Posted by: DSprockett | May 31, 2013

A Day in Australia’s Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains flank Sydney to the west, and for over 50 years stood as a barrier for early European settlers seeking to expand their grazing lands. They were seen as so impassable that Philip Gidley King, the third Governor of New South Wales, once remarked,“This formidable barrier is impassable for men.”

However, today marks the 200th anniversary of the first European crossing of the Blue Mountains by Gregory Blaxland, William Charles Wentworth, and William Lawson. According to Australian Geographic:

Blaxland implemented the strategy of following the ridges and not the valleys. It was arduous work. Every day they hacked through dense brushwood, returned for the animals, and proceeded once again through the cleared path.

Their plight was exacerbated by precipitous cliffs, foreboding gorges and perilous waterfalls. Blaxland offered a succinct assessment of the landscape through which they floundered with his scornful description: “A dreadful convulsion of nature.”

On 31 May, after 21 days and 93km, the explorers reached the end of their epic journey. They climbed a hill shaped like a sugar loaf, where Blaxland famously opined: “Forest or grass land, sufficient in extent … to support the stock of the colony for the next 30 years.”

Luckily for Andrea and I, we were able to just take the train.

We left Sydney early to make the most of a long day, and found that the Blue Mountains is an easy day trip. We got off the train at Katoomba, a small town centrally-located in the Blue Mountains, and headed straight for Echo Point.  As you can see below, Echo Point provides an amazing view the surrounding Kedumba Valley, as well as the Three Sisters rock formation, Mount Solitary, and the Narrow Neck Plateau.

The view from Echo Point, including the Kedumba Valley, the Three Sisters (left) and Mount Gibraltar (center).

The view from Echo Point, including the Jamison Valley, the Three Sisters (left), Mount Solitary (center), and the Narrow Neck Plateau (right) .

“An immense gulf is unexpectedly seen through the trees…this kind of view was to me quite novel, and extremely magnificent.”

-Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (1836)

Dan was pretty excited to see the above quote from Charles Darwin featured in this carved stone.

Dan was pretty excited to see the above quote from Charles Darwin carved into this stone marker.

We spent the day hiking and taking pictures, and found that many of the trails are easily-accessible and well maintained.  There are also a skyway cable cars available to shuttle people around, although the tickets can be fairly expensive.  There was an option to buy a day pass for all of the cable cars and the Katoomba Inclined Railway (which is apparently steepest in the world), but we discovered this too late in the day to really take advantage of it.

One of the cable cars that stretches over the valley.

A glass-bottomed cable car stretching over the valley.

Dan and Andrea in front of Wentworth Falls.

Dan and Andrea in front of Katoomba Falls.

The Blue Mountains are named so because they have a faint blue tint when viewed from a distance. There are a lot of eucalyptus trees in the region, and it is thought that the large amount of volatile terpenoids they give off scatters sunlight making the region appear hazy and bluish.  However, I was far more interested in all of the massive cycads in the area, which served as a constant reminder that I was indeed a long, long way from home.

The rough tree fern (Cyathea australis).

The Rough Tree Fern (Cyathea australis).

On an interesting aside, the plant diversity is one of the main reasons that The Greater Blue Mountains Region became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

It is particularly noted for its wide and balanced representation of eucalypt habitats from wet and dry sclerophyll, mallee heathlands, as well as localized swamps, wetlands and grassland. There are 91 species of eucalypt (13% of the global total) in the Greater Blue Mountains Area, 12 of which are believed to occur only in the Sydney sandstone region.

In addition to its rich diversity of eucalypts, the Area also contains ancient, relict species of global significance. The most famous of these is the recently discovered Wollemi pine, a ‘living fossil’ dating back to the age of the dinosaurs. Thought to have been extinct for millions of years, the few surviving trees of this ancient species are known only from three small populations located in remote, inaccessible gorges within the nominated property. The Wollemi pine is one of the World’s rarest species.

After a long day of hiking, Andrea and I headed back to Katoomba. From the mid-1800’s until the early 1900’s, the Blue Mountain towns like Katoomba were a popular getaway spot for wealthy Sydneysiders. Remnants of that era remain in establishments like The Paragon, which was opened in 1916 and looks like it hasn’t changed much since. I can’t say I recommend eating there (I had a beer while Andrea sampled some of their fancy little chocolates), but the art-deco woodwork added a nice old-timey feel.

I had a locally brewed beer, while Andrea picked out some fancy chocolates. The main dining room is decorated with scenes from Greek mythology, such as The Judgement of Paris (bottom left), while the Banquet Hall (bottom right) was re-decorated in 1934.

Dan sampled a locally-brewed beer, while Andrea picked out some fancy chocolates. The Paragon’s main dining room is decorated with scenes from Greek mythology, such as The Judgement of Paris (bottom left), while the Banquet Hall (bottom right) was redecorated in 1934.

All-in-all, it was a fantastic day, and I’m very glad we took the time to see the Blue Mountains while we’re living in Sydney.

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