Bounty in the Blue Mountains

Trip Start Feb 05, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Australia  , New South Wales,
Monday, March 26, 2012

The Blue Mountains acquired their name from the blue haze that hangs densely over them. This tinge is created by incoming ultraviolet radiation reacting with the huge quantities of oil emitted by the eucalyptus trees that cloak their deep gorges. In short, a shedload of eucalyptus trees make the Blue Mountains blue.

After hearing my mates rave about how much they'd enjoyed their guided tour of the mountains, we tussled with the options of a day tour or doing it alone. In the end, the freedom of doing it ourselves won over - despite needing much more organisation.

We dragged ourselves up shortly after sunrise, to get an early train from Sydney to the mountains' largest town, Katoomba. We had been warned to shave a few degrees off the temperature in Sydney when calculating the climate up here. Such estimation allows visitors to dress and prepare appropriately. True to form, me and Sare had ignored such square advice and rocked up in shorts and vest tops. As we stepped off the train the climate was, unsurprisingly, substantially sharper than the warm Sydney morning we had left behind. Our legs turned scornfully into four milky, goose-pimpled sticks. We were further taken aback by how fresh the air was up here. It felt like we were in a balloon inflated by pure oxygen, while all the CO2 and pollutants languished safely on the outside. We set off in search of our hostel - inhaling excitedly, shivering slightly and feeling fairly foolish.

Upon arriving at the hostel we received yet another surprise. It was absolutely charming. We had to walk through a pretty garden to reach the wooden chalet; filled with cosy furnishings and a log fire. It was the last thing we expected when we'd booked it online because it was a. dirt cheap and b. the only other hostel not completely fully booked. The owner was lovely and friendly too, the perfect overseer of such a wholesome place. As we had no idea of the geography of the mountains or what trails and sights we wanted to see, she came in real useful too. Through her recommendations we quickly pieced together an itinerary for our two day stay, pulled on some leggings and set off.

Back in the infancy of Sydney's life, the mountains were thought to be insurmountable. A thick-set barricade boxing the colony in and reminding the convicts this was not freedom, but a variation of confinement. People dreamed of what lay beyond them - with guesses ranging from a fertile paradise to the location of China. This idea that the mountains were impassable was a convenient coincidence for the local authorities. It deterred convicts from trying to escape and so they fanned the flames of the myth. When an early official expedition successfully crossed the mountains, the achievement was suppressed by the Governor.

We made our way first to the most famous spot in the Blue Mountains, The Three Sisters Lookout at Echo Point. Here, you can gaze out at three huge and almost identical peaks, gathered together in cahoots at the edge of a mountain. According to aboriginal legend, the sisters (named Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo) were once living people. They made the mistake of falling in love with three brothers from a different tribe - such unions were forbidden by tribal law. Crestfallen, the brothers tried to capture the sisters and a huge tribal battle ensued. In an attempt to protect the sisters, an elder turned them to stone, but soon after he did was killed in the fighting. No one else could reverse the spell and so the sisters have remained ever since, prisoners of the valley.
It's hard to make rocks sound poetic. But even for an indifferent geology enthusiast like myself, the sisters were a pretty special sight. The surrounding sky was as bright as a newborn's eyes, creating optimum viewing conditions. It was if the mountains' blue haze had spread, especially for our visit, enveloping the entire sky. There wasn't a cloud to be seen. Just simple, brilliant, blue. To the right of the sisters, the Jamison Valley spreads out to the horizon and drops to 760 metres below your feet. In almost exactly the symmetrical centre of the valley, Mount Solitary - a long, low mountain of sandstone - dominates. It is around the size of Uluru (Ayers Rock) and gives the scene a powerful centrepiece. The valley is so vast that while you watch it, it is hard to reign your imagination in. It wanders, when you're not paying attention, to thoughts of what lives and lurks below.

We had timed our entrance to the lookout perfectly to coincide with the arrival of three stuffed tour-buses. As we watched the dismounting tourists, I was relieved we hadn't gone with option 2 - The Tour. All of the buses seemed to follow an identical routine. They unloaded their passengers and gave them an allocated amount of time to collect photographs like top trump cards, before herding them back onto the bus and transporting them to the next sight. Their itinerary seemed depressingly rigid amongst all the open space. (I'd also heard that en-route to the mountains the majority of tour-buses stop at the Olympic Park - purely because it's on the way and in the shrewd spirit of padding a trip out.)

The arrival of the buses created a lot of traffic on the viewing platform and a disorganized queue formed for people wanting a photo with the sisters from their most flattering angle. We found a quieter spot and stood sucking up the view of the valley for a good while. Once we'd had our fill of the triplets we escaped the crowds on a short walking track. The track took us past the timber victims of last years bush fire; their charred trunks looked like props plucked from a horror film. 

Next we rode a glass-bottomed sky-rail across the Jamison Valley, allowing us to appreciate the gorge from a different vantage point. It passed Katoomba Falls and a stump of boulder on the opposite side of the valley named Orphan Rock. This rock could almost be in a feud with the sisters; sulking in the corner as if they've excluded him from their gang. 

We landed at the entrance to the fluffily named 'Scenic World.' I was slightly horrified upon hearing that there was a private 'theme park' slap bang in the middle of this natural wonder, particularly one christened 'Scenic World.' The name evoked images of a gaudy establishment, filled with sticky food stalls and people dressed as cartoon mountains bouncing around signing autograph books. Thankfully, it is fairy tasteful and low-key for a theme park - it's most commercially risque features being a huge gift shop and a revolving restaurant.

We coughed up for our ride and jumped onto the Scenic Railway - which was originally used to transport workers down to the Katoomba Coal Mine. It is the steepest railway in the world, at an incline of 52 degrees, traveling through a damp tunnel that cuts deep through the sandstone cliffs. The ride was over very quickly, taking us about halfway down the valley, to the site of the old mine. Down here, accommodating boardwalks have been added, allowing for a leisurely stroll past the mine and a few newer statues - no doubt added to jazz the attraction up a bit. 

We were the only passengers who took the dirt track in the opposite direction leading down to the valley floor. It took us about three hours, descending down and then up again, to walk around the base of the mountains to the neighbouring village of Leura. The valley floor is a world away from the platform where the crowds gather above. It is a private, opulent, overgrown world. A place of pure natural splendour. The walk was beautiful and the cooler climate proved a real blessing. The track was quite unkempt in places and the leeches that lurked in the swampy puddles took a real shine to Ben's ankles. He spent much of the way round performing what looked like a tribal swatting dance - much to everyone else's amusement. I blame his good blood.

About halfway around, a little wooden sign told us that we were directly 'Beneath the Sisters.' Some joker had made a crude alteration to the sign that hadn't taken too much imagination. Such base humour looked so out of place in this enchanting setting that it managed to get a laugh out of us all.

At the end of the walk we had to climb over 1000 steps to the top. It was a task that our hastily assembled itinerary hadn't given too much thought to. We dragged ourselves up, taking several rest breaks as we did. The staircase seemed never-ending and the group split up, with me and Sare unable to keep up with the boys. It was such a challenging task that that we couldn't even pay attention to the beautiful Leura Cascades which the steps tracked to the head of the valley (and one of the main reasons we had opted to do this trail).

It struck us as we climbed, that most people probably do the trek the other way round - walking downhill to the bottom, then catching the railway to the top. Our poor planning had come back to bite us in the calves. We reached the top in triumphant disbelief and stood staring happily back down at what we'd just climbed, giddy on endorphins. In retrospect, I am glad we did it the wrong way round.

We crawled back into Katoomba and found an inviting little pub. Here we sat in the sun gulping down cider as if somebody was about to take it off us. Katoomba is an odd little place and after a few drinks in the pub and a hearty feed we decided to take the action back to the hostel. We asked a local, who looked as though he knew his stuff, where we could procure some booze and were sent to a shop called Dan Murphy's. Our jaws dropped when we stepped inside. It was the equivalent size of an average ASDA. Shelf upon shelf were piled high with inviting bottles and we spent an age choosing between them. It was the biggest booze shop I've ever seem and all just to serve the needs of this tiny little town. I suppose if you live in a place where there's nothing to do but mountains, you need a decent alcohol supplier.

We spent the rest of the night cosied up in our duvets chugging on wine. The next day the weather had adapted to match our hangovers and we opted for a shorter, less challenging walk. This walk started from Fletcher's Lookout near Upper Wentworth Falls and followed the waterfall along a winding path up to the village named after the Falls. The waterfall itself was absolutely spectacular. From Fletcher's Lookout the section of the Jamison Valley we could see looked completely different from the one we'd seen the day before. The trees stretched out below the falls, like a basin filled with ripped green sponge.

The track to the village of Wentworth Falls is called the Charles Darwin Trail and is quite flat and very picturesque. Several mini waterfalls  can be seen as along the way as the water carves out a cautious descent. It is a much prettier walk than the valley floor one, and we saw a lot more wildlife, although it is possible that we we were able to see it better without a cloak of leaves. 

When we reached Wentworth Falls we stopped at a delicious German bakery and shovelled some sugar into our hungry, hungover bellies. With sticky fingers we caught the train back to Sydney, after a wonderful, refreshing weekend away. 
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