The great folk at Jeep claim their newest mid-sized pick up, the Jeep Gladiator Overland, makes weekends more fun. We put that claim to the test among the windswept ancient dunes of Stockton Bight and the spindly grapevines of the Hunter.
From solid ground, I survey the steady stream of trucks and SUVs rocketing up the twisty dune that takes you to the famous Stockton Bight Sand Dunes via Lavis Lane at Williamtown near Newcastle. It’s steep and snaking; enough to block the crest from view and scare the bejeezus out of me, but they’re making it look easy.
To make matters interesting, my partner Zander and I are attempting sand-driving for the first time in a loaned car. Not just any car: a Jeep Gladiator Overland. It’s Jeep’s newest mid-size pickup and the only convertible truck of its kind on offer in the world. It’s the model Jeep is claiming will make your weekends better – something I’m especially keen to put to the test.
With no international holidays planned for the foreseeable future and the stress of city life starting to take its toll, great weekends have been in very short supply. This trip to Newcastle, complete with some off-road action on the dunes and a more leisurely detour to the Hunter Valley, is the ideal opportunity to test the theory.
Onwards and upwards
After a quick flick through the owners’ manual, and some friendly advice from a fellow Jeep driver, we switch drive modes to four-low (4L) and disengage electronic stability control for our next attempt. By now, the dune is so chopped up it looks freshly ploughed and ready for harvest. Still, we back up for take two.
The engine reverberates as we hit the sand, engaging high gear and serving up max power. We’re going to make it. I’m bouncing in my seat as we round the first bend, veering past an SUV spitting sand faster than Wile E. Coyote, before scrambling to the top.
We’re abruptly hit with open space and the effort is immediately justified. It’s an enthusiast’s dream. The Jeep Gladiator’s unique look is turning heads as trucks of all shapes and sizes zoom up and down dunes that stretch as far as the eye can see – 32 kilometres, in fact, to Anna Bay’s Birubi Beach in Port Stephens. They make up Australia’s largest ‘mobile’ dune system and the biggest coastal sand mass in the Southern Hemisphere.
Driving is surprisingly easy once we’re on the dunes. The Jeep Gladiator does most of the hard work, navigating effortlessly into tracks made by explorers before us and slipping lithely past bogged car wrecks that ventured a little too close to shore. The sensation could be described as paddling like a ship on water. Fortunately, not a real one. Over 100 vessels have run aground along this coastline, including the 53,000-tonne Norwegian bulk carrier MV Sygna, whose rusting hulk lies just off Stockton Beach.
Peeling back the layers
While its reputation as a desert playground is befitting, I’m perhaps more intrigued by the region’s history. Made up of three layers, these dunes – located in the Worimi Conservation Lands – date back a staggering 2.5 million years to the Pleistocene period and hold the secrets of the Worimi people. Their occupation is evidenced by the white shoals of sun-bleached pipis and whelk shells uncovered periodically in the sandy swales, revealing Aboriginal middens dating back some 1200 years.
The land and beach were rightfully returned to their traditional owners in 2007, who ensure the protection of the natural and cultural values of the landscape, including the weird and wonderful Tin City. Located halfway between Newcastle and Anna Bay, the dunes open up to reveal this ramshackle collection of corrugated dwellings, built during the Great Depression to shelter shipwrecked sailors. Today, it stands protected by a few hard-core residents who face off daily against the sand and southerly winds seeking to bury everything in their path.
Out of the dunes, into the vino
You might be thinking: ‘Isn’t it counterintuitive to drive to the Hunter Valley – one of Australia’s most iconic wine regions?’ Arriving at Brokenwood for the ‘Match Experience’ – a self-guided mini wine and food flight – I’m asking myself the same question. A selection of the label’s six flagship wines is poured and waiting, which means (out of politeness) my designated driver has to watch me drink all 12.
For the next few hours, I’m chauffeured around the region’s central hub of Pokolbin. It’s only when we take the scenic route on Tourist Drive 33 to Broke Fordwich – a peaceful pocket of the Hunter a 20-minute drive north of Pokolbin – that I start to feel vindicated. The winding country roads lined with boutique and biodynamic vineyards, olive groves and cosy accommodation are made for driving.
It’s surely the only way we would have found 1813 – a boutique cellar door set among the vines of Tinonee Estate Vineyard and in the shadow of the majestic Yellow Rock escarpment. Unlike most of the cellar doors in Pokolbin, 1813 offers free wine tasting and welcomes you to stay a while, wandering the estate’s working vineyard, picking olives from the tree out back or simply watching the world go by in the adjoining terrace.
Sharing a cheese plate and a chilled glass of the signature verdelho with the label’s owner, Adele, is a different kind of adventure to the one experienced yesterday, but requisite therapy for my city-fatigued mind. Chatting to Adele about the name 1813 – the year when money trumped rum as the legal currency in NSW – I get a sense this is what Pokolbin was like before the tourist train rolled in.
That’s the weekend wrapped. And I can safely say the past few days have been better than most this year, with one little surprising ending. On the highway home, the driver of a passing Jeep throws his hand out and gives me a wave. Must be a Jeep thing.