All aboard the wine bus!

‘G’day folks, I’m Nigel. I’ll be your (sober) driver for the day. This is my hat – it’s pretty damn big ay? There used to be corks hanging off it as trophies from my days getting trollied at the cellar doors we’re about to visit, but they’ve done away with cork now and screw-tops are too much of a hazard…’ These words – some of them actually uttered, some of them closer to wishful interpretations of what was really said – welcomed us to the wine-coloured bus that trundled us around Hunter Valley on a day-long vineyard tour that we used to ‘celebrate’ the Queen’s Birthday weekend.

Hunter Valley Wine Tour - All Aboard the Wine Bus - Alannafreestyle

'If you guys don't get drunk, i'll eat my hat' - Nigel, Wine Co-ordinator Extraordinaire

Yes, that was almost two weeks ago now, but it’s taken us that long to recover from the weekend’s events. That’s not entirely true – I’ve just been so busy developing a Sydney-based wine-bar tour using my new-found knowledge from our ‘educational’ expedition, that I haven’t had time to write. As an explanation it’s not that far off the truth…  

Anyway, after weeks of plotting our weekend escape via an endlessly amusing e-papertrail of group emails, and a few pre-Hunter warm-up sessions in Crown Street’s bars (I swear, I never drank this much in the UK – this is all Australia’s work) six of us set off for the vineyards of New South Wales’ infamous Wine Country. I know what you’re thinking – we just wanted an excuse to behave like backpackers again and go on a bender. I really want to say that’s totally unfounded, but let’s be honest there may be just a tiny speck of accuracy in that theory. One of the group did tweet something along the lines of ‘Wine wine wine!’ the morning of our departure… No, that wasn’t me. 

Hunter Valley Wine Tour - All Aboard the Wine Bus - Alannafreestyle

Bacchus, you're our kind of god!

It wasn’t just grape-based goods we were after, though – it was the lure of getting away from the city (the memory of a hellishly long five-day Easter weekend was too much to bear), seeing a bit more of Australia and, for at least one of our group, the promise of locally made cheese to go with the wine! Right, sorry, back to the bus. 

Just a short drive away from our hostel we stopped at Rosemount and Lindeman’s Wines. At that point, I really don’t think I had entirely understood what I was in for. By the time we left – with a few bottles of wine in tow – around 12pm, we had already sampled about 10 wines, minimum three sips/gulps of each (otherwise apparently you don’t get an accurate gauge of what the grape tastes like, although personally, I think it’s a sales ploy. More sips = more inebriation = more transactions. Cunning) and the littlest member of our group was looking a tiny bit pie-eyed. And there are still at least three more cellar doors and four more hours of the tour to go. Could be an interesting day…

Views over Hunter Valley - All Aboard the Wine Bus - Alannafreestyle

This cellar door has been drunk, not by us!

After this, the day continued to unfold rapidly – moving from the cosy living-room-like Constable Estate cellar door with its mascot, Matilda the cow, trying incredibly rich cheese at The Smelly Cheese Shop, whirring speedily through the range at a cellar door whose name I fail to remember (perhaps due to the copious quantities of vino and breakneck serving pace of the sommellier), before ending up in, oh who knows where, sampling what seemed like some of the best bottles of the day although our judgment may have been impaired by that point. By the time we virtually tumbled out the bus door at the hostel, we were all a little bit worse for wear – especially one of the boys who had mysteriously been hit by full-on flu halfway through the afternoon.

Sunset at Hunter Valley - All Aboard the WIne Bus - Alannafreestyle

Another awesome photo for the Aussie Sunset Series

The question was, power on through the night (it was only about 5pm at this point) or crash out almost instantly? Power on through, of course, with an absolute disregard for the fact five of us were meant to be going horse riding the next morning. Hangover plus horses? Very ill-conceived plan. As it happened we were 1, hit by hangovers in the pub at approximately 9pm, which encouraged us to hit the hay at a ridiculously early hour and, 2, were greeted by torrential rain the next morning, which meant the horses (and ourselves) were let off the hook. Phew.

Propping up the bar - All Aboard the Wine Bus - Alannafreestyle

Hmmmm...what shall we drink now? Bartender!

The rest of the weekend passed by in a blur (some of it misty-rain-drenched fuzziness, and yes, some of it alcohol induced) and before we knew it, we were in our hire car, Maxi, and heading back towards Sydney musing over the things we’d learnt. Which included the following:

  • To us city kids, Hunter Valley is now to be known as ‘the wilderness’.
  • Chardonnay is the wine producers’ version of a practical joke
  • Soft cheese should never be served on sticks, like a savoury lollipop – however high-quality the fromage, it’s just wrong.
  • Just because a bottle of wine retails at $75, doesn’t mean it won’t feel like you’re drinking gravy, with a hint of red wine added for good measure.
  • Your grandparents’ favourite, Port, is actually pretty tasty, and may deserve more respect than it gets when being used as an ingredient in Cheeky Vimto.
  • We are most definitely visiting Hunter Valley again. Especially as Goon is not allowed there…

    No goon allowed - All Aboard the Wine Bus - Alannafreestyle

    We have STANDARDS and they must be maintained.

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That’s Life (in a Day)

I read this article this morning, and it made me think…

July 24th 2010. I can’t really remember what I was doing – probably something mundane, on a train from Brighton to London, shopping, drinking coffee, seeing friends, possibly working in fact. I know that exactly a month before that I was coming to the end of a 20-hour bus journey from Mancora to Lima. It was hot, I was exhausted, and I was on the third of four legs of a journey that was directing me home to the UK (where I wasn’t too keen to go). A month the other way, I was returning from an altogether different trip, still overheated and overtired – this time from an experience in and through the hottest summer Israel had seen in decades – and quite looking forward to getting home.

Come fly with me - That's Life (in a Day) - Alannafreestyle

I have a certificate - I can stay in South America forever / fly myself out of Israel's extreme heat

So if film directors Kevin Macdonald and Ridley Scott had asked me to document my life as it was on July 24th, for their project Life in a Day, by describing the things I love/ the things I fear/ what was in my pockets at that exact moment in time, I think I would have been a bit dismayed. The proud (and somewhat competitive) adventurer in me would have far preferred to show my life a month earlier or later, than display what I would consider the mundanities of daily life. I’d want to be able to say I:

(June) almost everything about South America: the people, the cultures, the history, the food and drink, the attitude…
(August) air con and ice-cold surfaces, plus my skin’s travel tan and all the stories of outdoor life and adventure behind it.

(June) the vague possibility of being abducted by the big friendly Colombian giant sitting next to me on the bus, who is berating me (in Spanish) for my failure to visit his country.
(August) the prospect of another grilling by El-Al security because the picture in my nine-year-old passport no longer looks like me (funny, that).

have in my pocket
(June) my well-stamped passport, a few Soles, my mood-enhancing/sleep-aiding iPod, and probably a small packet of wet-wipes (essential for long journeys in hot countries).
(August) the same things as June, but switch out the Soles for Shekels.

Cooling off with a can - That's Life (in a Day) - Alannafreestyle

At this moment, fear = dying of heat; love = ice-cold Coca Cola

But the point is, this isn’t everyday life for me (usually, although I was lucky enough for it to be for a little while) or most other people. In fact, what we might consider to be the boring elements of our lives could, for someone experiencing an utterly different existence on the other side of the world, prove fascinating (or worthy of ridicule – one or the other). Especially if it was woven together with narratives by other people, in all sorts of far-flung global locations, to form a snapshot of an average 24 hours on earth.

Life in a Day promo poster - Source - That's Life (in a Day) - Alannafreestyle

(Source - At the same time, half a world away...

Which is exactly what Kevin Macdonald’s 90-minute film, produced by Ridley Scott, sets out to do. It takes the best of 81,000 video submissions from individuals all over the world, and melds them together to form a beautiful patchwork of human experience – of a Life in a Day. I genuinely can’t wait to see it. I’m thinking it could be armchair travel at its best. Wonder if there will be a sequel? Quick! Plan something awesome for July 24th 2011! Or just start living in a way you would be happy to document…

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Live and Amplified: The Sydney Opera House Experience

What do you do on a rained-out Sunday evening in Sydney? Go to a gig at the Sydney Opera House of course. This weekend saw the launch of Vivid Live 2011, an annual event that puts the renowned piece of architecture at the centre of a fortnight of lights, cameras, action and live music. For me, and three of my most glamorous, fun-loving Aussie friends, this meant heading to the Armadillo-like building to spend the evening in the company of Australian synthpop stars, Cut/Copy, plus a couple of hundred music-loving strangers.

Vivid Live Sydney - Live and Amplified - Alannafreestyle

Lazer beams and brollies - the perfect scenario for a night in the Opera House

After running around Circular Quay in the middle of an unexpected downpour, dodging puddles (which somehow transferred themselves to the insides of my shoes, squelch) and weaving around inspiring light installations*, we skidded to a halt in awe (on my part, at least) in the foyer of the concert hall, where the arching beams of uplit concrete welcomed us to an evening of theatricality and all-round entertainment. Obviously Cut/Copy were the focus of our attention, but there were plenty of other things to keep us amused prior to their appearance, and even between songs. The rest of the gig-goers/ audience being the main point of interest.

Operatic scales - Live and Amplified - Alannafreestyle

Clever lighting makes the most of this extortionately over-budget building

People watching always amuses me, but in certain places or situations – such as live music venues – it’s particularly fascinating. This was no exception. From the moment we walked through the concert hall doors to our (annoyingly) fixed, allocated seating (kudos to Michelle for scoring such perfect placement though) it was clear this might be a bit of a strange scenario. Operatic venue + synth and electro fans = an unknown result.

This isn’t your average arena. Do you have to sit? Are you allowed to stand? Is your standing going to annoy the people around you? What about crazy dancing? Judging by some of the people around us, such as the guy with a rod up the back of his white shirt which was buttoned up to the collar, the four geeky guys a few rows behind us, all wearing striped tees and blank looks, and some of the older couples up in the balcony, the answers would be as follows: Sit down. Back straight. Stare blankly ahead of you. Show no emotion – not even a flicker. Do not even consider dancing – a slight head-nod to the beat is just about acceptable.

Unfortunately for them, we (and luckily most of the people around us) seemed to have a different copy of the rule book: Get up on your feet (ASAP). Stay standing. Smile, laugh, joke, whistle, cheer. Dance like no-one’s watching. Applaud all the other people who are doing the same thing as you – especially the ones with great style (immediate acquaintances excepted, lady in vintage red dress with sharp black bob, and Fifties-chic fella up on the balcony donning heavy black specs, bowtie and sweater vest, you won our votes).

And we followed these rules closely from the moment that the band walked through an oversized door on to the Jungle foliage-laden/ Club Tropicana-style stage; through the Carnivale atmosphere created by three Latin drummers; past the crazy saxophonist’s raised platform solo, which took things to an entirely new Eighties-kitsch level – matched only by lead singer Dan Whitford’s fantastically energetic and not-even-slightly-tongue-in-cheek power-arm pumps; via the gospel choir’s slightly subdued contribution; right along with crazy guitarist Tim Hoey as he clambered, monkeylike, onto the drum kit to add extra depth to the beat; all the way to the night’s all-too-soon finale. Whew. I don’t know about the band, or those people who somehow remained deadpan and glued to their seats, but we had a great time. To use a better, more locally acceptable phrase, it was awesome – especially considering I’d heard rumours that the acoustics inside the Opera House were actually really bad!

But then, as punishment for impeding the view of the people behind us (and perhaps for our ever-so-slightly judgmental whisperings about the folk at the gig with us), we got kicked out into the driving rain again and sent packing. Not before we took a little more time to gape at the light display on Customs House, though.


A vivid, live neon experience I will definitely be repeating – next time in its entirety – before it disappears in a couple of weeks. Just as soon as this Noah’s Ark weather has dispersed, that is.

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Good Sports

You know that stereotype that Australians love sports? It’s not a stereotype. It’s fact. Well, from my experience it is, anyway. Within the first few days of being in Sydney it was clear I had stepped into fitness fanatics territory; I think I have already described how, one lunchtime, walking through the Royal Botanic Gardens, I saw more runners/ boxers/ power-walkers/ bodybuilders than I had ever witnessed in my one-hour midday desk breakaways in London. At one point, I was convinced I’d inadvertently wandered onto a marathon course, and was going to get trampled to death before I’d even made it out of the State of NSW. Here, clearly, healthiness is a way of life for many residents. It’s like the bikini diet that never ends… which may be part of the reason that I said hello to a new gym membership this week. Although, really, that’s beside the point.

Marathon runners - Good Sports - Alannafreestyle

Similar to my view of Sydney's lunchtime runners: health-conscious is not the word

Because – personal fitness aside – Travel Bud and I have quickly realised that here, Sport is King. And there’s a LOT to choose from. Which is why we have undertaken a new course – Introductory Education to Australian Sports, aka going down to the pub/ nearest sports stadium with our Aussie and Kiwi boy mates, and learning (or re-learning) all we can about Aussie Rules (AFL), Rugby League (NRL) and Rugby Union – and that’s just for starters.

Aussie Rules football - Good Sports - Alannafreestyle

According to our mate Phil, the players' teeny-tiny uniforms will distract us girls from the actual rules... harsh (but maybe fair)

To begin with, Travel Bud Tracy has taken on the Aussie Rules Experience – her lessons started with a match last weekend in Melbourne – while I decided to go for a module in Rugby: A Re-education (it’s a sport I always liked watching, but whose rules I have always found a little…erm, misty?), by checking out a game between Kiwi housemate Al’s team, the Auckland Blues and the Stormers. It wasn’t a great intro, as the Blues lost, at which point there may, or may not have been some tears shed in the direction of a pint glass.

Rugby tears - Photo by Ervin Sarkisov - Good Sports - Alannafreestyle

Even rugby players (and fans) cry sometimes...

So far, so good. Until, last night, the PE lesson plan got a bit confused with the second rugby match of the week. Can someone please explain the difference between Rugby League and Union, without any biased comments such as ‘only meatheads play Union’ or vice versa. It’s not so helpful for a rookie, as it doesn’t really class as a rule… does it?!

We went round the corner to our local with our housemates to watch the first leg of the State of Origin – a three-part Rugby League grudge match between Queensland and NSW. I was a bit confused about why only these two teams participated, and wondered aloud to Aussie housemate Rob whether it was a bit like the Annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (only longer, and with more clashes). I got a bit of a ‘you’re such a POM’ look in response, followed by an explanation that League is only really played in these two states, as everyone else prefers Union… at least, I think that’s what I was told. Feel free to correct me. I vaguely nodded and peered into my schooner, decided to give up trying to understand and just watch the match. I think that was a good call.

Whatever the rules, whoever we were meant to be supporting (we kept forgetting it should be NSW as we’re living here), we were rewarded with an action-packed first-round game, with a full-on post-match punch up on the pitch! I think I could easily become a rugby fan. There’s the potential to become as addicted to this series of matches as I already am to the edge-of-the-seat pantomime entertainment Amazing Race Australia.

And I guess that if ever the match we’re watching becomes too dull, I’ll just resort to what Tracy was doing – staring in wonder at, and regularly commenting on, the size of the players’ thighs! What do you mean we’re not proper sports fans? It’s just another form of appreciation…

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Sunrise, Sunset: a growing obsession?

While I have known for quite some time that I have a slight, shall we say interest in good light, and documenting moments that stand out – the sun hitting a sandstone building early in the morning, turning it to a oversized glowing gold ingot; the play of light and shadow cast by clouds, looming architecture and people on the pavements beneath your feet; the way that whole scenes – even the most depressing landscapes – can be utterly transformed by a single shard of playful, glimmering sunlight – I think I am now, officially, a little obsessed.

Golden building, London – Sunrise, Sunset: a growing obsession - Alannafreestyle

Even a council block (seen from a train window) can work the sunkissed look...

At least it’s not in a vampiric mustn’t-see-the-light-of-day, hide-yourself-in-a-locked-room sort of way. It’s more of a growing desire to capture as many moody, atmospheric or evocatively lit photos of people and places as I can. And the most obvious example of this, is the Sunset Series. Why not give it a name? This particular collection has been growing for years, due to living in an end-of-terrace hill-top house in Brighton, with a side window overlooking the sea. It made for an instant-photo opportunity every single evening. I’m sure I have enough images of the sun dipping down over the sea to give a large Swedish homeware store an extensive catalogue of pre-printed ‘nature’ canvases for years to come.

Sunset, Brighton – Sunrise, Sunset: a growing obsession - Alannafreestyle

The view that launched a thousand photos... Home sweet sunsetty home

And I’m not done yet. Not even nearly. I’m getting competitive! With each new image posted by friends around the world on Facebook, I get picture envy. Luckily, every new country + fresh landscapes = plenty more Kodak moments to come…

From my old London haunts…

London at dusk - Sunrise, Sunset: a growing obsession - Alannafreestyle

London's turning tides - dusk and the city

…to the Chilean desert

Desert sunset, Chile - Sunrise, Sunset: a growing obsession - Alannafreestyle

South American night buses have their benefits - big windows and panoramic views

…to a beautiful, near-deserted beach front in Mancora, Peru.

Mancora beach, Peru, at sunset – Sunrise, Sunset: a growing obsession - Alannafreestyle

One of my favourite places in the world: Mancora beach, Peru

But you know you’ve maybe gone a little too far chasing the sun when your camera gives up the ghost; it lays itself to rest because it can’t take any more of the sun blindness that’s being inflicted on it on a regular basis. That’s what mine did, anyway. It took one look at the Australian sun, made a pathetic little whining noise, and decided to engage in a routine of overexposure to protest at its harsh treatment. That’s gratitude for you – show a loved one something new, and it throws it back in your face! So now I have a case of cameraphoneitis. The Palm seems to be enjoying the attention, though, if the Aussie Sunset Series is anything to go by.

Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunset - Sunrise, Sunset: a growing obsession - Alannafreestyle

Bridging the gap between day and night - dusk in Sydney Harbour

Sydney CBD at sunset - Sunrise, Sunset: a growing obsession - Alannafreestyle

View from the top - bats and buildings from Bounce hotel roof terrace, Sydney

I wonder what colourful delights wait this evening, as the sun goes down on another working week. Maybe I’ll get another view like this delicious one? We can only hope so…

Sunset in Sydney office - Sunrise, Sunset: a growing obsession - Alannafreestyle

The text says it all.

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Pick ‘n’ Mix: why Aussie fruit farms aren’t for me

Since we got to this sunny land there have been many conversations about fruit picking: whether to hit the fields to extend our visas for an extra year, whether it’s worth the pain and poor pay, where to go to find a farmer who’ll sign your visa documentation off for a small fee (without having to set foot in an orchard) and, finally, why we decided (for now, anyway) not to bother with manual labour.

Orange Tree - Pick 'n' Mix - Alannafreestyle

You know when you've been Tangoed

So it was a surprise to me when, today, I got a taster of the life I could be living… Yup, there’s a mini orchard outside work, owned by the gym next door. All the trees are bowing under the weight of fresh oranges, and we’ve been invited to take as many of the organic treats as we wish! You don’t have to offer a backpacker free things twice. After the effort it took to get those golden globes down from the heady heights of the trees – think four girls, one battling a branch, another pulling the leaves out of the way, the third shouting directions to ‘twist and pull! twist and pull!’, while the fourth almost fell on the floor laughing – those oranges tasted all the sweeter!

It hasn’t changed my mind about Fruit Picking: The Extended Version, though. It took long enough to prise three zesty spheres from the grips of a not-very-tall tree. I don’t rate my chances of ever getting paid on a farm – I’d never manage to fill a glass with juice, let alone a basket with fruit…

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Sydney: A Place to Call Home

It’s funny how Lady Luck can switch your mood around so fast. One minute you’re down and out, dragging your feet along the backstreets of a city you don’t really know, a little lost and trying to lift yourself with a bit of retail therapy, and the next you’re practically hopping-skipping-and-jumping along like a kangaroo on acid, overexcited by a piece of good news which triggers a flow of all-consuming positivity. Yes, the gem of energy-boosting information in question came wrapped up in an SMS inbox, with a shiny ribbon of text telling me that as of this weekend we would no longer be ‘homeless’!

Pacing the pavements - Sydney streets – Alannafreestyle

Head down, studying the sidewalk

I don’t think I’ve had such an instant, inexplicable adrenline boost since I got my degree classification yelled at me unexpectedly down the phone from 1,200 miles away. Needless to say, I was up and running towards our temporary hostel home, to share the better-than-good news with Travel Bud, as fast as you could say ‘Hey! you haven’t paid for those shoes…!’

Thankfully, the Fates decided they’d had enough fun testing the limits of our patience, and put us (and everyone around us, who’d been asking for constant updates on the househunt) out of our misery with the offer of two rooms (our OWN rooms! The novelty!) in a house share in lovely, trendy Paddington. The dream is still alive and kicking! And the relief is palpable. Of course, our little high took us immediately to the nearest bottle shop, where a bottle of celebratory wine was purchased to drink on the roof terrace of the flashpackers hostel we shall no longer be calling home.

View from the top - Bounce Sydney - Sydney: A Place to Call Home - Alannafreestyle

The rooftop terrace at Bounce - a place and a view we WILL miss

Thinking about it now, I may miss our little Surry Hills travel community a little, tiny, bit… Oh, ok, quite a lot! Still plenty of time left for backpacking again later in the year, though, when we’re not working and dorm living will be a novelty once more. Until then, the only travel directions we need are to the nearest Ikea!

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