A Yarra Valley Wine Tour

 Melbourne was great. I’m not sure what it was but I loved the city on sight. It felt comfortable with itself and like it would be a good city to live in. It was a lot more multicultural than Sydney and it just seemed like it had more interesting things to offer. Or maybe it seemed like it would have more to reveal to you if you decided to stay awhile. In my couple of days there, I explored the CBD and Federation Square, the St.Kilda neighbourhood and the Aclan Street cake shops (I had poppyseed cheesecake – yum), and the Queen West-hipster-like neighbourhood of Fitzroy. I also rode the classic green trams and watched a cricket match.

As great as all that was, the Saturday and Monday that I spent in Melbourne were just the oreo cookies, and my friends, Sunday was the sweet cream filling. On the Sunday, I took the best daytrip ever. Seriously. Being near Australian wine country, I had decided to take a one-day tour in the Yarra Valley and I went with Epicurean Food and Wine Tours. Even though I’ve enjoyed drinking wine for some time,  I didn’t really know that much about it. My sister, Jacqueline, has gotten into wine education and tastings in the past couple of years and her enthusiasm has been infectious. So I figured Australia was as good a place as any to start catching up with her.

Our tour guide Steve

We were a small group of ten and in good hands with our guide Steve who was obviously very experienced and shared lots of information about the history of the area and the various vineyards. We started off at De Bortoli Winery where we also got to sample the wares from their Cheese Room. Then it was on to Yering Station Winery which was set on a beautiful landscaped property with a sculpture garden on the grounds. The Tasting Bar was set in their old winery building (circa 1859) and the Yarrabank Creme de Cuvee was a definite highlight. It was strawberry blonde in colour and I could taste both the strawberry and pear notes.

It was about this time that the alcohol started to kick in and our little group started to get a bit chattier and friendlier with each other. It’s not rocket science as to why this was the best daytrip ever. Basically we drank great wine all day and the mood got livelier and livelier as the day wore on. There was me, Peter and his girlfriend who live in Singapore, a couple from Slovenia, two women who work together at Visa in the Bay Area, and a couple from New Zealand who were visiting their son, Cameron, who was studying in Melbourne.

We stopped for lunch at Domaine Chandon which was set up for Moet et Chandon in 1986. It made me think of my Dad who went through a period where he used to buy Moet et Chandon by the case. Before lunch, we had a tour of the exhibition area, the winery and the ridding hall where we learned how sparkling wine is made using the traditional method. The bubbles are produced by a secondary fermentation with yeast directly in the bottle. Who knew?

Lunch was duck or salmon and was accompanied by a tasting of four different sparkling wines including a red sparkling wine which was a first for me. They make it from shiraz grapes and it’s big in Australia. It was good.

After lunch, we headed to Coldstream Hills Winery. By this point the bubbles had kicked in and I was in deep discussion with the Slovenian couple, making plans to visit them next summer. Coldstream Hills is a small boutique winery and we had the cellar door all to ourselves. This was great because we were really able to get lots of information about each wine as we tasted our way through their selection which included some special reserve wines. I’ve always preferred red to white but this is where I had my sauvignon blanc revelation. It was one of the best things I drank all day. Apparently it shows characters of passionfruit, gooseberry and mango so clearly it is suited for West Indians and our tropical palates.

We ended our tour at the Yarra Valley Dairy where we had a cheese tasting of ashed Black Savourine, Chevre and Dill, Gemello and Persian Fetta. And I had a really great soy latte to help balance out the slight drunkenness.

It was a fine way to spend my last weekend in Australia.

Driving the Great Ocean Road

I hadn’t realized how much I missed driving until I picked up my little Hyundai Getz at Melbourne Airport and headed down the Great Ocean Road. Fraulein was my 1994 Volkswagon Golf and she died in March. Since then, I’ve only borrowed my Mum’s car now and then, so I’ve gone from driving almost every day to once every couple of weeks just around downtown Toronto.

The Great Ocean Road is often listed as one of the top ten drives in the world and it provided me with a glorious return to form. The road winds along the windswept southwestern coast of Australia, turning inland in some places where it curves through eucalyptus rainforest. It is definitely a road built for those of us who love driving.

My first stop was Geelong where I grabbed some lunch and checked out the waterfront Bay Walk Bollards. These painted figures represent local characters and highlight different historical events in the area. The weather started to get worse after that and I drove through the rain past the surfing area of Torquay and all the way through to my final destination of Port Campbell. The scenery was supposed to be spectacular so I was hoping for better weather the next day when I would work my way back to Melbourne.  I only stopped in Anglesea to see the wild kangaroos that live on the local golf course and then again in Kennett River to see the wild koalas that live in a grove of eucalyptus trees. They’re very slow, nonchalant creatures, those koalas.

My cunning strategy paid off and the next day was a shorts and sunscreen kinda day. Port Campbell National Park is home to the most dramatic part of the coastline and there are several scenic points where geology has been very good to photographers. I started off by driving west to the Bay of Martyrs, stopping to see the London Arch and Loch Ard Gorge.

London Arch

Loch Ard Gorge

This whole coast line was shipwreck country and it’s not hard to see how it claimed over 160 ships . The rough waves pound the shore incessantly in that oceany rhythmic hypnotic way, with nothing between them and Antarctica. The Loch Ard Gorge itself is named after the Loch Ard which ran aground in 1878 after it had finally arrived from England, with forty-nine of the fifty-one passengers and crew perishing. So much destruction and beauty and ruggedness and despair. It was the risk that people took for the promise of a new life and that totally resonates with me right now. If I could get on a ship setting sail for new lands, maybe I would, damn the torpedos.

But for today, it was on to the headliners of the Great Ocean Road, the Twelve Apostles, the world’s tallest limestone rock stacks.

They tower over each other along the coastline, weathered by erosion. There actually aren’t twelve stacks visible from any point and nobody is sure if there ever were twelve (the most recent collapse was in July 2005 when one of the stacks completely crumbled into the sea). The formation used to be called the Sow and Piglets, but obviously that didn’t sell as well on T-shirts. And everyone knows you can’t go wrong with a biblical reference. While I was there, an F-18 military jet raced by which seemed totally out of place and was probably the first time that I ever gave any thought to the Australian Air Force. I mean, I guess they have one but their presence hadn’t really registered on my personal war monitoring radar. Something to Google then.

I wish I could embed a scratch-and-sniff button right here so you could smell the scent of the eucalyptus forest that filled the car as I headed to Wreck Beach. After all of those clifftop views, I wanted to get down and take a dip in de salt (well, at least my toes), so I climbed the 350 steps down to see the rusted out anchors of the Marie Gabrielle and the Fiji, both wrecked in the late nineteenth century. They were so old and ancient and rusted, but so still there. They were history that I could touch and smell and feel. A silent thank-you to all of my Convent history teachers for bringing history alive enough in the classroom to pass on that love to me.

On my way back to Melbourne, I couldn’t help but stop to see the koalas again. They’re like living stuffed animals and it was surreal to see them just hanging out in trees. And because they hang out near a campground I knew that it could also be a “comfort stop” as they say in the tour business. These bathrooms were particularly mucky underfoot so I rested my camera on the top of the toilet tank. The camera was attached to my Joby tripod and it seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time. Well, of course it did. It was a perfectly good idea for about 2 minutes. Then when my camera slid off the toilet tank and straight into the toilet bowl, it’s true nature became clear. It was actually the dumbest idea in the world and I have since submitted for Guinness certification. The camera was completely submerged under (ahem)water but the tripod proved to be a handy retrieve-your-camera-from-a-toilet-bowl tool, so there was my silver lining, right there.

I fished it out, shook out the (ahem) water as best as I could and tried to be zen about it and engage my mindfulness skills. I told myself maybe it could be fixed. I told myself how lucky I was that I could afford to buy a new one. I told myself at least I was headed to a big city where I would be able to get a new one. I told myself everything happens for a reason. I told myself it was just the camera and I was healthy and whole and nothing had happened to me.

All of this magically worked and I was okay about it until the next day in Melbourne when I bought a new camera. I wanted to get one that took double AA batteries so I wouldn’t have to deal with the Australian plug on a rechargeable battery. I’m a Canon not a Nikon so after some Australian electronics sticker shock, I bought a Canon Powershot SX 110 IS. I spent the day walking around downtown Melbourne and while I managed to take a couple of good shots, I was quite disappointed overall.

Flinders Street Station

Eureka Tower, Southbank

Luna Park

I was really overwhelmed by how sad I felt then and how keenly I felt the loss of my camera. Somehow, because I was travelling alone, the camera was like a companion. Taking pictures gave me a focus. It gave me something to think about and it connected me to the people back at home that I knew I would be sharing the pictures with eventually. Taking pictures made me feel less alone and in that moment, feeling let down by Canon, I felt incredibly lonely and I had a little cry.

After I pulled myself together, I took the camera back and exchanged it for a Canon Powershot SX 200 IS (Canon doesn’t make the model of my toilet camera anymore). It was marginally better but I was still not that impressed by the picture quality despite the glowing online reviews.

But my peeps, sometimes the universe taketh away and then sometimes the universe giveth. Call Ripley if you want, but a mere 3 days later, the toilet camera came back to life. Nas had told me to give it a couple of days and to put in a bowl of rice to help dry it out, but I was doubtful. I didn’t bother with the rice but I left it to dry out with all of the compartments opened up and yes, ye of little faith (that means me), the Melbourne Miracle came to pass and the toilet camera was alive again.

Since I don’t have a religion I wasn’t sure who to thank exactly, so to be safe and equitable, I just thanked them all. I owe somebody a big one.

The Red Centre

When I booked my ticket for this trip, 3 weeks seemed like a lot of time in Australia but once I started figuring out what I actually wanted to see and do, those 3 weeks were filled up remarkably fast. On any trip that you take, you’re always faced with a myriad of choices that are all a variation on the same dilemma – do I visit this place or that place? Once I realized that I couldn’t do both, the most difficult choice for Australia was do I go to the Outback or the Great Barrier Reef? The remoteness and cultural significance of the Outback ultimately gave it the edge. Oh, and of course, the chance to visit Uluru.

Tammy took a couple of days off work and we booked ourselves a 3-day tour in the Northern Territory with Adventure Tours Australia. We flew into Alice Springs where the heat blast hit us as soon as that Qantas door opened up. It was about 39 degrees which actually didn’t feel as bad as I was expecting. We had the rest of the day to explore Alice Springs a bit and it didn’t take long to feel the tension that is percolating just below the surface there. It immediately reminded me of Thunder Bay, another town where there is a cultural clash between the indigenous people coming in from remote communities and the predominantly white town residents. In “The Alice”, aboriginal people come into town to access basic services like health care and they also come in to access alcohol.

Alcohol is an extremely complex issue out here. Many communities in the Outback are dry and there are a series of alcohol control policies (restricting both consumption and sales), some introduced by the federal government and some by aboriginal leaders. It’s hard to deny that alcohol causes a lot of harm in aboriginal comunities, but the government-imposed restrictions are hard to swallow given the extreme drinking culture in Australia. There is frequent violence in Alice Springs and it’s not hard to imagine the bar brawls that take place between black fellas and white fellas. But there is binge drinking and bar brawling every night in Sydney and Melbourne and Adelaide as well, and there are no drinking restrictions there. Take a legacy of colonial history, poverty and racism and mix well. 

Walking around Alice Springs in the heat, we passed groups of Aboriginal people just hanging out on the main strip, Todd Mall, or outside the couple of shopping centres in town. We walked on the dry riverbed of the Todd River (if you see it flow 3 times, you’re automatically considered to be a local) over to the Olive Pink Botanic Garden. This was established in 1956 after 72 year-old anthropologist Olive Pink set up a tent on the grounds and lobbied the NT government to establish a reserve on the land. We felt especially close to her as walked up Annie Myers Hill and read a plaque that informed us that it was named after a “close friend” of Olive’s. We saw lots of poo among the rocks and just as we were debating what animals might be living up there, I caught a glimpse of two red kangaroos bounding away.  

The rest of the afternoon found me searching for a cheap hat that I could take on the tour with me. Hats are an avowed enemy of mine as no matter what shape they are, they inevitably look ridiculous on me. The size of the head, the shape of my face and the fact that I have no hair all seem to be contributing factors. But that no ozone over Australia thing? It is for real. The sun definitely burns hotter here. So I succumbed to the charms of a $10 straw fedora from K-mart and I was ready to go.

There were 20 of us on our tour – several couples from Germany, France and England, two mates from London, two French women who work together, two young women from Germany who were working as au pairs in Geelong (near Melbourne), one German woman and one Irish woman who were each travelling alone, and me and Tammy. Our guides were Molly (boy) and Tommy (girl) who was in training and was actually on her first tour with real customers (she was great). As we were checking in, Tammy resurrected her rusty French to say hello to the French women and then she ended up being their translator for three days. I was her sous translator as I was able to throw in some basic vocab here and there. Mrs. Taylor would have been proud.

We had a long drive to get to Yulara which is the resort town that was specifically built in the late seventies and early eighties to support tourism in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. It used to be operated by the NT government but now the entire resort is owned by a tourism company called Voyages which is a bit bizarre. On the way, we stopped at the Outback Camel Farm where Tammy did a 5 minute camel ride. Camels are not native to Australia but beginning in the mid 1800s, they were brought over from India and a few other places to help navigate the vast terrain and to haul materials and supplies for construction. When cars and trucks replaced the working camels the 1930s, the government asked the “Afghan” camel herders to destroy them, but most chose to release them into the wild instead. Now there are as many as one million feral camels roaming the interior of Australia and we saw some during the trip.

When we got to Yulara, we checked into camp and had a quick lunch and then headed out to Kata Tjuta. The Anangu name Kata Tjuta means “many heads” and these are a group of 36 massive red rock formations also known as The Olgas. We were supposed to do the Valley of the Winds walk but it was closed because of the heat so we did the shorter 2 km  Gorge Walk into the Walpa Gorge which was gorgeous. As we worked our way from there over to the sunset viewing area for Uluru, the low clouds on the horizon started to build and the blue skies changed to gray. We stopped at a lookout to get a dramatic distant view of Kata Tjuta and that’s when I got my first look at Uluru in the other direction. Even from that distance, it had presence. Then we merged into the caravan of coaches, cars and mini buses headed for the Uluru sunset. That was a sight in itself as hundreds of people on budget and luxury tours collided with each other with the budget tours breaking out the crackers and cheese dip and the luxury tours breaking out camp chairs and setting up folding tables covered in antipasto and cheese.

A distant view of Kata Tjuta

Arriving for the Uluru sunset

We had just enough time to lug our own crackers and sparkling wine to a clear spot before the clouds made their final approach, unbelievably bringing thunder and lightning with them. We all toasted each other and marvelled at the light in the sky. Molly assured us that even though we weren’t seeing the usual spectacular red sunset, we were seeing something      rare that few people get to see. Instead of pinks and oranges, we watched the rock change from dusky red to black, as the sky flashed with streaks of lightning.

 

It’s hard to explain the mystical presence of this immense rock, moody and brooding out in the middle of the desert but the weather really took nothing away. We were back first thing in the morning for a sunrise view, and the cloudy stormy weather still lingered so we had a muted sunrise that was beautiful nonetheless. 

The clouds continued to threaten so after getting up close for a short walk all together, most people opted out of the base walk. The actual climb was closed due to the weather and I’m not sure why it is still permitted given that it is clearly expressed that the Anangu people prefer that people do not climb Uluru since it is a sacred site. Some tourists respect that but many do not, so just ban the climb, I say. So Tammy and I layered up with the warmest clothes we had brought and headed out along with Liddy from France and one of the German couples.  

Uluru really reveals itself to you when you walk around it. I had never thought about the fact that every picture you see of it is from the same angle, but professional photography is not permitted from many locations and there are numerous sacred sites around the base where all photography is not permitted. Some of these sites are for women’s business where only initiated women are allowed to go, and some are for men’s business where only initiated men are allowed to go and then some are for both genders. But you have to be old enough and worthy enough to have the knowledge passed onto you, so most of what we know about Aboriginal culture is the equivalent of what an Aboriginal child would know.

We walked through the wind and the rain and it was really powerful and moving to be that close and to be able to appreciate the different shapes and textures. The surface of the rock is shingled, alomst like a reptile’s skin and it is pitted with crevices in many places. The overnight rainfall created several waterfalls that gushed down the rock face and also woke up the bleating frogs in the rock pools around the base. These tiny frogs make a racket, baa-baaing like sheep, which added a weird cool soundtrack. I fell a little bit in love with that place.

After a visit to the Cultural Centre, we left Uluru and the clouds behind and headed for our camp at Kings Canyon. We made good time and climbed the rocks above camp to watch the sun set. The night before we had had a big barbecue for dinner and I got to try kangaroo steaks and camel sausages which didn’t taste much different from your average sausage. Tonight’s bush tucker specialty was Aussie damper which is a bread that bushmen baked in an open camp fire. Tammy was chef on that one and they put vegemite and cheese in the middle  to get some stealth vegemite comsumption past everyone. We had a clear night and hung around the fire watching the immense starry sky. Some people slept in swags which are like big sleeping bags made of canvas with a bedroll inside, but Tammy and I wimped out over the cold and the sight of wild dingos roaming around camp. Yes, I do regret it now. I should have at least tried it.

Our last day began with a hike around the rim of Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park. It was a perfect day with blue skies, sunshine and the temperature was under 30 degrees. Since the hike starts out with a climb up “heart attack hill”, we were all thrilled at the conditions. That steep climb took us to the top of the canyon and then we followed the rim trail across the Lost Canyon on the north rim and then on through the lush Garden of Eden at the bottom of the Canyon and back across the south rim . This was one of the locations for “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” which is now on my list of DVD rentals. The entire trail of eroded red rock offered amazing vistas everywhere you looked.

It was back to camp for lunch after that and some people took helicopter flights over the canyon Then we had the long drive back to Alice Springs with stops for ice cream and an international Weetbix challenge to help pass the time. Each country had to pick a representative to eat a dry Weetbix as fast as you could without drinking anything. Everyone was a good sport about it and sent some poor sap up. We had been referred to as  Team Canada for the first two days but somehow Trinidad was put on the roster for this particular activity. It’s a lot harder than it sounds and both Tammy and I took slightly over 2 minutes but the British guy took almost 4 minutes so we represented our countries comfortably.

Most of us had dinner together that last night in Alice Springs and then we went through that strange experience of saying goodbye to people that you feel like you have kinda gotten to know well, when really you don’t know them at all and most probably, you will never see them again. The traveller’s goodbye. Take care and safe travels.

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more about “The Red Centre“, posted with vodpod

That Sydney Skyline

Everyone will tell you that the Sydney Opera House is one of the most photographed landmarks in the world, and even though it didn’t make the top ten posted on Flickr, I can totally understand this particular Aussie boast. Once you see it, you just can’t stop taking pictures of it. It’s actually made up of several buildings and as you walk around it, together they produce an everchanging pattern with each step you take. The architecture is as stunning and dramatic as I always thought it would be, but  a wee surprise – even though the white roofs look smooth from a distance, up close you can see that they are actually covered with a mix of glossy and matte cream-coloured tiles. 

That gave me a little secret thrill of discovery even though millions of people have visited before me. I remember when I saw the Eiffel Tower and it was so familiar and also kinda like every picture I had ever seen of it. I mean, we’ve all seen hundreds of pictures of certain things and places but yet we still travel to see them for ourselves, to discover them for ourselves. And it’s magical when there is actually still something left to discover, something that we didn’t know before despite our fine educations and the existence of Google and Wikipedia. I know they’re just tiles, but trust me, it was magical.

 

I did get lots of face time with the Opera House as I ended up visiting the area in and around Sydney Harbour three times. The first Saturday I was there  (after the trip to Featherdale), me, Tammy and the Pennster took the ferry over to Manly on the Northern Beaches as the sun set. It was about a 30 minute ride over and since I was a kid who grew up spending every Sunday on her dad’s boat, I am always happy to get on the water. I’m thinking I might like to learn to sail, actually. We’ll see.

Then I did two Sydney city walks – with the first one, I started the day by having breakfast in Maroubra with my old high school friend from Trinidad, Ingrid Wilson. She moved here years ago from London, and neither of us could remember when we’d last seen each other. So after compressing 10 years of personal history into an eggs-on-Turkish-toast-and-a-long-black minute, she dropped me downtown near Circular Quay, which is the ferry dock on the harbour. I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art and saw the most amazing retrospective show of work by Fiona Foley, walked through The Rocks (the old colonial district), part of the way on the Harbour Bridge (saw bridge climbers) and then round through Darling Harbour.

The second walk saw me starting back near Circular Quay, but this time, walking the other way, up close to the Opera House, through the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and into the CBD. Australian cities don’t seem to use the term “downtown” or even “high street” which is what I would expect since they still feel so British to me. The Royal Botanic Gardens are right there, in the middle of the city, next to the central business district, and it made me once again lament the absence of a huge green space in downtown Toronto. All large central city parks are the same – filled with every type of city resident, all rubbing up against each other in their leisure moments. I love that.

But the Royal Botanic Gardens are even more amazing because they host colonies of flying foxes (my new animal  fascination). There are thousands of them living in several trees in the middle of the park, constantly rustling and flying about. Their presence is killing trees and the goverment wants to move them. There were signs posted in several places asking for resident feedback about the decision to use noisemakers to encourage them to reestablish their  colonies elsewhere. Maybe they should have tried that with the camel cull plans in Docker River.

London has Selfridges and Sydney has David Jones, so after a quick browse there, I caught a bus to Bondi Beach and did the classic Bondi (bond-eye) to Coogee (cudgie) Coastal Walk. This walk seems to be as popular with locals as it is with tourists. Bondi is everything you would want in an Australian beach and I felt like an extra in an Australian TV series. It just has that sense of drama about it. And of course, it’s the perfect location for a beach shoot.

The coastal walk starts near Bondi Iceberg’s club, and takes you past several beaches and bays. People were out on dates or walking their dogs or just heading one bay over for another swim. If this is not part of the Department of Immigration’s recruitment strategy, then it really should be. You got me, Bondi, you got me good.