Driving into the Blue Mountains an hour west of Sydney is child’s play compared to the Alps. Much of the journey is on a dual carriageway, nothing like the narrow and winding rounds of the European Alps.
And that made this nervous driver a happy man as we left the city behind and drove into a landscape of hills, eucalyptus and pine. But the modern highway made it difficult to imagine the struggles of the 19th century convicts who first carved a route through the mountains with little more than pick and shovel and these days there are towns and villages aplenty just beyond the road.
Blackheath was our target that day, a town that stands at 1,065m, which is close to the highest point in the range. It’s a popular stop, if not as attractive as the Lonely Planet guidebook had promised and we had lunch in a converted cinema that doubles as one of the town’s large number of antiques shops. Later, we walked in the sunshine through quiet residential streets to the Blue Mountains Visitor Centre and onward through the woods to Govetts Leap.
And emerging from the woods was one of those awesome moments in travel that will linger long in my memory, for we found ourselves looking out over the vast wilderness of the Grove Valley. Its sandstone plateaus and broad vales reminded me of the Grand Canyon, but covered in forests. In the distance the wispy Govetts Leap Falls fell several hundred metres down the cliffs, blown around by the wind, and the blue haze that gave the mountains their name – generated by oils from all those eucalyptus trees – hung over the hills. It was absolutely and completely one of the most impressive landscapes I’ve ever seen.
It was hot and I was perspiring for Britain so the idea of going for a walk down into the valley was dispensed with and we walked back into town instead and drove to our hotel, The Carrington in Katoomba. It’s a historic property complete with an ancient lift, squeaky floorboards, stained glass, wood panelling, worn-out bedroom furniture and pre-war glam. The town is as hilly as the Himalaya, notable for Art Deco architecture and as overloaded with antique shops as the rest of the Blue Mountains. We had a dinner the size of a small country in the Old City Bank Brasserie, which is part of the hotel, and followed it with a few beers in the hotel bar.
The next day we drove to Leura, a pretty town next to Katoomba that we found bursting with lush planting, fancy homes and well-tended gardens full of the agapanthus we’d seen everywhere in Australia. On a sweltering, humid day we followed the footpath through the woods and valleys down to the Leura Falls, a pretty cascade, and then beyond. The views were again exceptional and we couldn’t stop taking photos. The chirps of birds, squawks of unknown animals and a host of other weird noises accompanied us.
Later we drove on to another spectacular viewpoint for a view of the Gordon Falls but they were more a dribble than a waterfall, a sure sign of summer.
Wherever we went the views of the Blue Mountains were beyond description, no more so than at Everglades. An Art Deco house on the clifftops, it’s the gardens that are the real attraction. Designed and built in the 1930s by Danish-born Paul Sorensen, they feature terraces and winding paths, streams and a grotto, a log cabin and majestic views of Mount Solitary and the Jamison Valley. What a place to call home, although these days the house is a National Trust property and cafe. We stopped for tea and cake but it’s a shame not more is made of the inside.
We drove on, without stopping at the hideously touristy and crowded Echo Point, which gives close-up views of the rock formation known as the Three Sisters. We were heading for Scenic World, a depressingly named tourist attraction that extracts large amounts of money from tourists in return for allowing them to explore the valley at Katoomba.
So we queued in the obnoxious heat to catch the glass-floored cable car across the gorge to what’s billed as the world’s steepest cable-driven funicular railway, which at one point dips 52 degrees. We were funnelled through the obligatory shop – a vast enterprise full of the most awful rubbish – but I have to say the quick trip downhill, part of it through a gap in the rocks, was bonkers. I feared we’d tip over at one point…
The railway came into being when this was a coal mining area and it initially helped to carry the magic black stuff back up to the cliff top. The miners quickly realised that it could double as a tourist attraction on their days off.
At the bottom is a mini exhibition about the history of mining in the area and a series of elevated paths through the woods but it’s all very organised and it’s impossible to wander off piste. The landscape was peppered with giant boulders that had fallen from the cliffs above us, as well as old mining equipment that was rusting away into the forest floor. It was quite busy and nowhere near as good as our other walks in the Blue Mountains, or indeed through the national park in Tasmania. There were too many tourists around, it was too organised and the queues to get back uphill were pretty awful.
Having returned to The Carrington, we chilled out on the hotel’s verandah with a pre-dinner drink and then ate in their elegant dining room. It was all very posh and proper and the food was excellent but it’s a hotel that needs a bit of investment to make it really 5 stars.
We left the Blue Mountains the next morning for the drive back to Sydney but before saying goodbye to the national park for good, we made one final stop at Wentworth Falls. Another beautiful spot of forests, sandstone cliffs and a gentle cascade, it got our cameras whirring again…