From Stunning Sydney Harbour to Backpacking in the Blue Mountains

Nigel Heath joins a party of back packers on a memorable trip to the Blue Mountains

The lady in the Sydney tourist office listened attentively as we explained that ‘yes’ we wanted to go to the nearby Blue Mountains but ‘no’ we did not want to go on a coach tour around the various stunning view points.

We actually wanted to get out and walk in them there hills and that, it appeared, was going to be easier said than done. But luckily there was an option and that was to join a party of young backpackers whose day out to the hills was going to include two dramatic descents into the lush tropical forest far below.

And as a spectacular second descent finale , we would be riding back up to the top on the world’s steepest rock railway! Earlier that morning my wife Jenny and I had checked in to the Sydney Harbour Marriott and now wanted to make the most of our three day Sydney stopover on our month long trip to explore New Zealand.

And just to make us feel still very much at home, Cunard’s mighty flagship Queen Mary Two had arrived overnight and was towering over the harbour, now awash with cross bay ferries and dozens of busy craft of every description.

Bright and early the next morning an empty bus drew up outside our hotel and then began a lengthy tour around various pack packer hostel’s and hotels to pick up our fellow travellers which inevitably involved a series of delays.

The piece de resistance came when three twenty somethings in skimpy shorts and t-shirts tried to board along with backpacks which were almost as big as they were.

Our young Aussie driver guide tactfully pointed out that they could not possibly bring their packs because there would be nowhere for the remaining passengers to sit.

After an initial stand-off, he insisted they went and deposited their packs at a left luggage station which luckily was only a couple of blocks away. I glanced at my watch and started to fume but what could we do?

“Right guys, look at all those city folk walking to work,” announced our driver once all were safely aboard. “Let’s honk the horn and give them all a wave to cheer them up?”

Having earlier been in fume mode I had decided to chill out and simply go with the flow but now this resolution was being sorely tested. These two sixty somethings gave half hearted little waves before sinking down in their seats.

From that point on our tour was great fun and we learnt a lot from the commentary on our 60k drive out to one of Australia’s most popular national parks with its spectacular Three Sisters rock formation.

They were called the Blue Mountains because the atmosphere was filled with finely dispersed droplets of oil shed by millions of Eucalyptus trees which combined with water vapours, dust particles and the sun’s rays which were predominantly blue in colour Visitors gaze out over the park from one of the many lookouts and there are the options of canyoning, abseiling, rock climbing, mountain biking and, of course trekking.

Our first descent to the spectacular fern filled forest floor was steep and rocky and on the long slow slog back up we chatted to the youngsters who wanted to know where we were from and were happy to tell us about their gap year adventures.

Oh how lucky they are these days I thought, recalling my four years spent as a junior reporter on a local paper with just two precious weeks holiday in a whole year and no cash to go travelling anyway.

Our second descent beside steep sandstone cliffs was rewarded, as promised, by ascending speedily and effortlessly on the rock railway, originally part of the old Katoomba mining tramways built towards the end of the 18th century.

The following morning we explored the old colonial quarter, now a Mecca for art and culture buffs, and walked across the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge while high above us, more daring tourists, like columns of harnessed ants, were taking a skywalk over the top of the curved structure.

That afternoon we promenaded along the packed waterfront, a scene of almost permanent carnival, popped our heads inside that opera house, and then strolled through the verdant Royal Botanical Gardens to the famous Mrs Macquarie’s Chair lookout.

This exposed sandstone rock was carved into the shape of a bench by convicts back in 1810 so that Governor Macquarie’s wife could enjoy sitting and watching out for British ships sailing into the harbour.

Returning to the waterfront with its host of bars and restaurants we found a sunny spot where we could sit quaffing chilled white wine while gazing out over the bustling harbour framed by the mighty bridge on one side and the opera house on the other. Life could not get much better!

However it was down to earth with a bump the following day when the weather changed and our cruise around the giant natural harbour was dampened by mist and a light drizzle.

Still our three day Sydney stopover had been great and we were flying on to Auckland, New Zealand the following afternoon. We stayed at the ideally placed Sydney Harbour Marriott and our flights were with Qantas.