“Banjo Tunes” – (Single Girls Weekend in the Hunter Valley)
It was decided we would have another girls weekend away. My father who often attends charity events had bought a voucher for a weekend at a hotel near the Hunter Valley. For those of you reading this from overseas, this is the much loved Wine District of NSW. The Hunter Valley’s initial value was as a source of timber and coal for the steamships that provided much of the transport for Sydney and its surroundings in Convict days. The first road between Sydney and Newcastle crossed the Hawkesbury River at Wiseman’s Ferry then travelled via Judge Dowling’s Range to Bucketty and on to Wollombi where it split. One branch headed North to Jerrys Plains (between the modern townships of Muswellbrook and Singleton) and the other headed East to Newcastle through Cessnock and Maitland. Today, the Hunter Valley is certainly one of Australia’s most well-known wine regions; there are over 150 wineries producing a wide array of exceptional wines reflective of their origin.
I phoned my best friend Donna. ‘ Guess what girlfriend we are off to the Hunter Valley for a weekend all expenses paid.. ‘But I have noticed on the voucher the hotel it states is Monte Pio which is situated in Maitland around 20mins drive from the Hunter Valley Wine region, would you still be interested in coming?’ It is also middle of winter so the temperature in that area will be very cold! ‘Sounds great, I’m up for it Bestie, we will rug up warm and head off in the car Friday straight after work, which would get us there by 9ish.’ The plans were made for that following Friday night. Off we set in the car, it was a very cold winter night and we had the car heater pumping. As we drove into Maitland we noticed a heavy dense fog. It was so dense that we had to reduce our speed to a crawling pace of 20kms per hour as it was totally fogged out.
It was already a very scary start to the evening as we had no idea where we were driving or if we were even near any other car. This pace went on for about 2 kms. What a relief to finally be able to see ahead. After that little entree to the night we were already feeling a little spooked. The town itself was very dark with minimal street lighting and in some areas none at all but our headlights to guide us. Finally looming in the distance we see lights of a few buildings and come upon the Monte Pio.
The Monte Pio I read about is a building that dates back to the early 1800s – it is a grand property full of history and enchanting atmosphere but I also heard it used to be a convent and there is a rumour it’s haunted by the ghost of an old nun. I kept this information to my self as I knew Donna would freak out. Seriously the fog setting was just like something out of a Stephen King movie, even I was feeling a little unsure about this Hotel. As we drove in to the Hotel car park we both said at the same time ‘Is it even open?’ We parked the car and walked through a high doorway to be greeted by a lonesome Concierge. He was a simple young man with long scraggly hair and pimples and his name tag said Col. He appeared to be the only person working at that hour. The whole hotel seemed to be deserted and it was only 9.00pm! We were at this point starving from leaving straight after work and being stuck in traffic leaving Sydney which had made our trip a bit longer than the usual 3 hour drive. ‘Excuse me but is your restaurant open we are absolutely famished and my friend Wendy desperately needs food? She becomes quite unmanageable without food’ Donna said with a big smile and giggle. She knows me well and will often remark to friends about my appetite and how I will be thinking about the next meal straight after the first one if we are away somewhere! This remark didn’t sink in or dredge recognition of a laugh, it rolled off this young man’s vacant face like water on a duck’s back. Donna and I glanced at each other in that ‘Oh dear this one’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, a few cards short of a deck,the hamster is dead but the wheel is still spinning look hahaha…oh dear that’s right we are in a town that’s main focus is industrial , mining and transportation industry. Hmmm okay we will be gentle on the poor fellow, he appeared very young and simple minded.
‘The restaurant is closed and the hotel is empty except for both of you and the staff. We have more guests arriving tomorrow. ‘ said the young man in a slower than normal speech. We prodded for more information. ‘ Surely there is something still open around here?’ I asked with a look of tired hunger and desperation. I really needed to eat. as I’m not one of those people that can get by with a cigarette and a coffee or just Wine all night, I would just pass out! ‘ Well if you go out this side door here’ which he opened for us to see. ‘over in the distance see those lights?’ ‘Yes’ I said as I squinted through the dark garden and empty car park. ‘Well you can walk over there which takes you behind the Hospital and if you keep walking through their car park you will eventually come across the Leagues club.’ he said feeling quite proud that he managed to get all that information out without pausing and possibly without breathing too. ‘Have you ever heard of the Anita Cobby murder?’ Donna interrupted abruptly with a look of ‘Are you kidding me!’ ‘I don’t think he was born then Donna.’ I remarked with shrug of my head. ‘Thanks Col for being so helpful, but I think it best considering the fog and darkness out there that we drive there.’ He just looked back at us vacantly then said here just head down the hall to the left keep going to the end, up the stairs then right at the end of the hall.’ Seemed a damn long way considering the hotel was empty but none the less we were starving so we grabbed our keys and found our way up the deserted hallway to our room.
There have been many rumours and legends about this Hotel that have endured over the years. One mentions a tunnel that was used to smuggle children in and out of the orphanage and also another story about a ghost of a Nun that would wander the hallways at night searching for tea. I was thinking of all this as we tried to find our rooms. I even had fleeting thoughts remembering that scene in the move ‘ The Shining’ with the little boy on his bicycle pedaling down the hallways and the Twin Ghosts saying ‘Hello Danny come play with us forever and ever.. yikes!, creepy! Stop being ridiculous Wendy I said in my head, it’s just an old Hotel nothing more. We found our room dropped the bags and headed off back into the fog to find the local Leagues club. It was only a few minutes up the road but we would have been walking it probably 20 minutes that’s if we ever did make it there alive! The outside looked normal enough, a large colourful sign though quite tacky, was glowing cheerfully in neon light welcoming all inside. We could hear music playing, people talking but as we entered the room it felt like the music stopped and all turned. We were dressed just normally in jeans and t-shirts but I suppose it was a small town and you could tell we weren’t locals, but holy molly the room appeared at first to be fathers with their daughters on a night out but surveying the room a bit longer and watching the dance floor it was actually quite old men in their late 50’s with young girls that were probably 15!. I felt the skin on my neck prickle and shuddered, looking at Donna’s face I could see she was also repulsed. ‘Let’s get a drink this could be interesting people watching at the very least’ I laughed. So we waited alongside others at the bar. There was a rather handsome young barman asking people to my left for their order. Donna started nudging me with her elbow. ‘He is asking you Wendy?’ ‘No he isn’t he’s asking those people at that end.’ She nudged again and this time muttered under her breath. ‘It’s you, its his eyes there’s something wrong.’ I looked up at this point and oh my god this poor young man had obviously been deformed at birth somehow or an accident as one side of his face sort of normal but the eye was looking to the left of me as it was more in the centre of his face , the other eye was around the side that I couldn’t see! Oh dear! ‘Oh I’m sorry yes can I order two Glasses of Sav Blanc please and some hot chips?’ I said apologetically. He seemed fine with my nervous reaction, the poor dear. Then I looked next to me and there was a man sitting low at the bar looking like he needed a wash. He stooped over the bar from his stool slurping quite loudly his drink through a straw. I wondered why he didn’t just hold his glass. I then noticed his hands, well what was left of them! He had no hands just dirty old bandages wrapped around the ends of what was basically his wrists!! Oh my god!! now I was feeling freaked out!! He obviously had an industrial accident of some kind but still in this weird place it was still a shock to me. I grabbed the drinks and we headed to a high bar table near the dance floor area where we could survey the whole room. The music changed to the Nut Bush and all of a sudden the floor was filled with sleazy old ugly men, a couple rather deformed or injured possibly and their very young partners and they were doing the Nutbush dance!! ‘ Oh my god check this out Donna, it looks more like a scene from Michael Jackson’s Thriller!
We just sat in amazement with our jaws open watching this array of Maitland folk do the Nutbush!! Then along came two men. ‘Good-aye girls, would youes like a drink? said a rather short overweight man with a big floppy hat on his sweating greasy looking unshaven face. I didn’t see any teeth either but rather a big gummy looking grin. His stomach was hanging over his belt and I could see a few hairs sprouting through the last few buttons of his too short checked ill fitting flannette shirt. Hmm lovely indeed! ‘ Thats very kind of you but we are fine really, we already have drinks’ I replied with an exaggerated smile.
‘Ah fark that girls you can drink more than that tis no probs we will get youes some more Wines. Larry go get em two White Savs, these Sheilas need more drinks pronto mate’. he spat out his words, laughed, then almost choked on his own flem obviously a heavy smoker too. Well at this point surrounded by these odd folks and this unfortunately this guy appeared to be blocking our exit so we agreed with sheepish grins. ‘Okay thanks just one drink. I laughed nervously. ‘Holy cow. I whispered to Donna, some village has lost its idiots, aren’t we the lucky girls!’ Donna laughed with a startled look, a bit like a rabbit caught in the headlights in its last 2 seconds before impact. ‘Don’t worry we will just be polite, this could be a laugh or NOT!’ I whispered again. Larry ambled back, he was an unusual looking man, very tall, very slim, his clothes very much larger than they should have been or maybe he had filled them once upon a time. He was roughly shaven with a moustache and a small goatee beard. A cap on his bald head and also several missing teeth to add to his fetching face.
Do you get the picture of what we are dealing with? The overweight one introduced himself as Bernie and started trying to make conversation. I had to hand it to them they were confident. In Sydney you rarely get chatted up by men, they all seem to interested in their mates, themselves or the rugby. These guys you could tell thought they were a couple of Prime Studs that had found their Mares for the night!
‘So girls whats youes do for a buck?’ Bernie asked as he sculled his beer down and burped while rubbing his stomach,..ah I love me beer girls!’ ‘So whats youes do? ‘I’m a paralegal conveyancing secretary in a law firm’ answered Donna with a pained look ‘I also work in the Law firm and I’m doing a correspondence course in Management as well I added with an equally pained look.
‘Jesus that must be farking boring!!’ said Bernie with a smirk and a snigger. Larry also started making noise laughing sounding very much a hillbilly. ‘ Whats youes names then?
‘My name is Wendy and her’s is Donna’ I replied instantly wishing I hadn’t told them our names. ‘Farrrrrrrrrrk I knew a Wendy at school I had a crush on her. Hey farrrk! maybe you’re the same Wendy!! he then started laughing and coughing uncontrollably nearly falling over, obviously he found this very funny indeed. I turned to Donna and grimaced with gritted teeth and a startled WTF lets get out of here now look. ‘Hey girls whats youes doing later do you want to come back to our place now for a party we have lots of grog and music, you can get trashed.’ piped up country bumbkin Larry who hadn’t uttered a word all night until now. He also had a overly excited look on his gappy toothed face and was gawfawing loudly in a weird laugh. ‘Oh no sorry guys we really must get going as we have a very early coach booked to pick us up for a bus tour of the Vineyards, thanks so much for the drink! I said grabbing Donna’s arm and propelling her as fast as if she was on wheels out of the room leaving the boys from Deliverance to go home, play their Banjos and probably name their pigs Donna and Wendy. We bolted to the car jumped in and locked the doors started the engine with a roar and over accelerated reverse and swung around and sped out of that place burning some rubber as we went in case they came out to follow us!! Oh my god we were totally freaked out but started laughing in such relief to get away from those weirdo carney type men!! Ewe!!
We rushed back to our Ghost house to collapse in our rooms regardless of whether there was a nun ghost haunting the hallways or not. We were way too tired to hear anything. Needless to say I did wake a few times with visions of those toothless creepy men leering in my face!! The next day they were soon forgotten as we enjoyed copious amounts of delicious Wine at the Vineyards during our tasting tour unfortunately from having copious amounts of wine and cheese we also felt the pain of trapped gas from lactose and the grapes. The bus thankfully finally pulled up to our Hotel as I was sure an accident was about to happen. Both Donna and I just wanted to run to the bathroom as we weren’t sure what was going on inside painfully bloated rumbling stomachs, but no the Bus driver decided he needed to chat and give us girls a whole guided tour talk about other activities and places we could visit while up there! Oh my god I didn’t know what to do I felt like I would explode any minute like a balloon pricked by a pin! He just wouldn’t shut up and I politely kept replying saying ‘Yes thats very interesting thank you so much for that information we really must get this Wine in and sadly we leave tomorrow so I don’t think we will have time to see anything more but maybe next time. I was holding a few bottles I had bought. I made out they were too heavy. ‘Oh dear these bottles are heavy I remarked in an exaggerated looking weak with no strength look as I crouched down bending one leg as if about to drop the Wine trying anything I could to stop whatever was about to exit me!.
I was thinking OH MY GOD I will have a very messy accident or embarrassing noise in 3 secs if he doesn’t shut the hell up and let us go!! Donna finally interrupted and said sorry but we have to rush off as we must get ready for a dinner reservation we have booked and we are already late, thanks again for today, it was great.’ ‘Yes thanks, bye now!’ I added in relief, turned and ran inside the hotel as fast as I could to our room, Donna was laughing behind me all the way as I putted away faster than a speeding bullet to our bathroom. Oh my dear but it was thank god what I thought and just too many grapes creating fireworks. After much relief I went out to find someone to get some milk for our tea as our mini fridge was empty. I slammed the door instantly realizing I didnt have the key and Donna was now in the bathroom too! I got some milk and was knocking away when Hotel maid was passing by and asked me if I wanted the bed turned down and new towels I said sure thats fine I have forgotten my key but my friend is inside, I will keep knocking. (Now so you can visualize Donna, she is my dearest friend in all the world but of very petite size and frame reaching only 4ft 11 with long blonde hair and blue eyes, very pretty doll like and always smiling) Okay so Donna opens the door with no expression on her face or words, instantly turns around and walks very fast in small short steps back into bathroom. She reminded me of a cuckoo clock where the little figurine comes out off a door in the little house on a track and then goes straight back in again.
I let the maid in. ‘Sorry my friend is normally very talkative, we have had a far too much wine today and it’s upset our stomachs I said slightly embarrassed, but now laughing my head off at Donna. The maid was fine she just laughed and left she was of asian origin I think so I doubt she even understood what I said but was more relieved at not having to answer any questions. I laughed so hard and so did Donna when she came out. We were exhausted from drinking and still rather drunk so we ended up falling asleep, waking very late around 9pm but determined we would again go out to the Irish pub called Harrigans which meant driving through pitch black bush roads for half an hour with no street lighting at all. Yes we had lost our minds i must admit and it was only when we were half way along the very dense dark road that we said imagine if we broke down here!!
‘Maybe Larry and Bernie might appear out of the woods to rescue us.’ I said with horror and small laugh . This thought made me put the foot down and we flew like lightning all the way to the Irish pub which thankfully we found a long with even more odd characters. One was a long haul truck driver called Bob he was about 7ft tall looked like a bikie and he was determined that he would come to Sydney and take me out. He kept saying how I was the girl he had been looking for his whole life and in a rather a forceful way! I started to feel again a bit scared so I grabbed Donna and said let’s get the hell out of here!!! She agreed and was also fighting off a very drunk unsavoury looking Mining fellow that was about to start a fight with another man that had his eyes set on Donna too. You really felt like you were cattle on the stand about to be sold off to the highest bidder. Holy cow what an odd place, we zoomed back the same pitch black road too scared to drive slowly in case the car stopped. We would rather spend a night in the haunted hotel than deal with the beasts that roamed the Hunter wine region at night!!! We rushed back to our room, bolted the door and jumped into our beds covers over our heads and listened to all sorts of banging and shuffling in the hallway thinking WTF is that!!! eventually we must of passed out with lack of oxygen under our sheets being so petrified that we fell asleep. The next morning the sun was shining and thank god we were going home to Sydney town!!!
Just another memorable singles girl weekend away!!!