The Blue Mountains - Katoomba
We're off to the Blue Mountains today. The Blue Mountains National Park is the largest park in New South Wales. Consisting mainly of a sandstone plateau, the area is dissected by gorges up to 760 metres deep and has mountains up to 1100 metres high. The name Blue Mountains is derived from the blue tinge the range takes on when viewed from a distance. This is caused by a vapour which is released by the eucalyptus trees. The area is highly dramatic, like the Grand Canyon with trees. The most famous landmark is the spectacular rock formation called the Three Sisters. Aboriginal legend claims that the rock is in fact three sisters imprisoned by their father to protect them from a bunyip.
Billy Connolly has a saying directed at those who complain about the weather. He says there's no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. It was with this adage in mind that we dress for our trip to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. The forecast, gleaned from the internet, is ambiguous. The various weather sites offer differing suggestions as to how the weather will behave over the next couple of days, though there is a vague concensus towards thunderstorms and cool periods. Since we are going to be in the mountains for a couple of days and wish to travel light, it is important to get the clothes right. We dress in our (relatively) warmest summer wear: jeans and warmish tops. The shorts and, in my case, sandals, are left behind, in storage with our cases. We take the umbrella.
We catch the double-decker train from Central. It is a two hour journey up to Katoomba. The weather is cloudy and we feel vindicated regarding our choice of clothes. Our first stop is Lawson. four stops before Katooma. This is someting of a pilgrimage for Monica. Her brother John was principal of a primary school here from 1977 to 1979, after which he returned to Ireland, where he looks out at the rain and wonders why he ever left. Monica captures a few images of the school as it is now and we get on the next train. It is hot and the cloud cover has disappeared.
We reach Katoomba in the middle of a heatwave. The temperature is 31 degrees according to a neon sign outside the Australian RSL Club. We arrive at our classy B&B about 14.00 hr. Our host welcomes us with a tourist map and recommends a circular walking route, above and below the cliffs: "It should take about three hours", he says. The journey starts at Echo Point, the viewing platform for the the Three Sisters, ten minutes walk down the street from our accommodation.
Most tourists view these sights after stepping out of their air-conditioned coaches to which they return after taking a few snaps. Not us. After taking our photos of the rock formation, we set off on our three-hour trek. It starts with a descent down into the gorge via The Staircase: nine hundred uneven steps cut into the cliff face. It is very hot and we have begun to regret our clothes. I sweat and Monica perspires as we labour our way down the cliff. Our primary thought is that there is no way we are going to be able to climb back up again. We see one or two young people on our way, but few are keen to attempt the trek in this heat. We are comforted by the thought that we can catch the Scenic Railway train back up. We reach the foot of the staircase to be confronted by a sign which reads: "Last train 16:50. Walking time to Station one and a half hours. The time is 16:10. We have a choice of doing the walk in forty minutes or climbing those steps. We choose to do the former and head off along the path, the Fedral Pass, cut through the forest.
We move along the path at double pace. Every so often we pass disheartening notices reminding us of the departure time. Never have trekkers in their sixties moved at such speed, in such heat, and with such purpose. We reach the foot of the track with minutes to spare. There is a notice advising us that due to repair work, the train is not running. I issue a silent scream. A workman nearby suggests we catch the cable car, the last one up runs at 17:00. It's a pleasant ten minute walk from here. We catch the cable car, clothes now stuck to our backs. The Gondola is filled with a party of cool young Koreans who obviously came down by the cable car and are now returning. They give us a wide berth.
Once we reach the summit, we have (allegedly) a mere forty-five minute cliff-top stroll back to Echo Point. Don't be deceived. This is an undulating and demanding walk, meandering up and down the cliff face and taking us past beauty spots such as the Katoomba Cascades. See the photograph above: does that look like a cliff top to you? Eventually, we return to our B&B for a shower and ritual burning of our clothes. Our host was right. It has taken us three hours.