Tuesday, 12 June 2012


To visit Sydney is to check off a list of clichés, the beaches, the bridge and the Opera House (does any other building so define a city, let alone a country as much as the Opera House does for Sydney?). But there is more than one building to Sydney, many places of note to visit in this sprawling metropolis, sprawling at least by Oceania’s limited standards. A day trip out to the Blue Mountains is a popular excursion, catching the train out to Katoomba, one of the small satellite towns that serves as a entry point into the Blue Mountains, a spectacular mountain range that borders onto Sydney’s western suburbs. You roll past endless suburbs, shopping malls and sports fields that all start to blend into one, the suburban dream (or nightmare) for some, recalling the lyrics of an Arcade Fire song,

Living in the sprawl, dead shopping malls rise
Like mountains beyond mountains
And there's no end in sight
I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights

The stations get smaller the further we get away from central Sydney; the names of stations blurted out over the intercom as we approach them, in heavily accented tones disguised in feedback that are a far cry from the four languages broadcast over Seoul’s subway to announce incoming stations. It did make me appreciate the fact that I’m familiar with the nasal Sydney drawl, people less familiar with antipodean accents would have struggled to understand what any stations were called. As the stations got smaller and the train starts to climb, the view changes from suburban to semi-rural, views framed by the gum-trees so familiar of Australia’s countryside. There were regular glimpses of parakeets and rosellas, a flash of colour as they flitted between trees. Occasionally, you would be able to look out over the Blue Mountains themselves, a seemingly endless plateau of those ubiquitous eucalyptus, who emit so much chemicals into the atmosphere that the air over the range acquires a blue haze (obviously leading to its current name).

Katoomba must be thankful for the scenic beauty that lies within a half hour walk of its train station that sustains this small town of 7,000 in the middle of what seems no-where. Katoomba is an Aboriginal term for “shining falling water” or “water tumbling over hill”, which shows that the beauty of the spot has been recognized for millennia. It also helps that the sights in the Blue Mountains are legit. You know how some sights have been talked up that they can’t help but disappoint. I remember going to the Chocolate Hills in the Philippines, a place I had always wanted to visit and was disappointed I had made the effort. At least, talked up is better than invented. This is the case for one of the major attractions of Koh Samui in Thailand, which consist of two rocks called Grandmother and Grandfather Rocks, rocks that slightly resemble genitalia.

Grandfather Rock: a major drawcard in Koh Samui. Utterly forgettable.
Our first stop, a twenty-minute walk from the centre of Katoomba, was at one of the most famous sights in the range. Known as the Three Sisters, they are a formation of three sandstone rocks that tower above Jamieson Valley, a picturesque canyon that drops perilously away from the large viewing platform. Buses carted tourists to the platform. There were groups of excited Japanese school students running around, a busload of middle-aged Koreans, clothed in cliché, the women visored and draped in flowery leisure suits, the men in their finest hiking gear. Tourists pointed excitedly and posed in front of the Three Sisters, looking down into one of the most spectacular vistas that rates as one of the prettiest I’ve seen.

The Three Sisters overlooking Jamieson Valley.
The aboriginal tribes that have lived here for eons were said to have had a legend that explained the Three Sisters. They were initially three sisters who, in a Romeo and Juliet of the outback, fell in love with three men from a rival tribe. Marriage was forbidden but the men sought to capture the sisters by force. A battle of epic proportions ensured and the sisters were turned into stone by an elder to protect them from the men they love (something is wrong about this story). Anyway, the elder was killed in the fighting and no one could turn them back, resigning the three to an eternity of being stone. However, this well-known story turns out to be a falsification, like so many “indigenous” stories that were spun by colonial settlers in both Australia and New Zealand. The tale was devised by a non-Aboriginal Katoomba local, who thought it would attract visitors to the area (not that the views require an embellishment).

The road into the Blue Mountains was made using convict labour (Sydney, along with Western Australia and Tasmania was the home of one of Britain’s Australian penal colonies). These colonies used to be a stain on Australia society (and a source of mirth for New Zealanders sick of Australians making taunts about our implied relationships with sheep) but the important role that convicts played in early colonial Australia is now being acknowledged and celebrated. This change in mindset was apparent when we visited the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney that allows Australians the chance to see if they have any convict heritage. It was also seen in a group of statues, placed just around the corner from the Three Sisters, that commemorates the role that convicts played in colonial Australia and, in particular, in the construction of roads that led out of civilization and into the hinterlands. The statues consist of a gentlemanly looking officer overseeing a trio of workers, their work observed by two curious aboriginal men. The aboriginal men are outsiders looking in, marginalized just as aboriginals are now in modern-day Australia. I noticed the same thing in paintings at the Hyde Park Barracks, where aboriginals were drawn on the outskirts of Sydney, never integrated into this new town and European way of living.

Statues of Aboriginals seem bemused by the toil of convicts.
The canopy of the sub-tropical rainforest was dense, blocking off the chance that sunlight had of reaching the forest floor, making for a cool walk down to the bottom of Jamieson Valley. There was little noise here, save the chatter of fellow walkers- no bird calls to be heard, no birds to be seen in contrast to the bird-life that we had seen from the train. Notice boards said to be on the look-out for animals like quolls (species of cat-like marsupials) and wallabies but we had no such luck. Fungi relished the damp environment that was oddly reminiscent of New Zealand’s rainforest, despite the prevalence of eucalypts, betraying its Gondwanan roots. Waterfalls pierced the landscape at regular moments, a little underwhelming in terms of water volume but quite spectacular in other ways, as the water contrasted and cascaded down the dark brick coloured walls of the valley.
From a look-out point on our walk.
At the bottom of the valley, we saved a walk back up to the top by catching the scenic railway, reputed to be the steepest cable-driven funicular railway in the world (whatever that dubious claim means). It is certainly the steepest cable-driven funicular railway that I have been on as well as the fastest. It was more like a roller-coaster in reverse and for a couple of old New York women it sounded like the scariest thing that they had ever been on (which maybe it was). It certainly knocked a lot of time off the return trip as the powerful winch that pulls you up to the top, 200 metres up, in less than a minute. At the top, there is what is reputed to be Australia’s largest souvenir store made up of the usual tacky wares, just in greater quantity; kangaroo scrotums, koalas and boomerangs all on prominent display.
 Train followed bus and two hours later, we were back in Sydney, one of us thankful for the chance to go shopping the next day and the other wishing we had more time to explore the back roads and trails of the Blue Mountains (you can guess who was who). At least we can agree on one thing, kangaroo scrotums, despite their ubiquitous nature, don’t make suitable Australian keepsakes.