largest metal lighthouses in the world.


A word about Geraldton: it's a city by Australian classification, but it is tiny. The population is less than 40,000. The west coast is so sparsely populated that it seems like anything with a population bigger than your average rock concert attendance is classed as a city.

Night was drawing in so we decided to move on to our destination of Northampton Caravan Park for a BBQ steak dinner.



Day 3 - Northampton, Hamelin Pool, Shell Beach and Stromatolites, Denham

Northampton was right on the doorstep of the caravan park, so we had a nose around the following morning. There are some wonderful old red-brick buildings clustered together, including this Gothic-style church built by Monsignor John Hawes:



Travelling up, we passed a field on fire. Presumably some sort of slash-and-burn agriculture; if not, there's going to be a very upset farmer.


You can drive for miles up the west coast without seeing anything of note. The roads stretch on for hundreds of kilometres (they're metric over here), and the most interesting thing you may encounter is a railway crossing. We once drove over 3 crossings in the space of an hour, the giddy excitement was almost too much.

Hamelin Pool is worth a mention, mainly because there's bugger all else of interest in the area. It's set in a glorified truck-stop, run by a woman from the Birmingham area. Why she came all the way from the UK to work in the back of beyond is unfathomable, but there you have it.


The claim to fame of this place is two-fold. Firstly it has a beach which is made entirely from shells, giving it the appropriate name of Shell Beach. The shells contain small quantities of calcium carbonate which dissolves in rainwater to form a glue. This is what formed the quarry of shells; you can walk around and see huge blocks which have been carved out of it.



The other draw here is its stromatolites: tiny oxygen-producing bacteria that live in rocks in the sea. They only exist in two places on earth, and Hamelin Pool is one of them. They sound a lot more exciting than they actually are.



There's nothing to "see" as such except for piles of mud, some of which look rust-coloured. Possibly the most underwhelming attraction I've visited since we set off. In the car park at lunchtime Gilly spotted our first kangaroo who hung around for about five seconds. I was a little disappointed as I was hoping to have seen more on the road trip, but to finally glimpse one whilst stuffing a ham sandwich in my face was gratifying.

On this part of the west coast there are flies. Hundreds and hundreds of them, and they love you. They'll try and get into your mouth, into your eyes, and up your nose. They *will not leave you alone*. From the moment you step out of your van until your return, you will be surrounded by them, and they will chronically piss you off. As an example, here's Paul's bag on the walk back from the beach to the van:


The van was soon littered with fly corpses thanks to some insect death spray and well-aimed whacks from magazines. We beat a hasty retreat up the coast to Denham and stayed in a caravan park for the night.

Day 4 - Monkey Mia and Denham

We got up early but not out of choice. Monkey Mia is one of the few places in Australia where wild dolphins come into the area in order to get given food from visitors. It's about a 30 minute drive from Denham and we had to be there by 8am in order to ensure we were on the beach in time to for their first visit. Sometimes they come in three times a day (usually all before midday), and sometimes only once. The early start did give us opportunity to catch the sunrise though.



We also passed a pack of wild emus on the way which we were really excited about, until we got to Monkey Mia and found that they were everywhere.


Once in the park proper, people line the beach and boardwalk and wait for the dolphins to arrive. Unsurprisingly, they don't come on a fixed schedule. It was about 9am when the first few appeared.

P1150841 P1150855

The staff there have named all the dolphins and can tell them apart by their different dorsal fins. They swim in very close to the shallows:


People are picked at random out of the crowd to come and feed the dolphins a fish; due to the large numbers, it's hit and miss whether you'll get the chance to do so. None of us were chosen for the first feeding, but less than an hour later we came back to the beach after having breakfast, and found the dolphins had returned and there was a much smaller group of people there. Both Gilly and I were lucky enough to get picked to feed the dolphins!



I got to feed Nicky and Gilly fed a different one who was possibly called Puck. They seem to enjoy the human company, as well as getting an easy meal each day, but they do hunt for themselves as well which is probably why they disappear for the rest of the day.


We spent the rest of the day exploring Denham, which has very little of note other than a restaurant made entirely from shell blocks, similar to the ones we saw on Shell Beach.

Fortunately, the caravan park had a pool so we made full use of that in the evening before enjoying the most breathtaking sunset I've ever seen.






The sky looked like it was on fire. An incredible end to the day.

Day 5 - Ocean Park, Port Gregory and the Pink Lake

We weren't going to make it any further up the coast; it would have taken around 9 hours to get up to Exmouth which was reputed to have great diving, but time was short so we started to make our way back to Perth.

Gilly had spotted Ocean Park aquarium on the way up which we decided to stop at on the return visit. We were taken around various tanks by a guy from Yorkshire called Terry who was a marine biologist.


This is a lionfish which has spines that can inflict incredibly painful stings that make you feel like the stung area feel like it is on fire - so much so that you could put your hand (for instance) in a pot of boiling water and you wouldn't feel it. Terry got stung by one cleaning a tank - after about 8 hours of agony, he said that he felt an hour of pure euphoria - probably the body resetting itself.

We also saw stonefish: one of the deadliest non-shark species of fish in the ocean. And one of the grumpiest-looking.


Having said that, no-one has died from a stonefish sting for years. Both of these are common in the places we've dived.

We went outside to see the lemon sharks get fed. There's also a tiger shark floating around the pool, but he was a bit shy and didn't want to pose for the camera.


Back inside, we encountered a turtle who looked a bit hacked off - he was probably annoyed at having half his front leg bitten off when he was younger.


The aquarium was a small but interesting diversion for a couple of hours. Next on the agenda for our return journey was Port Gregory, home of the famous "Pink Lake". This is so-called due to something in the water. The best time to visit is apparently close to sunset, which it was when we arrived, but I'm not convinced that the pinkness is not more to do with the reflection of the sun. Judge the colour for yourselves.


Day 6 - Greenough and the Pinnacles

Breakfast was followed by a dramatic vista in Greenough. Because of the strong crosswinds in the area, the trees all grow sideways which makes for some interesting photographs.



We had a strong focus on our last full day - to get to the Pinnacles for sunset. These are spikes of rock of varying sizes jutting out from the desert floor, which makes for some dramatic views across the sandy landscape; it's like something from a Western. All I needed was a horse.

P1160151 P1160153 P1160162 P1160176
Sunset was even better - as if the light playing on the rocks wasn't enough, we were treated to a kangaroo hopping amongst them as the sun went down. He stopped for a minute and did some shadow boxing, then disappeared over the rise.

P1160184 P1160190 P1160192 P1160197 P1160200 P1160202 P1160203 P1160207 P1160218
I was unsure about the Pinnacles after the disappointment of the stromatolites but I needn't have worried, it was excellent. We stayed in a caravan park in Cervantes for the night.

Day 7 - Back to Perth

Our final day was travelling back into Perth. The only thing of note on the way back was this small range of ice-white sand dunes which were somehow sat in the middle of a heap of scrubland. I have no idea how they got there; it's like someone poured a tub of yoghurt onto the heath.


We got the van back to Britz after giving it a decent clean, got our deposit back and then headed back to Fi and Rob's house for a well-earned rest. Whilst there, I booked the four of us in for a half-day wine-tasting tour with Swan Valley Tours for the following day. Well, when in Rome...

Total distance travelled - 2136 kilometres
Kangaroos spotted - 2
Dolphins fed - 2
Wine consumed - lost count