The standard sights in Sydney are obvious. If you’re in the ‘Big Smoke’, you pay a visit to Bondi Beach; spend a day exploring Sydney Harbour and taking in the iconic sights; and maybe splash out on a bridge climb or a harbour cruise. But too many back-packers and tourists breeze through without being aware of how much natural beauty lies just a few hours inland.
The Blue Mountains are more of a vast, sandstone plateau intersected by a number of gorges that combine to make it something resembling a fertile Grand Canyon-esque attraction. Lying about two hours west of Sydney via train (and a return ticket is a very affordable $10.80) – the Blue Mountains offer a pleasant alternative to the hustle and bustle of the city. The name, if you’re curious, comes from the blue haze that clouds the mountains as a result of the massive Eucalyptus population in the area.
The train trip, thankfully, is in one of City Rail’s inter-city trains – so you’re afforded a tad more comfort (and the all important bathroom) than you would expect to find on a suburban train. The view rapidly changes from the built up industry of the inner city to quaint suburban homes and then to the more typical idea of Australian bush.
Our own trip started with a minor hiccup after Fallon accidentally left her Canon SX10 IS on an earlier train ride, but the people at City Rail acted quickly once we reported it – and we were able to retrieve it a few stations down the line and save ourselves a big headache and a $500 camera replacement bill.
The hiccup done, we whiled away the trip alternating between gazing out the window and playing a bit of Man Bites Dog. It’s a lengthy trip and the view, while attractive, isn’t particularly interesting – so I’d advise bringing alone a book or making sure your iPhone is fully charged before you head out.
Katoomba, The Trolley, and Leura Village
Katoomba, much like Kuranda in far North Queensland, is a town that knows that its primary exports are tourism and crafts. The streets are lined with quaint cafes, bookstores, antique shops, gift stores, and various tour companies offering to show you the Blue Mountains in pretty much whatever way you’d like. It was a nice change of pace to not be signing up for an adrenaline activity such as abseiling or rock climbing, and instead booking some tickets on an all day trolley tour of the Blue Mountains with Blue Mountains Trolley Tours.
The ‘trolley’ is more of a kitted out bus, but they run regularly and a day pass with admission to Scenic World included is a reasonable $44. Definitely better than walking all around the hilly collection of villages. The staff, in a trend that would continue across the entire day, were super friendly and eager to help out – even if it meant stopping the bus for an unscheduled photo break or making a cafe recommendation.
Our first stop would be Leura Village, which I have vague memories of from my childhood. A good twenty years has passed since I whined about being dragged into antique shops though, and I enjoyed a walk along the sun dappled streets as we sought out a place for an early lunch.
We eventually settled upon the Post Office Cafe, which cuts an intriguing figure inside the husk of the former Leura Post Office. The prices were at the Sydney level (a tad pricey) but the food portions were generous, the beer selection was good, and their pavlova was a fine introduction to the Aussie icon for our American visitor.
There’s plenty of selection there though. We saw Thai and Chinese restaurants, Italian fare, and the usual swathe of coffee shops and cafes offering everything from sandwiches to gourmet pizzas.
Any visit to the Blue Mountains National Park wouldn’t be complete without stepping off of the well worn tourist trails and onto a well worn hiking trail. With the sun hot and high overhead and time at a premium, we settled for the 3km hike from Gordon Falls to Leura Cascades. There’s a few breath-taking vistas to take in early in the walk, but after that it’s pretty much a slog along a muddy path through some pristine but generally uninteresting bushland.
And don’t expect to sit down for a breather along the way. I counted a dozen benches on our walk – and all of them were in a state of disrepair.
The end of the walk offers up another visual treat, and the Leura Cascades are a breath of fresh air after the mostly featureless hike in between. We didn’t have the time we’d have liked to take it all in though, as our bus was waiting for us at the top of the trail and a frantic run was required.
Echo Point & The Three Sisters
The Blue Mountains’ most famous sight is undoubtedly the Three Sisters – a rock formation vaguely resembling a trio of stone sisters. I use the term resembling very loosely. Local legend has it that they were turned to stone to protect them during inter-tribal warfare, but more recently this story has been proven to be a fabrication by European settlers – and having no real ties to Aboriginal dreamtime mythology. Thanks Wikipedia!
Echo Point was positively abuzz with tourists, as you’d expect from the area’s premier destination, but we stuck around long enough to snap a few shots before checking out the Echo Point Arcade for a pit stop and a little opal shopping for Fallon. The owner of the jewelry store there is an absolutely hilarious Hungarian guy with a real passion for what he does. Even if you don’t intend on buying anything, stop by and say hi. He’s a real character.
In fact, we were lucky enough to meet Goomblah while at Echo Point as well. A local aboriginal man who carves and decorates boomerangs for sale – he was kind enough to pose for a photo and autograph Fallon’s boomerang for her. Keep an eye out for him and his didgeridoo performance when you’re there.
Our second to last stop of the day was Scenic World – which I’d heard mixed reviews about from people. The prices there seem a tad steep, but as it was included in our day pass, we didn’t mind at all. The first ‘ride’ of the day is the cable car across to the park. It affords a pretty spectacular view of the Katoomba Falls as well as the vast gorge below, and a glass floor certainly made the ride interesting for the kids who were crammed in with us.
Upon arrival at the park, we cashed in our tickets to take the Scenic Railway to the valley floor. It’s the world’s steepest railway and cuts through an 80 metre long natural tunnel, and it’s all made just that little bit more exciting by the Indiana Jones music blaring through the speakers as you plunge down the mountainside and into the darkness.
At the foot of the track is a boardwalked area for hiking, and there’s some interesting exhibitions on the area’s rich coal-mining history as well as plenty of informative sign postings about local flora and fauna. A few great photo opportunities lie along the way as well, so be sure to take your time and check it out.
We weren’t lucky enough to have the time to take one of the longer hikes out to the various mountains and canyons surrounding the park.
With the sunlight fading and our bellies rumbling, we took the cable car back to the top of the gorge and hopped a buzz back to Katoomba.
Scenic World is… worth a look. The staff are funny and friendly and you get to see the area from a unique perspective, but it is a bit pricey for what it offers. Still, I’ll pay for the cable car rather than climbing the 1000 steps up from the valley floor!
Our last port of call before heading back to Sydney to call a close to our weekend was the Savoy Cafe, which is right by the station and has a varied menu offering up a wide variety of cuisines. I treated myself to a kangaroo burger, Fallon tried a scrumptious pumpkin and lentil pie, and Adam scoffed down a hearty looking chicken parmigiana. Compared to the other cafes we’d passed during the day, it’s prices were great too. Try the Turkish Delight they have by the cash register too!
We also paid a quick visit to the amusingly named ‘Mr. Pickwick’s Antique Books‘. There’s no shortage of used bookstores in Katoomba and its surrounds, but we found this one to be the pick of the bunch. In addition to two floors of used books; they also had vintage clothes, DVDs and videos, antiques, and a really impressive collection of antique books that would make any collector foam at the mouth. There’s even a kid’s area to keep the young ones occupied while you browse.
All in all it was a good change of pace after a week and a half of taking in the Sydney sights closer to our front door. We were a bit lavish in our food budget, but the entire day could be done on a more modest budget of about $100 if you hit Subway and a bakery instead of the pricier cafes.
It’s not going to be for everybody, but if you want to get some fresh air and exercise your camera skills, there’s plenty to like about the Blue Mountains for a day trip or, if you’re feeling like a real escape, a weekend away.
Have you ever spent a day (or more) exploring the Blue Mountains? What are your recommendations?