The best autumn affair one can have is with the Blue Mountains. It is all about nature producing an unforgettable and enchanting blaze of red gold and russet foliage through the region’s 35 towns and villages. At an average altitude of 1,000 metres, the air is fresh and the nights crisp.
By Inder Raj Ahluwalia
Wondering about the ‘blue’ bit..? So named after the haze created by the eucalyptus oil in the air the mountain gum forests, the Blue Mountains provide a rare, salubrious experience. Comprising eight conservation reserves covering about one million hectares – including the Blue Mountains National Park- the Greater Blue Mountains Area was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2000 for its outstanding natural universal offerings.
Once perceived as an impenetrable barrier for early explorers, the Blue Mountains and the adjoining regions of Oberon and Lithgow offer a world of discovery, with breathtaking views, rugged tablelands, sheer cliffs, deep valleys and wetlands teeming with life, and quaint, historical little towns.
My brief tryst with the region was about as fulfilling as any I can remember. A plethora of attractions and activities combined to captivate me. They included spectacular hues of the mountains’ foliage, wonderful bushwalks, galleries, scenic drives, cave explorations, Victorian and Edwardian-style buildings and cafes offering the decadence of Devonshire teas with lashings of cream. What more can I say?
I had left Sydney, driven by my escort Matthew Needham of TourSydney, and two hours later, pulled up at Mount Tomah Botanic Garden to a warm welcome by its representative, Karen Gray. Established as the cool-climate garden of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah features several wild Australian and other plants and vistas on an awe-inspiring scale. Perched on the restaurant’s verandah, the views of the national parks closed in. A van drove us around the 25-hectare gardens, past different types of plants and shrubbery, meadows, and picnic and barbeque areas.
This wonderful orientation over, an hour’s drive deposited us at Scenic World, among Australia’s most popular privately- owned tourist attractions. Located at Katoomba on the edge of a 200-metre cliff overlooking The Three Sisters – the region’s most recognised landmark – the establishment comprises three fantastic rides: The Scenic Railway- the world’s steepest incline railway, The Scenic Skyway- a cable car ride over the spectacular Jamison Valley 200 metres above its floor, and the new Sceniscender- Australia’s steepest cable car ride, a 545-metre odyssey into previously inaccessible parts of the Blue Mountains.
The Three Sisters looked down on us as we alighted from the railway. Carved from the surrounding sandstone cliffs over millions of years by erosion, the ‘Sisters’ are steeped in legend, the most popular being the Aborigine one.
The story goes that three beautiful sisters, ‘Meehni’, ‘Wimlah’ and ‘Gunnedoo’ once lived with the Gundungurra people in the Jamison Valley, and were in love with three brothers from the neighbouring nation of the Daruk people. However, marriage is forbidden by tribal law, the warrior brothers decided to take the sisters by force. The tribal war forced the Kuradjuri (clever man) of the Gundung people to turn the sisters into stone. He intended to restore them after the danger had passed but was killed in the battle and to this day no one has been able to break the spell and restore the sisters to their natural form.
A few steps brought us to the Katoomba Coal Mine with its commentary. A few more steps and we boarded the cable car for Australia’s steepest climb.
The day had gone and the focus shifted from exploring nature to an evening of refined elegance. Lilianfels is an Orient Express Hotel of true class and breeding, with stunning views of the dramatic escarpment of the Blue Mountains and ‘The Three Sisters’. We dined at Darley’s, an award-winning restaurant, with the ‘Roasted Crippsland Lamb Rack’ with sautéed kippfer, garlic and confit tomato, good enough to kill for.
The morning presented crisp air as we drove through the mountains. 75 km from Katoomba lies the World Heritage-listed Jenolan Caves Reserve featuring Australia’s most spectacular underground limestone caves, recognised as some of the world’s best decorated, containing stunning formations, pools and underground rivers in the specially illuminated chambers. Nine show caves, including adventure caves, are open for daily inspection.
The afternoon saw us back in the heart of the mountains, admiring one of the world’s best views. Standing at Echo Point vividly explains why everyone succumbs to the area’s charms. Hill after hill unfolds, as one looks over miles of forested country fading into the distance.
Curry time! My last evening in the Blue Mountains befitted an Indian dinner, and it was provided with much largesse at Arjuna Restaurant in Katoomba, where Razina Kher gave us the lowdown on Indian cuisine in Australia, over generous helpings of ‘daal’ and ‘chicken makhani.
The perfect backgrounder that put everything into proper perspective was ‘The Edge’, a 40–minute Imax presentation that tells the fantastic story of local conservation. With excellent camera and sound works, one gets to experience waterfalls, parks, caves, forests, flowers, valleys, and the very rare and beautiful Wollemi Pines, the sole survivors of Australia’s ancient wilderness.
Time had flashed by. We’d bedded down at Kubba Roonga Guest House, with some ten rooms housed in an old manor, with house-style cooking and warmth. We’d been driven around by Matthew in a comfortable car. And we’d dined at the region’s finest al fresco eateries. It was the kind of seduction I craved for, and left me wanting ‘more’.