Australia: The Blue Mountains

Posted by Arlo on Jan 31, 2008 under Postcard Valet, Travel

Dont know what happened, but I like the jaunty angle!

In planning our trip to Australia, it didn’t take a lot of brain power to realize we were not going to be able to see everything in three weeks. Australia is huge. Imagine if someone asked you for a three-week itinerary for all the points of interest in the United States. Planning a visit to a continent is like that.

After much discussion, Oksana and I decided to constrict our movement to just two locations: Sydney and its surroundings and Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. Of course, three weeks is barely enough to explore either spot in depth, never mind splitting our time between the two. It worked for us, however. I only wish we could have made the trip out to Uluru.

While in Sydney, we managed to plan a quick jaunt out to the Blue Mountains. While still pretty close to the city – a couple hours by train – it was far enough away to almost be considered a third stop on our trip. If nothing else, the rugged landscape would be a nice change of pace from the city and ocean.

Everything I knew about the Blue Mountains came from a book I’d read years before called In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson. Two facts stood out in my memory. The first, that the “blue” in the Blue Mountains was actually a visible blue haze in the air from all the eucalyptus trees’ exuded oil. Second, that the mountain range was considered impassible by every explorer to make the attempt for the first 100 years or so after Australia’s colonization. I suppose the reason I remembered each was because I had trouble believing both.

As our train left the city behind and the Sydney suburbs gave way to forests, I found myself peering out the window, looking for a gap in the hillside large enough for a view to the horizon. Was the famous blue haze only visible when the weather was just right? Worse yet, could it be seasonal? I tried to convince myself that the tiny bit of haze I could see beyond the trees was actually blue.

We arrived at the Katoomba train station around midday and sought out the only lodging we could find the previous week on the Best Western Alpine Motor Inn. We didn’t think much of it at the time, but we quickly realized that “Alpine Motor Inn” was aptly named. After hauling our wheeled luggage around the sidewalk-free sections of the Great Western Highway, we finally found ourselves at, not a hotel, but a motel. Would have been perfect if we’d driven from Sydney, though.

With half a day left to us, I picked up a map and directions from the hotel receptionist. We decided to take a walk into Katoomba, then on down to the scenic overlooks south of town. It was a couple miles in each direction, but the sun was out and the day was warm.

Downtown Katoomba wasn’t what I expected. Besides the main street that runs perpendicular to the train station, there wasn’t much else to see. You could tell that the main thoroughfare was a funnel for tourist foot traffic, but it seemed as though the town didn’t know how to capitalize on it. There were more than a few cafes, a drug store, and what seemed like far too many used bookstores. Many storefronts were boarded up, out of business. On the occasions when Oksana and I decided to explore another street, we saw nothing but residential homes. Katoomba is small, and it looks like it’s dying.

Which surprises me, considering the natural wonders they have to offer.

Another mile down the hill, we left the town completely behind and only the Blue Mountains National Park lay before us. You wouldn’t know it from the road, though.

We first crossed the main hiking trail near the Katoomba Cascades. We took a quick detour down to check them out. It would have been a lovely side tour if we hadn’t run into a certain familiar girl from Great Britain. We’d met her on the Great Barrier Reef when she’d been included in some of our Advanced Open Water Dive courses. She annoyed us underwater and above. On deck, she came across as deeply conceited. During most dives, she was completely inattentive to the environment around her. I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a dangerous diving buddy, but given the choice of diving with her again or sitting on the deck and longingly looking out over the GBR, I’d chose the latter.

Anyway, she didn’t ruin the Katoomba Cascades for us or anything, it’s just the shock of running into her again, 1500 miles away from where we’d last seen her, is what I’ll always remember.

Oksana in front of the Katoomba Cascades

After the Cascades, we followed the trail back up and over towards the park proper. Scrubby eucalyptus trees were all around us, butterflies and lizards kept our attention off the slightly muddy trail. And then, suddenly, we reached the Cliff View Lookout.

A low fence and handrail ran the perimeter of a natural rock outcrop. A vertical drop of hundreds of feet bordered about 270 degrees of open air. Below us, the tops of an impenetrable canopy of trees. A yellow sky car, moving slowly along its cables, passed over our head. Before us lied the Blue Mountains.

My first two thoughts: Now that’s a blue haze and no wonder they never found a way across!

Jamison Valley Panorama

The vista was breathtaking. On the right, across a large chasm, a vertical rock wall and the thin line of Katoomba Falls dropping over a cliff. Spread out before us, miles and miles of heavily forested valleys and flat-top mesas. On every vertical rise, at least one rocky outcrop, bare of vegetation. It was a vast sea of green under a thin blue fog. I wanted to stay there all day.

We did stay there for some time, but with the long walk back to our hotel, we kept an eye on the failing sunlight. We decided to move on down the trail.

Photo op along the trail

Strategically placed along the path were other scenic lookouts, though none as large as the Cliff View. Still, the Wollumi Lookout had a wonderful view of the monumental Three Sisters rock formation. With picturesque clouds looming and the “golden hour” almost upon us, we waited bit. Sure enough, as the sun dropped in the sky, warm light bathed the whole park. I took many pictures.

Three Sisters, first view

Three Sisters Panorama, golden hour

Twilight was approaching and we were worried about getting caught on the wet trails after dark. The trail ahead beckoned, but we’d set aside the entire following day for hiking down into the valley and then riding the skycars back up the cliffs. We exited the trail system at Lady Darley’s Lookout and began the long walk to our hotel. By the time we got back, a thick mist had settled over everything.

Oksana excited to be in the fog at the Alpine Motor Inn

It persisted all the next day. At times it was so foggy that we couldn’t even see across the parking lot. We stayed in our room most of the day, did our laundry, watched TV. We’re from Juneau; misty rain would hardly stop us from hiking, but with the region’s major attraction being a scenic view, going back to the Three Sisters didn’t seem to be a better use of our time. In the evening, we walked into Katoomba and managed to find what appeared to be the only place serving food after 6pm; a Thai restaurant. We ate, then caught a cab back to our hotel excuse memotel.

It would have been great to have spent another sunny day hiking around that eucalyptus forest, but I don’t have any real regrets. With only two days to spare for the Blue Mountains, we felt lucky to have seen such an impressive view on the first day – especially since almost took a nap instead. Besides, the day spent inside was rejuvenating. It’s always good to have a little recoup time on vacation.

I reread In a Sunburned Country after returning home, and I discovered that Bill Bryson had much the same introduction to the Blue Mountains, only in reverse.

[…] So I was eager now to see the mountains up close, in particular the famous, dreamy views from the little town of Katoomba.

Alas, luck was not with me. As I followed the tortuous road up into the distant hills, the windshield became speckled with drizzle and a chill, swirling fog began to fill the spaces between the coachwood and sassafras trees that loomed up on every side. Very quickly the fog thickened to the density of woodsmoke. I have never been out in such fog. Within minutes it was like piloting a small plane through cloud. There was a hood in front of me, and then just white. It was all I could do to keep the car affixed to its lane – the road was almost preposterously narrow and twisting, and with the visibility so low every sudden curve was received with a whoop of surprise.

At length, I reached Katoomba, where the fog was, if anything, worse. The town was reduced to spooky shapes that loomed out of the murk from time to time, like frights at a carnival ride.


Reluctant to leave the area, I spent the night in Blackhearth, a pretty little town in the woods a dozen miles farther down the highway. My last view from my motel window before turning in was of a car passing slowly on the highway, its headlamps like searchlights, and the world settled under a thick eiderdown of murk. It didn’t look terribly promising.
So you may imagine my surprise when I awoke in the morning to find bright sunshine spilled across my bed and filling the tops of the trees outside. I opened the door to a golden world, so bright it made me blink. Birds were singing in the exotic tones of the bush. I wasted not a moment getting back to Katoomba.

Of course, on the third morning, the morning of our departure, we awoke to the same, perfectly blue sky. There weren’t even any clouds on the horizon; it was like every drop of moisture had fallen the previous day. We considered pushing back our schedule, but the last couple days of our vacation had already been meticulously planned.

Sydney beckoned once again.

Three Sisters to Jamison Valley Panorama

I wanted to double-check on some proper nouns while writing this and found myself reading over Katoomba’s Wikipedia entry. Check this out:

In 2004 the original Skyway car was replaced by a new car with a liquid crystal panel floor, which abruptly becomes transparent while the car travels.

Can you imagine? I guess I do regret not being able to ride on the skycar, after all!

Skycar over Katoomba Falls