Every hotel and tourist information centre in Sydney will offer a slightly different collection of brochures for the exact same set of tours. A staple opener is the Blue Mountains, 50 km west of Sydney, which can be accessed for anywhere from $55 to $183 AUD, depending on how much you feel like visiting limestone caves and how desperately you desire to Cuddle a Koala*.
(*Koalas may not actually be cuddled)
Having spent more than enough cash and seen a sufficient share of Typical Aussie Stuff in Melbourne, we opted for a basic tour with OzTrek, the first of the cheap companies to pick up the phone.
After a pair of Melbourne guides named after medieval weaponry (Lance and Dirk), our Sydney guide was randomly named Diego. He picked us up in a packed mini-bus on George Street, the CBD’s central artery, and carted us out for a brief look at Sydney Olympic Park and the outside of ANZ Stadium before beginning the trip out to bushwalk the Blue Mountains.
The Blue Mountains are not so much “mountains”, per se, as a sandstone plateau hollowed out by erosion. While they are only about 1100m in height, they form a honeycomb of gorges up to 760m deep, and many of the sheltered corners contain pockets of temperate rainforest. Droplets of oil from the many eucalyptus trees affect the diffraction of light to give a blue tint to the mist rising from the area, thus giving the mountains their name.
As cool and adventurous as it sounds, “bushwalk” is really just the Aussie word for “hike”—or, in the case of most tours, “guided stroll”. Of course, it depends on the trip you choose: the bushwalking tracks through the Blue Mountains are rated anywhere from one-hour wheelchair-accessible “easy” jaunts to a 42-km three-day “expert” slog to Jenolan Caves. Our tour wasn’t particularly challenging, but it did involve enough up-and-down that one of the older ladies decided to wait out part of the tour in the bus.
Rather than take a tour, you can actually just take a train from Sydney to Katoomba (about 2 hours). However, given the tales of people getting lost in the bush—not to mention the pair of lost hikers we encountered not once but twice just that day—I was glad we’d opted for a tour. The usual “follow water until it crosses a road” rule doesn’t work in the Blue Mountains: roads are essentially nonexistent, and following water will most likely lead you to plummet down the edge of an escarpment. The range was thought to form an impassible “back wall” to the early Australian penal colony until a repeatable route was found in 1813.
Among the rivers and landmarks, key features include Wentworth Falls (187m) and the Three Sisters, a trio of sandstone stacks (tallest 922m) at the edge of the Jamison Valley. Nearby, the Katoomba Scenic Railway, a relic of 19th century coal and shale mining, is recorded as the steepest “railway” in the world, but it’s essentially a funicular that descends 415 metres through the cliffs, leading to a few obligatory mock-ups of old-style mining techniques below.
You can check the Wikipedia page for the photo I wish I’d been able to take…
And finally, a few little differences the tourist may enjoy encountering in Australia:
The Jetstar check-in line is always crowded and just a little panicked. They seem to have staff at every counter, but somehow never enough to manage the crowd of discount fare seekers.
On the flight, I also discovered that not only does Jetstar not provide meals unless you pay, they also may run out of stock unless you pre-order. I couldn’t even get cheese on toast. After decades of luxury, airline travel is slowly becoming the equivalent to being trapped in a bus for 9 hours with no rest stops.
Ten days before, on the way into Cairns, we’d been shown a video of a woman in a series of low-cut outfits introducing all the wonders of the city. Naturally, upon our final descent to Tokyo, it was time to return the favour. We got to enjoy a wonderfully out-of-date “Welcome to Tokyo” hosted by a chipper Australian girl who’d clearly never been to Japan before. She invited us to visit “shi-BO-ya”, recommended trying on a “yakata”, and proceeded to invite a little man into the room of her lavish ryokan to perform a private rendition of a traditional dance.
She did, however, teach me about the Tokyo Free Pass… which looks like it might be good value... if your itinerary includes more than eight to ten changes of trains in a single day... only in Tokyo. Possible, I suppose.