The Blue Mountains are a mountain range in New South Wales, Australia on the edge of Sydney. But why are they so blue?
Maybe they lost the love of their life. They are broken-hearted, paralyzed by regret and the weight of what could have been. Or, like Hamlet in his famous soliloquy, they are overwhelmed by the struggle of existence yet terrified at the “undiscovered country” that waits after death?
Perhaps Pablo Picasso created them. Did he secretly visit Australia’s rainforests during his Blue Period? Or maybe they have simply been holding their breath for too long?
I asked the Blue Mountains why they were so blue and they didn’t answer… they only sat there. So, I Googled it. (I had to wait until I got home, mobile phone reception was spotty up there.)
The scientific reason? It’s because of the Eucalyptus trees. They fill the atmosphere with tiny dispersed droplets of their natural oils. The air is infused with refreshing Eucalyptus oil (take a deep breath in and feel your lungs clear).
The oil and dust particles scatter the sunlight as it attempts to penetrate the haze. The short-wavelength rays of light create a bluish fog that sits over the peaks and valleys.
Peer past the blue cough-drop mist of the Eucalyptus trees and look at these forest-clad hills. You will see many more colours beyond the dusty azure hue. The trees are deep greens, the silvery water shimmers and the cliffs are ruddy ochre and rusty-red, thanks to oxidation of the iron within. The closer you look, the more fascinating details of this lush ecosystem you discover.
A Day of Exploring the Blue Mountains
We took a day tour from Sydney to the Blue Mountains with Oz Trails. A bleary-eyed Lee and I (he’s not a morning person) jumped into the minibus in the Sydney CBD. Our tour guide Jason was a talkative and energetic bloke. He created a fun and laid back atmosphere in that friendly, warm way that many Aussies have. As we drove out of Sydney, yawning and rubbing our eyes, Jason gave us a rundown of Sydney settlement history.
Jason loved to talk. He commented on history, industry, house prices, his 18 month old kid. He didn’t have a prepared script – he seemed to talk about anything that came to his stream of consciousness. It was entertaining because of his like-able nature and his knowledge of the area.
The tour was $86 AUD ($65 USD) each with the option to pay extra for scenic world at $39 ($30 USD) each. Scenic World is optional – you could go on a bushwalk in the afternoon instead. In retrospect I’m glad we did it. The tour would have felt incomplete without it and we would have been twiddling our thumbs while everyone else took awesome cable car rides.
Bring cash so your tour guide can buy your Scenic World ticket in advance and you don’t have to wait in the queue.
Sydney Olympic Park
On our way out of Sydney we stopped at Olympic Park and learned about the massive developments there. This Olympic site still manages to bring in money every year via concerts, residential developments, events and much more. You could spend a full day exploring the Olympic Park. There are so many restaurants, cafes, parks and walking trails to explore.
We drove further out of town and crossed the threshold of the mountains – the rocky peaks rising up all around us. As sleepy Lee started to doze off in the seat next to me, we approached Lincoln’s Rock. This stunning rock is one of the most photogenic spots in the Kings Tableland.
Lincoln’s Rock is named after the intrepid Australian mountaineer and author Lincoln Hall. He was one of those crazy yet impressive dudes who decide to hike up Mount Everest. On the descent of his 2006 climb he started to succumb to altitude sickness, hallucinate and become confused. His Sherpa guides tried for hours to save him. As night set in and oxygen supplies dwindled they had to make the difficult decision to leave him for dead and hike down themselves. Otherwise, they would all die.
Amazingly, 12 hours later a team climbing towards the summit came across Hall. He was sitting up, completely lucid, sitting cross legged and changing his shirt. He had no oxygen, no sleeping bag, no food and no water. He said, “I imagine you’re surprised to see me here.”
The ascending party abandoned their summit to launch a rescue effort for Hall. They said, “The summit will still be there, we can go back. Lincoln only has one life.” He arrived at Base Camp without the tips of his fingers and one of his toes, still a bit loopy from the effects of cerebral edema. But he was alive.
Hall won a Medal of the Order of Australia as well as the Australian Geographic Society’s Lifetime of Adventure award. Unfortunately, he died at age 56 of mesothelioma. Surviving a night on the top of Mount Everest didn’t kill him, but tiny asbestos fibres did. They embedded in his lungs when he built dog kennels in his youth and they finally got the best of him. The rock that bears his name was where he drank wine and watched the sunset with his wife when he returned from a mountaineering expedition.
Wentworth Falls is a three tiered waterfall fed by Jamison Creek, located near the town of Wentworth Falls. If there had been more rain in the region recently it would have been a roaring cascade. Since it had been dry the waterfall wasn’t more than a small trickle.
This allowed us to walk over the falls themselves on a stone pathway, close enough to smell the wet sand and stone. If the waterfall had been in full flow, it would have swept us down the mountainside.
On our walk to the falls we spotted a Lyrebird. The male of the species impresses the female by singing and imitating sounds from his environment, including everything from the calls of other birds to the sounds of jackhammers, chainsaws and car alarms. However, this male probably wasn’t very popular with the ladies because he didn’t have a lot of cool sounds in his repertoire.
Around this time we started to feel the grumbling of hunger in our bellies. I was glad when Jason announced that our next step would be lunch in the small town of Leura. This picturesque village is the epitome of every cute tourist town. Edwardian storefronts, flower-ringed 19th century cottages, chintzy gift shops with punny names, retro sweet shops and cute cafes with sidewalk seating – it’s ridiculously charming.
Keep in mind the prices aren’t cheap – you’re paying a premium for the cuteness. Lee and I took a few sandwiches from home to keep costs down and ate them on a public bench while people-watching.
The best thing we discovered in Leura was the delightfully strange Treasured Teapot Museum. I’ve seen the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, the ruins of Machu Picchu and the temples of Angkor Wat. I never thought I would see an entire museum dedicated to teapots.
This is the largest private collection of tea wares in the world, with more than 5,500 teapots from around the world spanning five centuries.
As soon as you walk in the door you notice the glass display cabinets stuffed to the brim with teapots and teacups of all shapes and sizes. This is like your grandma’s dining room, on steroids. I kept my hands wedged in my pockets, terrified of making one clumsy move and shattering hundreds of years worth of teapots.
Still grinning from the strangeness of discovering a teapot museum, we got back in the van and headed to our next destination. Scenic World consists of four “rides” which all revolve around seeing the breathtaking blue-tinged mountain vistas from the most exciting vantage point.
The most famous is the Katoomba Scenic Railway. There is also the Scenic Skyway, the Cableway and the Scenic Walkway (an elevated boardwalk through the ancient rainforest).
You can do the rides in any order, but we were dropped off at the entrance of the Scenic Skyway so that’s where we started. This large ride is like a bus suspended on a cable between two mountains, 270 metres above the Jurassic rainforest below. I stood on the glass floor and peered at the treetops far below me. I put a lot of trust in that little square of glass!
We then took the Scenic Cableway, which is a 510 metre drop into the Jamison Valley, offering you stunning views of Katoomba Falls, Mt. Solitary, Orphan Rock and the Three Sisters.
When we reached the bottom, we were at the beginning of the Scenic Walkway boardwalk. Jason stopped to point out interesting natural features – such as the lair of a funnel web spider. This is one of the terrifying venomous spiders in Australia and their bite can kill you. Everyone backed away from the funnel-shaped web. Why is everything in Australia always so deadly?
The Scenic Railway was our final thrill. The steepest passenger railway in the world, the glass roofed carriages take you up or down a 52 degree incline through a cliff-side tunnel. You can “choose your own adventure” by adjusting your seat to make things more nerve wracking. I went with the most extreme “Cliffhanger” setting, which made it feel like I was almost going to fall out of the seat.
The carriage crept up the nearly-vertical slope, disappearing into the cool darkness of a tunnel carved through the rock. I imagine it would have been even more exciting if we had done the park in the other direction, zooming face-first down the mountain rather than ascending backwards.
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Back to Sydney – Via Boat
After enjoying the rainforest from every angle at Scenic World, it was time to board our Fantasea cruise and float back to Sydney.
We had only been on board for a few minutes when the alarms on the boat started blaring and crew members rushed around in a panic. An acrid, sulphur odor filled the air and red smoke billowed from the end of the boat.
Lee and I looked at each other and panic washed over my body. He started feeling around under the seat for the lifejacket. I’m sure my fitbit readings for that day have a huge heart rate spike during that moment. I thought I would have to abandon ship in an impromptu Titanic reenactment (minus the iceberg).
A moment or two later a calm voice came over the intercom and explained what had happened. One of the flares on the ship had been accidentally set off. That explained the red smoke and the horrible sour sulphur smell that was burning our nostrils. Everything was fine and we continued our cruise.
After cruising for a while the flare smoke dissipated and so did our panic – people bought beers and sat back, chatting and laughing with friends. As we glided into Sydney Harbour, we enjoyed a world class view passing under the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge with the iconic Opera House ahead.
The Blue Mountains may have their reasons, but I find it pretty hard to be blue when you are somewhere this beautiful.
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