Refraction through Eucalyptus
Blue Mountains, 14th - 18th September
After a painful but successful installation of the tent and awning on top of our new home on wheels, we manage to leave Sydney and begin our long-expected endless travels. Our first stop is Katumba in the Blue Mountains, one of the most famous mountain ranges on the continent (probably because it’s next to Sydney and not just shoved somewhere in the wilderness).
The road to it is “interesting”, especially once you enter the mountains because there isn’t even a slight idea you are in a mountain zone. So actually, it isn’t interesting at all. Just a motorway which, as we have already established, is one of the most boring infrastructures in a country; and from time to time a town – but all dull towns (which in the next few months will prove to be typical for Australian towns and villages).
It is clear that today we won’t be able to see any Mountains as we took way too long with our morning activities in the city. Therefore, we turn to tidying and organising the car and starting to establish routines for setting up, cooking, tent-opening, wardrobe-organising and other typical daily functions which now have to be undertaken in a tiny space and… in the open. It is also important to quickly get used to unpacking and packing our camp as from now on we’ll be doing it almost daily.
After the boring organising, the time has come to cook. We take out the hob, set up the table and make something from which the only thing I remember is it was incredibly tasteless. Oh, a life of camping! Until we finish eating and washing up it has already gone dark and also cold. Finishing up our beer we start wondering what we should do now. It is so dark that it feels like bedtime and (shivering) we don’t insist on staying outside.
But let’s just check what the time is – 6:30 pm!!! Well, I didn’t see that coming. We have been through so much until now that I can’t wrap my head around how far from bed-time we are. What are we supposed to do in the cold and dark for so long? (And what have we started if we are hopeless already on the first day?!?)
We decide to rearrange the car and make a little hollow on top of the back seats. There we are still cold but at least we can entertain ourselves with some quiet activities and even put on the computer for an episode – from this side the structure of the “kitchen” serves as a desk. Fortunately, there are hot showers in the campsite so I can warm up before going to bed in the tent. My teeth would have probably crumbled from all the chattering.
Last night we froze our bums off in the tent! I felt like we were back at Tevno Ezero hut – sleeping in a tent, three BTU (Bulgarian Tourist Union) blankets and all the layers of clothing that you’ve managed to bring in your rucksack. We were again dressed in all our layers but, unfortunately, didn’t have the three blankets, just one duvet. When we get down into town today, the first order of business is to get a second blanket and one more pillow each. Otherwise, the tent is very comfortable, wide and spacious, with a built-in mattress and windows all around (which, of course, were shut to limit our exposure to the outside temperatures).
In the morning we get up impatiently. Our sleep was horrendously bad and we are longing to substitute it for tea, coffee, and most of all – breakfast. We pack up camp and walk the local area to get to Scenic World – a tourist attraction around the crown jewel of the Blue Mountains – the Three Sisters. The ticket allows you access to three different cable transports – a train and two cabins which lead to different parts of the parks always with a view of the rocky Sisters.
We get on the Skyway first and get to the opposite cliff with a perfect sight of the three vertical formations, as well as the Katumba waterfall, which has never dried up in its documented history. They point us to the nearest lookout platform and send us off for a walk; A Skyway cabin crosses the two stops regularly so they won’t leave us here.
The views are now much more mountain-y. What I see reminds me more of a canyon rather than mountains. Instead of hills and peaks that you would normally see (for example in the Bulgarian ranges); here the landscape consists much more of forests down low and flat, single hills in the distance. You could easily “see” and imagine where the deep river used to flow and dig.
We reach the first platform and decided to quickly jump on to the next one. And then the next one … And we continue like so until we realise we have walked the distance between the two stops and might as well get back to the main centre on foot. Well, we know we are quite the tourists and view hunters, but I didn’t expect we would miss out on the opportunity to fly between the two stations again …
After a quick second breakfast, we get on the Railway which is the focal point of the park as it has been in existence since 1872. The train was part of the mining infrastructure for coal and kerosene shale of the first settlers. However, after the Second World War, the company went bankrupt and a tourist activity grew in its place utilising the existing train. The only difference is that it changes with technology. It left the horses that first pulled it unemployed; also left behind the steam engine and is now completely automated. In an orderly fashion, we climb aboard and are told this is the steepest cable railway in the world (in the Guinness Records since 1997). Well, okay, how steep can it be?
It is steep (52-degree slope!)! If it wasn’t for the slow speed we were moving with this would have been the most extreme roller coaster I have ever been on in my life – very steep and even more fun! Getting off at the bottom end we know we’ll do it one more time before leaving the park.
Next entertainment – the Cableway which will take us back up to the main platform. To get to it we first do the Walkway which passes through the rainforest of the mountain. It is, of course, full of diverse species but is primarily made up of Eucalyptus trees (the aroma of which I can’t find despite the constant pulling, breaking and rubbing of the leaves). Actually, the name of the mountains comes exactly from the eucalyptus – when the leaves warm up in the sun, the oil they give off into the air refracts the light and creates a blue filter over the mountain landscape.
After the new photography angle of the Cableway (the sisters are quite photogenic) we return to the platform and rush again for the train. This time we want to be at the very front but as we get there we realise we aren’t the only people with that idea. There is a queue for the next 3-4 rides. Well, we’re not that excited to wait an hour for the luxury. So we get on in the middle and enjoy it again like children. Though the actual children on the train won’t stop crying from fear. The angle of “falling” is still horrifying!
Getting off we realise we might have won the lottery as to get back up we need to get off the train and go around to the other side And down here there is no queue for the front row. Guess how quickly we ran to sit down on the first line geared up to take a video which will most likely not show the true adrenalin of the experience. The experience is much more exciting and scary at the very front – far more so than in the middle!
With kids’ joy in our soul, we get back to the campsite for a quick rest and set off to our next stop. You remember we need an extra blanket, right? Of course, we stop first to buy one, pillows and other necessary and unnecessary accessories which we decide to acquire. Katumba’s centre street is long and full of interesting shops. We stop for smoothies and manage to impress the person with our cups. Apparently, sustainable practices aren’t quite the norm here either.
Tonight we’ll be sleeping at a free camp. These are areas which the government has set up as rest spots and other than an eco-toilet there is nothing else provided. There isn’t even drinking water. It is the same here but we are equipped and don’t need such luxuries – 25l water tank, electronics and lights on batteries and (just in case) a 12V converter for the car plugs.
We are in a eucalyptus forest and only a small area is cleared for a few cars and tents. Campfires are allowed at the moment and our neighbours are already warming up with guitars in hand. We have no ambitions to make a fire and therefore go back into our hollow which is becoming increasingly comfortable with our new soft pink blanket. (This place was a forest, however, these “comforts” are usually meant for truck drivers and are situated next to the road – out goes all the romance.)
After a quick stop in the local village (which once again has nothing to impress us but allows us to get a few more important things) we stop at Govett’s Leap from which an amazing landscape opens up. Similar to the one around the Three Sisters but even more forested and hilly. Then I start to think we aren’t spending enough time in the mountains. The woman in the information centre confirms it as she offers us different walking routes in the area. We quickly decide we will come back after our visit to Orange tomorrow night with Nic’s friend – Henry.
However, for today we have a visit to the Jenolan Caves planned which welcomed us ready for entertainment!
First (and most important) – on the road we start seeing signs to beware of kangaroos. Okay, but how careful do we really need to be – I don’t expect we would see any. We also have deer signs in Europe but be honest – have you ever seen one? … But we did see some! Well, the first one was dead next to the read. The second one – also dead. As well as the next five kangaroos and four wombats (another local kind of marsupials) but who’s counting … And all of a sudden, I see in the distance a mob of at least 50 kangaroos chilling under the trees. Nic couldn’t break quick enough – leaving skid marks on the road! They, of course, ran away as soon as we got out to take pictures, but we did see the little hoppers.
Second – our road to the caves finally transitions into a windy narrow road, the kind we are used to in Bulgaria (who has ever heard of straight mountain roads?!?). The specifics of the road are so untypical for the country that 12 km before the beginning of a long descent, there are countless warnings that try and turn you back. Well, no – we are experienced mountain-drivers.
Third – the complex consist of 6-7 caves. We pass through the first cave in the car to reach the offices. From this cave archway start all the tours. All of them are different in level of difficulty and somehow we choose the easiest one – Imperial (why we underestimate ourselves so much – I can’t tell you).
I don’t want to sound mean or disrespectful but this was the least impressive cave I have ever been to. There is this cave in the Bulgarian Rodopi Mountain – Yagodina, which everyone goes to at least once in their life on a school trip. It is the easiest and kid-friendly cave system in Bulgaria. Well, this one is even more kid-friendly. But I am also very spoiled for cave experiences and you could hardly impress me with a few stalactites and stalagmites (Let’s see if you know which is which …?).
I begin to notice more and more, when I travel in and out of Europe, the tourists stream towards natural and unnatural “phenomena”, but they (in my personal bias) don’t get close to the exciting sights of Bulgaria. Well, at least the uncontrollable worldly tourists won’t ruin them with their lack of respect. (We’ll talk about that when we get to Uluru).
We leave after this leisurely walk at a comfortable year-round 17oC, as it goes dark quickly and we want to set up camp in daylight. Tonight we are sleeping on the hill in the Showground of Oberon. There is nobody around us but, fortunately, the local pilates club arrives and we manage to use their showers, even though they’re cold. But not before a quick walk to the local park, especially the playground, where I hurt myself falling off the zip-line and Nic is almost sick after spinning on a roundabout. Normal 24-year old, married behaviour – do not doubt us …
The troubles during the night are great. Even while watching our traditional episode in the hollow it starts raining outside (but who is worried?). Then the time comes and we go up and go to bed in our dry tent. But sleeping is impossible with the constant flapping of the tent’s outer layer in the strong wind as well as the movements of the entry which is starting to let in water. Good job I have a brave husband who gets out in the cold rain to tighten the straps and zip on the tent annexe (which creates a closed space at the entrance). He comes back up wet and cold but we manage to sleep for a bit.
And then … the wind gets even stronger! We try our best to sleep but paranoia begins to settle in – how strong could the wind get? How much could the tent withstand? How much colder could we get? How much more difficult would it be to put away the tent in the morning in the stronger wind (according to the forecast)? Our downstairs bed comes to the rescue. We decide to blow up the mattress, transfer all bedding and fold away the tent in the cold rain at 2 am. It is so cold that our freezing fingers barely pull the tent straps to close it. It is so wet that once we are inside the car we need to strip our soaking pyjamas without being able to get dry clothes from underneath us. Well, at least there is no draft inside the car so we’ll get warm.
We didn’t get warm! All night I was trying to figure out how to turn and snuggle more into Nic so I can get some sleep. I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand how it is not getting warm and stuffy inside the car from our breathing. I thought we would be sweating here, not constantly shivering.
The time comes to get up and figure out why and how. We looked outside and snow … The fields of the showground are covered in snow!!! Yes, snow – and we’ve come to sunny Australia!!! Later in the day we are told Oberon is the coldest place in the area. Well done, we decided to stumble exactly on that one last night. Can you imagine how we would have woken up like icicles if we had stayed upstairs or how we would have folded the tent with snow all over it? No, thank you!
Not many considerations were required – we put the car back into driving-mode and rapidly left. First stop – a café with hot tea and breakfast. (I also took out the Karmolis for further protection from freezing.) In the café, we accidentally overhear a conversation between the barista and a local how happy they are it has finally rained because of the draught. Well, the horror of one is someone else’s happiness.
Fortunately, tonight we are visiting Henry so we’ll be able to get warm and dry before hitting the road again tomorrow. After a quick visit to the mineral museum of Bathurst, which turned out to be more interesting and colourful than expected (after all we’re tired and cold – we’re not really in an optimistic mood right now), we get to Orange. Henry is staying with his aunt (Jane) which meant tonight we’ll be sleeping in a real warm bed (they even put on electric blankets for us).
We are welcomed wholeheartedly like we’re at home, and we quickly spread ourselves out to dry everything that was a victim last night. Jane offers to make dinner for everybody tonight and our warning that we’re vegan doesn’t worry her one bit. We go out with Henry in the gloomy day to see Orange which actually doesn’t have much to be seen. But has a winery so we’ll go there to warm up. We test six wines and leaves with a bottle of “The Idiot” and another one “the Conductor” – all red. In this weather, we couldn’t quite enjoy the whites.
We finish off the day with plenty of hot tea, vegan lasagne, some Netflix and many conversations. We sleep warm and undisturbed all night – exactly what we needed after last night’s hopeless endeavours.
Unwillingly, we pack everything that we hung to dry yesterday and get back in the car. This time we have extra cargo – leftover lasagne and Henry, who we’re dropping off to get the train to Sydney. And we’re going back to the Jenolan caves. I can’t keep going like that – knowing there are unique tours of the caves but I am only left with the “kids’” one. Moreover, we said we’re coming back to the Mountains and it’s not like the weather welcomed any other walking.
On the way there we live through the most amazing collision with wild Australia. As we are winding down the road, all of a sudden next on the turn we see a kangaroo, right next to us. On the other side another two-three and at a layby. We stop right away to take pictures from the car and they start to approach us looking very friendly. Well, that’s it … I jump out and get a slice of bread. I fed them! And I even manage to quickly pet them. The mob is made of six kangaroos – five female, all carrying joeys and one male as a protector.
Attention! Don’t do what we did – human food is very unsuitable for wild animals, primarily because it is to us humans as well ;). Kangaroos love raw carrots and cucumbers, for example. But we only had two bread slices for all animals so we have hardly harmed them! And the excitement was worth it. I am on the edge of crying. I will never be closer to a wild kangaroo unless I were to cuddle one (and it doesn’t seem all that likely). Nic’s eyes are also lit up with true joy. How is it possible this is happening?!
After we fed the mothers the protector bravely approached us … We were quite the champions of quick jump into the car – from him we are scared. He might look friendly but seeing his muscley tale, I’d rather not check his personal attitudes towards us.
We get to the caves. This time we choose a more intermediate one – Lucas. The cave is big and every hall is more spacious than the one before. The tour around it is the longest-running tourist attraction in the whole of Australia – over 150 years. In the beginning, the tour was 6 hours long and candles were required due to lack of electricity. Only the rich tourists could afford to visit, but their outfits were elaborate and truly uncomfortable for such undertakings. Especially when you carry a candle in one hand and in the other – a picnic basket. In one part of the tour they even had to get comfortable on some potato sacks so they can slide down as no safer options were available (hm … the examples didn’t sound all that safe).
The halls are lit up in a unique way as the lights go on one by one to show off the different details around us. In the “Cathedral” they even played music to pay attention to the acoustics (oh how I wish I could sing too). In a different hall, they completely switched off the light so we could see exactly how dark a cave is. And to confirm that the hands we are waving in front of our faces (as instructed) we, in fact, can not see. The blurry shapes are just hallucinations of our brain.
In the potato-sack-sliding region (where there are now steps, fortunately) they ask for a volunteer to test the acoustics. When now is my time – I raise my hand and sing Hallelujah shaking but happy. If we’re testing the acoustic it needs to be proper! … After that everyone lines up to thank me. As the Serbians say – it is difficult being humble when you’re perfect.
Unlike the Imperial cave, I would recommend Lucas in a heartbeat. It might not be unique in a geological way or the most extreme one, but the way it is presented is truly special and unforgettable. For sure something we will remember (and tell everybody about).
Coming out of the cave we are told there is a family of platypuses living in the lake which come out around this time of the day. Well, we can’t miss that – we go looking for them. We have begun a four-month-long photo-hunt for new, wild creatures that we aren’t familiar with. (As we’re European.) And … we find them. Pictures weren’t possible but the little, dark, shiny animal came out for us to show off how quickly it can swim and how easily it can hide from the annoying humans with loud cameras. And as we observe the little platypus, a Kenga and Roo pass right next to us.
Amazing, unforgettable, happy, kangaroo-ey, cave-y, singing, I-don’t-know-if-we’ll-have-a-better-one day!
Our time in the Blue Mountains was a true refraction between a life of convenience and one on the wild roads. It might be harder than expected but isn’t this why we’re here – to refract out existing understandings of life and look at it in a new way. Today it was through a eucalyptus filter.
Vassya (and Nic)