Day 178 – Blue Mountains and Jenolan Caves

We tried as hard as we could to leave Sydney as early as possible, and even though we were up and about by 7AM, and had very little to pack, it wasn’t until 9AM that we were rolling down the road. I had visions of being stuck in the kind of nightmare traffic that is told in tales to shock people about Sydney. But, truth be told, we had a pretty smooth run out of town. This could be one of two things – people telling tales are telling tales, or the roads weren’t congested because we were heading out of town and using horribly expensive toll roads.

The skies were hazy again with the smoke of the bushfires that were still burning in the Blue Mountains, which is where we were headed. I’d heard that the tourist areas were still open and safe, so there was no need to alter our plans. It was a long and gruelling climb along the freeway to the top of the mountains, and the air seemed to be clearer here somehow. I guess the wind is blowing it towards Sydney, not towards here. The instant we stepped out of our air-conditioned car, I understood why the fires have been such a problem – the heat and dryness was incredible. But, from where we were, other than some signs forbidding cigarettes/fires and a feint haze, there was no indication that an enormous fire had consumed a substantial amount of land, along with any plant/animal/building that was unlucky enough to be in its path of consumption/destruction. If it wasn’t for the loss of property and lives, I would have found it interesting to see a charred landscape – it’s such a surreal sight. But, without taking a substantial detour, it wasn’t to be.

20131107_RCH_5813The very next thing I noticed was the deafening roar of the chirping of a billion (maybe) cicadas. Memory is subjective, but I can’t remember every hearing such a deafening roar of insects (or other animals) before. It was made even worse when they hit a certain frequency and it just made my head resonate. The weirdest thing was the lack of directionality – it felt like I was wearing headphones, as the sound didn’t seem to change as I moved my head. It was actually somewhat difficult to find them in the trees, even though they are about 4-5cm long and bright yellow/orange.

20131107_RCH_5794 20131107_RCH_5796We stopped at Wentworth Falls, which was our first view of the ruggedness of the area. If it wasn’t for suburbia spreading to the edge of the cliffs, we could have believed that we were back in Northern Territory. Sadly, Wentworth Falls were more of a trickle than a waterfall, but considering the heat and how dry it feels up here, I’m not all that surprised. I didn’t expect it to be quite so high and so large, so I imagine it’s quite a sight when the taps are turned on.

We continued a little further from Sydney until we got to the town of Katoomba. There was something odd about this town, something to do with the fusion of old and new buildings, but I couldn’t quite work it out. We went to the Echo Point lookout, which is probably the area most commonly associated with the Blue Mountains. The lookout area was also weird. Normally there is a distinction between suburbia and a national park, but here we were driving past houses and back streets, then there was the visitor centre (complete with metered parking) and the edge of the cliff. There were a few tour bus loads of people walking around like zombies/sheep. We noticed a few of them yelling as loud as they could, which was baffling until we remembered we were at Echo Point (no, we didn’t hear any echoes).

20131107_RCH_5800 20131107_RCH_5806I’m sure that I have been here before, but I can’t remember it, which is odd as the view really is spectacular. The Three Sisters are unique and interesting, but it’s just the sheer scale of the area that impressed me the most.

20131107_RCH_5817 20131107_RCH_5820From the lookout at Echo Point we could see just make out what looked like people walking across a walkway/bridge that went into the Three Sisters. So, we decided we wanted to have a closer look at that, too. The cicadas here became even more shrill, so much so that Risa was walking around with fingers in her ears. It was almost like sensory deprivation – I felt a little disorientated. There is a walkway that goes down to the bottom of the cliffs via 900 steps. My knees were still killing me from Mt. Bogon and Mt. Kosciuszko (not to mention the toenail that is about to drop off) so there was no way I’d be doing that. But, we did follow the trail for a little way and crossed the little bridge to a small cave/overhang on one of the Three Sisters – it felt a little odd and pointless (not to mention sacrilegious). At least it was a brief respite from the energy sapping heat.

20131107_RCH_5823From the viewpoint on the Three Sisters, you could really get an appreciation for the size and severity of the cliffs. We also noticed that the lookout at Echo Point was actually overhanging (which I was blissfully unaware of at the time).

There is also a cable car and a scenic railway that operate in the area, but we didn’t see the value in it (after some of the crazy gondolas that we’ve been on, this would no doubt be a little… safe/boring).

20131107_RCH_5826 20131107_RCH_5829We pushed on, and made our way to Jenolan Caves. If I thought that the Three Sisters were suburbia, then we were well and truly back in nature now. It was nearly an hour-long drive along a narrow country road, culminating in 8kms of very steep and very twisty goat track to the base. I was happy that we only saw a few cars, but unhappy that those few cars we saw were all as we were going around blind corners. I don’t know which one of us was complacent, but there were definitely a few moments of panic on that drive. The road suddenly came to a cave and there were people walking all over the place. We were confused… it looked like we were meant to drive through the cave, but it just felt… wrong. I was sure that I was going to have someone yell at me to get off the footpath, but it turns out that you actually get to drive through a small tunnel cave. So, when we came out the other side and it looked like a Swiss alpine village (from the 1940s) it wasn’t actually that incongruous as I thought that we’d driven through the mantle of Earth and exited at a rather hot and dry mountain town in Switzerland. We’d just missed a 3:45 tour, but fortunately for us, there was a 4PM tour that was only the four of us, and it went to what the sales people said was their favourite cave (though, I’m sure they tell all the punters that cave X is their favourite cave). There were dozens of caves that could be explored, and no doubt people spend several days here visiting them all. If we could have had the choice, we would have joined one of the half-day long adventure tours that requires abseiling and crawling around through tight tunnels with lights strapped to our heads (while trying to put thoughts of The Descent out of our minds), but they are only on weekends.

20131107_RCH_5897 20131107_RCH_5896We joined our tour guide, and the two other guests and headed for The Temple of Baal. The name had me intrigued, and it pained me not to ask what it meant, as I was sure that in time I would find out. Our guide explained to us that we have been blessed with a man-made entry into this cave system ­– a 50m tunnel blasted by dynamite in the 1950s. Walking through this narrow and rugged passageway made me feel like we were entering a Bond villain’s lair (even the industrial door into the side of a rock face looked impressive). There were several patches along the tunnel where water had started to seep out, allowing us to see new features forming after only 50 years.

20131107_RCH_5892 20131107_RCH_5891We descended down a stairway, past the Dragon’s Throat, our first glimpse of the caves.

20131107_RCH_5840There was a stalagmite that was shaped like a bottle, which we later learnt was actually a bottle that was left here by one of the original guides who used would fill it up from constantly dripping water source and had now been coated in milky white limestone.

20131107_RCH_5839 20131107_RCH_5852Our guide showed us how translucent some of the rock is, and under closer inspection you could see the long coarse grains of the crystalline structure. He also took the opportunity to show us how dark it was for the original explorers/tourists, who were visiting the caves with little more than candlelight. FYI – there wasn’t enough light to see the ground properly, and when that light went out, it was the very definition of pitch black.

20131107_RCH_5855 20131107_RCH_5870We finally ended up at the original entry point of the cave, which was little more than a small hole in the floor. I could only imagine the sheer joy those explorers must have felt seeing this expansive chamber. It would have been about 15m in diameter and nearly 50m high. There were beautiful translucent white angel wings (the discoverer was a devout Christian), as well as deep orange lambs fleece. I’m sorry, I suck at describing rock shapes, but to hear our guide share his passion and enthusiasm it was quite easy to get carried away with him – though there was no denying that this cave was incredible. We finally learnt the origins of the Temple of Baal. Again, because the man who discovered the cave had the right to name the cave, and because he was a devout Christian, he named it after something from the Old Testament. The whole room was described, from the dark pulpits of Baal, complete with him standing high up above everything, to the pure white angels on the other side.

And that was it, we walked back up the stairs, back out the super-villain passageway, and back in to the heat and noise of the cicadas – 90 minutes flew by.

20131107_RCH_5902It was now 5:40PM, and we had a long way to go as I’d made plans to meet someone from the Delica Club at a campsite by a river near Orange. But first, we drove through Bathurst, a town I mostly associate with the V8 Supercar circuit. Turns out that it’s a public road and any idiot with a drivers licence and a car can do a lap. The catch – it’s a public road, and standard road rules apply, including sticking to the 40kph speed limit in the sections that were having road resurfacing. I’m not a huge V8 Supercars fan, but I have certainly watched a few Bathurst 1000 races in my time so I thought I was reasonably familiar with the circuit. And I was, apart from the size of the hills! It’s really steep going up, and even steeper going down! No wonder there were so many walkers/joggers using the road. You could see all the damage to the concrete barricades from when the cars have made minor mistakes and ended up in the wall. There seemed to be very few places that you could safely make a mistake. I also can’t believe that motorbikes race here…

20131107_RCH_5898Anyway, we lined up in pole position, spooled up the turbo and took my other foot off the brakes. Off we went in a cloud of black smoke and noise, but very little inertia. Driving at 40kph was a challenge, especially when I could see cars ahead of me (I really, really wanted to overtake them). It was a bit of a struggle to get to the summit, and then it was a struggle to keep the speed down coming down the other side (as well as not bouncing off the concrete walls like a giant metal pinball). We ended up crossing the line in 6:45.2, which is a little off race pace, but considering the speed limits (and our power:weight ratio) I think it’s respectable.

Now, the mad dash to Mullion Creek, just past Orange, and then the 25km journey to Long Point on the Macquarie River. The first part of the journey was fine, because we knew where we were going, and we could see how long it was going to take. But, form Mullion Creek we were just going on the description from an SMS. The bitumen turned to gravel, which turned to a 4WD trail. It felt like we were driving on that road for an hour by the time we finally got to the end of the trail by the river and found our friend’s car.

20131107_RCH_5907 20131107_RCH_5914It was now 9:30PM and we were exhausted. I heated a can of chunky something in the hot coals of their campfire, ate it, and we did our best to be social before making our way to bed. It was great to be back in Deli-chan again – I always sleep so well in her. It was the first time in a while that we’d seen the stars in the sky so brightly, but no Milky Way for us tonight.

And so ended another huge day of travel.

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