I was looking outside the window of our 6-person helicopter, trying to rationalize what was going on. Indeed, why was I in a helicopter, skimming the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge? And why was it that earlier in day, I was defending the merits of a favorite pop-philosopher, while incongruously sitting on the warm leatherette of a stretch Hummer limousine? I focused my attention on the harbor beneath, picking boats, a lone cyclist on North Head. Apparently this was the Campaign Monitor end-of-year party, but it could just as well have been a commercial for a men’s fragrance.
In all honesty, we had some idea of what was coming. There was tense anticipation late in 2009 as to what the end-of-year party would bring. Speculation became an office game, with every activity from bowling (seriously) to game hunting (not so seriously) being proposed. Someone was honestly convinced we were going to the beach. However, just days prior to the proposed date, we were called together. After what had been a challenging, yet intensely gratifying year, our celebration was to be pushed back due to the bushfires that were razing the suburbs north of Sydney. All the helicopters required to transport us to the venue were tied up in the fire-fighting effort. We were collectively stunned. Helicopters? Somewhere, a pin dropped.
Dave, Ben and Karen keep an excellent secret. The game may have been up, but it wasn’t until we were queued to get into the stretch Hummer that we realized the scope of this operation. I knew I was out of Kansas once I stepped into this cocktail lounge on wheels and was near-blinded by the frantic, in-car laser show.
It wasn’t until we reached the heliport that the notion of flying off somewhere started to appear feasible. Seemingly as an example as to how this thing is done, a news chopper deftly touched down in front of us. We excitedly downed a glass of sparkly Dutch courage and were ready to go.
After a scenic ride tracking east over the iconic Sydney harbor, then north along the coast, we touched down at the Bimbadgen Estate winery. Apart from a rather brief visit for plonk at an off-highway cellar door, I had never visited a vineyard before, let alone sat down for wine tasting. For most individuals, lessons in wine appreciation start and end with college house-parties. Here, they are imbued with the names of French towns and a jargon-fuelled sense of elevation.
A generous selection of ‘signature’ this and ‘distinguished’ that was followed by a meal at the nearby Peppertree vineyard. Sure, our free catered lunches at Campaign Monitor may be a cut above your average cafeteria fare, but the food was truly exemplary. From the rockmelon delicately wrapped in prosciutto, to the final triangle of soft cheese, we were ecstatic. The day was only half-out, but as full as it could be.
It was near-impossible to keep our eyes open after a three-course lunch with accompanying wines. Thankfully, after being driven to a neighboring vineyard, we had a moment to lie on an inviting expanse of grass and nurse our feelings of excess.
The respite was short-lived. We were back on our feet again for another wine tasting, this time at the Tower Estate. Again, glasses were handed around and we were laden with a selection of wines, including a series of full-bodied, near-opaque reds. For most of us, the cup had runneth over, so we turned our focus to the art of spitting our wines, like venom from desert snakes.
A short stay in the cool room provided escape from the Australian Summer heat. We lingered here for a moment, not wanting to move much while digesting wines-stacked-on-lunch-stacked-on-wines, in this mellow, oak-smelling air. This was as close as commercial wine production gets to what you see in the movies.
It was time to follow Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lead and “Get to the chopper”. So we bade the Hunter Valley a wan farewell and bundled ourselves back into our aircraft. Days like this are never long enough.
Like a mirage amongst clouds, Sydney soon came back into view. I’ve flown over our iconic harbor countless times, but never lost sight of how complex our city is. It’s an intersection of ideas, from what could be considered to be Danish adventurism in the form of the Opera House, to the Harbour Bridge’s Depression-era engineering, seated heavily amongst the colonial sandstone of The Rocks’ district. It’s no wonder that we’re perennially entangled in cultural debate – flying over Sydney is a rich reminder that we don’t suffer from a lack of culture, but an abundance of every influence imaginable.
It wasn’t until our wrap-up dinner that these experiences came into relief. My partner (who had travelled in on the train) asked me how my day had been. I stared at him incongruously. How do you summarize a full day of wine tasting and generally tackling all sorts of uncommon excess? What words can describe being the person in the helicopter, instead of someone looking up? “Good”, I responded, with the nonchalant understatement saved for epic sports matches and big nights out, “Yeah, we had a great time.” At Campaign Monitor, it was business as usual.
You can view the entire end-of-year photo set on Flickr.
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