A QUICK ABOUT-FACEBOOK.
A quick about-Facebook.
There is something self-smuggifying about about turning to head south just as the bite of winter is upon us, to drive opposite to the lines of folks our age, demographically categorised as “grey nomads,” eagerly dragging their caravans to the warmth of Australia’s north.
Yes, as in many things, we were paddling against the tide. Apart from our daughter’s 30th birthday and her third child on the way, we had another appointment to deal with first. This was a pile of firewood- probably about two year’s supply, stacked at our little house near Lake Eildon, which I wanted to feel glowing from our old Coonara stove as I looked at the chilly lake and mountains opposite.
After three months heading as far north as Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, we planned to spend as little time as possible going homeward, so it was to be down the inland via the Newell Highway, because this road, the dreary inland route, seemed to offer the fewest distractions. We planned to head south as fast as the Subaru with our kayaks on top would tug the caravan.
There was however to be one scheduled distraction. It was a town called Mudgee about two hours drive from the Newell, at Coonabbaraban. Mudgee is famous for wine and also for a classical music festival annually performed at one of the vineyards. We were to find it distracted us for two days.
Leaving our friends’ place at Coolum on the Sunshine Coast, where we had stayed two weeks, we faced two obstacles. The first was a flat car battery, the second was the caravan wanting to take our friends’ front gate with it.
With those problems solved we bypassed Brisbane, climbed the steep dividing range and over nighted at Toowoomba, the town of my mother’s birth, at a van park near a noisy truck route. We asked our neighbours (who lived at the park) how long it would take drive to Coonabarabran. ”That’s in New South Wales, isn’t it?” the woman replied. ”We’ve never been to New South Wales.”
This seemed strange given Toowoomba is only about 100 kilometres from the NSW border, but then Queenslanders can be pretty parochial, but they are not unique. I remember travelling in Europe a few years ago and in a German town just 12 kilometres from the French border, meeting people who had never been to France and the same happened on the other side.
At 1.8 million square kilometres Queensland is about three and a half times the size of France (the biggest country in western Europe). Toowoomba is in the state’s far south east, and much closer to our home town Melbourne, three states away, than to the popular holiday town of Cairns which is only about three quarters of the way to Queensland’s top. This gives an idea of the size of the place. But unlike the differences between the languages of Europe, the dialects of Queensland versus the southern states seem slight, so the woman’s statement appeared just to show a lack of curiosity.
It was on the quiet road south west from Toowoomba to the border at Goondiwindi, that Jill agreed to try her hand at driving the car and caravan, something she had been reluctant about on the way north. I had initially found it difficult and exhausting. Although the van is comparatively light, the Subaru with its four cylinder motor is comparatively small as a van tug and almost all outfits we came across were being hauled by much bigger (and thirstier) machines. I had never before towed a van and handling is different with the car pulling more than a ton plus its own weight. Also given the Subaru is comparatively narrow, the car extension mirrors don’t really show the traffic behind.
For most of the way north I was concerned about the van’s brakes which are controlled electrically from the car via a fairly old electronic control box. No matter how I adjusted the dials on the box, the van brakes seemed either too aggressive and felt like they were pulling back the car, or they appeared to do nothing.
The van is also fitted with anti-sway bars, a complete pain in the arse that have to be attached and detached every time the car and van are connected or separated. They are supposed to stop a kind of pendulum effect where the van can start to wobble and spread the momentum to the car, a frightening situation causing the driver to lose control and possibly overturn or run into oncoming traffic.
This sway problem had never happened to me, but for some reason it happened to Jill soon after she took over on the Goondiwindi road and suddenly we were out of control, the sway taking the car and van to the wrong side of the road. Jill took her foot off the accelerator but things got no better. I told her to gently apply the brakes and immediately the swaying stopped, she regained control and pulled over to the roadside, shaking. We wondered what would have happened with a road curve or oncoming truck.
Jill was very upset. I could only think she was unfamiliar with the Subaru’s rather sharp steering and had tried to overcorrect it. The downside was I would have to drive the entire 2000 kilometres home. The positive was I then knew the caravan brakes worked, because the shake stopped as soon as they were applied, so when I drove I was less stressed.
We reached Coonabarabran that night and Mudgee the following afternoon. Mudgee is still as prosperous looking as when founded in the mid 19th century with attractive streets and grand old buildings. But what it produces in the surrounding countryside is the attraction for most visitors these days- wine. It is a particular variety of wine that attracted me, a variety that grows well in Australia, yet is not well appreciated.
Riesling used to be under-appreciated and we used to enjoy its quality at great value, but recently its appreciation has risen along with its price.
The most popular Australian white is sauvignon blanc followed by chardonnay. While I do enjoy a decent chardonnay, I hate sauv blanc, but it is so often blended with another variety, semillon.
Straight semillon is an old French variety that ages well, but it is rarely sold un-blended and is most famously produced in the Hunter Valley near Newcastle. But on our way up the coast staying at Toowoon Bay near Newcastle, we could not buy semillon at the local wine shop.
Apart from the Hunter region, Mudgee which is directly inland over the Great Dividing Range, is also known for semillon and we were keen to find if it was going to be another wine bargain like riesling was once. Most of the vineyards are a short drive from the town and the local tourist association produces a great booklet highlighting what varieties each vineyard produces.
We were going to devote most of one day to winery exploration, but at our first stop, we found the local semillon much lighter than anything from the Hunter and at $20 to $25 a bottle hardly a great bargain. One of our stops was to be Huntington Estate, the site of the annual Music Festival named after the winery and held in its barrel room with the barrels cleared out of the way. Richard Tognetti, director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra describes the room as having one of the ‘best acoustics on the planet.’ We also thought it worth trying the wine, which unlike most producers, they supply aged. We left with both a selection of aged whites and reds, and because we showed an interest, also with memories of the famous barrel room, which unsurprisingly at this tine if years is filled with barrels.
Astro, our well aged blue heeler, and part reason for our caravan tour, also enjoyed meeting various winery dogs, who were clearly enthusiastic about greeting canine tourists. He was particularly welcomed by Wallis, a young female corgi at the Elliot Rocke Estate. She was so keen on him she jumped in the car.
I was equally keen on the estate, because although their 2014 semillon was $20 over the counter, the manager said if I bought a dozen, it would be $10 a bottle- much more my kind of price. She said it would age well up to five years. It is nice and zesty now, so it will be interesting if it survives that long.
Our next part of the journey was a fuel gulping ride south east up the dividing range to Yass near Canberra.
On the way we saw an interesting war cemetery at Cowra where the dead from the famous Japanese prisoner of war breakout are buried. In August 1944 about 1100 Japanese prisoners tried a mass escape, 359 got out, but 231 died, many from suicide, before the rest were captured. Four Australian soldiers were killed. The site now houses a Japanese garden and peace bell.
Closer to our destination we came across the small town, Booroowa with its amazingly elaborate war memorial built after World War I, where the engraved list of war dead seems to indicate most of the town’s young men were swept up in jingoistic fervour. There was a far smaller list for World War II. The memorial also features a clock with the word Anzac spelt out twice instead of numerals
In Yass we met up with Jill’s Canberra living bother and his family at yet another wine producing area, Murrumbateman, much favoured by residents of the national capital. Later two Melbourne friends heading north, called in at the van.
Back in Victoria we were planning to stop at the wine town Rutherglen, just over the border, but with three dozen bottles from Mudgee already bending the car and caravan link like an inverted boomerang, we decided to wait for another trip.
Warming ourselves by the Lake Eildon view wood stove, Jill decided to join a Facebook group devoted to people who caravan with their dogs. It was a contentious problem for us with some towns on the trip off limits because they lacked a pet friendly caravan park. In other towns we were forced to stay at less desirable parks because they were the only ones pet friendly.
Leaving your pet with relatives for an extended period could lead to family disharmony. Leaving them at an expensive boarding kennel could lead to financial disharmony, not to mention a traumatised animal unable to understand why it was imprisoned. Given the number of people we saw travelling with dogs, we could see catering for them was a growth industry. Indeed when we tried to book a place near Byron Bay, their management said they were in the process of making themselves pet friendly, but had not yet done so.
Jill found a Facebook quote of an alleged letter exchange between a dog owner and caravan park manager where the pet owner asked if their well behaved animal would be welcome.
The reply went as follows: “I have been operating this park for many years. In all that time have never had a dog steal shower heads, soap, toilet rolls, sink plugs etc. I have never had to evict a dog in the middle of the night for being drunk and disorderly and I have never had a dog run out on a park bill. Yes, indeed your dog is most welcome and if your dog will vouch for you, you’re welcome to stay here too.”
In joining the new site named “All 4 paws dog friendly camping spots,” Jill posted a picture of Astro in our van which I had used in the first blog about this trip entitled: “Life in a Suitcase.”
Last time we looked the photo had received more than 70 thumbs up “likes” and the number keeps growing.
As I said, there is an untapped market out there.