Monday, 21 April 2014

The weekends away trilogy: part 3.

I'd like to say that I haven't posted for a while because we have been doing awesome things, but that would be a lie. It's really only down to one thing and I am ashamed to admit ... I have an addiction. A bad addiction. And Jan has had to help me get over it. Namely by ripping the iPad out of my hands and telling me to GET OFF DAMN PET RESCUE SAGA ALREADY! Yes, I downloaded something evil into my life and while I have been away saving many ickle wickle cutesy animals from coloured blocks, the news has been building up... 

I shall confine this post to telling you about our long weekend away (which happened a couple of weeks ago now). You may want to relocate to a comfy seat with a beverage of your choice, as this might be a long post. *Twiddles thumbs for a while*. Right, ready? Ok.

I had an extra couple of days off work as the shifts rotated around, so we decided to take a longer trip into the countryside - to New England no less. We got up on Saturday and drove to Tamworth! We went via Gloucester, and Cardiff and Swansea and Newcastle! Oh, how we laughed. 

Once we got to Scone (I will leave you to pronounce that how you prefer. But just so you know, "scon" is ALWAYS WRONG. So there) we turned off. I had found a route that was out of our way but promised spectacular views of the hills (despite claiming a "small part" of it was gravel). So we drove 70km to the small town the road branched off from and decided to have a break before we went off road. We met a lovely old man at the cafe we found, who chatted away to us and when we told him where we were heading to he said, "Don't take the road that leaves from here, it's flooded and really rough".  Oh. That would be the road we had driven an hour out of our way for.  Hmmm. 

Now, we are a bit reticent around the word "flooding" ever since this happened to us on holiday in America...

Although you can't see me, I am in this picture - under the steering wheel, bailing water out of the car with a small plastic biscuit holder... 
But then, did we really want to drive an hour back again, to have progressed no further? Eventually our laziness won and we decided we would pull into the road and see if there was any signage warning of dangers ahead. As we pulled up, a car was coming in the opposite direction. We asked the nice lady driver if we could make it through the road and were told, "Well, the road is open again after the floods. But it's rough". Great. The road at that time looked deceptively smooth and full of tarmac, so after some further thought, we decided "Carpe Diem"! Or as the phrase runs in the Oates clan, "We'll risk it for a biscuit"!

30km in and the road was still perfectly fine. Then we see the "gravel" section. For "gravel" read "hard baked mud containing large rocks". Oh well, no turning back! And it was fine. We had a few worried moments when signs proclaimed we were approaching flooding, but every time the road was dry. Well, almost every time. We came across one fjord in the road, but a reasonably sized one. The man at the cafe had told us the best way to not get stuck in water was to walk through it first and if it was above your knee, not to go through. So I sent Jan in... 

Seht ihr, Margit und Peter? Dieses mal, haben wir es gepr├╝ft!
We got through easily, but the obstacle course wasn't over yet! After sighing in relief on the other side of the fjord, we came upon a herd of cows in the road. Of course. The ringleader was quite truculent and stared us down for a while, with a long line of drool hanging from its mouth. It took considerable coaxing to persuade it that we were, in fact, bigger and coming through. He eventually gave in, with an evil eye and bad grace...

Look at the hatred in its eyes! It's like I ate his family or something... oh. Wait.
We made it off the gravel road and on to Tamworth safely, if slightly muddier (poor Kym's car is white. Well, WAS white at this point). We had a lovely dinner at a French restaurant Kym recommended and took a well-earned rest. 

On Sunday we drove on to Armidale, which is the highest city in Australia and definitely had a bit of autumnal chill going on. The sky was blue and sunny though, so it was like the perfect autumn day, which is my favourite time of year. 

As we got into town we passed the local airport, where we stopped because Jan saw helicopter tours advertised. We phoned them and although they had nothing planned for that day, they said, "Give us an hour to get a helicopter out of the garage and we will take you". So we did and they did. They also invited along a cameraman who was doing some filming for them, so we actually ended up spending longer in the air so we could visit some extra places for him to get footage of - bonus! I have been in a helicopter before, but I still get nervous of anything that takes me high off the ground. I nipped to the car to get a jacket and by the time I got back the men had decided they would take the doors off the helicopter because it's much more "fun" without them. I mean, come on. Whatever happened to NOT hanging out of a tiny vehicle by your toes 5,000m off the ground?! I am staying in for a nice cup of tea next weekend and adventure be damned.

But... but.. this door is staying on, right?! No?! NO?!?!
Anyway, up we went to see the seven famous gorges and waterfalls of the area. The pilot was lovely and full of information about the area and it was an awesome trip. As before, we have picked a few pictures to show here, but you can go here for more pics of the weekend, skilfully taken by Jan.

That night we celebrated with a big fat steak (take that, evil cow!) and a glass of red wine, before returning to the guest house to polish off the free port in our room. 

Next day, we went driving again, along the Waterfall Way. This is a road that leads from the town out to the coast again and had several waterfalls to stop at along the way. We had seen many of these from the helicopter, but wanted to see them from a more down to earth perspective. At one gorge, we saw an eagle soaring past, which I got VERY excited about...

It was very majestic - although hard to capture on film.  It was a wedge tailed eagle.  I'd like to think his name was Eddie.
The weather was quite nice until we suddenly we literally drove into a cloud at the top of one hill... 

The geek anorak came out.
We also managed to cross into Hades and back, and without paying the boatman, which seemed quite an achievement...

Can you spot my cunning photoshopping skills?
On the way back, we visited a winery.  OF COURSE! You didn't think we would go away and NOT visit a winery, did you? Did you?! We tested and we bought (well, our stocks had depleted since, er, the week before...) and we were told about another gorge to visit. We were the only people there as it was coming up to evening. It was very peaceful...

Then on the way back to the car, we finally saw some other visitors...

Kanga! And Roo!
The next day was a mammoth eight hour drive back home, again through the beautiful countryside (and also through a car wash). And that will be it for our weekend adventures for a while! Partly for the sake of staying on the damn ground for more than seven days at a time, and partly because I am now working weekends for the month. But there will still be more news forthcoming in the near future, including: my wrath at the clothing industry! The big reveal of the happy news I mentioned several posts ago and everyone has forgotten about! The most exciting mundane thing to have happened over Easter! My new favourite place in the world! And how many pets I have rescued so far!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Up, hicc-up and away!

"Up" because this weekend we went "up" to the Hunter Valley to continue our explorations of New South Wales. "Hiccup" because the Hunter Valley is another wine growing region here and I may have made Jan drive again and gotten, ahem, slightly inebriated again (I know this may be starting to seem like a problem, but I promise it's not! I practiced even more SENSIBLE DRINKING by adding food to the wine tasting this time - food in the form of CHOCOLATE!). And "away", because "away" we went, into the sky, for an amazing hot air balloon trip (part of the conditioning I am going through to rid me of my fear of heights, so I can go skydiving. Or so Jan thinks anyway...).

The whole of last week it was raining in Sydney and there were thunderstorms left, right, and, well, upwards, but by the time we set off on Saturday morning, the sun had broken through the clouds and we had a nice drive up the coast and inland to the Hunter Valley and the Wyndham winery for our wine and chocolate tasting experience.  

Jan in contemplation of all the wine
The lady leading the tasting started out by positing that people didn't really put wine and chocolate together as a combination - hah! She obviously has not been to our house on a Friday night! Or a Saturday, or Sunday, or ... well, any night, really. 
I may have finished my wine AND chocolates before everybody else. Alright - maybe I will do a detox this week...
We had different types of chocolate to match with different types of wine. She talked us through the wines and we tried some, and then we went back to try them with the chocolates. It was really interesting - the chocolates did change the wine flavours and vice versa.  Finally there was a light port with white chocolate for "dessert".  The most surprising thing, though, was what happened to the port if you serve it in a heated glass - it strips away that sweet-sickly flavour you sometimes have with port and just gives you a much nicer tasting drink.

Anyway, suffice to say the whole thing is turning into a bit of a pyramid scheme - as we ended up buying a ridiculous amount of wine, which we will now have to buy a bloody wine fridge for - because now we are wine snobs and know about things like cellaring and appropriate storage temperatures - and also because WE LIVE IN FIFTH FLOOR FLAT IN A HOT CLIMATE WITH NOWHERE TO PUT ALL THE DAMN WINE.

On Saturday night we found a lovely restaurant called Shaky Tables at another vineyard nearby (we could have eaten at the vineyard we were staying in, but it looked to be run by Mexican criminals, so we passed...) and had a delicious meal of stuff and things (I feel I have wittered on too long already about foodie experiences, so refer to the pics below for details). 

This is what 15 years' worth of wax looks like. Actually kinda pretty.
Obligatory food shot - beef carpaccio with quail eggs
Yummy reconstructed cranachan type thing... Cranachan being a Scottish dessert that usually looks nothing like this.

What do you mean, more wine?  No, no, I am drinking sparkling wine - that means it's all just air bubbles really...
 Then we tucked ourselves into bed, set the alarm for 6AM (whose idea was the SUNRISE balloon trip again?) and proceeded to spend the entire night listening to one of the loudest and longest thunderstorms we have experienced yet. Needless to say we were not fully confident we would be going anywhere in the morning, but we duly got up at and went to the meeting point. 
Just before sunrise
Hurray!  Not only was it not raining - the weather was perfect for ballooning. And then I realised - I actually have to get into a WICKER BASKET and be suspended thousands of feet above the earth. With a hangover. 

Smile of joy? Or smile of pain? You decide...
Once the balloon is inflated and the basket upright, it's time to get in. This is a feat in itself, as you have to climb over the sides and pray you don't fall a*** over t** as you go. Then it's away you go! It is such a weird feeling, as you literally just start floating upwards - no big engines, no mass acceleration before take off - just one minute you are on the ground and then next minute you are... not. We went up to 5,000ft - I spent the first 20 minutes with a rictus grin and a vice-like grip on the support next to me. But to be honest, the views are so spectacular you just forget to be scared...

Jan - leaning out like a maniac with no fear.  Me - trying to look calm and collected. Also trying not to die by falling out.
I wandered lonely as a cloud... and other such poetics
The morning fog across the valley
A shadow in the fog - does this count as a selfie?
We spent an hour in the air and saw these young natives saying hello, as well as other balloons wending their way across the sky:

I think the man next to me in the balloon started to worry when I began waving at the kangaroos and shouting "hello!"

Fellow sky travellers.
You can't steer a balloon in the strict sense - the wind dictates which direction it will travel in - and as there was no wind when it was time for us to land, it took a while. When we did find a place there was a dicey few seconds of thinking we were about to hit some field water tanks/be toppled by a barbed wire fence, but we made it down very gently (if we had been toppled, guess which muggins would have been on the bottom of the people pile!).  Then it was time to get out and help pack away the balloon.  

Inside the belly of the beast...
Can you spot Jan enveloped in the balloon?  This is slightly bigger to pack up than his skydiving canopy!
We were driven back to the starting place, which conveniently happened to be a champagne house where we were treated to a champagne breakfast (YES, alright, liver! I hear you groaning!).  Jan got a free baseball cap for helping to carry the heavy balloon box up the muddy hill so they could pack it away. We also got a cheesy commemoration picture, but as we both look like squinting idiots on it, I have left it out.
Nom, nom, we were well rewarded.
We spent the rest of the day driving home via some lovely national parks - and one less lovely indoor market (we were looking for plants, and Google threw us a baaaad suggestion).  I have now resumed my position on our BRAND NEW SOFA (yes, the sofa of the infamous shopping trip has finally arrived, and it was all totally worth it!) for the evening, because frankly I don't think it has received enough of my attention in the last 48 hours, and if I have to be out of the clouds and down on the ground, this is definitely my preferred place of landing...
Hello, my name is Cate, and I am in love with a piece of furniture.
It took me two and a half days to write this entry, purely because it has taken that long to pick out which photos to use. Jan has taken some really amazing photos of this trip (including many more beautiful views from the air) so if you want to see some more, CLICK HERE and enjoy!