April 23rd, 2006:
Two hours outside Sydney are the Blue Mountains. I lot has impressed me since arriving in Sydney but I think today was my first major "wow" moment since seeing the bridge and Opera House. I had thought that I had reached my limit of being bowled over after seeing those two traditional stereotypical Sydney landmarks, but the Blue Mountains: wow!
A return train ticket with free all-day bus transfers in the mountains was available at Central Train station in Sydney so this morning I jumped on board. Now, you can get a tour through a tour operator, but they cost 80-100 AUD: the train cost 32.50 AUD and even though that excludes the cable car and vertical train, it is still cheaper paying for them separately.
The town of Katoomba was where I jumped off the train. This traditional looking town with its quaint Aussi shop fronts was quiet and everything was nice and cheap compared with Sydney.
At Katoomba you get a map of the area with a guide to the bus service that you can use for free. The bus operates hourly, but as I saw it I wasn't there to experience the inside of a bus so I set off walking to the first major point in the area, the Cable Car.
Once I arrived at the Cable Car, though, I straight away forgot about it (!) as the Blue Mountains themselves became visible. I haven't been to the Grand Cannon in the US yet but I'd imagine that if you took the Grand Cannon and covered it in a forest, you'd come close to the view available here. Golden cliffs towered over valleys blanketed by unbroken expanses of trees and this vista continued as far as the eye could see. I took lots of pictures but they won't do the place justice as they won't adequately convey the scale of the place.
Once I saw the view, there was no way I was going to shortcut the experience by taking the easy cable car option (for traveling between two points at the top of a u-shaped mountain): instead I took the longer cliff walk around and continued oohh-ing and ahh-ing at the view below. The Blue Mountains, incidentely, is so named due to a blue-hued mist from the eucalyptus trees which hangs over the valley on calm days (it was a bit breezy today so no mist today sadly).
A branch appeared in the path and I took the turn for the "Furbur Stairs" which passed many waterfalls and rocky overhangs Shortly after this I joined up with a group of Parisians (i.e. from France): its handy how easy it is to meet new people when ye have a common thing to grumble about(!), in this case the seemingly never-ending steps down towards the valley. About a million steps later, just as we were wondering how we were going to survive the trek back up, we arrived at the "Vertical Railway" which went up and down the cliff face, vertically.
While we were waiting for the train I took a quick look at the tracks and, sure enough, they went nearly vertically up the cliff face. Having worked before around rollercoasters which went vertically I know that the trick is to have a chain between the standard two train tracks and to have a set of teeth in the train which attaches to the chain. Still, I was a bit perplexed when it became apparent that this train did not use such a system... Once the train did come hurtling down the track it became clear that it was being lowered by a strong cable, but it still wasn't clear what the backup was if the cable failed... Still, the apparent design oversight wasn't enough to get me to walk back up those million steps, so we clambered in and due to the lack of straps, hung on for dear life... And hung onto bags, cameras and sunglasses, all of which would easily have taken a quick route back down if we didn't hang onto them tightly as the train really did travel nearly vertically up the cliff...
After the railway, the French headed back to their hostel, but I pressed on to the most popular view in the mountain range, the view of "The Three Sisters". The Three Sisters are three towering pillars of rock at the end of a cliff and the vista from "Echo Point" reveals that these golden pillars stand tall over the green valley far below. Dusk was approaching by now and the glowing red sun made the golden pillars appear even more vibrant.
After The Three Sisters, I continued along the "Prince Henry Cliff Walk" (the walk is surrounded by trees), past the "Honeymoon Lookout" (disturbingly deserted: nobody's getting married anymore it seems(!)) and onto the "Leura Cascades". Sadly it was nearly dark by now, so there wasn't much to see at the Cascades.
I have noticed that you can do an Aboriginal inspired Walkabout of the Blue Mountains which is a guided hike where you can see the "real" Blue Mountains. It is something I might do as, due to the scale of the place, it seems that this is yet another place I'll have to go back to!