The New Year was heralded in at a great party at cousin Jean’s with some of her friends, and brother Tam came down from the mountains to join in the celebrations too. It’s now the end of January and a good time to look back on our first month Down Under. All in all, we’ve had a really busy time, gadding about from place to place, taking in a bit of culture (yes, even in Oz!) and meeting up with various folks. On the gadding about front, we’ve had three trips away in Annie (as our Winnebago is fondly known) – to Bateman’s Bay on the NSW south coast, Cessnock in the Hunter Valley (with much wine tasting and buying done to boot), and Nambucca Heads on the coast about 500 km north of Sydney. So the van, BBQ and the bikes have been well tested out and none found wanting, and we’ve learned a lot about driving and living in the van as well. For instance, we now know that 500 km is about the max we would travel in any one day, and it’s great having our house, rather than our rucksacks, on our backs and being able to stop for a rest or a coffee whenever and wherever we want. Bateman’s Bay was lovely. Our campsite was right on the beach and there was a funfair next door. We never actually went, but heard that Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban had gone a couple of days before we arrived. Apparently she has a house in the area, and all the locals and the Sydney Press were full of it. Tam had organised a couple of sets of golf clubs for us and we had a couple of rounds at a very nice course just 10 minutes walk away at Catalina Golf Club. Golf wasn’t the only game available, it had the Pokies (one arm bandits), Bingo and the horse racing as well, but the nearest we got was a welcome, post-round drink at the bar and, one night, a very nice meal which with a doggy bag fed us for two nights. Bateman’s Bay was also the opportunity to see how easily we could use the van as transport around the locality – and it proved very quick and easy to make ready for the road. So we had lots of tootling around to town for the messages (food shopping) and not least to take advantage of the summer (yes summer!) sales (although it is strange to still get adverts about Christmas on TV in January!!). On one of our jaunts we found an absolutely gorgeous spot at Pebbly Beach only a few kms away. We had taken a run up to the bonny old town of Milton (couple of pairs of shorts in the sales) and stopped off on the way back via a shoogly drive over 8 kms of un-tarred road. It looked a good surfing beach (tho’ not, of course, for us although Eric’s bought a boogie board – thinks he’s a young thing) but as there was a strong drag we stuck to playing Frisbee in the shallows. Others weren’t quite so sensible and we very nearly witnessed a tragedy. Some kids had gone a bit too far out and couldn’t get back to shore. Their mother rushed in fully clothed to help them but she got into trouble too. We felt really helpless as neither of us are strong swimmers and there was no way we could help. But fortunately a couple of guys with surfboards very bravely went out and managed to bring them back safely. Big sighs of relief and hugs and tears all round, but it gave everyone a hell of a scare. Then it was back to Sydney via Braidwood, a historic town founded by a Scotsman (bought a lovely necklace at a nice wee boutique owned by a friendly young couple). Called into Tam’s to say hello to Pat, Jimmy, Tracy and Hamish (Margaret’s sister and family)who’d just arrived from Perth for a couple of weeks. Took Annie back to the RV Centre at Mona Vale to get some things sorted out. They lent us a car so we headed for Palm Beach where they film the beach scenes for Home and Away. Again on the culture front, we had a great night out with Jean, and her friend, Jan (whom we’d met on a previous visit to Oz) at the open air cinema at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair overlooking Sydney harbour/the Opera House, Bridge and city to watch the film The Queen. The evening, and film, were wonderful and since then we’ve been interested to see that Helen Mirren appears on the back of Australian dollar notes!!! With Annie sorted out we headed back up to Tam’s. Had a great 18 holes with him and Jimmy at Katoomba – a lovely Blue Mountain course. As Pat, Jimmy and Tracy were heading back to Perth the following week we had an early Burns’ Supper with Jean, Craig and Hamish the dog joining us. Tam managed to source a really good haggis from a Scottish butcher in St Marys. On Sunday, we headed off via Hartley Vale, where Tam failed miserably to meet up with us as planned for lunch at the Comet Inn. However, it was a lovely spot and we had a delicious lunch, and it was good that Tam, Pat and Jimmy managed to find us before we headed off to Mudgee for an overnight stop en route to the Hunter Valley. There are lots of wineries in and around Mudgee and then in the Hunter Valley. One of the first we came to at the head of the Hunter Valley was Arrowfield which was advertising a wine sale. Oh, a sale! So a quick U turn brought us a 12 bottle mixed case of quality wine for only $46 (£20). No bad eh? As we headed towards Cessnock we kept thinking “Should we have bought more?”. However, over the next few days we got to visit more wineries where not only did we buy some good wine, but also sampled and bought some of the other products that the Hunter specialises in – cheeses, olive oil, pickles and Walkers Oatcakes! We had a couple of games of golf at the campsite’s neighbouring golf course (The Oaks) where Margaret got a pair of golf shoes in the sale (Eric managed to pick up a pair later on in the town). Mind you, the course was an inland one, dry, wooded and challenging – not helped by a news report the previous day of a man in Cessnock being bitten by a brown snake (the world’s second deadliest). Needless to say a few balls were left in the deep rough!! After Cessnock it was back to Sydney again for more culture. Eric had bought tickets for a Sydney Festival modern dance performance – Devolution - at the Carriageworks Theatre in Redfern. It was an absolutely stunning performance and afterwards we and Jean had a delicious meal at Bills in Surry Hills (the highlight, for Jean and Margaret anyway, was the passionfruit pavlova – yummy!!). The following day we were back into Sydney for Sydney Opera open air (and free) performance of Tourandot in the Domain, with Jean and some of her friends. We arrived early to have our picnic before the start of the performance – thanks, Bev for arriving early to get us a good spot. Although it turned chilly, it was a really wonderful performance and a great night out. Earlier in the month it was great to meet up with David and Nobumi who’d arrived in Australia for a 3 month visit. We met in the Fortune of War in the Rocks area, the oldest pub in Sydney, and true to form David had us moving to one where we could have a seat!!!! This was just a quick a meeting up after they had done the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb, and we’re planning to meet up with them again either in Victoria or Tasmania. Other friends, Ronnie and Moira, were also in Australia and it was a real pity we didn’t manage to meet up with them. But Keith and Karen arrive this weekend and we’ve plans to meet up with them. Also Sandra – who’s just retired from DfES – is now in Australia and we hope to meet up with her next month. We tried to surprise Archie and Helen by turning up at their door in Turramurra unannounced, but they’d skedaddled (Philip – is that how you spell it?) off to New Zealand on holiday. But Helen’s mum (whom we’d met previously in Horsham, Surrey) was staying at the house and she promised to pass on a message that we’d called. We’re currently in Nambucca Heads at a wonderful spot at the mouth of the Nambucca River, where we saw dolphins playing in the water. We had a great 18 holes for $10 at a golf course on a neighbouring island. At that price, we’re heading back for another round tomorrow (being unemployed we have to pick up all the bargains we can!). On a slightly negative footnote, we’re conscious that Annie carries all of our (other side of the) worldly possessions. So latterly, while at Jean’s, Eric has slept overnight in the van. The justification for this was highlighted last weekend after the night at the Sydney opera when he was awoken between 3am and 4am with a couple of guys trying to dismantle the bikes from the rack on the back of the van. Another couple of minutes and they’d have been away with them, but a big dunt on the back window and the sight of a naked hairy man saw them scarper (Philip – another spell check please) pretty damn quick!