Thursday, December 31, 2009

The End of 2009

It was, as expected, a quiet Christmas Day for us. We enjoyed a great lunch of oysters, tiger prawns and bar b q’d Atlantic salmon washed down with some French champagne and my last bottle of Margan 2005 Limited Release Semillon. This was followed up by plum pudding for me and sticky date pudding for the co driver. As a result of this over indulgence we opted out of dinner that night and hit the sack early.
We swapped the usual swag of best wishes phone calls with friends during the day. But apparently no one in codriverland has yet to come to grips with the fact that we celebrate almost a day earlier than they do so all was quiet on the eastern front.

The week before Christmas, a category 5 cyclone ‘Laurence’ made its presence felt on the north west coast of Western Australia. It made landfall on the sparsely populated Pilbara Coast Region doing a fair bit of damage to the small communities in its path with wind gusts of up to 285km/h and almost 250mm of rain.
The good news was that once on land this weather system developed into a huge trough that spread across the continent and had the weather pundits predicting 200-300mm rainfall spreading from the red centre across the parched inland of New South Wales and to the coast. Emergency services were put on stand by due to the likelihood of major flooding.

The rain started here about lunchtime on Christmas Day and didn’t stop until 3 days later. But unfortunately we had only around 60mm. Not that we weren’t grateful for one of the best Christmas presents we could wish for but that relatively small amount produced absolutely no run off so our dam problems remain. At least the house tanks are full and the grass has turned a little greener. And we have another new calf!
The wine talk for the Rotarians went OK and I got a few relevant questions afterwards. I noticed only one sleeper during the thirty minutes. Hopefully this has encouraged a few more locals to turn up to the Wine Show public tasting in January.
We are still getting down the beach most days despite the rain and enjoying the surfing.
Summertime and the living is easy!
So New Year’s Eve is upon us. Might just have to find a special bottle of red to go with a nice lump of medium rare beef. Am sure there is one (or two) hidden away somewhere.
All the best to everyone for 2010.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A December Update

Again the weather dominates our thoughts. Still no decent rain to speak of. The latest figures show 80.8 per cent of the state of New South Wales is drought-declared, up from 73.6 per cent in October, with 14.8 per cent considered marginal.
The vines are now starting to suffer. Leaf yellowing is occurring in the shallower parts of the rows. I notice that a near neighbour’s vineyard is also showing the same affects.
The veggie garden is also struggling and we are now on subsistence irrigation having decided to keep any spare water for the cattle as the main dam is almost dry now.
We have been swimming and surfing most days. The ocean is warm enough for a 30 minute dip and the beaches are still relatively deserted. It is obvious that the first influx of tourists (‘touros’ in local speak) has arrived. Town is much busier. Private schools have already broken up and the public ones will follow in a week’s time. It won’t be long until the area fills up with holidaymakers most of whom stay until the end of January. The population of our area quadruples over the summer holiday break. Not only does this cause some traffic chaos but prices for most things generally rise and it does put some strain on the local infrastructure. I notice that the local council has already put out mobile signs on the highway warning of the severe water restrictions that are currently in place in the Shoalhaven.
So soon it will be time to head on into the supermarket around 7am to avoid the manic queues and get to the beach early to avoid the crowds.
I know "we" need the money that the tourists bring in but it sure does cause disruption to our quiet lives.
Other than that, plans for the 2010 South Coast Wine Show in January are well in hand. We have two new judges this year in addition to our regular chairman. Both are women which will add a new aspect to the assessment of the wines offered for evaluation.

Both the co driver and I are a bit ambivalent about Christmas. We always talk about getting a tree but don’t, the house is sometimes minimally decorated but mostly not and we really don’t do presents for each other any more although we still do for close family. We usually send out Christmas cards but even this was a point of discussion this year. Why? I don’t really know. Maybe it’s my Scottish heritage where my father always considered Hogmanay more of a celebration, or coming from a one child family where Christmas was always a small quiet relaxed affair. Just maybe we think it’s mainly a kids’ thing or it’s because we live a relaxed quiet lifestyle and any special holidays just meld into our normal day to day lives.
But in an effort to get into the ‘spirit’ we purchased a couple of Christmas cups for our tea (guess which one is mine) as well as some serviettes. I think that may be well it.

And of course the co driver has found a station with 24 hour Christmas music on satellite radio which is nice but I do wonder how songs about snow, sleighs and freezing your butt off are relevant to the southern hemisphere at this time of year.
Anyway, we attended the annual valley get together where it’s a chance to catch up with all our neighbours en masse rather than chance meetings on the road or the occasional visit to trade wine for fruit, eggs, honey, fish etc. or to help up with some task eg. dead calf removal.
We had the usual fun time with everyone copping their fair share of ribbing. Winning Trainer Bob (as defacto mayor of our little community) tried to get some issues settled eg. naming our private road as an ID aid for visitors, deliveries and tradesmen as well as bridge maintenance. But as usual his efforts were in vane when discussions segued to Jarrod's (a neighbour's 3 yo) swimming lessons. He said he would try again next year.
And I am giving a talk to fifty local Rotarians about grapegrowing, winemaking and wine tasting and food matching next week. This was a last minute arrangement which necessitated getting the brain out of neutral but I am sure I can bluff my way through.
So here's wishing all my readers a Happy Christmas wherever in the world you may be.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Weekend in Sydney

We drove the three and half hours north to Sydney on the Friday morning arriving in the CBD around lunchtime. Although I have spent a great deal of my life in this city, 25 years or so, the more I visit now the less I like it. Don't get me wrong, it's an exciting place with lots to see and do and nowhere else in the world has such a stunning harbour setting. But living a relatively isolated lifestyle on the quiet south coast near a town with only one set of traffic lights is quite a contrast to the hustle and bustle of being at close quarters with four and half million other people, most of whom seem to wanting to get to the same place at the same time.
We had set our hearts on a lunch of steamed Chinese dumplings at Sky Phoenix but the restaurant was closed due to considerable renovations of the Centre Point Tower complex.
So we walked a little and ended up on one of the streets near the famous shopping area of the Queen Victoria Building where we found an excellent Japanese restaurant for one of their lunch boxes, which is a sampling of everything good to eat, Japanese. And there were only another two or three westerners in there which was also a good sign.
Then the co driver and I parted ways so she could do her shopping, book shop and Rocks Night Markets thing and I picked up the daughter and we headed to the Sydney Fish Markets for a cooking school class. They had been closed for quite a while refurbishing the school. What a difference! The lecture room had been modernised with three overhead cameras with large screens so you got a close up of what the demonstrator was doing plus comfortable tiered seating and desks. And the walls had been covered in Atlantic salmon skins cut to the size of house bricks and painted sea blue. Very effective. The student cooking stations were all shiny stainless steel and had the latest equipment. After preparing the meals, we moved to a restaurant style room over looking the harbour to eat them. Apart from learning new things about the handling of seafood, we cooked garlic prawns, pippies in white wine sauce with basil and coriander and fried garfish fillets with salsa verde plus a salad. This was all washed down with a bottle of Rioja Crianza (100% Tempranillo) from Spain.
Next morning we all headed for Chowder Bay on the harbour's north side for brunch at Ripples.
Originally the centre of the Sydney whaling industry in the early 1800's, a mooring for the American whaling fleet and later as a restricted federal defence area, the bay has been given back to the people. Nothing better than sitting outside on the restaurant deck looking over the harbour back towards Sydney city on a clear bright morning. And the food is great too!
That afternoon the co driver and the daughter headed for the Observatory Hotel in the Rocks area of Sydney and a day spa.
I spent the afternoon alone flicking between two cricket games on TV between Australia and the West Indies in Brisbane and New Zealand and Pakistan in Dunedin. Both were pretty exciting.
That night we drove a short distance to North Sydney for a middle eastern meal at Safi.
We decided to have the banquet. A few hours later after 15 courses plus coffee we rolled out of there and headed for bed.
Next morning, after breakfast, we hit the road for home. A great weekend away!
Sadly on arrival I found the calf I had been nurturing for a few months had died. He seemed fine when we left and I was even considering returning him and his mother to the herd.
But the very next day there was a new one in the lower paddock so hopefully our run of bad luck with new borns has ended.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A November Update

The month has been all about the weather.......again. The southern part of the continent has been subjected to some of the hottest November weather on record. Adelaide in South Australia had its longest spring heatwave since records began in 1887, with eight consecutive days of more than 35 deg C.
The heatwave extended into Victoria and New South Wales with Sydney's average maximum temperature over 40 deg C during the third week of the month making it the city's hottest November day in 27 years. Added to all this were hundreds of bush fires breaking out all over the heat affected country.
While Melbourne's hot weather ended with a huge storm that dumped 55mm of rain (their November average) in 12 hours, we have had none.

This weather is a result of El Nino and is indicated by sustained negative values of the Southern Oscillation Index (SIO). These negative values are usually accompanied by sustained warming of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, a decrease in the strength of the Pacific Trade Winds, and a reduction in rainfall over eastern and northern Australia.
Our main concern is the state of our dams for watering the cattle. This is becoming more critical as the 'big dry' continues but we are set up to divert water from our house tanks to enable us to trough water them. As they each drink 25 to 30L/day this of course puts pressure on our reserves so despite having more than enough for our domestic needs, we are once again applying 'restrictions' to have as much spare water as possible should it be needed. It is possible to buy water by the tanker load but we would like to avoid this considerable expense if possible. This is a part of our country life that bemuses some of our 'city' friends who think water continuously appears with a turn of a tap, no matter how much you use.
Apart from all that, the grapevines are enjoying the warm dry weather and we have been able to reduce the necessity of fungal sprays considerably.
The remaining 2009 vintage in the tanks is progressing well. The Cabernet Sauvignon seems to have a little more body than normal which is probably due to the grapes being that little more ripe resulting in a higher alcohol level. The Pinot Noir which I had given up on due to the development of a distinctive "sherry" nose (the result of oxidation) seems to have recovered. Dedicated Pinot winemakers will tell you this can happen and to be patient, all will be well. I was, up until now, a sceptic. So looks like we will be bottling these two after Christmas to make way for the 2010 vintage.
Our vege garden is progressing well despite the heat and the dry. For the time being we are 'allocating' irrigation water from our domestic stash.
We went beach fishing one day with Neighbour Bob and the co-driver in her first attempt at the this outshone us both with a good catch.
We caught good sized Australian Salmon which aren't really salmon at all but members of the Arripidae family. Early European settlers thought they looked like the northern hemisphere salmon hence the name. To my mind they are strongly flavoured, coarse and have a slightly oily flesh that makes them less than desirable as a food fish. But they put up one hell of a fight when caught so they are a great sports fish. We always throw back what we don't need for that night's meal despite there being no bag limit.
It looks like I may have to invest in some additional gear to keep the new fisherperson happy.
We have taken our first tentative dip in the surf. Cool but not painful. I think we lasted twenty minutes. The good news here is that the water temperature has increased by one degree in the last month. So it's all systems go for December.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bush Fire Aftermath

It's been about ten weeks now since bush fires ravaged the countryside around us. We had only a glimpse of the damage that had been done before we left for the USA. As we headed out for our long roundabout trip to Sydney airport back in August we were confronted by the smoking remnants of the fire that had burnt through the Meroo National Park right on our doorstep.
However on our return we had time to absorb the enormity of the desolation. Thousands of hectares of state forest, national park and private property had been devastated. The two major fires had burnt from the mountains to the west of us to the beach. It was only luck and the skill of the Rural Fire Service that protected dwellings and prevented any loss of life.
In the forests just the gum trees, the eucalypts, have been left standing. The entire understorey is gone. In the coastal heath there is nothing. Just blackened sticks.
But Australia is the driest continent on earth with a high incidence of fire so many plant species have adapted to this over the millenniums.
Take Eucalypts for instance. Many species possess lignotubers. These are a woody swelling at the base of the stem which contain buds and food reserves. They develop new shoots rapidly after fire. The lignotubers are usually accompanied by epicormic buds located within the bark which cause the familiar sight of red shoots springing from a blackened trunk.
We are beginning to see this!
Many species however don't have this feature and rely on bark thickness or a heat reflective or absorbent bark to resist fire. However an intense fire will often kill these species. But the death of the tree accelerates seed shed and those together with that shed in the years before, and kept dormant by low light, will suddenly spring to life. This is a result of the enhanced nutrition of the seed bed and the reduced canopy shading, both caused by the fire.
Lignotubers are also evident in many shrubs and small trees of the Proteaceae eg. Banksia sp., Casuarinaceae and Leguminosae to name a few. But unfortunately the majority of understorey plants in our region will have to rely on seed regeneration.
Banksia ericifolia for instance are killed outright by fire and the recovery of the species depends on the accelerated seed shed a fire induces. It has been found that seeds are released earlier and quicker from cones exposed to high fire temperature. If the fire is followed by periods of good rainfall, a very large proportion of seed will germinate. So while we have had some rain and there is some evidence of ground cover regeneration activity, we will need a lot more to see the forest return to its previous condition.
From other areas near us that have been fire devastated in the past, it seems that it takes about five years for the bush to return to "normal" with the only evidence of fire being random blackened tree trunks under the green/blue canopy of leaves.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

American History

History was always a bit of a boring subject when I went to school. Lots of dates and incidents to memorise, list of kings and queens to be learnt by heart and names of lots of people to remember.
Then in my final year I had a teacher who broke the mould and began to tell us about what caused those date/incidents to happen, what actually happened and what the result(s) of all that was immediately and into the future. And suddenly for me history became a less of a chore. It was Samuel Eliot Morison who said that history could be read for pleasure, James Parton who argued that historical writing need not be encyclopedic and A.J. Langguth who considered it high praise when his historical non fiction was said ‘to read like a novel’.
So what is all this about?
I had been a regular visitor to the USA since 1969 but mainly as a tourist. In the greater part of the last decade however, I have spent longer periods of time there and lived like a resident. Living a day to day life in one place is certainly much different from just passing through seeking out tourist icons. And when you have time on your hands, as a househusband does (foreigners are not allowed to work), you tend to be more observant of what is going on around you and you begin to wonder why things are the way they are.
At school, American history was limited to a cursory look at Columbus, the Pilgrims, War of Independence, Civil War and the expansion westward (the latter aided and abetted by Hollywood during Saturday afternoon matinees). British and European history, even at the expense of Australian, was considered more important. The fact that the American War of Independence was a major factor in the settlement of Australia was never fully appreciated. Where else was England to send her unwanted felons after losing her North American colonies? If it were not for that event, we might all be speaking French in Australia right now.
But I digress.

So I was on the look out for books that would not only describe and explain American historical events but would be entertaining as well. Certainly there are multiple shelves of American history books at places like Barnes & Noble, Borders etc. so it made choosing a little difficult. As with most things now, information on the Internet proved invaluable. Sifting through numerous book reviews narrowed down the field considerably.
So starting with the War of Independence I can pass on a few of the books that I have enjoyed and recommend not only as historically interesting but also as "a good read".
Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution by A.J. Langguth. This looks at the Revolution through the eyes of the major players who took part in it and approaches the subject as a story. It finishes in 1783 with George Washington returning to Mt. Vernon in the hope of a peaceful retirement.
Union 1812 by the same author continues that story with Washington’s return to public life and the events that lead to America’s second war of independence, the War of 1812. Again it is a story of all the major players; Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Madison et al. plus those who fought the battles. Mrs. Madison also scores a chapter.

This period produced a significant event in American history, the Louisiana Purchase.
Jefferson’s Great Gamble by Charles A. Cerami is an entertaining story of 30 months of "high drama, blandishment, posturing and secret manoeuvres of some of the most powerful and crafty men of their time" involved in the Purchase. One million square miles for four cents an acre must be one of the best real estate deals of all time.
Another fascinating story of the time is the exploration of the Louisiana Territory via the Missouri River, Rocky Mountains to the west coast by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark under instructions from Thomas Jefferson.
The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Volumes 1-3) edited by Elliot Coues is a detailed account. This may be a bit hard going for all but the affectionado but there is an excellent abridged version of their diaries, The Journals of Lewis & Clark by Bernard DeVoto.
Add to this the PBS DVD of Ken Burn’s Lewis & Clark - The Journey of the Corps of Discovery and you’ll have more information about this epic journey than you know what to do with. And some of the photography in the DVD is stunning. You can tell I am a fan of this particular story!

Apparently the American Civil War has had more books written about it than any other subject in the English speaking world. This is again clear from the amount of work on the bookshelves. Shelby Foote’s Civil War: A Narrative seemed an obvious choice but three volumes with a million and a half words on three thousand pages was a bit daunting.
I chose Battle Cry of Freedom by James A. McPherson. This Pulitzer Prize winner not only covers the military aspects of the war in enough detail, but also describes the complex economic, political, and social forces behind the conflict. And in only 900 pages!
Look Away! By William C. Davis is a fascinating insight into the social, political and military aspects of the Confederacy before, during and after the conflict.
And finally, following on from that, is The State of Jones by Sally Henkins and John Stauffer, a story of Union resistance in the State of Mississippi during the war. This is a controversial book that has some debating whether it is fact or fiction. But the main character aside, it does give a picture of what the deep south was like particularly post war during Reconstruction, the reasons for it and maybe why some attitudes exist there even to this day.
So we are slowing working our way up through the decades. Still a long way to go but it is sure to be worth while persevering.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

An October Update

October has been all about the weather. Rain and more rain. Not heavy but steady although regretfully not enough. About 100mm in total, but it has been slowly filling up the water table and turning the grass green. No runoff as yet so the dams are still not in a good state but the spring is again running.
It was also unseasonably cold for Spring. We had the fire going most evenings for the first half of the month which is unusual.
We have been full steam ahead with some long delayed in-house projects as well as getting our vegetable garden prepared, this year with irrigation installed to see us through until Autumn. We finally got lettuce, rocket, chillies, capsicum, zucchinis, shallots and 3 different types of tomato planted.
The grape vines are looking ok although about ten 15 year old Cabernet Sauvignon vines at the shallower end of the vineyard have been very slow to shoot due to the drought conditions. I finally succumbed to some temporary irrigation via a water weeper hose. This is made from 60% recycled rubber and is very porous letting the water seep out at a regulated rate along its whole 15m length. It seems to operate well despite the lower water pressure (gravity feed) from one of the water tanks. Will be interesting to see how those particular vines react to the additional moisture given that we have now been having considerably warmer weather.
The Semillon, Tempranillo and Pinot Noir have shot fairly evenly, albeit it extremely early, and are all in flower.
They had their first fungicide spray in the third week which was later than normal due to the wet weather and I was concerned that a primary infection of downy mildew might have been apparent.
But nothing.
When I went to buy some downy curative spray, 600g/L phosphorous acid, from the local agent they were out of stock due to other growers buying up more than normal quantities due to the longer wet spell. But maybe they didn't need it after all.
Other than that, we are waiting to get back into the surfing again. The water temperature is not too conducive at the moment at a coolish 18 deg C. In fact it was so cold that the powers that be called off the open water swim at the recent Masters Games in Sydney (13 deg C!) much to the disappointment of the many athletes who have travelled from all over the world to participate. But the warm current (the yellow) seems to be heading down our way according to the CSIRO.
Looks like we left South Dakota just in time. They had snow there the week after we left. From the looks of the already parched country around us and the predictions of the weather experts, it will be a dry and hot season coming. Farmers in our area have been granted special water rights and rates to keep them going through this unprecedented dry period. And I noticed during my last weekly boundary fence inspection that the red bellied black snakes are out and about; so that's a sure sign that Summer is just around the corner!
We have about 2 months of quiet left before the tourist invasion of the area starts so we are going to savour every minute of that.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Bridges of Madison County

In 1992 Robert James Waller wrote a short novel called "The Bridges of Madison County" which was subsequently made into a film a few years later by Clint Eastwood, starring himself and Meryl Streep. The book has sold an amazing 50 million copies world wide. An epilogue titled "A Thousand Country Roads" was written by the author in 2002 following much pressure from readers demanding a sequel.
The story is set in and around the small town of Winterset in Iowa and is a narrative about love and choices and consequence. I really like the film but up until now had never read the book.
We visited the area for a day from Indianola, IA.
There were originally twenty covered bridges but only 5 remain (plus one replica). The bridges were covered by order of the county board of supervisors to help preserve the flooring timbers which were more expensive to replace than the timber covering the sides and the roof. Most of the construction work was done by farmers to pay their poll taxes. The bridges were usually named for the nearest resident.

The Imes Bridge is the oldest remaining covered bridge built in 1870. It was first located over Middle River near Patterson but has been moved a number of times ending up east of St. Charles in 1997.

The Holliwell bridge was built in 1880 by Benton Jones and is located over the Middle River just southeast of Winterset. It is the longest of bridges measuring 122 feet. The interior is a good example of the intricacy of the timber work that is a feature of all the bridges.

The Cutler- Donohue bridge was moved from its original position over the North River near Bevington to Winterset City Park in 1970.
Winterset has another claim to fame.
It was the birthplace of John Wayne and his small four roomed house is open for tours and has a large collection of the actor's memorabilia.
We liked Winterset and its surrounds. The county has a population of around 14,500 and is set in a rolling terrain with wooded hills, small streams and rivers as well as corn and bean fields. The town lives off the film's popularity but the day we were there it was quiet and sleepy. The courthouse which sits in the middle of town is quite impressive. It was constructed in 1876 from the limestone of the area with the dome rising 122 feet above the central square.
The Northside Cafe, in existence since 1876, is the restaurant in the film where Robert Kincaid stops for coffee and offers Lucy Redfield a stool. The cafe is popular with film buffs and there were few in there taking photos. You can still take a seat where Clint Eastwood sat - it's the fourth stool from the front of the restaurant.
Unfortunately the cafe lives on that reputation rather than that of its food but it was fun to be there.
We explored the small town, had good coffee and found a second hand bookstore overflowing with bargains. I picked up a copy of the novel in pristine condition. The co-driver also found an apparently famous store in the quilting world, Fons and Porters.
The Hogback bridge is in its original position in a lovely valley just northwest of the town. Hogback gets its name from the limestone ridge which forms the west end of the valley. By this time the dust of the limestone back roads had covered our red car in a thick white layer. This turned out to be the norm and most cars we saw parked in the main street or on the country roads were similarly affected. Sorry Mr. Enterprise but we really did have to go off the tarmac to see everything.
The Roseman bridge has been in the same location since 1883. This is the best known bridge and played a prominent role in both film and book. The interior is covered in graffiti from romantics from all over the world. This is the bridge Robert Kincaid is looking for when he stops at Francesca Johnson's for directions. It is also where Francesca leaves her note inviting him to dinner. Also known as the "haunted" bridge, Roseman is where two sheriff's posses trapped a county jail escapee in 1892. Uttering a wild cry, it is said the man rose up straight through the roof of the bridge and disappeared. He was never found, and it was decided that anyone capable of such a feat must be innocent.
This was a most enjoyable day with the warm late summer weather making things even better.
I am glad we took the time to visit the area, basically on a whim, and were so well rewarded.
I have now read the book and was quite amazed how closely the film script adapted by Richard LaGravenese from the novel follows the original story. I guess when you are on a good thing.....
And as pure coincidence, the movie was running on our "Movie Greats" channel when we returned to Australia. Of course we watched it again.
And she still didn't get out of the truck!!!!!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

USA 2009 / Part 2

We crossed the border into Iowa a few hours after leaving Elkton, SD and it was good to see the Missouri River again and drive through our old haunts of Sioux City and environs. We turned east on the I680 and headed in the direction of Des Moines. Looking for a place for lunch we came across the small town of Walnut in the wonderfully named Pottawattamie County. The town was designated as Iowa's Antique City in 1987 and there are more than 15 separate antique shops in this town of 900 people. But none are open on Mondays. However Aunt B's cafe' was open and she does a mean burger with fries and great rhubarb pie (with ice cream of course). And any town where tractors pull into the main street parking spaces among the cars is ok by me.

After a slight detour to the town of Adel (for a quilt shop visit, naturally) with its wonderful county courthouse, we arrived at our destination of Indianola just south of Des Moines for a two night stay. Our B&B was on acreage outside this thriving agricultural centre and we saw white tail deer feeding on the lawn and smelt a skunk outside our bedroom window during the night. There was a really good Mexican restaurant in town and as well as a cafe', Winn, run by the son of Vietnamese refugee whose only concession to his ethnic cuisine was egg rolls (Chả giò or spring rolls). Otherwise it was steak and pizza and an excellent salad bar. After three weeks in the mid west you can see were were starting to crave some genuine Asian food.

Next day we headed for Madison County (see separate post) and the Summerset Winery. The latter was the first winery in Iowa and we were warmly welcomed and encouraged to try all their wines. They grow nine varieties of American native and French hybrid grapes on their 12 acres. Most of the wine produced is semi sweet. The whites are far better than the reds, which due to the short growing season are quite thin and acidic. But it was interesting to get another slant on wine growing particularly in a very cold climate area which is so different to ours.
Next day we headed east on Highway 92 (I like avoiding the Interstates where possible) and took a small detour on the advice of our B&B host. Crossing the dam wall of Lake Red Rock which holds back the Des Moines River on its way south to the Mississippi, we arrived in Pella. This is a town with a long Dutch heritage of which they are justly proud. Founded in 1847 by immigrants escaping religious persecution in their homeland, the town has a distinct Dutch look about it and development of this theme has been done with great taste.
It was also the childhood home of Wyatt Earp and the now home of the Pella Corporation, a large manufacturer of windows and doors. We enjoyed a longer than expected stop here to enjoy the Glockenspiel, a walk around town, some old and interesting architecture and some really good coffee. I window shopped the many bakeries but resisted!
Next stop were the Amana Colonies which are a group of settlements of the radical German Pietists who fled religious persecution in Germany around 1842. They originally set up a community in New York State, eventually arriving in Iowa in 1854. The area in the Iowa River valley comprises seven villages. Often mistaken as Amish, these people lived a very strict communal and religious life until the 1930's when the reality of their critical economic situation brought on by the Great Depression forced them to rationalise their lifestyle.
We found the Colonies to be a little disappointing. It was hard to find anything culturally significant but rather commercial enterprises willingly gouging the tourist dollar. And despite their German heritage, we ate what would have to be the worst pseudo German food I have ever tasted. Luckily Annie's B&B in Amana village was one of the better places we have stayed in.
Back in South Dakota we started making our final rounds of visits. I had an afternoon's gambling at the local casino with my gambling buddy, Lisa. The winnings paid for some quilting supplies. And Karen and Emmet went with us one night to a Bingo session. We had fun but only one of us had any success albeit pretty small. Emmett has a unique way of growing tomatoes ie. upside down in buckets. We will try this at home this year.
He also has a barn filled with the some of the cheapest lucerne (alfalfa) hay I have come across. One seventh of the price I pay. To say I had hay envy was a understatement.
There is also a pretty silo on his property which is fairly typical of those in the area.

The area around Trent, Flandreu and Brookings where we mainly hang out is from our point of view, flat. Think the aircraft buzzing scene from "North By NorthWest". The main crops are soy beans and corn. Thousands of hectares stretching as far as the eye can see.
As Autumn approached the bean fields started to turn yellow and the corn started to dry out. The roads were beginning to fill up with combine harvesters and big trucks taking the grain to the elevators at the many railheads or to the ethanol plants. This disturbed the resident deer who frequent the fields in great numbers so one had to be very careful travelling the country back roads at night.
Soon it was time to head back to Minneapolis for our flight home. We made a short overnight detour to the Mall of America in Bloomington but I think we were shopped out. It took us only 3 hours to cover the biggest shopping mall in the USA and spend $37.
The flight home was uneventful. One hundred percent full and cramped did not make for the most comfortable journey so we were glad to reach Sydney twenty four hours later, pick up our car and head for home. On a sombre note, while driving along one of Sydney's major roads, a car coming way too fast in wet conditions in the other direction spun out on a curve, mounted the median strip and literally flew towards us. How we missed it or it missed us, I will never know. I just managed to squeeze between it as it landed and a parked car with centimeters to spare.
I think we are lucky to be still here!
The day we arrived back, Ulladulla had 60mm rain. This was basically the only rain in the area since we left. All looked pretty brown and dry as we drove in. However follow up rain in the last week is changing the landscape dramatically. Apart from the huge blackened burnt out areas around us, a green carpet is beginning to form. The vines are looking healthy and despite the loss of some condition the cattle are not looking too bad.
So now it's back to work!

Monday, October 05, 2009

USA 2009 / Part 1

So it was welcome back to the land of driving on the wrong side, upside down light switches, people driving with mobile phones stuck in their ears, huge meal servings, tipping and cheap petrol. Our three days in Minneapolis were taken up with the Minnesota State Fair, book and clothes shopping and catching up with some of our favourite fast food outlets and restaurants eg. Chipotle, Coldstone Ice Cream and of course, Caribou coffee.
After picking up our hire car (thanks for the free upgrade, Enterprise!), we drove immediately to the park and ride station for the fair. What a great service. Ten minutes by free bus to the front gate.

The fair was above expectation. Reminded me of what the Sydney Easter Show used to be like. Apart from the carnival area (Midway) and the ‘terrible’ fair food there were great livestock, agricultural and horticultural displays, wonderful arts and crafts exhibits, live entertainment catering to all tastes and a smattering of less artery clogging food to eat.
There was even a Christmas Tree competition and the Minnesota Grape Growers Association had an impressive display with featured vineyards, tastings and lectures during the day.

We solved the mystery of Australian Battered Potatoes that we had seen advertised on the fair web site. They turned out to be our potato scallops (a fries substitute at fish and chips shops) but with the added 'incentive' of being either smothered in melted cheese or the choice of dipping sauces. The stand seemed very popular.

We spent most of the day there but passed on the deep fried onion flower, third of a pound of bacon marinated in maple syrup and deep fried (on a stick), deep fried Snicker bars and the 2kg (64 oz.) bucket of fries. Grilled brats and Summit beer were more to our liking.

I loved the corn exhibition. Ears of corn up for prizes! I never did find out what the criteria for awards were but there were lots of entries and the judging seemed quite intense. The portrait of Barack Obama made from various grains, better known as crop art, was a highlight.

It was also great to catch up with Cindy too, share a bottle of wine or two and a laugh or six.
Then it was off south to Sioux Falls, SD and surrounds. After the family got over their initial shock of our visit, we got into the full swing of catching up, get togethers and late summer goings on in the area.
One was the Sidewalk Arts Festival downtown with hundreds of stalls featuring crafts, fine art, folk art and of course, food. I had my first taste of funnel cake and kettle corn. Both great! It was a bit strange to see an "Opals of Australia" vendor there but he was getting a lot of interest. There were also plenty of quirky items.

Of course we continued our restaurant/fast food pilgrimage: Culvers Butter Burgers and frozen chocolate custard, Mexican at Chevys, Incas, Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara (Mexican food in Australia is pretty ordinary), a BIG breakfast at Perkins even at 10pm, lunch at the Phillips Avenue Diner, a Brutus Burger at Applebees and the traditional jalapeno burger at Steve’s Bar washed down with numerous MGD's. And we found also some other interesting and new places to eat. Then there was the clothes shopping at Cabelas in Mitchell about an hour’s drive away. No summer specials (too late!) but I managed to stock up on essential items to get me through the next year.
Not all meals were out, we had great BBQ's and special dinners at home as well.
Karen's surprise 50th birthday cake prepared by Kay tasted as good as it looked.

You will have noticed by now I was keeping my sugar and fat intake at a reasonable level.
After a few weeks of disturbing the family's day to day lives, we decided to take a break and travel down to Iowa to see the Bridges of Madison County and the Amana Colonies. So we made the necessary B&B bookings and headed south along the I29.

Friday, September 18, 2009

September Update

We have been in the USA just over 3 weeks visiting family and friends and taking a break in central Iowa to see the bridges of Madison County and the Amana Colonies.
More details on our adventures in later posts.
The flight over with Virgin Australia was excellent. The fourteen hours from Sydney to Los Angeles passed fairly quickly with nice food, good service and reasonably comfortable seats.
Both United and QANTAS definitely have some competition on their hands with this new airline.
Despite a 7 hour layover in LAX and a rather uncomfortable flight on Northwest's redeye to Minneapolis, we arrived in good condition jetlag wise.
After a few days there, we picked up our rental car and drove the 5 hours to Sioux Falls and began our round of surprise visits. All went according to plan with everyone reacting in the expected way to our sudden appearance on their doorsteps.
But we have been warned not to do it again!

PHOTO: Gerry Ricketts / September 2nd edition of Milton Ulladulla Times
Our departure from the south coast was delayed by another bushfire emergency to the north of us. This one got to within a few kilometers of our home and again we were on evacuation alert. Thick smoke covered our valley and there was the incessant throb of water bombing helicopters overhead all day. The highway north had been cut. We were wondering if we would be able to leave on our trip and maybe would have to give up our non refundable tickets. However the fire was brought under reasonable control on the shores of Lake Tabourie the following day.
We made the decision to leave with the support of our neighbours but our trip to Sydney was a long affair due to the enforced detour south and west around the fire area. Reports from our region in the following week indicated that things were ok in our immediate vicinity and there was even a small amount of rain. However there were two more fires in the Batemans Bay area to the south of us which had also endangered property.
The hottest driest winter on record was certainly producing unwanted consequences.
As an epilogue to "our fire", a grazier in the area has been charged with letting a hazard reduction burn get out of control and will face court in October.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ulladulla / A Short History

Ulladulla is located 300 km south of Sydney. It is a coastal holiday resort, a "seachanger" destination (someone who makes a significant lifestyle change by moving to or near the sea), a retirement centre and a fishing port. The local economy is supplemented with dairying, timber getting and tourism. This is "our" town or rather the one we visit most for goods and services.
There are a number of theories about the origins of 'Ulladulla' as a place name. The indigenous word is variously given as 'ullada ullada' and 'Woollahderra' supposedly meaning 'safe harbour'. A somewhat dubious story is that the word 'Ulladulla' is a compromise between the Aboriginal title and the phrase 'holey dollar' which was a form of currency in NSW from 1814 until about 1824.
For the 20,000 years prior to white settlement the coastal area was occupied, depending on the source read, by the Dhurga, Walbanja and/or Wandandian Aborigines. Middens and caves used for shelter confirm their occupation of the land. When Captain Cook travelled up the coastline in 1770 he noted, at Bawley Point, south of Ulladulla, people on the shore who 'appeared to be of a black or very dark colour'. On April 21 he sighted Pigeon House Mountain, to the west of the present town. He described it as 'a remarkable peaked hill, which resembled a square dove-house, with a dome at the top, and which for that reason I called the Pigeon House'. The aboriginal name for this landmark is Didhol or Dithol which means woman's breast due to the distinctive shape of the mountain.

In 1827 Thomas Florance surveyed the coastline from Lake Burrill to Narrawallee, naming much of what he saw. He anchored his boat, "The Wasp" in what is now called Ulladulla Harbour and it became known, for a while, as Wasp Harbour.
The first land grant in the area was issued in 1827 to Reverend Thomas Kendall (1778-1832). He settled north of the present township of Milton, calling his property 'Kendall Dale'. There he ran cattle and harvested timber using ticket-of-leave men (convicts on parole) for labour. Kendall travelled often from Ulladulla to Sydney but was drowned when his small boat, "The Brisbane", was wrecked off Jervis Bay.
His grandson, Henry Kendall, was born on the estate in 1839. Although he only lived there for five years the people of Ulladulla helped to launch his literary career when they instigated, by public subscription, the publishing of his first book, "Poems and Songs", in 1862. He was to become one of Australia's most distinguished contemporary poets.
An area called 'The Settlement', upon the site of present-day Milton, was occupied by farmers. Creeks, rivers, gorges, mountains, lakes and swamps made access by land problematic so the settlers began to use the harbour, imaginatively known as 'The Boat Harbour', for the shipment of produce. There were no breakwaters nor any jetty at this time, just a chain by which ships were secured.
Other land grants were issued in the 1830’s and the site for a village was surveyed in 1837. With an abundance of red cedar in the area, much in demand for the construction of furniture, Ulladulla prospered as a timber port in the 1840’s.
The first houses consisted of a sapling framework with strips of dried bark for covering. As families developed (until 1850 there was only one white woman living at Ulladulla Harbour) larger slab houses were erected.
Shipbuilding was also undertaken from about 1840 by David and James Warden on the beach inside Ulladulla Harbour. The promontory known as Warden Head is named in their honour.

Other early industries included dairying, wheat-growing (destroyed when 'rust' hit the south coast in the 1860s), pig-rearing, honey, maize and vegetable-cultivation, a tannery works at Millards Creek and the mining of silica and quartzite which was loaded on a wharf at Bannister Point and shipped out for usage in the blast furnaces of Newcastle north of Sydney.
In 1856 the population of Ulladulla was around 300. A road was marked out in 1858 although it was not suitable for laden wagons. That same year a wooden jetty was built by private subscription, being replaced by a government wharf in 1865.
A lighthouse was erected at the end of the wharf in 1873 and was relocated to Wardens Head in 1889. It is still there today serving the local fishing fleet as well as recreational boating.
A regular passenger and cargo service was established from 1852 by the Illawarra & South Coast Steam Navigation Company (ISCSNC), which serviced most ports on the South Coast and continued until its closure in the 1950’s.
Fishing has always been a popular occupation in the area and shipbuilding returned to the port just before World War II and continued for many years. The Ulladulla Fisherman Co-operative was formed in March 1956. Today Ulladulla is a peaceful, relaxed seaside town that is a pleasure to live near. The harbour, with two boat ramps, is nestled between two enclosing headlands. With a couple of notable beaches, seven lakes nearby and a hinterland of state forest, mountain ranges and national parkland it is ideal for all aquatic activities, camping, bushwalks and scenic drives.
My thanks to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Milton Ulladulla and District Historical Society and local historian, Cathy Dunn, for providing much of the background information for this entry.