True Blue

Lauren Bartlett goes to the Blue Mountains in search of more than blue mountains

Blue mountain

Lush vegetation clings to the dusky sides of the Jamison Valley canyon, and Mount Solitary’s peak rises from the heart of the basin towards the expanse of cobalt sky. Arriving there on a clear early winter’s day, it’s hard to imagine that the centre of Sydney resides just 90 kilometres to the east of this World Heritage Park.

Dramatic though the landscape is, the Blue Mountains region is home to more than just beautiful vistas—it’s a place of ancient Aboriginal legend, 19th century mining history, and more recently the accumulation of an impressive tally of world records.

At Scenic World, just out of Katoomba, you can ride the world’s steepest gondola to the valley floor, or head down the sharpest incline railway, nicknamed the Mountain Devil. Either way you’ll be going steeply down, down, down—by 52 degrees at its steepest point. At the valley floor you’ll find Australia’s longest elevated boardwalk. Still not impressed? Poke your head inside nearby Jenolan Caves—is the world’s oldest at 340 million years of age.

Scenic World was previously the headquarters for the Katoomba mine. It opened in 1879 to tap into the huge coal seam stretching under the Sydney basin. Miners extracted 20,000 tonnes of coal in 1884 alone. They descended to the coalface riding in a skip down the fern-filled gully. The area became popular with bush walkers, who faced with the 800-step climb to the top of the canyon, began hitching rides up the cliff with the miners. The arrangement soon turned commercial and when the mine closed in 1945 it was leased by local transport entrepreneur Harry Hammon, who recognised its potential as a day-tripper destination.

Scenic World is managed by the Hammons to this day. Once Harry retired his son Phillip took over. Grandson David escorts us back up from the valley floor in the Flyway. It’s a steep cable car that transports tourists from the valley floor to the lip of the canyon. Hammon Junior is a regular Aussie joker. He jerks the car from the bottom platform and claims it’s the first time he’s driven it, prompting nervous laughter from the 80 passengers on board. I suspect it’s a routine he might have tried once or twice before. 

There are birds everywhere; cockatoos, king parrots and numerous rosellas wing over the subtropical bush before settling in a crop of blue gums. There are 700-odd species of eucalyptus in all, most of which are native to Australia. The Blue Mountains gets its name from these trees, in particular from the haze created by the sun’s reflection off vaporizing eucalyptus oil droplets.

We glide past the Orphan Rocker—another world first—it holds the record for the longest production of a rollercoaster and the first rollercoaster designed and built in Australia. Staff at Scenic World joke that it was a “mid-life crisis purchase” by Phillip Hammon, who commissioned the coaster in 1984 before realising he could revamp the whole park for the same price. It remains a ghost train, but the park still receives several emails a week from around the world asking when it’s going to open. For now, it’s still on hold.

The final vertigo-inducing stage of our journey is on the Skyway, a Swiss-made cable car bridging the gully between the Scenic World tourist centre and Echo Point on the far side. It’s a relatively recent addition to the park and features an ‘electro-scenic floor,’ Which means as we edge out into the gorge, the frosted glass floor clears, providing views of the World Heritage site from every angle—including down.

Katoomba Falls tumbles down red shale cliffs on the left, and on the right is Echo Point, a lookout point and best place to see the Three Sisters, an iconic rock formation and site of what must be the definitive marriage-on-the-rocks saga. There are several versions of the tragic tale, according to Aboriginal legend, but the most popular has three local girls falling in love with three men from the wrong crowd—men from a rival tribe. To protect them from marrying the men a Kuradjuri, or witch doctor, turns the girls into stone. The men fight for the maidens, but during the ensuring war the Kuradjuri is killed, leaving the sisters trapped forever in stone. It’s an unfortunate mythical backdrop for a spot popular with modern-day honeymooners.

Near the Three Sisters lookout is the picturesque town of Leura. The main drag is lined with maple-hued trees and cute antique stores. There are inviting cafes, chocolate shops and an old-fashioned book-nook at the end of an arcade. It could be the set for a Stepford Wives sequel. On the far side of the town we discover more reasons why the village is so popular with newlyweds—the number of quaint places to stay.

Inviting interiors at Old Leura Dairy

Inviting interiors at Old Leura Dairy

Our pick is the Old Leura Dairy. Formerly a run-down farm yard, the property has been patiently restored and reinvigorated by Canadian ex-pat Shaina Gliener and her husband Michael. When the couple took on the project it was ramshackle and full of weeds, and the cottage had a lurid colour scheme and fake timber wallpaper. Shaina was pregnant with the couple’s first child at the time. “I remember eating dinner one evening in the sleet, as the outside walls had been pulled down”, Shaina recalls. “We basically had one room to sleep in and one room to do everything else.”

Today the Old Leura Dairy comprises six self-contained and solar-heated dwellings set in a rambling garden. Some, such as the Milking Shed and Buttercup Barn are repurposed farm buildings, others have been built from scratch using 95 percent recycled materials. The roomy Strawbale House comfortably sleeps 13 guests. The emphasis on permaculture is evident in small touches such as the paper bags provided in all rooms allowing guests to collect herbs from the grounds.

The dairy received its first booking on the night Shaina gave birth to their daughter and many more bookings have been made since. Six years on, the Glieners have moved off-site to accommodate the steady influx of weekending Sydney-siders and international travellers. Having sampled a small taste of all there is to do in the Blue Mountains I can see why.

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