During my time working in Sydney I made a bit of money on the side teaching Biology and Chemistry as a private tutor.I had one or two pretty awful students, who it was obvious really wanted to be spending their spare time doing other things, but there were two who were a real delight to teach: a uni student called Cassie, who was preparing to sit her GAMSAT, and a year 12 HSE student called Max, a super-bright kid who was struggling to deal with a crappy teacher at school.I got on very well with Max's parents, and I was always impressed by the genuine and wholesome way in which the family all bonded together.The tutoring really helped Max I think; on the journey back to the station one day his dad told me that I was changing his son's life.This comment really stuck in my head and has probably done more to convince me that I should continue to teach in the future than anything else.Anyway, in the run up to my leaving Sydney, they mentioned that Andrew and I should stay at their cottage in St. Albans, two hours north of Sydney in the Hawksbury River / Yengo National Park region, so obviously we gladly took up their offer.What we weren't expecting was just how nice the cottage would be.I had a vision of something very basic, but instead we arrived to find a beautifully restored, old (for Australia) cottage, with elegant bedrooms full of posh upholstery, a massive bathroom with enamel bath in the middle, a colonial-style wooden veranda and a separate summer-house/kitchen, all looking over a gorgeous lake decorated with pine forests.We couldn't believe our luck and stayed there for three nights, and used the agreeable rural setting to test out our camping kit and see what the car could do.
The area was one of the first to be settled in by released convicts, and the local pub, the Settler's Arms, is apparently the second oldest in Australia.There is a very popular and highly-acclaimed book written by Kate Grenville about this period in history, called The Secret River, which features the pub and even mentions the very cottage we were staying in. We went on a few walks in the local area, and did an initial bit of off-roading on some local 4WD routes, but the weather was generally crappy which scuppered some of our plans, like seeking out the hidden water hole on the grounds of the cottage for a swim.
Having pieced together a rough itinerary for our trip, we headed north-east to the Hunter Valley region to visit some of Australia's oldest vineyards.We planned to first set up camp in a free site in woods in the nearby Watagan National Park, but in the end the 'direct' route we chose to get there gradually deteriorated into a 4WD-only track through a remote area of the park, with slippery, muddy and rocky ascents and descents that asked a lot more of the car than I was ever expecting to ask of her.The car totally blew us away though.There was not a single moment where I wasn't completely confident she would breeze through it, with loads of residual power left over too, almost taunting me to find her even steeper slopes to crawl up, or ever deeper mud to trudge through.I've never driven a car off-road before, and I loved it.The signage in the park was non-existent on the small tracks, and we had no topographic maps, so we did the whole thing with just an Australia-wide road atlas and a compass; yet, we found ourselves emerging bang opposite the camp site, which was quite a confidence boost.We had, however, spent a lot of time getting there, so we decided to just get provisions in and camp that night, before heading to the vineyards the next day.
I'm sure that Andrew and I would write very different accounts of how the night went, but needless to say I couldn't get enough of it, whereas my OCD brother really found being out in the bush without a shower a distractingly uncomfortable.He had generally had the s*** scared out of him by the various huge spiders we found at the cottage, and had the misfortune of being bitten by several leeches whilst in the forest.He did, however, get a lot better and dealt with the discovery of a huge Huntsman spider climbing over the car door the next day commendably, especially since the car also doubles as his bedroom.
The Hunter Valley is populated by some of Australia's best winemakers, and grapes such as Semillon, Chardonnay, Pino Noir and Shiraz, thrive out here.This was the life.The weather was hot and sunny and we spent the day cruising about, tasting samples, buying discount fine wines and sitting down to some scrumpcious food with views of the Hunter Valley.We also did a tour of the Tyrells winery - one of oldest and most respected in the area - and then treated ourselves to a powered camp site with hot showers.The only downside was being based in Cessnock, which consisted of a ring road studded with a string of supermarket chains and a casino, plus a very peculiar community centre nextdoor that appeared to be hosting some sort of horse-drawn chariot racing competition.Very strange; welcome to rural New South Wales.