Travel Story «The Blue (not in a bold way) Mountains»
04 August 2006
Last Update 24 December 2006
Blue Mountains are a sandstone mountain range 100kms west of
Sydney . Famous for their beautiful vistas and for the fact that this harsh terrain hampered European settlement in
New South Wales for many years.
Bearing in mind that this is the one part of Australia that is only a train ride away from our little slice of the Australian dream, on Harris Street, it was decided (by those who make the decisions) that we should head up one weekend and soak up a little geological culture. As you may or may not be away, all five of us are working (slaving for a meager wage) in the finance sector and as such three of us (Emily, Una and I - Grainne) were lucky enough to benefit from a bank holiday (a holiday for people who work in Banks – not for all the other plebs) on the first weekend of August. So this was the weekend that was chosen.
Initially it was simply supposed to be a small family affair, just the five of us getting away from it all. However as word spread that there were some Irish people venturing outside of
Sydney for the weekend our numbers swelled. The first to throw her hat into the ring was Aileen (Ryan – from Drom,
Tipperary – codename = Knuckles) and she was also going to drag her sister Michelle along. Lorna and Una were immediately unhappy about being outnumbered by people from Tipp and they rounded up a posse from Athlone. This group was made up of Brid (DJ Daly), Kathy, The Hynes Sisters (Hilary and Ruth), Helen and Helen’s cousin, Nigel.
So Lorna dutifully booked 13 people into the Flying Fox Hostel in Katoomba for Saturday night. Lorna and/or Emily also reviewed the travel arrangements and we were assured that we could get a train from
Sydney to Katoomba and walk from the train to the hostel. Travel arrangements had to be slightly amended after Emily found out from a friend at work (yes, we have friends at work) that the trains weren’t working all the way to Katoomba and a bus would have to be taken half way.
Not a problem – please see getting into Laos for what constitutes a problem.
All day Friday was taken up with work, packing, complaining about the rain, wondering how the rain would affect the Blue Mountains, reading meteorological websites to ascertain the possibility of rain in the Blue Mountains, e-mailing back and forth to decide what we would do if it rained in the Blue Mountains. In the end we came up with:
- There’s nothing we can do about the rain anyway so we may as well just accept it.
- We spend far more time complaining about the weather over here than we ever did at home (despite the fact that it’s lovely for winter).
- A band of low pressure moving toward you is NOT a good thing.
- 24 e-mails about rain in one afternoon is excessive.
- Smiley faces do not make you feel better about the rain.
- Going to the pub after work with your new work friends (Grainne) makes you forget about the rain.
- In the event of Rain, remember your patriot fervour and go to the nearest watering hole to talk about the rain.
So along came Saturday and the getting up at a ridiculous hour (8-30AM on a SATURDAY) in order to get our train/bus so we could get to Katoomba at a reasonable hour.
Emily had heard from Aileen that Michelle wasn’t going to be able to make it and that Aileen herself, would not be arriving ‘til the late afternoon. Later still it emerged that the only man in our raiding party (Nigel) couldn’t make it either. Still even the overwhelming number of Athloners about to descend upon us didn’t dampen our spirits especially when they gave us helium balloons at the train station. Helen and her gang contacted us before we boarded the train and told us that due to unforeseen circumstances (sleeping in may have been a factor) they would arrive a little later than group 1 (only 45 minutes later as it transpired).
After 2.5 hours and a combination of train and bus travel (which was very comfortable and had beautiful scenery to pass the time away) we arrived in Katoomba – one horse town, home of the Three Sisters and for the foreseeable future, site of the Irish Invasion of 2006.
We ambled through the quiet town and made our way to the Hostel. Well done Lorna, Well done Lonely Planet, Well done Australia. The Flying Fox was one of the cutest hostels we had stayed in on our travels so far. It had a fireplace, a games cupboard and the Princess Bride on Video. After we had checked in and been lauded on the efficient way that Irish people organize paying bills (“Pass your money to the front, girls and I’ll distribute the change) we headed back into town for, as Emily so quaintly puts it, fodder.
As an homage to my parents, brother and my cousin Cormac (whom John and Noreen clearly love more than me – they’ve never taken me to Canada!) who were visiting the Canadian side of the world’s most famous waterfall we decided to patronize the Niagara Café.
There we had lunch in a booth and were waited on by the Australian clone of Eddie Munster (he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed either) until Lorna noticed the rest of the Athloners walking up the street and they came in and joined us. After lunch myself, Una, Emily and Aisling/ The Ace nursed one glass of water between us while the girls unloaded their baggage at the hostel ably assisted by Lorna.
Then off we headed to our first natural phenomena of the day - the Three Sisters. Hilary, having injured her ankle early in the week (according to Dr. Lorna it looked like a bad sprain) decided to rest back at the hostel. CLEVER GIRL.
When you’ve been traveling for a while you begin to get a sixth sense for certain things: where the best pubs are, where all the other Irish people and when people are lying to you. The latter of these skills is crucially important when traveling. However there is a fine line between healthy cynicism and being downright insulting. When there is a language barrier it’s easier enough to feign ignorance (something that actually comes naturally to most of us) however when dealing with Australians we’ve come into some uncharted territory. The difference between a lazy Irishwoman’s version of a ten minute stroll and the ten minute stroll of an exercise-obsessed-vegemite-eating-Australian man.
So onward we ambled (our group at this point was made up of Aisling, Brid, Emily, Grainne, Helen, Kathy, Lorna, Ruth and Una) walking down the highways and byways of Katoomba looking for the Three Sisters (the most famous of the geological treasures in the Blue Mountains). If I remember correctly the estimate we were given by the nice gentleman at the hostel was 10/15 minutes and maybe if you were running it while wearing rollerblades and hanging onto the back of a car/motorbike/bus that was going down to the Three Sisters then the 10/15 minute estimate was realistic. One look at us should have told him otherwise, one look at him should have set off alarms for us, but as I said - uncharted territory.
The look out point for the Three Sisters was finally reached and after some breathing exercises and a ten minute rest (altitude sickness hit some people pretty bad, but I’m okay now) we were impressed with what we could see. Although the fog obscured the view and made full appreciation of the magnificent vistas impossible, there was no denying that this place was really very beautiful. The story of Three Sisters is an aboriginal myth. There were three beautiful sisters who were princesses of a local tribe these beauties fell in love with three brothers from a rival tribe. The possibility of marriage was forbidden but the brothers loved the sisters so, that they went to war for the privilege. The witchdoctor from the sister’s tribe was afraid that the brothers would try and take the girls during battle so he turned them to stone with the intention of returning them to their natural state on his homecoming. Tragically the witchdoctor was killed in the war and no-one else knew how to reverse his spell, so the sisters are still patiently waiting for someone to rediscover the magic to free them.
After a number of abortive attempts to get a photograph without the fog (this was borrowed from a website), we decided to go down a walkway that allowed you to actually stand inside one of the Three Sister – kinda scary looking from the viewpoint but grand when we got down there, aside, that is, from the 300 Japanese tourists who just HAD to stand on the same wooden bridge as us at the same time as us.
Though Lorna is the soul of practicality and the one person you would want with you in a crisis she does not have a head for heights so when we decided to have a go at the GIANT STAIRCASE, she said she’d sit it out and Aisling/The Ace also decided against this venture and stayed with Lorna topside. MORE CLEVER GIRLS.
The Giant Staircase is not a staircase with really large steps as the name would suggest, but actually an incredibly long and STEEP staircase winding its way around the sandstone cliffs leading down into the national park and many walkways that you can take through it. According to Ruth there was a sign at the top of the Staircase warning that this was a strenuous excursion, something she failed to mention until we were halfway down. However at the bottom there is the worlds steepest railway line, a ride we were considering taking.
Apparently the views as you climb down (gripping the railings for dear life and with such strength that you feel blisters growing on your palms) are breathtaking but I for one was having enough trouble breathing without the bloody view. As the weather had been wet all day the steps were slippery and the buckling and knocking of knees was making the whole experience a lot worse than strenuous. After 20mins, when we really felt we should be finished, we met three friendly Australian teenagers making their way back up. We begged them for hope, and they politely and pleasantly informed us that the bottom was 5 minutes away and that the railway was a 20minute walk away from the bottom. Either the little brats were delusional or playing an evil and cruel joke on visitors to their country. Either way after about an hour we finally reached the bottom in one piece and without and major injuries, though we all knew we would be suffering in the morning.
Once we got down we knew we were not going to be returning to the top via the same route. According to the signs (stupid evil signs) the Scenic railway was a 2.5kms walk away, but we only had 1.75 hours before the last train was leaving. Now I know that 2.5km sounds like a short enough walk and it must have be the sweat or something but I actually deluded myself into thinking that we’d be there in 20mins (like the evil lying Australian children had told us). However it wasn’t a flat walk we had to climb up hills, down hills and climb over felled trees. I was so petrified at the thought of having to walk back up the staircase again I hotfooted with Emily and Una as fast as my dying legs could carry me, and it wasn’t that fast at all. It was taking us ages and when we thought we heard a train, we passed a sign (stupid evil signs) telling us we were only halfway there.
The walk itself was actually quite lovely but mitigating circumstances (thoughts of walking up the staircase) meant that the flora and fauna passed by in a blur and the only thing we appreciated was that it wasn’t raining, although it would have been nice to have something to drink.
While I was having an exasperated debate with Emily about the ridiculous measures Australia is willing to take to kill me, we came across another sign (stupid evil signs) that told us the Scenic Railway was 200metres ahead (JOY and cue Handel’s Messiah). The sign further informed us that if we wished to retake the route we had just come from including walking back up the Giant Staircase we should bear in mind that it was classed as Arduous and would take us 2.5 hours. We didn’t even realize ‘til we’d finished but we are clearly all super-fit fitness goddesses because we managed to do it in and an hour and 40 minutes.
Oh and I nearly forgot with the fatigue and anger at Australia that we also passed the Katoomba Falls on our walk and although Emily got a photo the only thing that registered was that there was a supply of water if things got really bad.
Finally we made it to the end and the Steepest Railway in World. I, for one, was delighted just to be sitting down, however this did not take away from the feat of engineering that brought us from the park floor back up to the viewing point at an angle of 52 degrees. Petrified relief is the only way to describe the feeling. The coolest bit was where you could see the ground below at what seemed like a 90 degree angle but the natural tunnel through which the track ran was getting smaller and smaller ‘til at one point you are in complete darkness. It was a bit like being sucked through a straw.
Once we got to the top we contacted the girls (Lorna and Aisling) who had been suffering more or less the same trials as us, though their nightmares revolved around shopping and a couple glasses of red. We also decided to get a bus back into town rather then put our bodies through anymore. Also, as all the best sport people know, re-hydration is SOOOOO crucial to an athlete that we stopped by the pub on the way back to hostel to get some fluids to keep us going ‘til we went out.
By then news of our survival had so inspired Jim, Afraic, Neasa Mark and Mike (friends of the Athloners) that they decided to come up to Katoomba and celebrate the beauty of life with us.
After sharing the story of our near death experience with Lorna, The Ace and Hilary over a few beverages, (purely medicinal) we began to leave the hostel in dribs and drabs. Some of us went to watch Australia narrowly defeat South Africa in the Tri-Nations cup and eventually we all ended up the in same establishment after various dinners were consumed (ethnic diversity was important to us evidently as there were Chinese’s and Italians being enjoyed left, right and centre), Aisling and Emily alone decided to savour the delights of the pub grub on offer in Katoomba (sausage rolls and pizza).
Thereafter I am afraid the altitude sickness got me again and I can’t remember much more details from the night. DJ Daly (Brid) handled the decks in the nightclub for a time bringing some Hiberno-Rock to the
Blue Mountains . Nothing else out of the ordinary occurred (that can be read by parents or young children at least) except to say that we all got home safe and sound before daybreak (more or less), ooooh and the Cork Senior Footballers beat Donegal to get to the All-Ireland Semi-Final for the second year in a row (Corcaigh ABU).
The next morning check out was at 11AM (officially 10AM but the nice gentleman extended our time as I think he felt getting us out before then was a battle he would never win).
I’d like to say we awoke bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next morning, but I’m trying not to tell blatant lies on the blog (except in the interests of the plot and the integrity of my characters).
As Aileen hadn’t seen the Three Sisters, Emily, Helen and Brid accompanied her down that bloody hill again (Don’t worry not the staircase). The rest of the Athloners got the first bus out of Dodge back to their humble abode in Bondi.
Lorna, Una, Aisling and I went for breakfast – The Pomegranate – an organic café. Una and Lorna were somewhat listless and headed home without breakfast. Aisling and I had a beautiful start to our breakfast-crawl – two breakfasts for the price of TWO breakfasts – good value, before we returned to
Sydney and the couch we love so well.
Grainne (Though I didn't really need to mention that, because nobody else is as longwinded as I am)