Katoomba and the Blue Mountains

Australia, as experienced by me in Sydney and Melbourne was a friendly, but unremarkable (and too hot!) of a place overall. Nice, but nice enough to return anytime soon, given the long and expensive flight.
That was, until I headed out to the Blue Mountains, a two hour train ride west of Sydney. As the train rose from the sprawling suburbs into the forested hills, I realized what I have really been wanting is a bit of wild nature – and that’s just what I found.

A map of Katoomba: not shown here is Minnehaha Falls, which I think can only have been named by a Minnesotan.

A busy trainload of passengers disembarked every two hours into Katoomba, the city which is the heart of the Blue Mountains National Park. I had imagined this to be a small town like Hexham in England, but it was actually more a small tourist town – a mix of Lake City back home, an Italian hill town, and the wild west. The town is a touristy town, but still small enough, and lived in enough, to feel genuine. What truly makes the feel of the town is how it – and several of the neighboring towns – are perched on top of cliffs, riding above the forested, wild hills below. I get serious vibes like those of Westworld’s command center or Mortal Engines traction cities, a bastion of civilization rising above the wilderness.
Here I checked into the best hostel in all of Australia, the Blue Mountains YHA. While I can’t say I’ve tested all competitors, this art deco building, built in 1923 and rennovated around the year 2000, is a standout. It’s got a ballroom-lounge, a friendly kitchen, a beautiful courtyard with a giant chess board and fountain, and clean bathrooms, and, well, average rooms, but you won’t spend much time in the rooms.
A twilight shot of the haze of the Blue Mountains, with a corner of the Three Sisters visible in the foreground.

Down the road, a quick walk from the hostel, rise the Three Sisters visible from Echo Point. The Three Sisters are iconic for being the symbol of the region, but as three pillars of sandstone, are hardly spectacular as a view in themselves. So uninspiring that I have not yet bothered to download a picture of them from my camera. That said, everything else in view is amazing.
Tree ferns, Cyathea australis, grow in the rain-forested cliff slopes of the Blue Mountains.  These are one of my favorite plants around

The Blue Mountains are named for the blue colored haze that rises above them. This haze, attributed to volatile oils of eucalyptus trees, is actually believed to modify the local climate and increase the rainfall. It’s quite like looking at smog, but with a blueish instead of the yellowish tint of smog – also this smells a lot better.
A flooded and half-blocked coal mine dives into the cliff sides

A hundred years ago, Katoomba was the center for a mining operation for coal, and today, entries of the mine clearly remain, as do small streaks of coal in the cliffside. The inclined railway that once served to lift out coal has been converted into a a lift for tourists, rising at up to a terrifyingly steep 52 degree slope. It’s part of Scenic World, alongside a cable car and other attractions.
Morning fog fills the valley below Katoomba

As I observed the inclined rail start up the slope, I heard it playing the Jurassic Park main theme. It felt just a little too cliche for me, but yet the point is valid, this place does feel like Jurassic Park somehow. Remember the Blue Mountains were where the living fossil the Wollemi Pine, was discovered in 1994, which is the last member of a 200 million year old family last recorded two million years ago. Coupled with the towering tree ferns, the towering cliffs, and the mythical feel of the sea of eucalyptus spreading beyond, this place feels old and alien, the type of place where dragons and other monsters might yet creep out of the caves.
Open bush in the foreground, and forests beyond

Another thing I loved as I hiked along the base of the cliffs was how often the biome around me completely changed. There was a thick fern swamp in the ravines among the cliffs, and around those more forested rainforest. Yet, hiking around a bend or away from the humidity of the sheltering cliffs reveals eucalyptus forests. Beyond those, in the locations most rocky and most exposed to the dry western winds, a low, Mediterranean arid shrubbery grows. The crazy thing about these is how, within 20 meters or so, you can go from rainforest to arid bush.
I am terribly tired as I write this, so I can hardly do justice to what I write, but I must say that the Blue Mountains are a complete and overwhelming sensory experience. Beyond the incredible views, you have the rich smells, earthly rainforest mixing with the spice of eucalyptus oils. Around the base of Scenic World, a crowd can be heard, and elsewhere waterfalls tumble noisily. Any distance from these however, and the forest quickly becomes quiet, or as quiet as a forest filled with cockatoos can be. The sulfur-crested cockatoos stand out, not only for their pure white gliding about the forests, but for their incredibly loud caws and screams. Other birds join in, especially around twilight, filling the air. Some of the arid brush was blooming when I was there, and the sound of the bees pollinating was surprisingly loud. Beyond all of this, the feel of the place is unique, damp warm air warring with the cool dry breezes blowing in from the west.
This shot doesn’t really do Hanging Rock (left side) justice, as you fail to see how it forms a prow rising out above the forest.

The single most impressive view I had was from a place called Hanging Rock. 10 km from the nearest road, only a few sturdy people, or mountain bikers like me, venture out, and it was deserted when I arrived. It rises like the prow of ship above the waves of the forest floor far below, and itself has to be reached by a leap across a small chasm. The views from it are stunning, with an even taller cliff looming above it, and the wide forest canyon spreading far away below. Amazing, really, even if there were tons of the big black wasps flying around my head, trying to force me to jump.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-fm0E-uZyE&w=560&h=315]
If I had one issue with this place is was the heat. Humid, powerfully sunny, it made being overly active in the area a bother. I’d love to run around there all day, only getting enough water, sunscreen, and showers to compensate for that would be very hard there, in summer at least.
Some people have taken the Hanging Rock rather far. Video does little justice to the feel of how far up the ledge is, and how terrifying the first leap into the chasm must be:
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBnzZarY7zQ&w=560&h=315]
At least one person has actually died doing that swing, so Death Swing is rather an appropriate name.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *