Our night in Pemberton brought more rain and we found ourselves longing for the unbearable heat of the Northern Territory again. Fortunately, after a morning of drizzle, the weather broke and we started to see some patches of blue sky in amongst the cloud as we left the campsite. This was lucky for Caro, as she intended to climb one of the local climbing trees, and unlucky for James as he didn’t have an excuse not to. The Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree is a 68 metre tall tree which has had reinforcement bar drilled in to the trunk as steps, a bit of chicken wire around the outside “for safety” and two viewing platforms at the middle and top. It is the tallest of several viewing trees originally created for fire spotting, but which have now become tourist attractions. This is perhaps the most extreme example of lack of health and safety that we have seen, we’re not complaining, it makes it all so much more fun. Unfortunately, the light wasn’t great for photos but the middle platform is visible here and you can just about see the top platform through the leaves, we were unable to get the whole tree in a single photo. You will notice in the next photo that there is nothing below the bars, between which there is plenty of space to fall, there is also no harness, you free climb the entire thing.If someone happens to be coming the other way, you basically have to squeeze up as much as possible to get passed each other. Fortunately, no one came the other way whilst we were there. James started the climb, thought better of it and watched Caro (who you can just about pick out in these photos) while feeling slightly nauseous before that too became too much and went for a walk.
We had just one more stop before Margaret River and WINE, which was Hamlin Bay where there is a permanent population of Eagle Rays which you can watch from the beach. We spotted several, though at first we thought they were sea weed, and it was great to see them so close to the shore. James whipped up some cracking cheese sandwiches for lunch in a carpark and we motored on to Margaret River.We stopped in at the visitor centre for information on wine tours and surf lessons, in that order. We came out laden with information and sat in the carpark calling all of the campsites in search of a space, it was approaching the weekend and Margaret River is extremely popular so we would advise booking a couple of days ahead. Having secured our site for two nights, we picked up some rations and trundled out of town to the Big Valley Campsite.
It is an excellent campsite and we encourage anyone visiting to stay there. It is based on a working sheep farm and comes complete with chickens and feral guinea pigs scattered about the place. All of the facilities are housed in corrugated iron sheds, which made Caro a bit dubious on arrival, but they are immaculate and of a very high quality. It’s also busy, which makes for excellent people watching. It was warm and windy when we arrived so we promptly emptied towels, sheets, pillows and duvet out of Heidi and hung them out to dry in the surrounding trees before settling down with a couple of cans to watch our fellow campers. The group opposite us had clearly never camped before and the six of them faffed around the tent, definitely having a good laugh but making very slow progress in constructing any sort of passable shelter. James eventually went over to help them and one of the ladies immediately grabbed the opportunity to steal his chair next to Caro with a glass of wine and observe progress instead. We actually spent a couple of hours with them and ended up with an invitation of somewhere to stay for Christmas when we are in NZ, which was extremely kind.
Just as our new friends were finally set up, another couple arrived at the site next to them towing a caravan and proceeded to attempt to manouevre it in to place. The 30 minutes that followed were extremely painful as they drove backwards and forwards making no obvious progress and getting more and more irritable with each other. James had to take another walk.
We learned that there was to be live music at the campsite that night and were full of eager anticipation. In the end, we only stayed for a couple of songs as our old age and tiredness got the better of us, we were booked on to a wine tour the next day and wanted to be well rested. As an aside; lots of the campsites offer special deals on wine tours so check with them before booking through the visitor centre. Otherwise we would highly recommend the Cheers! tour, which we took.
The next morning we attempted frying eggs on the plate BBQ, to great success, and were raring to go wine tasting, along with another couple from our campsite. We were picked up by the Cheers bus and, after a swift circuit of the other accommodation, we made our way to Watershed Estate. Chris, our guide, gave us a huge amount of information about the local wine business interspersed with abysmal jokes.
The wine industry, and many other farm-based industries in the area, has largely devolped in lieu of dairy farming which, due to oversupply, quickly nosed-dived in profitability. Population growth in the south west was not as robust as predicted and the oversupply of milk had a hugely negative impact on prices. Dairy farming’s loss was most definitely the wine enthusiast’s gain as the climate and conditions are ideally suited for producing chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon; the region produces some of the best both in Australia and globally.Margaret River is a relatively young wine producing area and, whilst the vineyards there vary greatly in size and production, none of them produce wine on anywhere near the same commercial scale as the rest of Australia or around the world. The management of these vineyards is also varied with some remaining as family owned estates and others entirely owned by investment funds. Until recently there had been a rash of scrubbing out the unpopular chardonnay vines and producing grapes more in line with the global trends. However, with such small yields, it became clear that these vineyards must excel in quality rather than quantity and as the soil and climate are best suited to chardonnay, the grapes have begun to be reintroduced. Accordingly, the vineyards in Margaret River have gained many accolades, with particular pride in the scores given by James Halliday.In order to maintain a steady income during less profitable years or when a particular grape has fallen out of fashion, many of the smaller estates have added other produce alongside their wine. We visited vineyards producing nougart, liquors, cheese and all manner of other produce to further diversify their sources of income. The manner of diversification is very varied but what was clear is that very few people are just milking cows or growing vines anymore.Our particular group were somewhat enthusiastic tasters, the wine was poured freely and we definitely consumed our fair share, particularly as our friends from the campsite purchased a bottle of rosé which we enjoyed on the bus between stops.Our final stop of the day, The Grove, was a vineyard which had made the business decision to sell its grapes to another producer and concentrate on distilling and brewing. After some rocket fuel cocktails we were invited to buy further drinks from the bar. James indulged in a paddle of beers whilst Caro enjoyed a very refreshing gin and tonic.Feeling fairly merry we decided that we had not had enough to drink on tour and disembarked, along with our new friends, in Margaret River rather than back at the campsite (mistake number 1). We had been assured that it would be easy to find a taxi and we didn’t bother to check if this was in fact the case (mistake number 2). We piled in to a pub and proceeded to work our way steadily through the local beers and ciders (mistake number 3). All of a sudden, it was last orders and we thought we should think about getting a taxi back to our out-of-town campsite. Caro, by this point, had reached the bolshy and tired stage and was adamant that a ride home was required although offered very little help in actually achieving it. It turns out that our friend Chris had lied to us, it is not easy to get a taxi in Margaret River, and the four of us ended up being driven by a random man who James had somehow convinced to drive us back to the campsite. We absolutely do not advocate this approach but it did get us to our beds which was all we wanted at the time.
Fast-forward 8 hours and it’s time for our surf lesson! Yes ladies and gents, we had booked a surf lesson for the morning after a wine tour. On reflection, it was actually a stroke of genius because it got us out of bed and in to the frigid sea which went some way to making us feel human, however, at 8am James was not a happy bunny. There are no pictures of this surf lesson, apologies but we were too busy trying not to swallow half of the sea, which Caro failed at spectacularly as she insisted on shouting out each time she fell off the board which resulted in her mouth being open upon making contact with the water. We had such a good time, our coach Kirtsy was a lot of fun and had so much energy that it was infectious and we both managed to get up on our feet. It was a private lesson so were able to do a lot of “surfing” in our two hours and we were both absolutely jiggered afterwards. A quick shout out here, Josh who owns the school (Josh Palmateer’s Surf Academy) carried out an actual rescue right in front of us when a man was dragged out by the ferocious rip and would almost definitely have drowned without his help. It was incredibly unsettling to watch and we were rather subdued as we drove back to the campsite, although this was likely partially due to the fact that the hangovers were back with a vengeance. At least James’s was. The afternoon was spent in bed watching Mad Men, discovering that we had lost a phone at some point during the previous evening’s festivities and vowing to never drink again.