It’s a scene that’s inspired many – the undulating reddish-brown ochre dirt bordering the deep, brilliant green of the bushy mountains and the dazzling blues of a cloudless sky.
The Blue Mountains in New South Wales is a landscape familiar to most Australians. And if you haven’t already been there, it’s time to dust off the hiking boots, hitch up the van and head on in. The eastern extremities of the Blue Mountains can be reached in about an hour’s drive from Sydney but there is plenty more to see deeper in this wilderness wonderland.
At more than 11,000 square kilometres, it would be impossible to explore the Blue Mountains in just a few days. Luckily, the national park is split into three areas: Katoomba in the east, Oberon to the west, and Lithgow in the north.
A huge chunk of the Blue Mountains National Park, along with other nearby state and national parks, has been incorporated into the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. The area, which spans more than 10,000 square kilometres, was added to the list in 2000 because of its unique vegetation.
The eucalypts which grow in this area are remarkable because of their resilience throughout the post-Gondwana era and are seen as relics of Australia’s evolutionary past. The area is also home to many rare and threatened species, including 120 plants, 12 mammals and 15 birds.
The parks that make up the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area include Kanangra-Boyd, Wollemi, the Gardens of Stone, Yengo, Nattai and Thirlmere Lakes National Parks, and the Jenolan Caves Karst Conservation Reserve.
THE THREE SISTERS
If there was ever an image that defined the Blue Mountains, it’s the three towering, red, rocky pinnacles balancing on the edge of an escarpment against the clear blue sky. That formation is known as the Three Sisters, just a 2.5km drive from Katoomba town centre to Echo Point.
The road to Echo Point is sealed, so 2WD vehicles and those towing vans can easily get there. There are several lookouts with views of the Three Sisters and out over the rugged mountain valley, including the main Echo Point lookout, as well as the Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales lookouts.
But if you want to see the girls in all their glory, up-close and personal, you’ll need to park at the visitor information centre and take a walk.
Don’t let names like the Giant Stairway fool you (an optional 800-step descent to the floor of the valley, which you then have to walk back up!) – it is an easy walk to the main lookout, which is paved and wheelchair-accessible. There are even several parking spots closer to the lookout for those with mobility issues.
If the mood strikes you, or you’re up for something a bit more adventurous, take a walk on the wild side on the Prince Henry Cliff Walk from Katoomba to Leura.
The walk follows the cliff edge from the Katoomba Cascades waterfalls to Gordon Falls near Leura, passing through Echo Point – a distance of 6.8km (one-way) with a moderate degree of difficulty. But you can pick and choose how far you walk by stopping or starting at one of the car parks along the way.
This trek, which takes about 3.5 hours in one direction, has more than 20 lookouts along its length, passes by three waterfalls and has some of the most magnificent views in the state.
There’s so much to see in every crack and crevice of the Blue Mountains, so if you don’t want to limit yourself to just one corner of it, strike out for a scenic drive.
From Katoomba, the popular Jenolan Caves are a 75km drive north-west, then south through Hartley, Hampton and the Jenolan State Forest in the Oberon section of the park.
But if you’re partial to parking up the van and travelling on foot, there is also a 48km walking track from Katoomba to Jenolan, known as the Six Foot Track.
The Jenolan limestone cave network is the oldest in the world at about 340 million years and is as vast and extensive as it is striking and beautiful.
The stark white limestone seemingly glows underground and a walk below ground level is a peaceful and serene experience.
The local Gundungurra Aboriginal people believe the subterranean waters of the caves has great curing powers and it was used to treat the ill in times gone by.
Exploration of the cave network is ongoing but there is already more than 40km of passages throughout the 300 underground caves. Visitors don’t have access to the whole network but, for a small entrance fee, you can delve below the surface of this ancient geography.
A number of guided tours to the 11 publicly-accessible show caves run every day. Tour numbers, prices, group sizes and level of difficulty vary depending on which caves are being visited, but self-guided tours are also available.
While the major attraction in this part of the world is undoubtedly its scenic beauty, there are several towns of interest scattered throughout the mountains.
Best known for their artistic enclaves and community spirit, larger towns such as Katoomba and Blackheath are drawcards for tourists and travellers looking for a slice of country hospitality and essential services. And there are many other smaller communities dotted along the roads.
Katoomba is probably one of the most-visited towns in the area, due to its proximity to popular attractions such as the Three Sisters and the Six Foot Track. And with a population of nearly 8000 people, it’s also one of the biggest.
The town is filled to the brim with history, including the circa 1882 Carrington Hotel (formerly the Great Western Hotel), the famous Explorers Marked Tree which bears the signatures of early explorers, and Pulpit Hill – about 20 piles of stones thought to mark the graves of convicts who died while working in the area. And if you need to put your feet up at the end of a long day, do it at The Edge cinema – one of the largest cinema screens in the southern hemisphere. As well as regular movies, The Edge also screens a documentary about the Blue Mountains, which will take you to wild places that travellers aren’t able to visit.
Eleven kilometres up the road is Blackheath – a vibrant village of about 4000 residents that mixes modern art and culture with a rich colonial past and gorgeous natural beauty.
Well-known for its annual Rhododendron Festival in November each year, Blackheath is also the starting point for many bushwalks and treks, including the Grand Canyon Walk.
The 6km loop will take fit walkers about 3.5 hours to complete and it is rated as ‘difficult’ because of the many small ledges you must traverse. Passing through World Heritage-listed landscape, the walk takes in many waterfalls, abundant plant life including ferns and golden wattles.
In the north-western section of the park, and about 30km up the road from Blackheath, the town of Lithgow is a worthy stopping point or a destination in itself. Several lakes in the area provide another dazzling colour to the landscape and create opportunities for fishing (trout), boating, swimming, water-skiing and camping by the waterside.
Lithgow is an ideal entry point to the Newnes State Forest and Wollemi National Park.
WOLLEMI NATIONAL PARK
In the northern reaches of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area lies Wollemi National Park. The park is vast in size, spreading from Lithgow in the south-west as far north as the Goulburn River, and the scenery is simply spectacular.
Soaring cliffs, steep canyons, rushing rivers and peaceful forests vie for space in this lush landscape and it is the perfect place to lose yourself – provided your caravan and tow vehicle are up for the challenge, of course.
CW headed bush, fully-prepared with a new Toyota LandCruiser, Nissan Patrol and New Age Commando offroad van.
The two tow vehicles (see page 28 for the comparison) had a ball, grinding their way up and down rocky creek beds and traversing the mountainous terrain with the Commando following faithfully behind.
If you’d rather hitch up and enjoy the scenery than bump wildly about the bush before returning to town that night, small caravans can park up at Dunns Swamp, near Ganguddy in the northern part of the park, and Coorongooba and Newnes on the western side of the park.
- Katoomba is just over 100km/90minutes west of Sydney on the Western Motorway/Great Western Highway. Blackheath is a further 11km north along the same road and Lithgow is another 30km north-west.
- Jenolan Caves are 75km south of Katoomba. Take the Great Northern Highway 47km north to Hartley before turning south on the Jenolan Caves Rd and through the Jenolan State Forest.
- Jenolan Caves: 11 of 300 caves are open to the public on guided or self-guided tours from 9am-5pm, daily. See www.jenolancaves.org.au or call 1300 763 311.
- Three Sisters: Striking rock formation at Echo Point, just outside of Katoomba.
- Bushwalking: various short walks right up to the 48km Six Foot Track, which is used for a marathon race. For a list of walks in the Blue Mountains, visit www.environment.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks/parkwalking.aspx
- Scenic World: the world’s steepest railway, steepest aerial cable car, scenic walkway and glass-bottomed cable car in one place. Visit www.scenicworld.com.au or call 1300 SKYWAY for more information.
- Echo Point Visitor Information Centre: open 9am-5pm, daily.
- For camping in Wollemi National Park, visit www.environment.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks/parkCarCamping.aspx
Originally published in Caravan World 514, May/June 2013