A dry week in the Hunter

Without approaching a cellar door, John Huxley discovers the region's sober side: old stories and natural beauty.

When I first visited the Hunter Valley Gardens this year, two keepers were belatedly packing away an inflatable plastic Father Christmas. It was clear he'd let them down, he'd let the children down and, most of all, he'd let himself down.

Fortunately, there is so much more to see: 10 feature gardens in all, 6000 trees, 35,000 rose bushes, 250,000 annuals, 600,000 shrubs and a million groundcover plants, spread lovingly over the gentle foothills of the Brokenback Ranges.

With its extensive lake system, the sloping 24-hectare site is also a target for some 50 species of local and visiting birds.

"Have you seen our musk duck?" asks one of the keepers, pointing beyond a patch of lake where golfers are trying to pitch balls into floating targets to a strange, sooty-brown bird. Though real, it too is partly inflatable: a distinctive blow-up sac beneath its bill gets bigger at the start of the breeding season.

The gardens are the imaginative creation of the Roche Group - not the international pharmaceutical company but local developers and winemakers Bill and Imelda.

At $19.90 for adults, $12 for children aged six to 12, and $54 for family passes for two adults and two children, the gardens are not cheap to visit. For some people the prices come as an unpleasant, unadvertised shock.

One couple, who had driven from Cronulla with three children to see the storybook garden, peopled with nursery rhyme characters, turned back at the entrance, bitterly disappointed. By international standards, though, the attraction represents excellent value.

A leisurely wander through the gardens, broken perhaps by a picnic lunch in an Italian grotto, alongside an ornamental lake or on a lawn patrolled by brumbies fashioned from bushes, can take four or five hours.

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The gardens have proved a welcome additional attraction to an area, a resort and a destination overly dependent in the past on its wineries and big-name concerts - Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne and Eric Clapton already this year.

It may sound sacrilegious, un-Australian even, but surely there must be more to a week's holiday in the Hunter Valley than wining, fine-dining and being stopped every other day for a random breath test? There is more but it's not immediately apparent.

The story of how I stopped wining and learned to love the Hunter Valley began, inappropriately, in the visitors' centre at Pokolbin, about 20 minutes' drive from our lodgings in a lone cottage in a winery in the hills above the village of Millfield. Inappropriately, because the visitors' centre looks like a winery, inside and out. Requests for information about walking, possibly even bird-watching, in the valley are met with blank expressions. Most people, it seems, come by car or coach on hit-and-run tasting and buying trips.

Eventually, someone kindly comes up with a local map, not to scale, on which cycling trails, provided by a local club, are sketched hastily. They follow the main roads: Broke, McDonalds, Oakley Creek.

Requests for information on local history prove equally fruitless, beyond obtaining directions to Morpeth, a fascinating Hunter Valley village that grew from humble beginnings in the 1820s to become a bustling international port. It's a must-see.

But on closer investigation there is, indeed, more to do for those who wish to dilute their wine: walking tracks, riding trails, wetlands, historic sites, real people with stories to tell, as well as gardens, art studios and, for thrill-seekers, flights in old Russian military planes.

John and Elsie Lyons, who run Millbrook Estate winery, have a wealth of information on everything from protecting grapes to dealing with aggressive brown snakes. "Watch out for them. If necessary, hit them on the head with a spade," John says. So, too, do the regulars at the general store, a friendly place that even in the height of summer is still cooking sizzling schnitzel and chips for passing locals, who seem immune, for reason of taste or price, to the allure of shiraz and famously smelly cheese.

Soon they have us walking in all directions for days. Up Mount Bright, behind Millfield, where the wedge-tailed eagles spiral in the sky. Along steep stretches of the Great North Walk as it straggles towards Cessnock. And, after a short drive, deep into the Watagan Mountains, along old timber tracks studded with strangler and sandpaper figs, red cedar, blackbutt and Illa- warra flame trees, to Boarding House Dam, with its cool waters and great wall of moss.

To call the Watagans mountainous may be an exaggeration. But they are no molehills. Certainly, a 15-kilometre hike to the dam from the Quorrobolong end of the state forest and back turns out to be a long, sweaty hike.

Between times, there are trips to wetlands, some formed temporarily across the flood plains, others permanent, such as the Ellalong Lagoon. Targeted by developers, the lagoon is home to 170 species of bird, including the glossy black and gang-gang cockatoos.

But who's counting? Well, us, actually. By week's end we have spotted 92 species in several locations: a poor return given that teams competing in last year's NSW twitchathon, featured in the ABC documentary Chasing Birds, found more than 200 in the Hunter Valley in 24 hours.

No matter. By the end of a day trekking up mountains or poking around pools, unwound Sydney tourists feel they deserve a glass of wine or one of the many local beers as they watch the sun set on roseate fields of cows, hills of grapes, vines full of Indian mynas.

Local history, real, living history, can be less energetically explored. Millfield proudly bills itself as a "Town of Mills and Bridges", of which it has several, old and new.

It is also home to the slab-built Rising Sun Inn, which is almost opposite the vicar's house. Famous most of all for being held up by bushrangers in 1840, some 10 years after its opening, the pub was eventually turned into a museum containing a manageable collection of memorabilia from the home, the farm, the timber yard and the coal mine.

There are plenty of reminders, some of them unpretty, of the Greta Seam of high-quality coal that lies thickly across the landscape hereabouts. Millfield had its own mine and was recently considered for open-cut operations, according to John Lyons.

The cute redbrick pay office of the old Greta Main Colliery, which once employed 165 men and 100 horses, is now a guest house. In nearby Bellbird, Chinese signs speak not of restaurants but of the activities of the Asian-owned Austar mining company.

For more about coal mining, for so long the wineries' uneasy Hunter Valley bedfellow, visit the museum at Kurri Kurri.

For a more general view of life in the valley since convict days, head south-west along the flood-prone flats to Wollombi.

The old Aboriginal name relates to the "meeting place of the waters"; most weekends, it is now the meeting place of leather-clad bikers and car enthusiasts. During our visit, enthusiasts have gathered to display old British-made Hillmans: Hunters, Huskys and Minxes. Bliss.

The village has an engaging museum including cells, courthouse and parlours crammed with bric-a-brac from tougher, simpler, arguably happier times.

Not far away, too, are stone culverts, bridges and retaining walls from the old Great North Road, on a fork in which Wollombi developed in the 1830s.

What else? There are bicycles to be hired, on Palmers Lane (be sure to pick up a copy of the cycling trails map), golf to be played (a choice of three courses) and bird's-eye tours to be taken, in hot-air balloons, helicopters, Tiger Moths or Yak 52 planes. All are available at Cessnock Airport alongside the visitors' centre at Pokolbin.

Who said the Hunter Valley wine country was only for winos?

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Pokolbin is about 2 1/2 hours' drive from Sydney.

Staying there

The author stayed in the quiet, self-catering cottage on Millbrook Estate, in Mount View Road. Rooms from $140 a night. Phone 4998 1155 or see millbrookestate.com.au.

Things to do

* Hunter Valley Gardens, Broke Road, Pokolbin, is open 9am-5pm daily. Phone 4998 4000 or see hvg.com.au.

* For information on walks to Boarding House Dam and other lookouts, creeks and picnic areas in the Watagan state forests, phone 4926 5796 or see forest.nsw.gov.au.

* The friendly Millfield general store, on Wollombi Road, is a source of local information and does everything from cutlets and chips to multicourse gourmet dinners. Phone 4998 1263.

* Wollombi Endeavour Museum, on Maitland Road, gives a homely glimpse of life in the flood-prone valley since the days of the pioneers. Phone 4998 3375.

* For cycle maps and hire details , Hunter Valley Cycling, phone 0418 281 480.

* The Hunter Valley Wine Country Visitors Centre is on Wine Country Drive, Pokolbin, phone 4990 0900 or see winecountry.com.au.

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