On Sydney's doorstep is one of Australia's most accessible wilderness areas, the Blue Mountains - well worth heading to for a breathtaking break from the city
"Watch out for snakes," the man in the bakery said, as we headed off on our bushwalk. "You can never be too careful." He was winding us up, for sure, but it was a reminder nonetheless that we had left Sydney behind. Only two hours behind and only for a few days, but it already seemed a world away.
But not even the thought of coming across one of Australia’s deadliest snakes was going to put me off enjoying my return to the Blue Mountains. Growing up a few hours from here, we took this wonderful World Heritage Area for granted. I’d ‘cross the mountains’ every other weekend en route to my parents’ place, a good five-hour drive from university. Stopping for a coffee at the same place every time, I only twice bothered to venture off my usual route to feel twigs and gum leaves crunching under my feet. My favourite old café may be long gone, but the Blue Mountains, and their staggering beauty, remain.
I must have barely been into double digits on my first visit here. We were certainly deemed too young to experience the Scenic Railway, an old mining line that plunges 52 degrees over the edge of the platform and into the rainforest below. Having descended the relatively gentle 415-metre drop as an adult, I suspect the “world’s steepest” tagline on the marketing signs scared my parents more than the ride ever would have scared us.
In those days, the railway and the nearby Scenic Skyway, which dangles 270m above the rainforest floor, were Katoomba’s two prized tourist attractions. A quarter of a century later, they’ve been modernised (the Skyway now even has a glass bottom), a Scenic Cablecar’s been added to the portfolio and, together with a Scenic Walkway, they’re called Scenic World. As if World Heritage status alone wasn’t a big enough selling point.
Nevertheless, these man-made attractions opened up Katoomba, the tourist hub of the mountains, and gave everyone the chance to experience what was then one of Australia’s most under-rated tourist destinations. Now, of course, every well-advised visitor to Sydney finds time in their itinerary for a day or two in the Blue Mountains. While Katoomba is the traditional first port of call, the atmospheric villages of Leura and Blackheath are less-crowded (though on sunny weekends only marginally so), and make good bases from which to explore the area.
Walkers are spoilt in this area. The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area takes in some 10,000 square kilometres, many of them dotted with walking trails. We walked back into my childhood and headed to Echo Point. Here, we picked up the trail down to the Three Sisters, the famous rock formation that overlooks the glorious Jamison Valley. After admiring the ‘sisters’, Meehni (922m), Wimlah (918 m) and Gunnedoo (906m), we followed ‘The Giant Stairway’. These 800-odd steps lead down to the rainforest floor and on to The Federal Pass, a marked route that takes you to beautiful Katoomba Falls in less than two hours.
From here, you can either clamber back to the top of the valley using Furber's Steps, which have been etched into the cliff face since 1908, or cheat and take the Scenic Railway. It’s a popular walk, and one best done early in the morning on a weekday to avoid the crowds.
Another popular trail is The Six-foot Track, but it’s reserved for more serious hikers. It stretches 42km, takes three days and covers some of the most spectacular scenery in the wilderness area.
There’s so much to do in the Blue Mountains: so much crisp air to inhale, so many birds to spot, trails to follow, villages to explore; it’s a shame so many visitors give it just a day trip from Sydney. We gave it three days this time round, with the promise of many more to come.
Where to stay
Jemby-Rinjah Eco Lodge is metres from rainforest walking trails. It has cabin and lodge accommodation, priced from A$170 for two adults and two children.
Old Leura Dairy: it took the owners of the Old Leura Dairy eight years to renovate dilapidated old sheds and convert them into luxurious accommodation. From around A$120 a night.
Where to eat
At The Conservation Hut Cafe, Fletcher Street, Wentworth Falls, you can have a light snack or a gourmet meal on a cliff-edge verandah overlooking the mountain valley.
Exploring the area
The National Parks & Wildlife Service runs guided walks of the area. It also publishes a guide called Bushwalking in the Katoomba & Leura Area, which is available from local tourist information centres and shops.
River Deep Mountain High offers walking tours, as well as abseiling, canyoning, mountain biking, rock climbing, photographic safaris and 4x4 tours.