31 January 2012

Australia - NSW and South Australia 2012


On schedule arrival on Qantas, and train to Wynyard close to our hotel in the CBD, the Radisson Blu. Early morning walk to the Harbour Bridge and breakfast in the historic Rocks area, but an otherwise lazy day, catching up on lost sleep.

Met up with daughter Anna who took us to North Bondi to show us her new house. Nice neighbourhood and only eight minutes walk from Bondi Beach. A beer on Bondi Beach, then off to Watson's Bay for a cliff top view of the entrance to Sydney Harbour, overlooking Manly, then another beer and an early dinner at the famed Doyles Seafood Restaurant, with a table overlooking the small beach and bay. Very pleasant indeed, with a couple of beers back in Bondi with Anna's husband Paul.

Chillin' in Bondi
View to Sydney from above Watson's Bay

Eating the world's most expensive fish& chips! Doyles, Watson's Bay
Watson's Bay

Second day in Sydney, cool weather but perfect for walking through Hyde Park to pay a quick visit to the Anzac memorial. Walked back past St Mary's Cathedral, and then had an interesting hour in the State Library of NSW where a free exhibition on mapping of Antarctica was on display.

Joining up with Anna and Paul, we then headed for a favourite watering hole of mine, the Lord Nelson, a brewpub in The Rocks. Great atmosphere, beer and food. Then a quick walk up to Observatory Park for another perspective on the Harbour Bridge and the city, amused by the sheer number of wedding parties that had decamped here to have their iconic wedding photos taken.

View from Observatory Hill

Another quick beer in The Rocks, an excellent pint of draught Little Creatures in The Australian, then on to see the Opera in the Domain for a few minutes, Bizet's The Pearlfishers. Not my thing, so didn't hang around too long!
Final day in Sydney. Ferry to Manly, a walk to both sides of the peninsula, and very crowded with weekend visitors. A snack, then back to Sydney and a couple of beers in the very old pub Hero of Waterloo in the Rocks accompanied by a jazz quartet. Could have stayed all afternoon. Early dinner at Sailor Thai in The Rocks, and early night again. Jet lag almost over!

Anna & Paul, Manly Beach
The quiet beach at Manly
Sydney views from the Manly ferry

New South Wales

Our route in New South Wales
Today starts a quick tour of northern New South Wales, heading west up into the Blue Mountains, a tortuous ride out through Sydney's western suburbs and the slow, unattractive grind up the Western Highway to Katoomba. They're in the process of upgrading this road, but I can't ever see it being a pleasant road to travel. In the process we gained almost a thousand metres before our first turn off to view Wentworth Falls, a river that runs over the edge of one of the many escarpments in this region amidst densely forested tableland. In quick succession we took the views from Echo Point (towards the famous 'Three Sisters'), then Cahill's Lookout and various others before emerging back on the highway which took us on to Blackheath and our stopover for the night in Mount Victoria, a somewhat tired collection of towns in the Australian equivalent of hill-billy country.

Blue Mountains
The 'Three Sisters'
Just north from Blackheath is Govett's Leap, a good viewpoint looking over Bridal Veil falls, with extensive views over the Blue Mountains to the north. From Mount Victoria we visited Mount York, the location where Australia's pioneers finally succeeded in breaking through the Blue Mountains and enabling further advances westwards into the interior back in 1813.

Bridal Veil Falls, Blue Mountains

Our accommodation for the night, the very tired Victoria & Albert Guesthouse, was underwhelming, as was the adjacent Imperial Hotel where a quick beer was accompanied by heavy rock in the bar, and rockers outside strumming away on an electric guitar. It won't be a minute too soon to move on from here! Not recommended.
Very few restaurants open, so had a quick Thai meal back in Blackheath.
Broken night with partner suffering from severe abdominal pains, necessitating an early visit to Katoomba Hospital the following morning. Suspected gallstones, but on our way after obs and medication by early afternoon. Decided to press ahead with our plans, but this meant cancelling the long awaited lunch at Esca in Bimbadgen and a hard drive to make up time, travelling along the scenic Bell Line of Road along the northern perimeter of the Blue Mountains (visit to Mount Tomah Botanical Gardens abandoned too), before heading north on to Putty Road, a sweeping highway passing through spectacular country through Colo and into Wollemi and Yengo National Parks before a long descent through Howes Valley and down alongside Darkey Creek into the Hunter Valley wine region.
Reached our little spot for the night, Hilltop Guesthouse near Rothbury by late afternoon, just as the sky darkened with rain. A challenging day.
A glass of wine beckons...and was enjoyed at Mojo's on Wilderness, just east of Rothbury in the heart of wine growing country. A good Shiraz (Thomas's Two of a Kind) and a local Chardonnay were enjoyed with some nicely cooked food.
It rained all night, lowering the temperature to the low twenties and making it very comfortable for sleeping. Although the Hilltop is nicely situated above the Lower Hunter Valley vineyards it isn't air conditioned and if 'normal' temperatures for this time of the year had prevailed, around 35-40 degrees, then we would have been baking hot!
A nice breakfast including some poached locally grown figs, before hitting the road again, this time heading north along the New England Highway through Singleton and Musselbrook, passing through huge open cast coal mining country, before reaching the huge racehorse studs which stretched as far as the eye could see between Scone and Murrurundi, some obviously owned by Arabs (Emirates Park). Continuing northwards, through attractive farmland, grassland and some forested areas (and spotting the odd kangaroo too) we bypassed Tamworth with its huge livestock markets and concert venue, this being the 'Country Music Capital of Australia'. It did feel very much like America here, with wall-to-wall fast food joints, diners and motels. Needless to say, we moved on, and now into the fourth hour of driving on increasingly wet roads and some very long hills to climb. Had a giggle when we stopped for a quick pee, watching the face of my better half when she emerged from her first ever long-drop toilet!
Finally reached Armidale, our stopover point for the night, a well manicured university town with shops galore and a much needed launderette. Our accommodation is Lindsay House, a large Victorian house overlooking the Central Park, and we had a huge comfortable room for the night.  
The rain abated overnight, although it was still overcast when we set off eastwards along the Waterfall Way towards the east coast. We were quickly into rolling country, mainly beef cattle seen and the views became more expansive as we slowly gained height, with Cathedral Rock National Park to our left and New England National Park to the south east.  Our first stop was to visit Wollomombi Gorge, containing a series of very high waterfalls, one of which is the second highest in Australia. The gorge itself was shrouded in mist, which made for a very atmospheric ambience, but tricky for photography. 

Falls at Wollomombi Gorge

Continuing along the path to another viewpoint we were fortunate enough to spot a rock wallaby feeding on the edge of the scarp, in the company of a pair of quail thrush. Spotted some wonderfully coloured Eastern Rosella, brightly coloured parrots.

Rock wallaby
Onwards, we alighted again at Ebor Falls, in spate given recent rainfall, and thankfully now clear of mist. A two-tiered fall, and great views from the 600m escarpment trail.

Ebor Falls

We had planned to travel south some 15km to reach the Point Lookout, which affords extensive views south over the New England National Park, but recent rain has made the unmade road surface very slippery for our little compact, so we beat the retreat. Next time....
We crossed the rolling hills of the plateau above Dorrigo, somewhat like the Scottish Borders, enjoying views into the far distance and increasing amounts of sunshine.
A rest stop at an organic food cafe and emporium in the small town of Dorrigo, famed for its artists and artisans, before the long, steep road descent between Dorrigo National Park ('Gondwana rainforest') to our north and Bellinger River National Park to our right. Just at Sherrard Falls, workmen were clearing a recent landslide from the road, and we were soon upon the Bellinger River, very high but well below the flood levels seen a fortnight before, when our destination town of Bellingen had been cut off by floodwaters.

Bellinger River, NSW in flood

Access to our overnight accommodation at Casabelle, Bellingen. Only just!
Bellingen has a population of some 2500, but the number of people swells considerably at various times during the year, as the town hosts big monthly markets and annual art, lieterary and music festivals, unfortunately none of them happening during our time here! A cute little town, very chilled indeed.
We sped off to have a quick look at Coffs Harbour, a few miles north on the Pacific Highway, and watched some surfers, before returning to Bellingen for gourmet tea at our beautifully located B&B for the night, Casabelle, on the north side of the Lavender Bridge which had been swamped by floodwater just a few days before. Highly recommended - a beautifully appointed location and idyllic views, with very pleasant hospitality. Guinea fowl and a blue tongued lizard spotted in the gardens, preceded by a red fox crossing our path as we had approached Casabelle earlier. Apparently the said fox enjoyed eating the guinea fowl's partner a few weeks ago ...

The delightful Casabelle B&B in Bellingen

Our next day, after a splendid breakfast overlooking delightful gardens, was really a long trip southwards on the Pacific Highway back in the direction of Sydney. Not much to see really, as much of the way passes through forested country, and even a diversion off the main drag on to Lakes Way did not yield any particularly remarkable vistas. What was  noticeable was the amount  of damage done to the roads everywhere with the excessive rainfall of the past weeks, still causing floods and communities to be cut off just north of us. Our overnight stop in Tea Gardens, just south of Myall Lakes National Park, was a pleasant place to be, very slow in pace and home to fisherman and boat enthusiasts. Also a surf beach and a gentle beach overlooking Nelson's Bay in close proximity.
Today's itinerary takes us to Sydney airport for a short overnight stay before heading for Adelaide in South Australia. Pacific Highway most of the way, although we took a lakes/coastal drive around Bugewoi and Tuggerah Lakes in the hope we would get some better views. We didn't. Once again, bush and trees obscured most of the vistas although there were some impressive views back over Gosford and it's bay, Brisbane Water, as we wended our way up the hill back towards the highway. Roads were very busy into Sydney, the highway scything it's way through Ju-ring-gai National Park, passing through some immense cuttings through the rock ridge we were traversing.
Found the hotel OK, and had Vietnamese food for lunch in the bohemian Surry Hills area just south of the CBD. Dropped of the hire car at the airport and spent the rest of the day chilling at the Ibis near the airport. To date, 1750km driven.
Next stop, South Australia!

South Australia

Our route in South Australia
It's just under two hours by air (1162 km) from Sydney to Adelaide, and the track took us back over our route across the Blue Mountains taken earlier in the week. From air they look like rolling clumps of dark green grass, interspersed by valleys and big escarpments. 

Sydney from our flight west to Adelaide
Blue Mountains from the air
Further west we were quickly over rolling farmland into the flat plains of wheat country before cloud obscured the view. I've never thought of Adelaide as an exciting city, but once landed we were quickly into the northern suburbs, and, you've guessed it, it rained on us again, this time very heavily in patches. But further north, as we crossed the wheat country, the weather faired up and we were treated to big vistas and big skies.

Empty spaces north of Adelaide
Auburn, a small town at the southern end of the Clare Valley wine region, is our destination for the night and we quickly found our eco-driven B&B, the delightful One Tree. Organic food and wine, chocolate covered strawberries and a very good cheese plate awaited us, as well as a bottle of chilled local Riesling. Bloody marvellous.

The understated One Tree luxury guesthouse in Auburn
We had ordered a BBQ pack for the evening, and the strong wind made for some interesting cooking on our private deck! We were also entertained by a noisy flock of galahs roosting in a nearby gum tree. A highly recommended spot to stay.
Day two in South Australia. On the road early, leaving the 'sleepy hollow' of Auburn and heading north along the Riesling Way to the small town of Clare, surrounded by vineyards and rolling sheep country. And then into the vastness of SA's wheat growing country, huge farms amidst rolling hills under slightly cloudy skies. Nothing on the roads at all, except for the odd 'road train', long trucks hauling cattle or sheep. Further north, the land gets more barren and cacti, desert bush plants and giant yucca appear. Towns are nothing more than a few houses, maybe a general store, then back into the void again.
Our objective, Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges National Park, is about 300km from Auburn, and with empty roads it's only taken just over three hours easy driving. As we entered the Flinders, lookouts start to appear, giving us views over the eastern flanks of this remote range of quartzite and sandstone mountains, and plentiful signs of local wildlife...kangaroos and emus spotted as we turned into Wilpena Pound, our hotel for the night, nestling on the periphery of a huge natural amphiheatre. Kangaroos are all around us now, many nonchalantly grazing outside the reception of the hotel and around the cottages housing our room for the night.

Into the Flinders Ranges

I managed to get a decent walk in shortly after arrival, climbing Mount Ohlssen Bagge, just over 900m, and this afforded some great views of Wilpena Pound and the ranges beyond, with views northwest to the huge salt pan of Lake Torrens. The walk itself was relatively straightforward, traversing up through sandstone bluffs and calling for a little scrambling along the way. Many different types of lizards spotted at the top. Up and down in a fraction over two hours against a guide book time of four hours, but it's unseasonably cool here, so much easier to move fast if it's not 40 degrees!

Summit of Mount Ohlssen Bagge

Well marked paths up the sandstone escarpments

Descent via something the locals call the Drought Busters Hike, passing through an area of huge water red gum  trees. Hardly anyone seen on the trail...it's low season here, so we've pretty much got the place to ourselves. Just the way I like it!
A very quiet night, as there's hardly anybody staying here during the low season, but an early start is called for as we have booked an early morning flight over the vast bowl known as Wilpena Pound, an area enclosed by quartzite and sandstone ridges, still being forced up by tectonic forces. Our flight left later than planned due to cloud and my hopes of seeing this large geological feature in the early morning light were scuppered somewhat.
Four of us took off in a six seater Cessna, using a gravel air strip, and we gained good views of Wilpena Pound and the surrounding mountain ranges, with views of the huge salt flat known as Lake Torrens to our north west. A half hour in the small plane was enough for  my better half, but we had a remarkably smooth flight with little turbulence.

Wilpena Pound from the air

Over the Flinders Ranges, looking towards Lake Torrens

We took some time to travel up to a lookout to the north of Wilpena, with many more sightings of kangaroos and emus, before venturing south and west to our next overnight stop in Melrose, about 280km north of Adelaide. 

Emu...not known for its intelligence!
Breakfast was had in the small town of Hawker, a general store with cafe, supermarket and post office all under one roof. Then south through Quorn and down to Melrose, a relatively short day today, about 170km on empty roads, crossing areas of red desert and finally into wide expanses of sheep and wheat country again.

Only in Australia!

Rush hour in South Australia!
Our overnight accomodation was in the North Star hotel, dating from the mid 19th century, and we had to use a nearby hotel for food and substenance as the owners were in the process of closing the hotel down. Not one of my better finds!
Enjoyed a decent walk up from the town on a section of the Heysen Trail, although I didn't have time to get as far as the peak of Mount Remarkable, which broods over the town. 

Sleepy Melrose

The Heysen Trail is a long-distance trail through South Australia
Melrose is also a big mountain biking centre, with the Mawson Trail going through here. Our hosts obviously felt guilty about their imminent closure and gifted us a bottle of a good sparkling red Shiraz made at their winery, Bundaleer, a glass or two enjoyed on our balcony whilst watching flocks of cockatoos noisily pass overhead. We visited the local folk museum, well worth an hour, which exhibited local history...everything from imprisoning 'marauding natives' to the trials and tribulations of attempting to grow crops in an area known for periodic droughts and plagues of rabbits and locusts!
The following day dawned with clear blue skies and the alarm call this morning was the fly past of huge flocks of cockatoos going off to feed, apparently to the grain silos north of us. We're heading to the famed Barossa Valley vineyards today.
So back south, across the enormous wheat fields which dominate these parts and eventually passing back through the Clare Valley and it's verdant Riesling vineyards.
After a couple of hours we stopped at the friendly little town of Kapunda, had a coffee and cake plus caught up on the email, before heading into the vineyards via the small town of Greenock. We took the Scenic Road right around the valley, spotting many famous names like Jacobs Creek, Peter Lehmann, before paying a quick visit to the huge Wolf Blass visitor centre up near Stockwell. Too large and commercial for me, so we headed back to Murray Street Vineyards near Greenock for a tasting (a good Viognier Marsanne blend to start) finished off with a glass of 'Benno' (55% Shiraz and 45% Mouvedre - known as Mataro in these parts), accompanied by a lovely platter of local meats and cheeses. A very nice spot, with personal and enthusiastic service.

Entering the Barossa Valley

I've been drinking it for years!
We then found our residence for the night, the historic Collingrove Homestead, formerly the house of the Angas family, after which the nearby town of Angaston is named. It's owned by the National Trust, and the house is open to the public, giving a very authentic insight into the way the gentry here lived before the turn of the century. The room was characterful and spacious, and a quiet night can be expected as, once again, we're out in the middle of nowhere.

Collingrove Homestead

Drinks and dinner tonight with a good friend and ex colleague Ken and his wife Carolyn, at the 1918 Bistro in Tanunda, about 18km away.
After an excellent breakfast, next day took us down through the Adelaide Hills, through towns like Hahndorf which still hang on to their original settler heritage with German bakeries and very attractive Lutheran churches, and on into the Fleurieu Peninsula to the ferry terminal at Cape Jervis, a 45 minute passage to Kangaroo Island (KI). You wind across very attractive rolling hills as you head down the peninsula, through parched grassland and many different types of eucalypts, with sea views as you reach the last 30km. Reminded me of Devon, without the green!
From the ferry terminal in Penneshaw, it was a 60km drive to our next stopping point, a journey along good roads with verdant and extremely varied bush on either side of the road, including areas of what looked like salt marsh populated by low, red heather type vegetation. There were a good many roadkills along the way, indicating a high population of kangaroos and wallablies around us. We checked into our modern hotel, the Aurora Ozone, right on the sea front in Kingscote, the quiet capital of Kangaroo Island (population 1600!) and enjoyed a lazy late afternoon, watching the sea and the pelicans from our balcony.

Aurora Ozone Hotel, Kingscote
Arrival in Penneshaw
Our day touring KI was in somewhat cloudy and occasionally drizzly conditions. It doesn't look very big on the maps, but don't let that fool you...we travelled well over 200km during the day, albeit on virtually deserted and well surfaced roads, but I suppose if I was asked to sum up KI I'd recommend you bring a 4WD vehicle as many of the gems of the island, secluded pristine beaches, wildlife sanctuaries and remote treks, are only accessible via dirt roads. The other thing to point out is that, between the various stop offs, the scenery is limited to the dense bush on either side of the road, and occasional avenues of low gum trees. On the eastern half of the island the scenery is limited to grazing land beyond the bush, whereas in the western half, the land is densely covered in low bush and thick stands of forestry, so hardly anywhere are there expansive views. But this is Australia after all, and in many other parts of this continent you will also travel long distances through homogenous landscapes before the next feature of note.

Kangaroo Island vistas
'Gum Tree Avenue', Kangaroo Island
Wildlife is a big plus. We were, however, disappointed with the Seal Bay Visitor Centre on the south coast, our first stop off. Here you have two options: pay $15 each to walk a boardwalk and see a few sleeping Australian sea lions (they go to sea and eat for three days, then return here to rest up for three days before going off again), or, pay $30 each for a guided walk which gives you access to most populated sea lion area, off limits to the board walkers...a rip off.

Sea lion, KI
However, onwards! The highlight of the day was to follow. I've never seen koala in their natural habitat, but at the Koala Walk on the western end of the South Coast Rd, they have groves of large eucalypt, and there is a population of 22 koalas living there. Not easy to find, as they seem to prefer sleeping high up in these trees, but during the course of an hour or so, we were able to spot five of these endearing little fellas, one sighting of a mother and cub nestled together. One of them was quite active, climbing the spindly branches right at the top of one of the trees and having a good scratch! And the location also had abundant KI kangaroo, Tammar wallabies, and bird life to spot at close hand too...from the humble crow, the Australian magpie (the one with the distinctive early morning song you'll hear throughout Australia), galahs, Cape Barren geese, Crimson Rosella, and the elusive but spectacularly coloured Rainbow Lorikeets. Smaller birds like the Blue Ren and Scarlet Robin added, literally, extra colour. Good value and highly recommended.

So cute...
And we thought BA's Premium Economy was uncomfortable...
Mum koala with cub
Koala insomniac
Further west and south we entered the Flinders Chase National Park and once another entry fee had been extracted from us, we worked our way down the narrower winding road to the New Zealand Fur Seal colony at Admiralty Arch and the interesting rock formation known as Remarkable Rocks, a weathered granite dome, with a great deal of orange lichen adding character to the rock surfaces. Good views down the south coast from here too. And, a bonus, on the road side we spotted a short beaked echidna, a small porcupine like animal, and got some close-up shots. Possum scat was seen, but only road kill seen of this particular island resident.

Short-beaked echidna
Remarkable Rocks, KI

New Zealand fur seal colony at Admiralty Arch, KI

Late afternoon we headed north then east on now completely deserted roads, spotting large areas of bush that was regenerating after previous fires and the odd kangaroo hopping down the road. We also had to slow abruptly to let a peacock family cross the road in front of us.
Our final stop of the day was the 'Island Beehive', a centre where you can taste the very different honeys produced by the Ligurian Bee in different bush habitats. KI has been a sanctuary for this species since 1885. And a final treat, honey comb ice cream....delicious.
A good dinner at the friendly Bella restaurant in Kingscote rounded a busy day off!
Final day in SA, with a 45 minute drive to catch the ferry at Penneshaw and a one hour crossing back to Cape Jervis due to the heavier swell on the sea this time. The road up the Fleurieu Peninsula is delightful, winding its way across the hills and along the coast, and it was only an hour before we entered the McLaren Valley wine region, and enjoyed a good cheese platter with Leconsfield's Old Vine Riesling at the winery.
An easy drive through Adelaide's southern suburbs and into the airport for our late afternoon flight to Sydney, ready for our departure to Queenstown in New Zealand tomorrow. And another 1700 km on the clock. Phew!


So, we complete another sojourn to Australia. The highs and the lows?
Let's start with the lows.
The cost! Even by my own (historically excessive) standards, Australia is currently a very expensive place to visit. It's not just the weakness of the £ to AUD, but food and drink here are very pricey, something that the locals would attest to as well. And hotels don't seem to offer much in the way of off-season pricing. So we move on to NZ with much dented wallets.
There were two hotels that are worth a miss...the Victoria & Albert in Mount Victoria, NSW and the soon to be closed North Star Hotel in Melrose. And think twice about doing the boardwalk route at Seal Bay on KI.
Fortunately, there were many highlights.
Accomodation first. Casabelle in Bellingen, lovely hosts, splendid room and grounds. One Tree B&B in Auburn, just south of Clare, SA: wonderful retreat, yummy chocolate coloured strawberries and great BBQ pack. Collingrove Homestead, for the sense of history and gourmet breakfast.
Food & drink next. I still rate the historic pubs in The Rocks area of Sydney, especially the Lord Nelson...full of local characters, good ale and surprisingly good food. And Doyles in Watson's Bay. Further afield, I wish I'd spent more time in the Hunter Valley, although here the restaurants really know how to charge, being only two hours away for affluent Sydney-siders.  The wine and platter at the Murray Street Vineyard in the Barossa was also memorable.
Sights. Sydney Harbour as always. The Waterfall Way in northern NSW is worth a visit, but I'd only go after heavy rain so that you actually see a waterfall! In SA, I enjoyed the remoteness of the Flinders Range out of season, I particularly liked the Barossa region, and on KI, the Koala Walk was very rewarding.
And, finally, the people. As always, the informal and friendly style of local people was very welcoming. You do have to adjust your mind to a somewhat slower pace, even in the cities, but that, after all, is just what a holiday needs!

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