‘‘Stupendous and magnificent’’ was how Charles Darwin described the Blue Mountains when he visited in 1836. Stupendous and magnificent they are still.
It’s extraordinary to think such an awe-inspiring wilderness could exist so close to Sydney. The Blue Mountains are literally just up the road from Australia’s main city – just 90 minutes’ drive will get you there. On a clear day you can see Sydney shimmering in the distance.
I’m staying in Leura, one of 16 tiny historic villages spread like pearls on a necklace along the mountain ridges. Each village has its own claim to fame – whether it be art, antiques or food – they are all well worth exploring.
The Blue Mountains are of course famed for their majestic sandstone escarpments and for being the birthplace of the eucalypt. It’s the eucalypts that give the area its name – the gums give off an oil vapour and when the sun hits it, it refracts a blue haze.
The place has a fascinating history. In the early part of last century people would come from the city for spa treatments here. One of the old spa hotels still stands in its commanding position on the ridge overlooking the Megalong Valley. It’s currently undergoing a major refit.
The Hydro Majestic was quite the place to be in its day. You could have hydrotherapy in a bath on a rocking base, totally enclosed (there was a wooden lid on the bath). You could also, if you so desired, have ‘adjustments’ aided by assorted metal objects like giant forceps. All manner of things apparently happened here under cover of darkness.
The hotel would routinely, I’m told, ring a bell at two in the morning to let patrons know it was time to return to their own rooms. As one local said, it was the birthplace of the ‘‘walk of shame’’.
In the early days of European colonisation the mountains were a remote and edgy place to be. They were a seemingly impenetrable barrier to the farming land in the west. It took the European settlers 25 years to figure out a route through. Needless to say the indigenous people had sorted it out long before.
Don’t miss the views of Katumba Falls as they plummet into the ancient Jamieson Valley and make time to visit Pulpit Rock overlooking the Grose Valley. It offers one of the most spectacular vistas to be had anywhere in the world. It is, true to its name, a spiritual place.
The Jenolan caves are another of the Blue Mountains’ jewels. They’re about half an hour’s drive from Leura through picture postcard scenery. As you descend into the valley the road narrows to one lane. Take it easy , the corners are blind and the drop steep.
The blue lake appears on your left just before you enter the Grand Arch of Jenolan, an extraordinary natural arch that opens out into an almost Disney-esque magic kingdom. The historic caves’ hotel is a revelation – a Tudor mansion in the middle of nowhere. Take the opportunity to walk around the Blue Lake – not only is it beautiful, it is also home to platypus, that most rare and eclectic of Australian mammals – part duck, part beaver part otter.
The caves themselves cover more than 40 kilometres of underground passages some of which are still being explored. They are among the oldest and finest caves in the world. The crystals in them are other worldly.
Yes, the Blue Mountains area is every bit as impressive as its world heritage status suggests.
Judy Bailey’s diaries are made available by Tourism Australia.