Justine Tyerman apologises for praising the Aussies...
Like most patriotic Kiwis, I am loath to praise anything remotely Australian and have, until now, maintained a lofty opinion that no Aussie landscape could possibly compete with our lakes, mountains and national parks.
But a recent trip to the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains has made me recant. I feel almost apologetic, even guilty - I am about to rave about the experience so stop reading now if you don't have the stomach for such a spiel.
Having stopped at an information centre on the way from Sydney, we were forewarned of the crowds that visit the "Blueys" even mid-week and mid-winter. So we headed for Scenic World at Katoomba first and did all the thrill-seeking things before the hordes arrived by noisy busloads from the city.
We duly plummeted 310 metres - screaming all the way, of course - down the world's steepest scenic railway through a natural rock tunnel to an old coal mining site, hiked through a Jurassic forest on the valley floor exploring fascinating relics of the 1880s mining era, glided smoothly back up the sheer cliff face to the top of the plateau in a huge 84-person cable car and then took a ride in the glass-bottomed "Skyway" 270 dizzying metres above the Jamison Valley and the Katoomba Falls.
That was all very cool stuff indeed and a wee bit scary, but the natural awe-factor of the scenery was somewhat overshadowed by all the clever man-made technology.
There was no chance to commune silently with nature here.
So, as the crowds moved in, we moved on to Echo Point to explore the famous Three Sisters rock formation, scaling the perpendicular stone and steel steps of the Giant Stairway to a platform cut into the "tummy" of the first sister.
Had we had more time - that elusive thing you never seem to have enough of when on holiday - we would have continued down the 800 steps to the base of the Katoomba Falls... and back up again.
Geology tells us the siblings were formed by erosion of the soft sandstone over many millennia by the wind, rain and rivers which are gradually breaking down the cliffs surrounding the Jamison Valley.
However, I prefer the Aboriginal legend, albeit disputed as a tourist gimmick, which tells of three beautiful sisters - Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo - who lived in the valley as members of the Katoomba tribe. They fell in love with three men from a neighbouring tribe (the Nepean tribe), but marriage was forbidden by tribal law.
The brothers were unhappy about this and decided to use force to capture the sisters. A major tribal battle ensued, and the sisters were turned to stone by an elder in order to protect them, but he was killed in the fighting and no one else could turn them back. This story is claimed to be an indigenous Australian Dreamtime legend but historian Dr Martin Thomas disputes this.
He says the legend is a fabrication created by a non-Aboriginal Katoomba local presumably to add interest to the local landmark. Dr Thomas says the story originated in the late 1920s or early 1930s and is unknown prior to that date.
The traditional Aboriginal owners, the Gundungurra, have their own legend and are developing a website which will include their stories.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the Three Sisters, 922m, 918m and 906m tall, are a truly stunning sight especially on a clear winter day when the blueness of the Blue Mountains is at its most vivid.
But it was the Wentworth Falls further down the valley that stole the day for us. We only intended to do a short walk to view the breathtaking waterfall which drops 187 metres in three whispy tiers but we were drawn on and on as much by the dramatic scenery as our sheer amazement at the construction of the pathway.
It was hewn from sandstone cliffs by a fellow called Peter Mulheran and a group of men known as The Irish Brigade, between 1906 and 1908 at a cost of £430.
At one point we were walking on a narrow ledge on a precipice hundreds of metres above the valley floor and then edging along a track wedged between overhanging and underhanging rocks.
Further on, the descent was so steep, an enclosed ladder had been constructed down a sheer rock face. Staggering!
The story goes that over 100 years ago, the villages in the Blue Mountains were competing with each other to build the most spectacular walkway and workers were even lowered over cliffs in hanging baskets to complete death-defying construction work on seemingly inaccessible parts of the terrain.
We marvelled at the ingenuity and courage of those workers who must have toiled there in the intense heat of the summer and the icy chill of the winter over a century ago - and put it all down to the dogged determination of the Aussie psyche and that fierce sense of competition we know so well.
By late afternoon with the winter sun dropping below the horizon and the intense cold beginning to bite, we fought the urge to continually push on to see what lay round the next corner and reluctantly turned back, awed and thrilled at what we had experienced - alone in the Blueys.
And I had, once again, mercifully escaped the nightmare which haunts me whenever I go to Australia - the dreaded lurking-snake factor.
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