As I step down onto the frost covered train station at Katoomba, an icy August wind greets me with a “Welcome to the Blue Mountains” chill that momentarily makes me catch my breath. The sudden drop in temperature wasn’t altogether unexpected as there is a significant climatic change between Sydney and the Mountain region, but this also just happens to be one of the coldest days of the year…timing has always been my speciality.
The Blue Mountains, which form part of the Great Dividing Range, get their name from the blue oil mist given off by the massive convergence of eucalyptus trees in the area. Katoomba lies a mere 110km and two very comfortable hours by train, west of Sydney. I’m in town, to see amongst other things the Three Sisters, unfortunately not a trio of young women, but a limestone outcrop that has been formed by the ravages of time into three pinnacles. The result is one of Australia’s great icons of nature.
I decide to steel myself against the piercing winter’s day by finding somewhere to get a hot meal. Buttoning my overcoat against the wind, I set off in the direction of the town centre. Again my knack for great timing comes to the fore as I curse myself for not coming to visit the region the week before, during Yulefest. This celebration of Christmas by the Blue Mountain communities, is undertaken when the weather is actually more like a northern hemisphere Christmas. A taste of Christmas in winter and a taste of Christmas dinner would have gone down very well at that moment.
The town has an almost deserted look to it, which I put down to a lull after the previous week’s excesses. Maybe they’re all still sleeping off the Christmas pudding and mulled wine. The main drag has a distinctly arty feel about it, helped in no small part by the many shops and cafes done out in the art deco style.
One vegetarian quiche, two slices of carrot cake and three cups of herbal tea later I emerge satisfied and set off to explore. I head down the sloping main street, which for those with a difficulty in remembering more than one name at a time, is conveniently named Katoomba St. It stretches from the transport hub at one end almost to the cliff’s edge at Echo Point look-out, where the last small section of the road is aptly named, yes, you guessed it, Echo Point Road.
Katoomba’s main street is not much to write home about if the truth be told, but it has the type of shops and services you’d expect to find in such a mountainous area, and will kit you out for all manner of outdoor activities. A 2km walk later and I arrive at Echo Point, which is where you’ll also find the very well equipped visitors’ centre. I stride purposefully around the massed ranks of Japanese tourists to catch a glimpse of the view and for the second time today have to catch my breath.
The view that unfolds before me over the Jamison Valley leaves me dumbfounded. It is one of absolute splendour, which I was quite unprepared for. It takes me a few moments to notice the Three Sisters, which jut out in equal splendour just to my left. The valley is a massive sprawl that goes on as far as the eye can see. One almighty meteor crashing down to Earth might almost have created it, except a meteor that big would certainly have meant the end for all of us.
The panorama from Echo Point is enhanced by a crystal blue sky, making it a perfect day to gaze over the valley. The wonderful massed ranks of eucalypts, the cliffs in dramatic sharp focus, nothing is blurred or difficult to make out. Just as I think it couldn’t get any more stunning, in my peripheral vision a cable car hones into view.
The scenic skyway traverses Katoomba Falls Gorge almost 200 metres above the Jamison Valley floor and offers the intrepid thrill seeker an unparalleled view of this marvellous gift from Mother Nature. The same company operate the scenic railway, the world’s steepest incline railway, which travels down the escarpment at a gradient of 52 degrees. These are by no means the only adventures on offer here, for the tourist who likes to live on the edge and indeed over it, local businesses organise rock climbing, abseiling, canyoning and caving.
Although there are a plethora of small satellite towns and villages in the Blue Mountains, Katoomba, along with the enchanting towns of Leura and Wentworth Falls, form the main tourist hub in the Blue Mountains. The choice of accommodation on offer caters for all depth of pockets, from camping at the picturesque Katoomba Falls ($10 per person) and the ubiquitous YHA ($20 per person) in town, through the mid range of comfortable guesthouses and hotels starting at around $75 per room per night. Right the way up the scale you reach the interestingly named Grand Hydro Majestic Hotel (a few km’s west of Katoomba), with suites costing up to a cool A$1000 per night you’d need to have pockets down to your ankles.
The area is well served with bus routes, both around Katoomba and between all places of interest in the Katoomba/Leura area. If you’re feeling a little more energetic, you can always hire a couple of mountain bikes and take off under your own steam around the region. Most of the attractions in this area are fairly close together and it should be a moderate cycle for the almost fit.
Blackheath is just down the road, or two stops after Katoomba on the same rail-line that brings you from Sydney. The town itself is a great base for visiting the Grose and Megalong Valleys and just east of town there are amazing views to be had at Govett’s Leap and Evan’s Lookout. It’s a great area for walking and a lot of the lookout points and sights are linked by designated walking tracks. These also include Pulpit Rock and Anvil Rock. Perry’s Lookdown is the point of departure for the shortest route to the breathtakingly beautiful Blue Gum Valley floor.
If the weather takes a turn for the worst a great way to stay dry and still feed the need to explore is to visit the Jenolan Caves, which lie south west of Katoomba. The limestone caves are very well known in Australia and some sections have been open for visitors since the mid-1800’s. Now here’s the thing, over 200 years of exploring and yet there are still some sections of the cave system that remain unexplored to this day. This gives you some idea of the enormous complexity and intricacies of the many different caves and their layouts. There are various tours into the cave system, ranging from mildly exerting to downright strenuous. The Jenolan Caves are definitely worth a visit, especially at night, when the enveloping darkness lends an eerie feel to the caverns.
There is so much to see and do in the Blue Mountains. With Katoomba as a base, how much time you spend in the area really depends on how much time you have to spare. You could easily fill many happy weeks exploring and investigating the whole region and see something new and wonderful each day. One note of warning though, if you do come in winter be sure to come prepared for arctic conditions, it is c-c-c-cold, trust me on this one.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Pacific Insiders page.