Winding, Whining, and Wining: Mudgee and the Hunter Valley


Where are we, Phineas?

“Haven’t the foggiest,” I retorted in the best of literary fashion, “but looking at the GPS I think that we are going around the Blue Mountains in 80 kilometres.”

Morning mist in Broke, Australia

Morning mist in Broke, Australia

Indeed, our motorway was enshrouded in fog, or was it a heavy mist that had slipped down from the nearby mountains, the barrier that had confined the Colonials in the narrow coastal strip for thirty-five years. Then, in 1813, the explorers Blaxland, Wentworth, and Lawson found a passage to the fertile plains beyond, and forever into the history books. 

Indeed, the dulcet voiced Jane, who has squeezed into our GPS system and been the subject of previous tirades when she has led me astray, was again at her best. Instead of guiding me to the more prominent Blue Mountains highway, she took us the “scenic,” wiggle like a green snake, Bell’s Line of Road route (BLORR), through apple orchard country, the trees all covered in “hair-nets” like a gathering of grandmas. Instead of hill towns, there were occasional glimpses to the majestic grandeur of the huge, honeyed, limestone cliffs that had stopped less redoubtable explorers than B,W,L. And just then, the dog got car-sick. We pulled onto a dirt track. Dog happy with the mountain air, back aboard, onward, Yo!

The Blue Mountains valley that held up explorers

The Blue Mountains valley that held up explorers

The BLORR also introduced us to modern day leviathans in a region where the dinosaurs once roamed before the trees became coal, old King Coal; twenty ton trucks travelling at frightening speed along the BLORR, to the collieries, which under-mine the bush in much of the Great Dividing Range. Anyone who has seen the early Spielberg movie Duel, knows what a twenty ton truck does to the hairs on the back of your neck when the grill totally fills your rear vision mirror. Don’t tangle with me, Mack, they say rather emphatically, and whenever I could, I moved quickly aside, all the way up and down the ridges, to the plains town of Lithgow.

Lithgow is a plain town; looks poor when you enter it, like country often towns do, but it doesn’t get much better as you move through. Once a major light industrial town, renowned for its Small Arms Factory and the manufacture of the ubiquitous Lee Enfield .303 rifle, the stock weapon that took Australian soldiers to World Wars 1 and 2, it was also a major railway town, with nearby zig-zag railway to the coastal strip. Lithgow gave Australia a home grown 1956 Olympic Gold Medal sprinter, Marjorie Jackson, known ever after as The Lithgow Flash, and her name still adorns one of Sydney’s river ferries. It was also the site of major union riots in 1911, when the new “top hatted toff” owner of the town’s main Blast Furnace and mill, antagonised his coal-dust covered workers by cutting their wages by a Penny an hour, and when they objected, locked them out. His harsh rules, poor working conditions, the already low wages, and the employment of scab labour when unsurprisingly, his workers went on strike, preceded the riot.  The workers barricaded him in his office and burnt his much loved new car. Police arrived, a magistrate sat, to gaol too went two! The newly founded Labor Party, which had won control of the State Government, intervened. Changes came, but the stigma and stench of what happened in Lithgow remained for years afterwards.

Lithgow: The ruins of the old pump house and Blast Furnace

Lithgow: The ruins of the old pump house and Blast Furnace

Although attractively set at the base of the mountains, with a 30’s style main street, Lithgow gave me that Deliverance feeling, the way that people seemed to stare at “foreigners.” We grabbed a coffee, take-away of course, and headed for Mudgee. The landscape became rolling, some cattle, some sheep and of course, the huge mine cooling towers, whispering white smoke into the sky. I recalled numerous parliamentary visits abroad with our delegates boasting of mandatory Australian  “chimney scrubbers” that captured 95% of harmful coal emissions, and that “those greenies at home and abroad” would be better off persuading India and China to lift their infinitely greater un-scrubbed4 emissions to “Australian standards,” rather than campaign against our coal industry.

You know you are getting closer to Mudgee (pronounced Mud gee and an Aboriginal term meaning “Nest in the Hills” or “contentment” - take your pick) when the soil changes colour to a rich loaminess, indicative of the once volcanic climes. That and the increasing paddocks full of vines with wineries set jauntily distant on higher ground beyond the trellises. Boutiquey and “family run” with names like Farmers Daughter or Bunnamamagoo, Optimiste or Mongrel, although whoever thought a Mongrel (dog of dubious parentage) wine sounded attractive leaves my head shaking. Once in Jakarta, there was a diplomat who served Chateau Legopna to select audiences; that I could understand, but Mongrel? As with those signs that stood at the outskirts of towns like Tombstone and Dodge City in the “Old Westerns,” forewarning gunslingers to holster their weapons, outside Mudgee there were signs, “Don’t bring your vines to town son,” the fears of diseases like phylloxera, still of vital concern to the local wine industry. 

Mudgee is a “faire town” of about 24,000 people, thriving on tourism, the vine, wine, and accommodation for numerous retirees and mine workers from the generally bush-hidden, nearby coal mines. You know it is still a rural centre by many of the motor yards on the way into town, selling tractors and farm machinery and seemingly, as many utes (pick up utilities), as they do sedans and 4X4’s. Wool production is in booming spirits, and the bush cockies (farmers) are again as cocky as parrots, for the money is flowing in again. Same customer, China, but it is a much pleasanter riding on the sheep’s back or herding cattle, than standing astride mounds of iron ore and bauxite.

Mudgee main street intersection

Mudgee main street intersection

Mudgee has a comfortable feel about it, a town pleased with what it offers, fine colonial architecture, and four grand churches with cathedral-like, mellow, buttery stone features, which absorb the sunshine and simply enrich it. There are plenty of parks, one with an English-style band rotunda (1903), and a war memorial with the names of many fallen locals from both the Boer War and World War 1. There are plentiful pubs, a small river to bank on, and a rich cultural scene with old theatres (the Art Deco Regent is from 1935) where movies thrived and travelling stage and rock shows still do. There are ballet performances and bush poet readings too, writers and balladeers perform, artists still paint the scenes of great gum trees along the river flats where stock once grazed and campfires flared. Yes, you can still see the stars at night, all seemingly closer by, and friendly-like.

Art Deco Regency theatre and Lawson Park Hotel, Mudgee, Australia

Art Deco Regency theatre and Lawson Park Hotel

It is a tidy town with a central clock tower on a main street junction, its four clock faces all working. The facades of “emporiums,” are now segmented into supermarkets and shops, but once provided and the full gamut of a General Store’s goods drawing people into their dark and deep recesses to peruse the wares. Then, using a ball of string hanging from overhead hooks, purchases were wrapped in plain brown paper, after it was paid for in cash, which was whooshed off in a vacuum pipe system sending all transactions to a central accounts office. Any change came back by the same method. Lots of time was spent at the emporium, the malls of their time! 

I even passed an old fashioned barber’s shop, with an old leather seat (and an elevation box for the kiddies) and an old fashioned ‘strop’ to sharpen the cutthroat razor. I was instantly reminded of bush poet Banjo Patterson’s The Man from Ironbark, an old favourite of mine.

The barber man was small and flash, as barbers mostly are,
He wore a strike-your-fancy sash, he smoked a huge cigar; 

Yes, I’d experienced them like that before, but alas in this barber’s shop (sorry Banjo),
The barber man looked dull and dim, his hair in need of trim
Indeed by his circumference, a stranger to the gym 

There is, as expected, a substantial Town Hall (1880), a Post and Telegraph Office (1860s), Law Chambers with Doric columns (1884, and originally a bank), lots of hotels with overhanging verandas - long ago a refuge for patrons on canvas camp-stretchers, seeking relief from still and torpid summer nights - and the Court House hotel right opposite the Court House, no doubt a place of merriment or dirge, depending on the prevailing judgment. And yes, like in many country towns, where the rush of life is less so, everyone parks bum diagonally to the kerb, as though ready for a Le Mans start.

Handsome Victorian era buildings in Mudgee

Handsome Victorian era buildings in Mudgee

We had an excellent local produce Ploughman’s Platter at the High Valley Cheese and Wine Co, lunching Alfresco while sipping an excellent green straw-ish local Semilion, all expertly served by an attentive waitress from Yorkshire who “loved the Mudgee lifestyle.” Later that night we had an excellent two-for-the-price-of-one, “cattleman’s cut,” a (huge) rump steak, on a large grill at the Red Heffer restaurant in the Lawson Park Hotel. All the preparation and grilling was done by Chef “Moi,” amid a lively banter and grilling advice by similarly gathered “grillers,” farmers, miners, retirees, men all, while various “Onya Loves” came at the requisite time with large plates full of veggies or salads and chips. The talk was all politics, oldies cruising, and of course football, meaning rugby league! It reminded me of an “older Australia,” and it came with the comfort of recall, and not a single latte in sight!

The next day we left our fine and frosty (It was -2), pet friendly, old style motel, and drove initially through lifting mist to the old gold town of Gulgong, the town famously on the Australian Ten Dollar Bill. About 130 of the houses and stores, built mainly in the 1870s, are registered with the National Trust for it was a lively town which shared its merriment and melancholy in measure as people from the nearby diggings came through in a mood for spending or arm bending at the many pubs. There were too, quite a few “swaggies” - people who carried their worldly goods in a bundle (swag), and sought work, food, or overnight shelter. Those that went before, left signs in stones for those who followed, tips: good workhouse, or good place for a handout, or more forbiddingly, dangerous people. It is a place where only the motor vehicles look out of place.

The main street of old gold-era town, Gulgong

The main street of old gold-era town, Gulgong

There are in the region, lots of these little, largely forgotten towns that settled down, rather than died, after the glint of gold was no more. They thrive again at weekends when people come to visit, to see “what it was like in the old days,” but somehow I feel the thrill is gone, unlike it was with my generation, raised as we were on US Westerns, often set in towns that looked just like Gulgong.

Gold era architecture, Gulgong, Australia

Gold era architecture, Gulgong

We entered the Hunter River Valley - named after a colonial Governor of New South Wales, fortuitously so because it was originally called the Coal River following the discovery of the prized black stuff in 1796, and despite the coal, still remains one of Australia’s prime wine producing regions. In its central region, some of Australia’s rich and famous have turned it into “Horse Country” with white Kentucky-style fencing, discrete set-back mansions, a grass airstrip and polo-fields a plenty. People with influence, clout, and signs which boldly say “Don’t Undermine Us,” yet underneath is the black stuff, pleasing to investors, job seekers, and governments. The clash of profound, robust interests is likely to be bruising.

Hunter River Valley, Australia

We found a “pet friendly” cottage in the “village” of Broke (One shop and a petrol station) but all around there were signs proclaiming resident “chefs,” mention in “good food guides” and offering “gourmet menus” amid the wineries, even a wine called Pssst and Broke, although I must admit, I never sought a tasting. We dined that night at the ultra-modern Harrigan’s Irish Pub where I mistakenly tried the locally brewed Four Wives, a somewhat bitter taste after the first sip no doubt, and then had an equally disappointing, flavourless Steak and Guinness Pie. My wife chose somewhat more shrewdly, though far from the sea, the fish and chips and the local white wine, a somewhat better choice.

The next day, we drove to the heart of the Hunter, the village of Pokolbin, a modern conglomeration of “olde woldie” pseudo shops, a “wedding chapel,” and even a Christmas in July shoppe with Red Man on the roof, sack on shoulder and about to get quite a shock trying to come down the pseudo chimney. It is clearly aimed at all the flakes who want to feel the winter warmth of Yuletide when in these parts the “real thing” happens at the hottest time of year. We stayed long enough for a latte at a shop fronted by a large Friesian cow, and a banner that said, “Taste the Country; food like no udder,” and left quickly although the latte was actually quite good. The time for fooling the “with it” crowd, has long gone. Australians know and love their coffee, even in country whistle stops it is generally top quality and every place has a “barista.” 

As with so many vineyards, the cellar door is now generally synonymous with “architect designed,” display enhanced, friendly and knowledgeable, well presented staff, tasting rooms with tidy toilets, right ready for the tour buses, especially at weekends. I suppose the old dirt floor cellar is still out there in some small wineries, the semi-darkness and that wonderful musty smell of the barrels and the pressings in combination, the soft silence of fermentation and glorious sound of corks being pulled. These days it seems to be polished floors, everything spic, span, and shiny, the bottles in properly designed cardboard commercial packs and of course, screw tops. The Hunter is renowned for its shiraz and semilon and they never disappoint, so choosing such varietals is easy. And due to the large number of vineyards, you really need to come up often, to hone that palate. Well, so people say. It is, after all, only two hours by road from Sydney.

Each place now seems to have an eatery of sorts, and a shop. The Smelly Cheese Company we went to not only had a huge array of cheeses, but also an abundance of temperature sensitive foods in special fridges, everything from pate to goose fat to relishes and marmalades, all available in little “home-style” jaunty jars with ribbons to seal them, looking as though under some sort of bespoke patronage. Oh you can eat and drink well in the Hunter.

Udderly fanciful Country Style, Australia

Udderly fanciful Country Style

We nosed, swirled, bouquet and colour tested, looked at the legs, tasted, and we bought a few, probably a few too many, but supposedly from the Cellar-master’s private collection and available only at the winery! Like most, we spent more than we had planned to, but isn’t that always the case with a cellar door visit. We economised on the excellent array of fine foods available and had our own smorgasbord of meats and cheeses, albeit not before the open hearth and on a bear-skin rug in a hideaway cottage, but ours was warm and we had our own “personally binned,” Cellar-master’s delightful drop. Not a restaurant, true, but a taste Five Star in its simplicity and quality.

Hunter Valley vineyards, Australia

Vineyards aplenty in the Hunter Valley

We left Broke on the early morn when the mist painted our course beside the Wollombi River, nature’s special effects to only coat the river but leave the fore-ground resplendent. Alas, it too resembled the BLORR, but with a narrow, winding road, blind corners, little single lane wooden bridges. Beautiful … But the dog got car-sick again and my wife was unimpressed by the bevy of bush … I turned again to tiny Jane, somewhere there inside the GPS. Sim Sala Bim; arrows appeared on the map, the dulcet tones of Jane, setting us right again. Soon we were out and joining the highway traffic flow, at 110kph. At least the road was relatively straight. Wife and dog just closed their eyes. It was just me who had to contend with the bloody Sydney traffic.  




Winfred Peppinck is the Tales of the Traveling Editor for Wandering Educators


All photos courtesy and copyright Winfred Peppinck