Sydney Side Trip: Head Out to the Blue Mountains

April 1, 2010

On my first trip to Australia, I started by spending three months working in Sydney. After that I figured it was time for me to venture out and see a little more of what Australia had to offer. Just to get my travel feet wet, I decided to spend three days in the Blue Mountains before taking off on a longer journey, and it turned out to be the perfect start.

I left for Katoomba, the center of tourism for the Blue Mountains, from Sydney’s Central Station. The two-hour train ride first takes you through Sydney’s less-than-quaint western suburbs, but when you get past them and closer to the mountains the scenery changes completely. After months of being surrounded by honking cabs and towering office buildings, it was hard for me to believe this serene place had been right in my backyard the whole time. It’s no wonder so many Sydney-siders have weekend homes there.

Katoomba isn’t a large town. There’s one main street, creatively named Katoomba Street, where the cafes, pharmacies, restaurants and tour companies are all located. The train station is at the top of this street, and just a few blocks down the hill at #207 is the Blue Mountains YHA.

The YHA is bright and clean with a large kitchen and lounge area, and the rooms are spacious and homey. While checking in I was given a map and the desk clerk highlighted the more popular walks for me, pointing out the ones I still had time to do that afternoon. You can book every possible tour offered in the mountains through the hostel, and most tour operators will pick you up at the front door.

I dropped my things and set off for the Three Sisters. There are buses on Katoomba St. that shuttle people there and back, but it’s only about a 15 minute walk so I decided to stretch my legs.

The recommended viewing area for the Three Sisters is Echo Point. You’ll find that it’s not necessarily the best place to view the Sisters, as it’s situated directly behind them, whereas the area to the west, around the Scenic Railway, gives you a much better profile.

Govetts Leap

From Echo Point you can descend the Giant Staircase, about 900 steps, and hike along Federal Pass Walk, toward Katoomba Falls, or you can stay up top and do the Prince Henry Cliff Walk. That’s the one I chose, and it was a nice stroll compared to the trails I took over the next couple of days.

Walking along the cliffs, there are several lookout spots that put you right on the edge, overlooking the Jamison Valley. Some made my jaw drop with the spectacular views of forests that never seem to end. I’m definitely a city girl, but the nature thing started to grow on me here, and I think it’s safe to say that at times I actually frolicked along the path, listening for birds and breathing in the mountain air. I even understood why people go to places like this to bungee. Seeing such vast, incredible areas of untouched nature, I wanted to jump right in the middle of it.

Live Entertainment! Woo Doggies!

That night the YHA hosted a local band, the Didgeridoo Dingoes. They had electric guitars, drums, even a harmonica, but the centerpiece of the act was the didgeridoo. At times they had two and three going.

I spent the evening talking with my four roommates, which is a great part of hostel living. In my three days there I met people from Luxembourg, Holland, Austria, Israel, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and of course an Aussie or two. I expected most people in the hostel to be university age, but there were several grandparents and families with kids. It made the place seem even cozier, watching them cook and play board games together.

Day Two: Comin’ Down the Mountain

There are several bus systems that go around Katoomba. The public buses cover a lot of ground, and you just pay per ride, but they might not go exactly where you want to. I decided to get a pass for one of the tourist buses. You can choose between the Explorer Bus and the Trolley Tour. They make almost the exact same stops for about the same price, but they offer different extras and discounts, so ask about the details before you buy anything.

I chose the Trolley and hopped on at the main Katoomba St. stand. The first stop is Leura, the town right next to Katoomba. It’s made up of about one block of antique stores, cafes and bakeries, and I wouldn’t have gotten off the bus except that one of my roommates said there was an incredible lolly shop there. Sure enough, The Candy Store in the Leura Strand Arcade is unbelievable. Hundreds of jars line the walls with every flavor, shape and size candy you can imagine. In between are racks of imported mints and chocolates, candy bars, lollipops, and the novelty items that every seven year old just has to have, like giant gummy rats and edible jewelry.

The trolley makes the circuit every hour, so even after my time in the candy store I had about half an hour to kill, and I walked along Leura Mall, window-shopping. My next stop off the trolley was Scenic World. It’s a cheesy amusement-park-sounding name, but the rides are actually quite cool. The Scenic Railway is the world’s steepest incline railway, making me wonder how it stayed on the tracks rather than peeling off and tumbling through the air.

The train goes through a narrow tunnel cut through the rocks in the mountainside while the music from Indiana Jones plays around you. No, really. John Williams should be getting royalties. Once at the bottom there are several bushwalks you can do, from the four-hour journey to the Ruined Castle, to the quick, half-hour rainforest boardwalk.

I hiked about halfway to the Three Sisters, running into several other backpackers, but not so many as to ruin the serenity of the forest. Katoomba Falls is around there and is another popular destination. Pack some snacks before a hike, as the only place to buy food is at the top of the mountain, in the pricey cafeteria.

Around the Jenolan Caves

To get back up the mountain I took the Sceniscender. It’s the kind of tram you’d expect to see in the Alps, a big tin box that dangles from a very thin rope. I don’t know how those things work, but it got us there and provided even more amazing views of the valley. In case you haven’t gotten it yet, most of this trip is about amazing views.

It was still early, so I took the trolley around the circuit again to Leuralla and Gordon Falls. Gordon Falls is yet another place for a beautiful view, although this one has a gigantic Olive Oyl standing guard. No Popeye, just Olive Oyl. The only reason it makes sense is because across the road is Leuralla, a privately owned mansion that houses a toy and railway museum.

Exhausted from walking, I went back to the hostel and made myself a meal of brie and bread. Got talking to an Aussie from the Gold Coast and a girl from Switzerland who had been traveling around the world for the past ten months. She had such wonderful stories from South America that I’m about ready to start planning my next vacation just on her advice.

Gone Caving

For my final day I had planned to take the public bus to the Grand Canyon and do a walk. When I woke up though, my aching legs and back decided that maybe having door-to-door service in an air-conditioned bus sounded like a better idea, so I went to the front desk and booked a tour to the Jenolan Caves. That’s pronounced Je-NOLAN, like the baseball player, not JEN-olan, like… someone named Jen.

If you book a cave tour, find out if the price includes cave admission. It sounds silly, but there are tour operators who advertise $50 tours to the caves, and then in small print, “Does not include cave entry fee,” which can run another $10-15. My package with Fantastic Aussie Tours did include admission, and I got an $11 YHA discount. Not too shabby. Bring a lunch though, or that $11 will go straight to the overpriced cafe next to the caves.

Considering that the tour wasn’t my first choice of how to spend the day, I wound up loving every minute of it. On the way there the driver made stops at Eagle Hawk Lookout (yes, another stunning view of the Three Sisters, with the Sceniscender plummeting right below) and Govetts Leap. This is where folk tales say an old bushranger jumped off a cliff, horse and all, while running from the law. Charles Darwin also visited the spot to study the layers of rock in the surrounding mountains.

Two hours after departing Katoomba we arrived at the caves, and I think my jaw may have dropped as we got closer to, and then drove straight through, a large gap in a wall of limestone. We were an hour and a half early for the tour, so while the old folks on my bus sat by the Blue Lake, which really is very blue, I headed straight for the trail up to Carlotta Arch.

Inside the Jenolan Caves

The path isn’t very long, but it’s steep and I had to stop every few meters to turn in a full circle and take in the view from every angle. Surrounded by red and orange rock cliffs, I almost felt like I was on the set of Star Trek. The sizes and shapes and colors of the rock formations around me were just too spectacular to be earthly. If I was frolicking a couple of days earlier, then this time I was definitely tromping. Dirt was flying and as I jumped from step to step, lizards scurried out of my way.

I climbed the 410 steps to the top and ate my lunch in peace (except for some persistent giant flies) before going back down the 410 steps to the tour.

If my legs weren’t sore already, the 910 steps throughout the Lucas Cave would have gotten them there. Still, it’s worth it. Our guide was entertaining and informative, and the cave is beautifully set up, with mood lighting and special effects. The second chamber you enter, the Cathedral, is even outfitted with a sound system and the guide played us a selection of music to show off the acoustics.

After another full day of walking I was happy to kick back at the hostel with a couple of people I’d met the night before to play some pool. The next morning I packed up and headed, uphill, to the train station. It was a gorgeous three days in the mountains, but I was glad to know that Sydney, and civilization, were just a couple of hours away.

If you’re planning your trip now, remember that for discounts on tours, transportation, food and more, you should always travel with an ISIC (International Student Identity Card). So sign up for your ISIC now!


I’m off to WonderCon 2010 in San Francisco for the weekend, but when I get back I’ll give you some ideas and tips for travelling around other parts of Australia, including Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra, Darwin and Cairns.

Happy Easter!

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