The Blue Mountains

Posted by on September 4, 2011

Early Friday morning we took a train 2 hours west into the Blue Mountains (I keep having to correct myself on it being west, not east, since I’m so used to living on the west coast where you always go east to get to mountains). Part of Australia’s Great Dividing Range, the Blue Mountains actually aren’t all that high – about 3000 feet. But it was still significantly colder there than in Sydney – I wasn’t warm enough the whole day. :( (Remember that amazing $5 coat I scored at the Kirribilli Market last week? Turns out it’s not really warm at all… probably good that I got the deal I got, and didn’t pay more!)

They are called the Blue Mountains because of the unique blue haze above them, deeper than anywhere else in the world. At first I thought they just looked hazy and normal, but later in the day I could really see the beautiful blue, and it definitely looked deeper and lovelier than I’ve seen anywhere else. The reason for it is eucalyptus trees release an oil vapor into the atmosphere which, along with dust particles and water vapor, scatters blue light in the atmosphere more than any other spectrum color. The Blue Mountains are covered in eucalyptus trees, so I guess that’s why they’re so blue.

We left the house by 6:30 am, and it was kind of fun to bake breakfast bread the night before so we could take it with us, and get up before dawn and get going. Reminded me of the super special mornings when I was a kid and we would get up in the dark to drive up to Disneyland for our annual trip. Of course, I was not feeling that way the night before when the house still had to be cleaned, breakfast made, clothes packed, laundry finished, shower taken, etc., but I was glad later.

We had one train transfer, in downtown Sydney, at the circle of purgatory called “Central Station.” It’s where people in wheelchairs and parents with strollers are sent when Australia is really sick of them, because not only is it massive and poorly labeled, there are no elevators. Anywhere. And there are about a million stairs – you have to walk down a few flights of stairs to get off your train platform into the station, then you have to walk back up another few to get to your connecting train. You probably also have to climb a flight or ten in between. Ok, ten is an exaggeration. But when you have luggage and a stroller, it’s a lot to manage.

We survived Central, and got onto our next train with time to spare. We found seats upstairs, since we’d be on this train for 2 hours. We spent most of the ride reading to or playing with Naomi (or keeping her out of trouble), but when we were able to peek out the windows, we could see the scenery changing and getting much prettier.

One of the big things I noticed this weekend was that it finally FELT like Spring to me. For the last month (we’ve been here a month already!), I’ve certainly noticed that it feels colder and that the days seem shorter, but since we’re in such a big city, that is all the Spring I’ve experienced. But out in the mountains, there were actually trees and plants everywhere, and with cherry blossoms, daffodils, and smells I can’t describe better than just “Spring smells,” it finally felt like Spring. That was really nice.

Me and some spring-y looking wattle. I'm not actually giving the tree a hug, just pulling the branch down. I do like wattle, now that I know what it is, but ... not that much.

We got off the train in Katoomba. Fun name, huh. I believe it is an Aboriginal word for waterfall. And we did see the waterfall – Katoomba Falls. Here’s a video of the view we saw from a tram, and then the view from a cableway which took us down into the Jamison Valley below:

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And here’s a photo Daniel took showing Katoomba Falls:

Katoomba Falls

It is a really beautiful falls – referred to as a bridalveil falls. It was long and lithe, delicate but tall. We saw it from the glass-bottomed Skyway tram at oddly named “Scenic World,” where we spent most of the day. I kept thinking that sounded like a theme park, except that it was supposed to be more along the lines of a national park – hiking trails through forests and past a waterfall and stuff. There were things like the Skyway tram, the scenic cableway, and a train, but the employees kept calling them “rides.” We thought that was kind of weird. Later we found out that they have a roller coaster in the works, which would make it more like a theme park… sort of. But the roller coaster has been under construction for 27 years and the owners have still given no target opening date. Interesting. I guess it’s the subject of a lot of controversy and rumor, as to whether it’s “an appropriate attraction” or not. It is also ironically (or not) the first Australian designed and manufactured roller coaster, so I’m not sure if that is somewhat related to the safety concerns.

The highlight of the day – of the whole weekend, actually – was seeing a lyrebird in the wild, putting on a show for a nearby female.

Male lyrebird

Boy are these guys amazing! I’d seen a video of one on YouTube before – lyrebirds are famous for being able to imitate almost any sound they hear. Here is what Wikipedia had to say (I know, I know – Wikipedia. I caved):

The lyrebird’s syrinx is the most complexly-muscled of the Passerines (songbirds), giving the lyrebird extraordinary ability, unmatched in vocal repertoire and mimicry. Lyrebirds render with great fidelity the individual songs of other birds and the chatter of flocks of birds, and also mimic other animals, human noises, machinery of all kinds, explosions, and musical instruments. The lyrebird is capable of imitating almost any sound — from a mill whistle to a cross-cut saw, and, not uncommonly, sounds as diverse as chainsaws, car engines and car alarms, fire alarms, rifleshots, camera shutters, dogs barking, crying babies, and even the human voice.

The male lyrebird we saw did imitate a kookaburra – in fact when he first flew down in front of us, and I didn’t know what he was, I was a bit confused why he was clearly giving off a kookaburra call, but was clearly not a kookaburra. It wasn’t until later that another passerby was remarking how special it was that this lyrebird had flown down right in front of us, that I made the connection. I believe he may also have been imitating a chicken, as the call sounded like that a few times, but I’m not sure. The other sound he made a lot (kind of a zapping sound) sure makes me curious. It sounds like a video game or gun or camera or something. Does anyone else recognize the sound, or have a guess at what it is? Another bystander said that he himself had done a lot of bushwalking, but had never seen a lyrebird put on a performance like this. We felt very privileged.

Here is what Daniel caught on video:

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You can see the lucky female pecking around in the background during part of the video. I felt kind of sorry for the poor guy – he really seemed to be throwing his heart into that song and dance, while she was basically ignoring him. Typical woman. And also, sorry about the loud talking over part of the song. I don’t see Daniel get annoyed very often, but he was pretty annoyed with those people. They not only didn’t notice the lyrebird or the significant crowd of people huddled around listening to it, but once they did notice it, the dad wrote it off as a peacock and wanted them all to get going, not realizing what a special treat they were passing up.

Here is another great video of another lyrebird, courtesy of YouTube:

Interestingly, the lyrebird is also featured on the Australian 10-cent coin:

So, Scenic World was cool. Naomi napped through the lyrebird and our walk through the forest. It was called temperate rain forest, and Daniel and I both felt like we were on the distribution trek again. Except, as he pointed out, “It sure would have been an easier trek if we’d had this great boardwalk!” We were elevated above the rocks, roots, leeches and mud by about 4-10 feet the entire way, and it was such a smooth path that we pushed our sleeping toddler in her stroller on it for 1.5 hours.

Using the plastic rain guard over the stroller muffles sounds and helps Naomi sleep longer, but I must have startled quite a few people and made them wonder why I was pushing R2D2 through the rain forest.

We got little sneak peeks at the Three Sisters through the tremendous overgrowth of the bush – those are the famous three pillars of rock in the Jamison Valley. We also enjoyed seeing some of the historic pieces of machinery left behind from the coal and oil shale mining work that went on for about 15 years in the 1880’s. Most impressive was a large bucket used to carry coal out of the mines: it had a wheel where it would run along the cables, and when I spun the wheel it moved silently and perfectly smoothly, even after 130 years out in a wet rain forest! As the little sign by it said, it was a great testament to the skill of the German craftsman who fitted it, and to the quality of the lubricant originally used on it. We laughed that our little stroller has a nagging squeak in one wheel after the mere 6 months we’ve used it. Go Germans!

When Naomi woke up, we were by this bronze statue of a miner with his pony. She immediately insisted, "On! On!" and wanted several pictures taken with the pony. The only bummer was that, being bronze, he was too cold for her to hold onto for very long. She kept saying, "Hot! Hot!" :)

We had taken the cablecar down to the bottom of the Jamison Valley, and hiked part of the way back up. Then a “train” took us the rest of the way. Now, when I say “train,” you probably think “choo-choo” right? Tracks that run along relatively flat ground in a steady, orderly way? That’s what I thought too. Not this train. It was actually a funicular, and not just any funicular, but the steepest funicular in the world, at a 52-degree incline over a distance of 415 meters. I always think that giving the degree of the slope makes it seem about half as steep as it feels, and that is definitely true with this slope. It felt really steep. (As a side note, why the heck did they call it a train? I looked up trains on Wikipedia and nowhere on the page does it even mention funiculars. Not even under the category of “other types of trains.” And seriously, if Wikipedia doesn’t call it a train it is not a train. Right?) Anyway. Did I mention that this funicular went straight up the side of a cliff? And that it went really fast? And that it was not enclosed? And that we were just seated on benches, with no seat belts or railings or sides? I totally thought I was going to fall out. It actually felt more dangerous than a roller coaster, and I wasn’t even in Southeast Asia! We were pretty impressed by their lack of attention to safety. The guy literally said, after allowing a moment for us to board, “Alright folks, we’re going to leave now,” and just as he said “now” the train shot backwards and then vertically up the side of the cliff, and I’m not exaggerating. I held Naomi tight and Daniel gripped our stroller and backpacks and we were both slightly surprised we didn’t lose any of those items on our way up the cliff side. It made a little more sense of why the employees call all these things “rides.” Here is the video clip:

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But maybe even scarier than the “train” (for me), was our encounter with two pied currawongs: these two humongous, hungry, aggressive crow-like birds that stalked us from the moment Daniel pulled his peanut butter sandwich out to eat while we walked through the forest. You may laugh at me (my husband did), but it caused me a LOT of anxiety to have them stalk us for about 10 minutes. We were walking quickly, but they kept up with us by flying from branch to branch to get as close to his sandwich as they could, even trying to swoop by and grab it out of his hands. They were probably about 20 inches long, so you can agree or disagree with my description of how huge they were, but I’ll have you know that they are known for hunting the eggs of other birds and even eating juvenile birds. Bullies. The two going after us were hulks of birds, with powerful-looking beaks that were large and slightly hooked on the end, and I kept picturing the moment in the movie “The Passion,” when the thief on the cross who mocked Jesus looks up into the face of a crow who has landed on his cross, and who then proceeds to peck the man’s eyes out. These birds looked just the same as I remembered that one, and with how aggressively they were trying to get our food, I kept squinting my eyes shut for fear that one of them would peck my eye out. It didn’t help that their eyes are quite evil-looking. Look:

What the photo does not show is that that pole he's standing on is about the diameter of my arm. Homeboy was HUGE.

I eventually made Daniel walk about 10 paces behind me, since he refused to put his sandwich away (or even kind of hide it!), and one of them continued to stalk me, even though I wasn’t eating anything. Horrible experience. Go ahead and laugh, but I’m still shuddering over it.

To make up for that, I’ll show you this photo Daniel took of a Crimson Rosella sitting on a eucalyptus branch:

Crimson Rosella

Anyway, after such an eventful day, we were exhausted and headed to our hotel around 4 pm. Unfortunately, after a really cold day during which all I could think about was the jacuzzi that awaited us at our hotel, we arrived to find out that it wasn’t working! :( Instead, I made myself a hot bath which was a wonnnnnnnderful substitute. In fact, after getting in I proceeded to fall asleep in it. I did not drown, but Daniel was a little worried when I told him about it later. I was intrigued with the fact that the bottom of the bathtub remained cool to the touch even after it had been filled with hot water for almost an hour. Maybe it’s made of iron? Still enjoyed my bath though.

We got burgers at a nearby cafe and turned in early. We all decided to try traditional “Aussie burgers,” which include beetroot (basically just beets, but they call it beetroot here), a fried egg and a pineapple ring. Interesting, huh? I thought it was pretty good, but ended up taking out my pineapple halfway through as it made it all too sweet. Daniel had actually tried a traditional Aussie burger last week at Hungry Jack’s (the Australian branch of Burger King), and I had loved that one, so I guess it just depends on who makes it. Kind of sad that I preferred the BK one to the homemade one, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Aussie Burger at Hungry Jack's (aka HJ's), the Australian version of Burger King

Also at this cafe we bought some breakfast things since, although our hotel provided breakfast, it did not serve until 8:30. With a toddler who wakes by 5:30 at the latest, that was not going to do it for us.

The hotel boasted central heating but as it turned out, not only did the heaters not really get very warm, but they also shut down in the middle of the night. Our little early bird woke us before 5, Daniel went out to take pictures of sunrise, and Naomi and I ate a breakfast of raisin bread and peanut butter (“puh-buh”). The raisins hiding in the bread (“Boo!”) were a big hit.

Daniel came back by about 7, since the  morning light hadn’t really been hitting the Three Sisters like he’d hoped, and then gave me a break during which he and Naomi played and I stole another nap. We had to check out at 10, which meant we were stuck with our luggage for the day. On top of that, we were both pretty wiped so Day 2 didn’t hold as much eventfulness. We walked to a lookout point from which you could see the whole Jamison Valley, Katoomba Falls, and the beautiful Three Sisters.

The Three Sisters

While Naomi took a short nap, Daniel checked out some other falls, and I sat and took some quiet time on a hillside. I was struck with how truly elegant and beautiful eucalyptus trees are. We bought lunch at a cafe on the little main street in Katoomba, but then had them pack it up for us, as we only had a few minutes before we had to catch our train by the time the food arrived. We were greatly relieved to get to the platform just in time for the train, as trains came only every hour. The train ride got pretty long, mostly because Naomi had only gotten about a quarter of her usual nap that day, but we all made it back in one piece.

We were all feeling extra-tired by the time we got on the train home, and that made one of us especially goofy. It wasn't Daniel or I. But with a girl that winsome, it's hard not to have fun.

It was a gorgeous sunset when we arrived at Milson’s Point train station and walked home, and in a funny way I felt relieved to be back home in Sydney, even though I’d enjoyed the quiet and the exquisite beauty of the mountains. I hadn’t missed the smell of smoke in our apartment, or the concrete or the noise of the city per se. But it was still nice to be back in our own little home, and the brilliant gold sunlight creeping up the white walls of our apartment and spreading over the silvery water outside our window was just icing on the cake.

4 Responses to The Blue Mountains

  1. Pamela O.

    Great video Daniel, even with the oblivious bystanders talking! It is such a beautiful place!

  2. Nana T

    Lots of things – The eucalyptyus trees look much more at home in Australia than here in California. Having had to endure their lack of beauty as they struggle here as transplants, I have more appreciation of them there than here.

    The backwards train ride, as a parent, must have been awful. One of those moments of regretting putting your child in a risky environment, but its too late to get out of it.

    You realize, of course, that the difference in the super special annual trips to Disneyland and this one is that you were the recipient of the magic instead of the creator of it. Just checking . . .

    I’m totally with you, KK, on the black crows – another parent’s nightmare.

    The natural beauty you were surrounded with on this trip was breathtaking. Daniel, your capturing of it was absolutely amazing. Love you all with all my heart, Nana

    • Katie

      Mom – yes, creating magic is a lot more work than receiving ;) And I have to admit, I wasn’t at all worried about the crows getting Naomi – she was safely inside R2D2 at the time… I was only worried about myself!! :)

      PS – In only a few more days you can order an Aussie burger with extra pineapple, no egg to your heart’s content! Only 4 days to go…

  3. Nana T

    P.S. – I would have tossed the egg and kept the pineapple.

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