Thursday, April 17, 2008

They're Neither Blue Nor Mountainous, But I Loved the Blue Mountains

No offense, Australia, but wouldn't "bluish hills" be a more accurate name for this range 48 kilometers west of Sydney? The blue effect in the distance is created by the evaporation of eucalyptus oils, fair enough. And again, the peaks aren't very tall (1,000m), but after an overnight visit, we found what they lack in height they make up for in charm.

People say that we need a car to really explore Australia, not only because this country is enormous, but also because the public transport isn't great. We are sticking to our guns, though and livin' la vida car-free as long as possible (i.e. as long as we can bum rides off others). The current plan is to rent a car when we want to get out of town and pray that we master left side driving on the way out of the rental lot.

A trip to the blue mountains, however, didn't require any behind the wheel luck so we decided to spend a night there two weeks ago. Thankfully the train couldn't have been easier. We found accommodations at the Argyll House in the town of Leura, an easy walk from the Leura train station. Mickey insists that this is the first "real" B&B we've stayed at together. "The others were just hotels calling themselves B&Bs," he said. "But this is the real deal." I guess the fact that the building was a house turned guest house and the fact that we had to share a bathroom gave it B&B charm and credibility in Mickey's eyes. I was more impressed by the full cooked breakfast prepared daily by the owner and her artist daughter. Guests were asked to place their orders the night before. We had the choices of porridge (oatmeal), fruit, eggs, bacon, etc. or (because the Argyll House has a Scottish theme) a full Scottish breakfast complete with blood pudding, tatties and yes, haggis. Not even the B&Bs in Scotland serve haggis in the morning, but here's this little old lady in the blue mountains proudly plating this dish that most Scots only consume on Burns Night if then. It makes you wonder where she's ordering it from, but if you really want to eat it, you probably should stop wondering.

As this was an overnight trip, there wasn't time to explore the caves or ride on the steepest cog railway in the world (I could have sworn that a Swiss train at Mt. Rigi made the same claim... I'll let them duke it out). However, we did take our first bushwalk. Before I left for this weekend getaway, my colleague recommended various blue mountains sites and asked if we enjoyed bushwalking. It always throws me for a loop when walking outdoors is elevated to the level of a hobby or even a sport by renaming it hiking, hill walking, or in this case, bushwalking. "I like trails that take a couple of hours," I cautiously answered, "but I've never been on a multi-day hike with a backpack." My colleague assured me that you don't have to wear combat boots and dress like Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee to bushwalk. From what I gather, then, bushwalking means walking outdoors in a non-urban Australian environment. And after a brief trek down to the Leura Cascades, along the rim of the gorge and concluding at the Three Sisters it turns out I can add 'bushwalking' to my list of hobbies on my social networking profiles without being ironic. Sort of.

Despite the natural haze (created by said eucalyptus forest oils) and smoke from a nearby fire, the views were spectacular. Before we ran into a noisy group of IT guys on a work offsite, Mick and I had the peace of the wilderness to ourselves. As we peered over the misty, forested valley, I felt like any moment we'd stumble upon a clan of endangered silverback gorillas a la Dian Fossey. Wrong continent, I know, but the mood and the excitement were just right.

Surprisingly, one of the biggest tourist attractions in the blue mountains is indoors. The Edge Cinemas boasts a six story IMAX screen on which they project a 45 minute film about the blue mountains. The narrative was so mixed up that you might have thought Tarantino had lent a directorial eye to the picture. Were the stories of the early colonists, paleo-botanists and spelunkers all going to intertwine in the end? No, but I'll give away the best part of the documentary right here (spoiler alert); in 1994, scientists discovered a species of tree in a remote part of the blue mountains that until then was believed to have died with the dinosaurs. Truly impressive.

It's only a two hour train ride away; would I return to the blue mountains? Absolutely I would. The quiet, scenery and fresh air alone are worth the trip, but the great food and general quirkiness are certainly a bonus.

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