Saturday, 24 November 2012

Blue Mountains

Christmas songs in November are always wrong. When the temperature's edging towards 35C and there's Test cricket on the telly, they should be illegal. We may not be feeling the summer Santa vibe but we have been enjoying more of Australia.
Church camp. The Albury Show. And now the Blue Mountains.

In truth, the Blue Mountains are not mountains, but a sandstone plateau. Neither are they blue. The blue-coloured haze comes from a fine mist of oil exuded by the huge eucalyptus gum trees that cover the valleys. Fascinating facts which I just had to share...

...with Jo Vickery and her boyfriend Steve Coates (above).
Jo and I have been friends for longer than I can remember (we were born 24 days apart and our parents knew each other before that) but this was an introductory meeting with Steve. What better - and more unlikely - place to shake hands for the first time than in the shadow of the Sydney Opera House?

This was the start of Jo and Steve's holiday from England and semi-meticulous planning by both parties had ensured our itineries overlapped for the weekend. I resurrected my role as haphazard tour guide - an act which is more convincing in Melbourne - as we strolled through the Rocks, climbed the Harbour Bridge pylon and caught the ferry to Watsons Bay. Something told me all this should have felt surreal, but it didn't. Friendships spanning the globe has been a theme this year and to share time Down Under with Jo and Steve was a privilege.

We left the city behind. An interminable train journey re-united us with Rachel in Sydney's western suburbs and we drove from the foothills up to the misty heights of Medlow Bath. I harboured genuine fears of two days shrouded in cloud but the skies eventually cleared and the Blue Mountains came into focus through the port-hole window in our rented apartment.

When you visit Scenic World, you expect something pretty dramatic. And we weren't disappointed when we clambered into the front seats for a journey down the world's steepest railway.

As we prepared to plunge down a track which disappeared from view just metres away, I wondered how many other Unesco World Heritage sites could give Alton Towers a run for its money.

Scenic World has tamed the sandstone giants of the Blue Mountains through some truly impressive architecture. The Scenic Skyway (above) dangled us 270 metres above the ground.

The views were monumental, whether looking out of the window...

...or down through the electro-glass floor of the cabin.

The final leg of the Scenic World triumvirate was this Scenic Cableway (above), a sardine tin of tourists which transported us from the foot of the railway to its summit - at a more sedate pace.

A short clifftop walk led us round to Echo Point, where the steady stream of tourists coagulated into a seething mass of amateur photographers pointing their lenses at the Three Sisters (above, with the girls). Yes, the backdrop was spectacular, but the sheer number of people scrabbling for position on the viewing platform rather tainted the experience.

We found greater solace at Wentworth Falls, a few minutes' drive along the Great Western Highway. Photos never do these places justice, but I can tell you the water in this picture is cascading 300 metres onto the rocks.

We'd hurtled down a train line, been squashed into a giant cable car and climbed endless stone steps. A tiring day for the touring quartet was nearing its end and the Blue Mountains had lived up to their billing. We took a minute to survey the magnitude of what lay before us - eucalyptus gums sprawling as far as the eye could see.

Back at the apartment, there was absolutely no evidence of the mist which had lingered only hours earlier. We felt thankful.

Facing a seven-hour drive back to Albury on Sunday, we didn't hang around, although there was time for a visit to the Everglades heritage gardens at Leura. Pleasant enough but certainly not in the same league as RHS Garden Wisley.

Our final Blue Mountains soundtrack was provided by The Jumping Fleas (above). The Everglades was hosting a special Retro Fair on that day and quite a few people had come in costume. Generally speaking the women had put in the effort but a few blokes were just wearing trainers with their work trousers.

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