Christmas 2015 was held in the Hunter Valley, NSW. This area is north of Sydney and home to spectacular rivers, lush vegetation and wineries. We were staying near Pokolbin which is said to be Australia’s oldest wine growing region and I for one was looking forward to visiting quite a few of the cellar doors in the area.
The Hunter Valley is a gorgeous part of our country and I had never visited before so I was looking forward to experiencing this famous area. We decided that we would drive from Melbourne to the Hunter Valley with a stopover in Canberra for a few days enroute. The trip could be done in one day but given that we had the time, we didn’t fancy being in the car for a solid drive of thirteen hours.
The day we left it was insanely hot. As we made our way up the Hume Highway the weather was scorching, the bitumen road made it even hotter and the countryside was distinctly sunburnt. We were housed in our air conditioned capsule and it wasn’t until we stopped for a toilet break and something to eat that we realised that it was in fact over forty five degrees. As soon as I opened the car door I was gasping from the heat. I quickly shut it again and announced to everyone that we weren’t getting out, I would quickly duck to the bakery and we would eat in the cool air of the car. The midday sun was baking and not in a carefree summertime way, it took your breath away and I felt like I was going to faint. I ran across the road into the air conditioned bakery and picked up four salad rolls and very large bottle of water. The car sat idling in the carpark as we sheltered from the intense sun; it was the shortest lunchtime break we had ever made on a road trip.
When we arrived in Canberra I have never been happier to see my girlfriend and even happier that she had a pool. After we all cooled down, we relaxed outside for a BBQ and a cold beer. The next few days in Canberra were just as sweltering, it was officially a heatwave.
The day had come to make our trip up the freeway to our Christmas destination. Given that my sister in law and her children live in Canberra we decided that we would have a convoy of sorts and travel up together. Rain was forecast which was a relief but it made for rather treacherous driving conditions after such hot weather. Steam rose of the road and the weather had become uncomfortably muggy. I really don’t know what I dislike the most, burning sun or sweaty air, neither I expect. We stopped enroute at a small roadside diner and got out to stretch our legs.
Just off to the side of the parking lot was a little timber cabin selling mangoes. This is not that unusual, although it was more prevalent when I was a child. My parents would stop at laybys, drive down dirt roads and exits to buy fruit and honey from these roadsides vendors. It was usually attended by the famer himself or a member of his family. There is something quite old fashioned about it and I am very happy that it still exists today. I wandered over to the mango man and asked how much his trays were. Outstanding, $20 for 20 mangoes, I bought a tray and came back to tell the others about it. They all got their own trays and before we knew it we were back on the road with our golden mangoes bouncing around in the car boot.
As we made our way down the winding roads to our destination we turned the corner and our accommodation came into view. It was housed on a very picturesque part of the Hunter Valley and the main house had vines growing up and along the side of the wrought iron veranda and it looked very homely in a last century kind of way. The dirt road then went slightly downhill to the other main house which was distinctly more twenty-first century. Not in a bad way, just more modern but lacking the same charm. The third abode was a small two bedroom unit that would be our accommodation for the week as our children were older and it had a separate bedroom. The three properties overlooked a small dam and a nine hole golf course. It was charming and I was looking forward to spending the next seven days here.
That night a huge thunderstorm came through and lit up the sky with hundreds of lightning bolts, rumbling clouds and heavy rain. The next morning we awoke to grey drizzling skies and the temperature had plummeted to around eighteen degrees, a far cry from a couple of days ago. I had only packed summer clothes, no cool weather gear at all. I froze that first day.
The main house was where we all gathered for cooking, eating meals, playing games, reading and generally chilling out (and it was chilly) It sat upon a small rise and looked out over the rolling hills and it was peaceful and comfortable. There is something quite lovely about just hanging out. The sitting room had attractive stained glass windows and a rustic almost church like feeling. We draped our Christmas decorations along the mantelpiece and set up the tree, all of a sudden it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
After the budget had been spent on accommodation and food there was a little bit of money left in the kitty so it was decided that we would make a family trip to the Hunter Valley Gardens “Christmas Lights Spectacular”. And they were spectacular. The night we had booked initially was rained out so we all went the following night with what seemed like the population of all the neighbouring towns and tourists, it was busy. But luckily the gardens are spacious and there was plenty of room for the thousands of people who were visiting the Christmas light fantastic (although the same couldn’t be said for the carpark)
The Hunter Valley Gardens Christmas display is the biggest in the southern hemisphere with over two million lights adorning everything from lollipops, candy canes, butterflies, waterfalls, balloons, flowers and every known Christmas symbol you could imagine. Every corner you turned provided a more stunning and extravagant light display. Christmas tunes played in the background to accompanying illuminating show reels like a partridge in a pear tree. It was of course a bit cheesy and gaudy (and extremely bright) but I can only compare it to standing in Times Square in New York, your jaw is hanging loose as you stare in awe of the visions in front of you, it literally takes your breath away. It’s an over stimulation of the senses and totally dazzling.
The weather really hadn’t been kind to us these first few days. It had started off hot and humid, freezing rain and then just cold. I ended up having to go and buy warm clothes, considering I have plenty in my cupboards at home, I was not happy about having to spend money on additional items. The choice was to freeze which wasn’t appealing either. We spend the days leading up to Christmas exploring the local area (in the driving rain) and trying not to let it dampen our spirits. We visited the Hunter Valley chocolate company which was nice but not in a Willy Wonka way.
We awoke on Christmas day with the same grey skies as the day before but at least the rain had stopped and the temperature had risen slightly. We couldn’t count on a day in the sun this Christmas. No matter, we were going to have an awesome day. With the gift giving out of the way it was time to start getting lunch ready. We all had a job to do; it is so much easier when everyone chips in. My brother in law had the duty of cooking the roast pork. A simple task one would expect.
He started off by putting the roasts in the oven but we had had a few issues with the oven since our arrival and given the sheer amount of food being cooked, it wasn’t keeping up with the task. He thought it would be better to transfer the roasts to the BBQ as this would assist not only the meat but make the crackling super crunchy. He positioned the BBQ under the front veranda (in case of rain) and left it to cook whilst enjoying a glass of red wine.
After my own food preparations I thought I would take a break and took a walk out the front door into the small garden adjoining the main house. As soon as I stepped out I could smell something akin to a bushfire. This was unusual; it had been raining since we got here. As I walked around the front of the house there were red and yellow flames leaping up in between the wooden slats beneath the veranda. It wasn’t just smoke, the veranda was on fire. The BBQ below was also on fire. Oh crap. I ran inside the house yelling fire! And grabbed a fire extinguisher. Everybody ran outside and thank goodness the fire was smothered quickly and all that remained was a smouldering pile of wood and a blackened BBQ. Suffice to say, we didn’t have roast pork for Christmas lunch. Although that crackling was indeed super crunchy.