Days 61-63: Red Birds, Black Flies, Blue Mountains

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December 14th 2009
Published: January 30th 2010
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The Three Sisters
We've heard an awful lot about the many ways in which you can unexpectedly - and quite suddenly - die in Australia. If you haven't yet read Bill Bryson's "A Sunburned Country" (titled "Down Under" in Australian book stores), pick it up. You'll learn all about the snakes, spiders, jellyfish, "salties" (crocodiles that reside in salt water) and many other nasties that are waiting for you in this otherwise friendly and welcoming country. By the way, it's not just Bryson; every Aussie that we meet seems to have some story about how their cousin/aunt/uncle/mate had a near-fatal encounter with a saltie/box jellyfish/python, etc. We're not sure if they're telling us the truth or if they just enjoy scaring Americans.

Fortunately, no one has mentioned dangerous creatures that may be lying in wait for us in the Blue Mountains.

Located about 70 miles west of Sydney, an easy 2.5 hour train ride, the Blue Mountains are a top destination for tourists and locals alike. A trip to the Blue Mountains is comparable to visiting the Sierra foothills (for those of you that live in the Bay Area) but add cute B&Bs and great cafes.

As we boarded the 12:08pm

train, the weather in Sydney was deteriorating to clouds and drizzle. When we arrived in Katoomba at 2:20pm, the fog had completely rolled in and we could barely see 50 feet in front of us.

We pulled our little roller bags about a mile down the long sloping main street toward the 3 Sisters Motel, our home for the next few days. The view from the wildly popular Echo Point Lookout (one of the main attractions in Katoomba) was hopelessly obscured in the clouds. We decided to save it for another day.

The clouds showed no sign of lifting so, after settling in and chatting with friendly Mark at the front desk about things to do, we walked back to the tiny town center to take a look around. Most of the shops, restaurants and cafes line the main street, unsurprisingly called "Katoomba Street". We stopped in the Common Ground Cafe, recommended by Mark. He had told us that it had "great food and coffee" and was "run by Amish people - you know, they don't have zippers and stuff". Interesting.

The cafe was very comfortable with a big fireplace and lots of cozy nooks - a

perfect place to hide from the rain. Adrian had a great regular latte; Angelique decided to try something new - a dandelion latte. Not so good. It tastes a bit like warm milky weeds. We also ordered a "mixed berry slice".

And now another lesson in Aussie-speak: "Slice".

In all manners of eating establishments, you'll see "slices" on the menu. It is a generic truncated term. We kept waiting for that next word - a slice of what, exactly? A slice of pie? Cake? It is very mysterious. The only clue to what you will be served are the words that precede the "slice": e.g. a lemon slice, an apple slice, a chocolate slice. But you really could still end up with one of many things: pie, cake, tart, strudel, crumble, bar, brownie, etc. In general, though, if you asked for an "apple" or "coconut" slice, you could reasonably expect to receive something with apple or coconut in a type of buttery, sugary pastry (most often in the shape of a rectangle and about an inch or so thick).

We think we understand the term now but there is no chance we'll be ordering the "hedgehog slice"

anytime soon. Actually the hedgehog slice is some sort of chocolate cake and looks divine.

We spent the rainy afternoon at a nearby internet cafe getting caught up on emails with friends and updating this blog. After a brief rest at the hotel it was time to wander up the Main street for dinner. Katoomba is probably a lively, bustling little town on weekends and in fine weather but on this gloomy rainy night it was deserted. Luckily we found a fantastic little pub and warmed up with some food and beer before making our way back to the 3 Sisters Motel. Hoping for a clear day tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 15th
Last night we both slept extremely well, for the first time in days. The weather this morning was cloudy and cold but we managed to get up early. After a fanastic breakfast in town, we decided that, clouds or not, it was time for a hike! We headed back to our motel, changed into our hiking gear and walked about 10 minutes over to Echo Point.

Still not able to see much of the purportedly spectacular views, we secured a trail map from a woman at

The dense bush in the Canyon below Echo Point
the info center wearing reindeer ears, black eyeshadow and no less than four nose rings. We decided to check out the Prince Henry Cliff Walk, a trail that hugs the rim of the canyon for miles. Walking along the ridgeline through the clouds and mist was very peaceful. We walked for well over an hour before retracing our steps.

What fascinates us most about the Blue Mountains thus far are the birds. It's almost like being in the Amazon. Red, green, yellow, blue. Parrots, cockatoos, etc. Just amazing. The foliage is gorgeous too - forests of "gum" (eucalyptus: 91 species here and all highly flammable), pine, sassafrass, beech, and fern trees. It feels like a tropical jungle - only (today, at least) cooler. It's hard to imagine that both logging and mining (coal and shale) were once huge industries here.

And, as advertised in our guidebook, the views of the mountains and valleys are magnificient when the weather is fair. When we started our hike it was foggy and cold but by the time we turned around the sun had come out and we could finally see why the Blue Mountains are so popular and why they are

The talking horse at Scenic World
called the Blue Mountains - the trees/bushes take on a bluish tone in the sunlight. Needless to say we took a lot of photos on our return hike.

When we completed our hike we joined the masses and gazed out at the "Three Sisters". The "Three Sisters" is a large rock formation near the Echo Point lookout and is one of the iconic images of Australia - - the Three Sisters appear on all kinds of Aussie marketing materials, websites, postcards, etc. Bowing to peer pressure we took a few photos of the Three Sisters as well.

After our hike we cleaned up and walked into town for lunch. We spent the afternoon exploring the town and relaxing at the hotel. For dinner we returned to the pub for pizza and adult beverages. Speaking of adult beverages, two microbrews that we strongly recommend are James Squire Amber and Little Creatures (referring to the yeast happily at work inside the fermentation vats) Pale Ale. We were a bit worried about the beer situation before arriving in Australia (After all, Americans think that all Australian beer is like Fosters (just as Australians think all American beer is like Budweiser -

View of the Blue Mountains from the Furber Steps
Ugh) but luckily there are some very fine beers available.

Wednesday, December 16th

And now we have to mention the (evil) Black Flies of Australia.

This isn't just a common house fly. These little guys have one mission in life, which they pursue with all their little fly determination and might. They want to fly up your nose.

Seriously. Occasionally they'll settle for just crawling on your cheek or maybe around your mouth or ears but the truth is that they have a nasal fetish. We have no idea why. They're very annoying and they are everywhere on the hiking trails which makes it not quite the Zen experience we were hoping for. It seemed like every 1-2 minutes one of us was screaming "ICK!!! Get. Out. Of. My. Nose!".

Although we liked Mark and the other guys who run the Three Sisters Motel, it is a bit noisy (little kids + thin walls = TMI about bed wetting and other nocturnal incidents). So we decided to spend our last night at one of the many cute B&Bs in town. The Ballykiss Angel is owned by Maureen, a lovely Irish/Australian woman (born in Ireland but

Climbing up the Furber Steps
living in Australia for the past 40 years) with a wickedly fun sense of humor. There are only two rooms at the B&B but they are stunning. A huge upgrade from the motel (and at a lower rate).

We dropped off our bags in the morning and then set out for a second, tougher hike. Today was beautiful - the morning mist dissolved by 9am and we had sunny blue skies for our entire hike.
First we headed down, down, down the 900 steps on the appropriately-named Giant Stairway Trail to the dense bush jungle about 1,000 feet below the Echo Point lookout. At the base of the stairs we connected to another trail which after a mile or so, surprisingly, ended at a tourist attraction (Scenic World) celebrating the long ago mining days. It was extraordinarily weird to find a cheesy tourist attraction like this in an area that looks and feels, in all other ways, like a national park. We were particularly fascinated by the talking horse statue that encouraged us to sit on him and take a photo.

Rather than climbing down/up 900 or so steps, most visitors take a tram/gondola to Scenic World from

Smallish waterfall
the top. We opted to brave the flies and to walk out via the Furber Steps. Thousands of visitors come to Echo Point every day but only a small fraction make it on to the trails, which is too bad because the hiking is excellent.

We spent the rest of the sunny afternoon relaxing in our pretty B&B and then exploring town. Overall we really like it here. But it seems that every picture perfect small town has at least one dark secret. We found Katoomba's tonight.

We think there is a crack house on Leurline Road (a residential avenue that runs parallel to Katoomba Street). Leurline is less steep than Katoomba and so we've been walking along it to get to town every day. Initially we thought that it was just an old, very run-down deserted house in an otherwise comfortably upscale neighborhood. But then we noticed that it was inhabited. There were dirty sheets covering the windows, dim lights on at night and overly full (and overly ripe) garbage cans sitting outside on the sidewalk (which the garbage guys wouldn't empty - the stench was awful). Neighbors would cross to the other side of the street

Glossy Black Cockatoo
to avoid it, practically making the sign of the cross. And tonight, as we walked by around 9pm, a rough-looking guy driving a pickup truck towing a flat-bed filled with shopping carts (???) pulled up front, got out and quickly looked around, and then went in.

In a town filled with gorgeous little Victorian B&Bs, this is very weird and creepy.

But enough on that. Overall, Katoomba is a great place to visit for a few days if you're looking for a short trip from Sydney. Tomorrow we have big plans: we're heading to Melbourne.

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Katoomba Falls

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