Australia

How to do wine tourism on your own

 

After making an initial error in Western Australia, David Whitley strikes upon the best way to tackle the Margaret River wine region without a tour guide

It was a diversion taken on a whim. I was in the Margaret River wine country. To not do a bit of wine tasting would be a dreadful sin. And the 3 Oceans winery looked pretty snazzy from the road.

In the past, all my wine-tasting adventures have been on tours. There are fairly obvious reasons for this – there’s only so much wine you can drink before you’re over the legal blood alcohol limit. But trying to pick wineries at random made me realise there’s another reason too – the tour company can act as a filter, picking only some of the more interesting wineries.

The tasting was a disappointment. The mid-range chardonnay was pretty good, and the upper end shiraz was too. The rest really weren’t to my taste. But more to the point, there wasn’t really any insight either. The woman behind the counter just poured the wines, gave non-descript answers to any questions about the region and just asked whether I liked whatever I’d just emptied a sampling glass of.

I should have spotted the warning signs. It was a big, flashy place, with a lot of things translated into Asian languages (a sure sign of going for tour buses). I know from previous trips that the smaller cellar door operations tend to offer a better learning experience. But how to go about finding them?

I drove on, hitting the village of Cowaramup. And there, amongst all manner of sweet shops is a building that basically looks like an off-licence. The Margaret River Regional Wine Centre is more than that, however – it acts as a tasting room for lots of different wineries that are too small to have their own cellar door.

 

 

The four they had on offer for sampling didn’t quite hit the requisite spots. But far more important was the fact that the woman behind the counter really knew her stuff, and could tell me where I could find something I probably would like.

It is not, I soon discovered a region that excels at the big, bold shirazes that I tend to default to. “You’ll not get the big, syrupy things that you’d find in the Barossa here. They’re generally softer with lighter tannins, fruitier and more aromatic – it’s a cool region for shiraz.

“But the Cape Grace should be up your street – Rob’s a good winemaker.”

And here lies the difference. That ability to ask the right questions about what you like, explain what you’re probably going to encounter and steer along the right path is absolutely what you’re after if you’re blundering around a wine region on your own. Knowing most of the winemakers on first name terms kinda helps, too.

I was told that cabernet sauvignons are the major reds in these parts, and that Vasse Felix and Cullen are the original Margaret River wineries and thus well worth a visit. I also learned that the sub-region around Caves Road has incredible similarities to the Bordeaux Region in France – and that is the true cabernet sauvignon belt. And that said cab sauvs tend to have a eucalyptus-y quality to them.

By the time I left, I’d got a series of wineries marked on the map, a few bottles to take with me, and a far better understanding of what I was doing. There’s generally somewhere along these lines in most wine regions. If you’re visiting independently, it’s highly advisable to make it your first stop.

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Perth Mint

 



David Whitley tries to get his hands on what he patently can’t afford in Western Australia

 

In a climate of banking instability, bail-outs and business collapses, it’s unusual to come across an operation that is not just surviving, but booming. The Perth Mint is one of the unexpected beneficiaries of the global financial crisis. With the public jittery over the banks, house prices rocky and stocks and shares plummeting, people have turned to gold as a safe investment. And if there’s one thing that the Perth Mint has got, it’s lots of gold. The Government-owned institution produces commemorative coins and bullion, plus it acts as both a depository and trading centre. The gold price has shot up in 2008, and the Mint has seen a flurry of interest, both from investors and curious visitors. Sales of gold and silver coins from the Mint’s shop have more than doubled in the last year – visitors are clearly putting their money where the metal is.

 

The Perth Mint is a curious mix of high security trading centre, upmarket souvenir shop and tourist attraction. Many go in purely to buy jewellery and look at the collector’s coins – and these cover everything from cutesy koala engravings to Prince Charles memorabilia. The coins are all legal tender, but it would be absurd to use them as such. A coin with a face value of $2 is sold for $90, and will probably be worth a lot more in years to come – handing it over in return for a bottle of Coke would be a costly error. The mint also revels in its Gold Exhibition, which traces the history of gold in Western Australia and has a couple of fairly awesome set pieces. By the reception are a few of the medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which were made at the Mint. But the history goes back a lot further than the turn of the 21st century.

 

WA’s first gold was found in Coolgardie in 1892, and the state’s population more than trebled in the next four years as people flocked to cash in. Soon after, the world’s “richest mile” was discovered in Kalgoorlie and it wasn’t long before it seemed sensible to mint it in Perth rather than send everything back to London. That’s where the big limestone building that still houses the goodies today came in. After the brief history lesson, visitors are led through to a mocked-up prospector’s camp, where some giant gold nuggets are on display. Unfortunately, they’re models, and painted polystyrene isn’t quite as valuable. One of the big beasts – the Hand of Faith - was found in rural Victoria, and is the largest nugget in the world today (other larger ones have been broken down). The real version is on display at the fittingly-named Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas.

 

Back inside is the world’s largest collection of gold bars, all wisely kept behind glass aside from one that visitors can attempt to lift. It’s pretty small, but takes a bit of muscle. It weighs 12.54 kilos, was worth $200,000 at the time it was made and is now worth considerably more. There are also opportunities to see how much your bodyweight in gold would be worth (a cool $3,712,752) and engrave your own coin. But the real highlight is watching the gold being poured. Danny Martin has the unenviable task of standing by a 1,300 degree furnace and handling $200,000 worth of molten gold. “Please don’t try and jump me,” he says as he pulls the searing liquid metal out in a clay crucible.

 

He’s wearing a wool shirt, as that smoulders rather than bursts into flames, and has an apron and gloves made of Kevlar. He brushes the crucible against his left mitt just to prove how hot it is – the sizzling sound is shudder-inducing. Very carefully, he proceeds to pour the gold into a mould. “Would anyone like to lick the bowl?” he asks.  The crucibles, understandably, have a limited lifespan, and traces of the gold stay in them. These are all carefully removed with chemicals before the sturdy old warhorses are put out to pasture. The bar takes five to ten seconds to solidify, a process that it should be well used to by now. The same bar has been melted down and re-used for the demonstration 30,000 times over the years. Remarkably, none of it has been lost in this time – the weight is carefully logged after every demonstration. The cooling process is nothing fancy – the mould is just dunked in a sink of water – but soon enough, the reformed bar is possible to touch with the bare hand. 

 

But anyone who wants to be able to touch gold on a more permanent basis is better off heading to the shop – the security guards and cameras are enough to deter any chancers. And afterwards, people really do flock to the shop – under present conditions, it seems as though the Perth Mint has the golden touch. 

 

More photos here

 

The Perth Mint can be found at 310 Hay Street, East Perth. It is open from 9am to 5pm on weekdays and 9am to 1pm on weekends/ public holidays. 

 

New Norcia

 

David Whitley discovers a bizarre slice of Spain in the West Australian bush, and finds that the monastic community looking after it is struggling to survive.

The artwork inside the chapel is astonishing. The murals fill every available bit of wall space, climbing towards the patterned roof. The scene is a riot of angels, and in contrast to the puritan wooden pews lined up in front. It would be an eye-opener in a fine old European city, but to find it on a patch of red dirt in the Australian bush is a little unusual. What’s more, the standards of architecture and decoration are maintained across the town in prayer rooms, old schools and the Abbey church. As a result, 27 of the 65 buildings in New Norcia, Western Australia are listed by the National Trust. New Norcia is a spectacular oddity. It is Australia’s only monastic town, and every building in it is owned by a small community of Benedictine monks. This includes the surprisingly lively pub.

A couple of hours’ drive north-east of Perth, the town was founded in 1846 by a group of four Spanish monks fleeing persecution in their homeland. The key man in the early years was Dom Rosendo Salvado, who managed to set up the town as a farm and educational centre. He finally died in 1900, after writing extensive diaries in Spanish, English and the seven Aboriginal languages he learned. These are currently being translated in Melbourne, and are thought to be the most complete Aboriginal history ever committed to paper.

Under Salvado, New Norcia was a mission, but in the 20th century, education was the town’s major industry. Those schooled included Aboriginal children removed from their parents’ custody (at the behest of the government rather than the monks). The tour guides tend to gloss over the links with the Stolen Generations, however. If you don’t ask, you’ll not  be told. The two boarding schools - St Gertrude’s College for Girls and St Ildephonsus College for Boys – created a relative population boom. At one point, around 250 people – both monks and staff – lived at New Norcia. But when the schools were abruptly closed for economic reasons in 1991, the community was left without a purpose or an income. The population dropped to around 50 almost overnight. Dom Chris, the prior, procurator and tourist glad-hander in chief at New Norcia, says: “It was a great crisis. It wasn’t an easy thing for us to reinvent ourselves.

“These lovely buildings cost a huge amount in upkeep and insurance, so we couldn’t just sit on our hands.” In accordance with St Benedict’s rules, the town is self-sufficient. It gets no State or Federal Government funding. And with the school gone, the monks decided to return to the traditional industries; making olive oil, bread and wine.

It went part of the way. New Norcia’s bread is generally regarded as the best in WA while the nutcake is sold in both Aussie department store David Jones and Harrod’s. The monks also decided to develop tourism, or “hospitality” as Dom Chris prefers to call it. The museum and art gallery were improved, guided tours of the buildings were set up, and those that book in advance can “meet a monk”.

In practice, this is usually Dom Chris again. He has the bearded look and jolly demeanour of an affable-but-bumbling country vicar in an old fashioned British sitcom. But he seems genuinely keen to enlighten his curious audience, responding with admirable verve to questions he must have heard a thousand times before. Yes, they do have lighter weight habits in summer, yes, they are allowed to drink and no, they haven’t taken a vow of silence – that’s the Trappists.

He runs through both the daily routine (highly structured, prayers seven times a day, plenty of silence, 5am starts and a surprising amount of wine) and the process of becoming both a monk and a member of the community. It’s a drawn-out affair that involves a vow to stay as part of the community for life, a year doing all the crappy jobs as a novice and a potential black-balling from the other monks. Dom Chris has been at New Norcia for 27 years, a stretch he describes as “creditable, but nothing to brag about.” He has a strong Catholic upbringing and became a monk after training as a priest and deciding that it wasn’t quite right for him. Others have far more intriguing backgrounds – one member of the monastery comes from Nigeria, and others have previously been bankers and jackaroos.

 

But despite healthy tourist numbers – around 75,000 visitors a year – New Norcia faces a tremendous struggle to survive. It’s estimated that $15m is needed just to repair decay in the heritage-listed buildings, and the community is down to just twelve monks. Four – including the abbot – have died in the last year, while 98-year-old Dom Paulino is the last remaining Spanish monk. He’s now too frail to join the others on their occasional outings to the seaside, and has had to give up his passion for overseeing the olive harvest. This does save the community a small fortune on quad bikes – apparently Dom Paulino has managed to write off four of them by refusing to go at anything other than full pace – but is symbolically sad nonetheless.

 

It seems as though the appeal of the monastic life has waned dramatically in the modern era. Most novices these days come from Africa and Asia – and very few from developed nations. New Norcia’s shrinking, ageing population is a symptom of a wider trend. It’s a town that belongs in a different time and a different place, seemingly doomed to eventual extinction. But for now, the monks battle gamely onwards, trying to keep afloat a community and artistic treasure trove that is entirely unique within Australia. New Norcia is surviving – just – and it’s all down to force of habit.

 

WA praise

 

My trip to the south west region of WA left me with bruises all over my legs and reduced me to tears - for all the right reasons. Located down the bottom of Australia where the country looks like it’s had a big bite taken out of it, the south west is a backpacking hotspot for two very good reasons. The first is it is home to one of Australia’s best wine regions - offering plenty of seasonal work for backpackers on a working holiday visa.  But more importantly, protected and preserved by desert on one side and ocean on the other, the south west region provides a living window to a natural environment not found anywhere else in the world.

The whale watching isn’t that bad, either. On the day we go out, there are at least 50 whales splashing in the bay off Augusta. Located at the tip of the country where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet, Augusta plays host to the whales for three months during their annual migration north - with great whale watching in Geographe Bay when they start their migration down as well.

I tear up a little the first time I see them up close. Three humpbacks surface in unison, calm black shapes rolling in the water. It’s humbling to be in the presence of such ethereal creatures. For two hours we’re treated to displays of tail fluking, flipper slapping and spy hopping, with the whales surfacing just metres from the boat.

It’s hard to imagine, but Augusta has gone from whaling to whale watching in less than 40 years. Given that 50 humpbacks will be hunted and killed for scientific purposes this summer in Antarctica, it sends shivers down my spine that the whales we’ve seen today might not return next year to these waters.

In the background another pod of attention-seeking juveniles leap, desperate for recognition. Eventually we head over, much to the delight of the bloke next to me, who’d been out whale watching 12 times in 6 days in search of the elusive “breaching whale” photo.  A full breach is the spectacular moment when a whale becomes airborne, leaping out of the water like an obese acrobat.

But if you like to have a play in the water yourself, the surfing spots between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin are some of the best in Australia and include the world-famous Margaret River break. On the day we’re out, there are enough 8-10 ft liquid tubes to make a surfer melt his wax. Back home, I think to myself, there’d be fifty guys in the water jostling for them. Here, the waves are empty at break after break, save for the occasional pod of dolphins. But my local mate Dave explains it casually with a shrug, “The surf’s just better somewhere else”.

Back on land, there are plenty of other natural delights on offer. A short drive from Augusta is Jewel Cave, one of four major caving systems open to the public in the region.  Above the caves is a giant Karri tree forest. Rare, wild, intimidating and beautiful, Karri trees grow to over 70 metres high with 12 metres of earth, mulch, reconstituted seashells and Karri tree roots separating the ground from the cave below.

Karri trees are only found in an area near Augusta just a few kilometres wide.  The Karri trees are important part of the area’s unique ecology and help make the south west of WA one of only 35 biodiversity hotspots in the world.

This classification means that this small area hosts species of plants and animals found nowhere else on the globe. Unfortunately, the classification also recognises that 70 percent of the natural habitat has already been lost. Inside the caves below, even if you don’t know your stalactites from your stalagmites, you’ll be left speechless by what you see in side. Some of the formations are the size of trees and the shape and colour of cauliflower that’s been left at the bottom of the fridge for a bit too long.

Descending the steel walkways the formations warp to look like frozen streams, caramel-coloured jellyfish tentacles and washed-out sandcastles. We pass a camel and what looks like a screaming face stuck in the wall. Obligatory girlish giggles greet the very distinct human shapes that penetrate the cavern at suggestive angles, long before the guide cracks jokes about them.

Discovered in 1967, Jewel Cave was originally flooded with chest-deep water, but nowadays is almost completely dry. Fossils have been found of animals who have dropped through from weak points in the cave roof, including one of a giant, prehistoric wombat with big chomping teeth.

 

In a more serious tone, the guide explains that farming, forestry, drought and tourism have all contributed to putting extra pressure on the water table. Instantly, I feel guilty for lingering under the hot water at my hostel that morning.  The fact that this cave has dried up in less than 40 years is a bit shocking- but comic relief is on hand. With a little warning, our guide hits the off switch and we’re left in total darkness. I can’t see a damn thing. Ever the wise guy, he turns the lights back on quickly, and we all look like lunatics waving our hands frantically in front of our faces.

 

The south west region of WA is a part of Australia not to be missed, giving the visitor an incredible geographical snapshot of just how fragile Australia is.

 

Disclosure: The writer travelled courtesy of YHA Australia. yha.org.au

 

 

 

by Shaney Hudson

Western Australia Whales

David Whitley gets a taste of Australia’s dark whaling past, and realizes why the only boats going after whales now don’t have harpoons.

The bay is awash with blood. Sharks, whipped into a feeding frenzy, surround the boat, as the men on board battle to drag their precious haul ashore and keep it intact. Gunshots ring out above the howling wind, a shoot-to-kill policy adopted to keep the circling predators away. To go overboard now would be instant death, as it has been for colleagues in the past.

This scenario, mercifully, is at least half a century out of date, from back in the day when hunting whales was a lucrative way of life. But, at Whaleworld in south-western Australia, it’s not difficult to find yourself going back in time. Now a museum, this site was formerly home to the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company, and it’s not difficult to surmise that it must have been a stinking hellpit.  Before lack of demand for whale oil and international hunting restrictions ensured that whaling was a deeply unprofitable business, the windswept coastline of the Southern Ocean had big bucks swimming alongside it. The whaling industry was a major breadwinner in Western Australia’s first town, Albany, and though the work was deeply unpalatable, it was work nonetheless.

Whaleworld doesn’t beat about the bush in explaining how much of a thankless task it was too, and as you go through the old station, recordings from that bygone age act as a particularly unpleasant time machine. The flensing deck is first up, and this was where the captured beast was hauled onto from the boats to be unceremoniously hacked to pieces. Starting at 4am, the flensers, caked in blood, flesh and saltwater would reduce the ocean giants to carcass with the sort of knives that would bring most of us out in a cold sweat. It wasn’t only the whales that got butchered; fingers were routinely severed and limbs regularly sliced open. The worst assaults would have been on the nose though. The flensing deck, as with the rest of the station, bore the overriding stench of death. The company closed down their operations 28 years ago; it’s taken almost this long for the sun to bleach the deck clean and the wind to blow the smell away.

These days, everything is far more sanitised, and the station has had millions of dollars thrown at it to make it into an attraction. It drips with technology, from the restored ships to the processing factory and storage tanks. Some of it is unnecessary – the size of the ovens in which bones were melted down speaks for itself – but from 3D movies to interactive displays, the intention is clear: more money can be made from learning about whales than slaughtering them. It’s a principle that is carried on down the road in Augusta. This is one of Australia’s corners, and it’s where the Southern and Indian oceans meet. It’s also one of the country’s prettiest coastlines, with the granite headlands surrounding Flinders Bay quite wonderful on even the bleakest winter’s day.

Between June and September every year, the bay is home to humpback and southern right whales, who have ventured north from the Antarctic in order to mate and generally warm up a bit. It doesn’t take long to spot one either. The crew of the Cetacean Explorer have around 20 eager helpers, ready to believe that any slight ripple in the water is their quarry, but the assistance isn’t really needed. They know where to look

These people are seriously knowledgeable about their whales, and the tours are almost run as an excuse to research their behaviour rather than a business. They know most of the bay’s inhabitants by name, recognisable from various markings and shark bites.

They observe the rules about approaching the whales very strictly too – if the target is not showing interest in being observed, or goes to hide under the water a couple of times, then it is time to move on. This is the case with our first sighting. Initially looking like a boulder, upon closer inspection it’s an adult southern right. Not a particularly sociable one, however, as he disappears soon after we get close and switch cameras on.

This is not the case further round the shore, however, and here we strike gold. What initially looks like one whale turns out to be two, a mother and a newborn calf. The youngster is exceptionally playful, and keeps popping up at all angles, then dipping away again just as the flashes go off. That would be another photo of a slight ripple, then… Eventually his mum, perhaps affectionately and perhaps through sheer exasperation, collars him. It’s an incredibly moving moment; it looks like she’s giving him a hug. You can see the close bond between the two through the clear waters, and it’s magical, worth immeasurably more than all the oil and whale meat in the world.

 

 

By David Whitley