Australia journal - June 1999

The Blue Mountains:
Are you fish?

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Wednesday morning, following our custom, we had breakfast at the Roobar and spent a little time on line before checking out of the hotel and walking over to Central Station to catch our train for Katoomba. It was a smooth, quiet ride west through the suburbs and out into the country, stopping in villages each more picturesque than the last as we made the gentle climb into the Blue Mountains.

No one checked our tickets anywhere along the route. We inadvertently entered through an open gate at Central Station instead of going through the ticket-reading turnstile, and I wondered if we'd get in trouble at the other end for not having officially entered the system. But the station at Katoomba had no electronic gates, and we just walked down the ramp and into town.

We took a short walk up Katoomba Street in search of an ATM, passing an Internet cafe and two bookstores in half a block. We stopped at the Paragon, a tea room we had been told about by Sandy Gore, and bought a bag of assorted chocolates, which we would enjoy at carefully chosen moments over the next few days.

Then we took a taxi to the Echoes Guest House and were shown to a small but comfortable room with a luxurious view of the verdant mountain range to the south. Fluffy, flat-bottomed clouds float in the distance, dropping lazy shadows on the easy ridges and gentle slopes that extend to the far horizon.

We took a taxi back into Katoomba, and on the driver's advice we had lunch at the Savoy. With a view of the busy sidewalk, and the traffic inside the restaurant, we observed a large number of young adults, particularly hippie-backpacker-looking people (and the occasional gypsy/hippie girl with multiple facial piercings) along with a robust-looking older populace and fresh-faced school kids. This being the school holiday season, it's likely there are a lot of campers in the area despite the see-your-breath temperatures.

After lunch we walked down Katoomba Street, stopping in used book stores, gift shops and clothing stores and admiring the pastries in the windows of the many bakeries we passed.  There are heaps of bread shops and patisseries here, and also De House of Penang Chinese Restaurant and Pastry Shop, with a steam table full of noodle dishes etc. in the window and good old Western-style pastries inside.

Rita wanted to visit a hat shop she had been told about, but having no interest in that idea and suffering from the both cold and my aching legs and feet, I peeled off and continued back to the hotel. Along the way I encountered a raucous convention of baritone bird calls; I looked up to see a tree where dozens of Sulphur-crested cockatoos perched, screaming, while others across the road flew back and forth screaming back at them. I didn't have my tape recorder with me.

And when we returned to the Echoes Guest House, the valley in the foreground was all in shadow but the hills in the near distance and the far mountains were still getting sunlight; the cliffs at the opposite end of our view had taken on a fiery glow above the muted greens of the hills below, slowly receding into shadow. Within a few minutes, the entire valley was in shadow, while the clouds still caught the bright sun on their undersides, drifting eastward as the pinks dimmed to purple everywhere.

When we went to the lobby to ask the clerk to ring for a cab, another guest was doing the same. Making conversation, we discovered that not only was he going to Leura, as we were, but he was also going to the very same restaurant, Silk's. So we shared the cab.

Our fellow guest was a lawyer from Sydney, in Katoomba for a couple of days to do some business at the courthouse, which he said was very poorly heated and uncomfortable. But he seemed to be as comfortable as we were at Echoes.

The sky at night! This far from the city, in this underpopulated country, light pollution was negligible. We could see a zillion stars, none of them in familiar patterns. "No dippers!" Rita joked as we beheld with awe the Milky Way. It was damn cold out there, but we were just knocked out by the clarity of the starscape.

Katoomba Question: If they sell hats at The Hattery, what do they sell at The Buttery?

I woke up at about 7:00 Thursday morning with the sound of a fierce wind roaring outside. The sky was still a little pink and hazy, and I watched with great happiness as the light grew and the colors of the valley came to life. There is a thick back of cloud way beyond the opposite rim of the valley, but the sky where we are is crystal clear. The ribbon of naked cliff that runs along every ridge here looks different in this morning light, of course, as shadows are cast in the opposite direction from those in last night's vista. We are at about 3000 feet here, and these mountains don't have peaks -- they are flat-topped and covered with vegetation everywhere except on those cliffsides.

The hotel is on the edge of the canyon; our room has a terrace at the top of a steep tree-covered slope. Off to the right, along the canyon rim, are private homes and other hotels, below which I can see up close the same kind of rock face that glows in the distance all around the valley wall. The wind whistles in the metal bars of our terrace and bends the trees below. The wide valley looks perfectly still in the sunshine, but the near-field view is daunting, underscored by the fierce sound of the wind. And it's damn cold out there.

We had breakfast (included in our stay here at Echoes) upstairs in the dining room, where the canvas panels over the patio outside sang a different tune in the wind. Ready to begin our day outdoors, we wondered if the wind was expected to subside. Our waitress wasn't sure. "We've had all sorts of weather at once here," she said with a rueful smile. "It even snowed here two days ago. Wind, rain, hail, snow, brilliant clear days..." She said she can't even guarantee that it won't snow today.

We asked her to recommend a trail. "Are you fish?" she asked.

"Ummmm, er..." we mumbled.

"Are you fairly fish?"

It took us a second. "Yes! We're reasonably fit." All right, then! The National track, over at Wentworth Falls, is just the ticket.

The roaring of the wind out here at Echo Point was a daunting sound, but Penelope at the front desk explained that Wentworth Falls is lower in altitude and therefore much less windy overall. And once we get below the canyon rim, we were told, we will be cold but it will not be nearly as windy as it is here at the top.

The wind became less forceful ss soon as we left the canyon rim. We took the train to Wentworth Falls (2 stops away, $2.20 round trip!), and again we observed with some wonder that no one checked our tickets anywhere along the route. There are no electronic gates at these small-town stations, and no conductor in evidence on the train, either.

Outside the Wentworth Falls station, we grabbed a cab to the trailhead. Weird to be taking a taxi to the wilderness, but what the hey.

On the advice of one of the hotel staff, we set out on the National Pass, which took us down a few hundred feet fairly quickly (some staircases, but mostly terraced trails and some steps carved out of the rock). We descended a very, very steep and scary staircase, with a chain-link fence on the open side and a metal cable to hold onto on the wall side, and the broken-elbow lady said, "Remember: sitting down is always an option."

A sign at the top explained that the cliffside is composed of "alternating layers of sandstone and shale; sandstone does not erode easily, but shales do, so the layers have formed steps in the falls."

Some of the trees have odd, spiny seed entities that grow up rather than hanging down; they look sort of like short corn cobs, but with yellow spiny things sticking out all over like big fat bottle brushes. These things exist in varying stages of ripeness -- some have given up all their cargo and stand dry and brown, while others still have active spines.  We later identified these as banksia.

The track (trail) took us right across Wentworth Falls at the top of the ridge; the water flow must not be too great here at any time, since the stepping stones provided were only a few inches high. But the views out into the valley were spectacular -- like the Grand Canyon if it was overgrown -- and the up-close stuff fascinating. I'd like to know more abut the geology of this region.

The track doubled back and took us back across Wentworth Falls a couple hundred feet below where we crossed the first time, under a broad rock rim. At this point there was no solid stream of water coming down at all: the flow was completely atomized coming over the rim, blown away from the receding rock face by the wind; collected itself into several small streams all the way down the side of a beautiful broad sandstone wall, landed on a ledge, came down in a couple of major streams onto another ledge, and collected in pools at the level where we were standing. As we continued along the track another few hundred yards, we were able to see that the next section of Wentworth Falls was a sheer drop of a couple hundred feet, below which the rainforest obscured the flow from our vision.

One narrow passage went under a sandstone face; we nearly had to crawl, it was so low. I stopped at one spot to make a recording of the many sounds of water: we were below another of these atomized waterfalls, where the stream disperses into spray as it clears the rock rim, and splashes down with an almost rhythmic pulse -- gathered together as a falling stream, or less volubly as the uncollected spray; to my right nearer the cliffside was another sound, where some of the water from above was gathered into a streamlet; and at my feet was a small and steady stream, one of many I'm sure.

While we were marveling under this waterfall, we noticed a pair of red birds with long black tails, hanging out in the vegetation halfway up the cliffside. "Taking a shower," Rita said. Then they flew off. We just stood and took this whole scene in for several minutes. The very top was sandstone, and underneath were darker layers with horizontal streaks of white; another layer of vegetation (see the leaflet we bought later for the name of this - something swamp); and more sandstone and shale in alternating layers. Lots of desert varnish on the sandstone faces.

Along this magnificent cliffside trail we encountered the trio from the next table at Silk's. "Walking off that meal from last night, are you?" joked the woman. We exchanged pleasantries about our present location and compared notes about our respective meals, and I got a knowing laugh out of them by mentioning that the creme brulee wasn't nearly as the excitable young man had promised. Then we continued on down the track in our respective directions.

"I keep thinking it looks like Utah, and then it looks like Yosemite, and it looks like Mount Tam," said Rita. "There's eucalyptus, and then there's red rock, and there's hanging moss, and water falling, and rocks -- its totally astonishing!"

Rita fished out a piece of Paragon chocolate as we walked, and for a few glorious minutes we were walking along this wondrous path, taking in all these monumental natural sights and sounds, with the rich taste of caramel and chocolate in our mouths. A sweet moment, and we made it last.

More waterfalls, more rainforest, more breathtaking views, more scary ledges, more stops for photos and breath-catching. But the greatest effort was yet to come: the climb back up to the top of the rim was steeper than the climb down, and a good deal longer, as well, I think. After struggling up a couple flights of metal stairs, we began another section of climb that involved less of a grade but was psychologically exhausting because every time we thought we were out of there, we turned a corner and found we had more climbing to do. I was soaking wet with sweat by the time we made it to the top, happy and proud and shivering in that chilly wind.

We entered the Conservation Hut, a restaurant and shop overlooking the valley, and enjoyed an excellent lunch (Rita had an eggplant sandwich; I had a veggie burger; we both enjoyed the steaming hot potato wedges with their spicy-sweet coating) while catching our breath. Picked up some literature about the Blue Mountains, bought some postcards, and lingered over tea while recovering our strength.

Walking back into town from the Conservation Hut, we passed through a neighborhood right there at the canyon rim that Rita said reminded her more than a little of suburban New Jersey: ranch-style homes on handsome, tree-lines roads with large front yards and plenty of old trees. It occurred to me here that one of the things that makes this place a wonder is that in so many ways it is identical to our homeland -- the general shapes of the houses, business districts, roadside environments, forests, rocks, canyons, etc. -- but up close, things are very different. The casual passerby will see pine-like trees, for example, but take a close look at them and you will see different kinds of leaf and seed systems. Birds behave the way birds do everywhere, for the most part -- but these birds are not the same as the birds of North America.

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