Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - The Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains, New South Wales

Five national parks in the Blue Mountains of southeastern New South Wales, Kanangra-Boyd, Blue Mountains, Wollemi, Nattai, and Gardens of Stone, protect 3,860 square miles of ancient plateaus, spectacular gorges, towering cliffs, plunging waterfalls, and wide, blue-hazed valleys. There are places here where no human has set foot. Yet, amazingly, the wilderness starts on the western edge of Sydney. The mountains are not mountains at all but the remnants of a plateau that over eons has been scoured by rivers and creeks. Nor are the mountains really blue: their name derives from the blue-tinted haze that often hangs over them, made up of tiny eucalypt-oil droplets emitted by the vegetation.

Aborigines had been crossing the mountains on well-trodden tracks for up to 20,000 years by the time the first Europeans arrived in 1788. Yet for more than 20 years, the labyrinthine landscape had the new arrivals baffled, and it wasn't until 1813 that an expedition found a way across the plateau, along a single continuous ridge. A road quickly followed.

Today, a highway and a railway line follow the route of that first road. Strung along this transportation artery are 26 towns and villages with a combined population of about 75,000. This 62-mile urban strip hardly makes a dent in the landscape's savage beauty, but it provides a safe platform from which to appreciate the stupendous setting and to strike out along trails and tracks on foot or mountain bike, or down a cliff on the end of a rope.

One of the most outstanding walks to explore the Blue Mountains is the National Pass trail, named in celebration of the federation of Australia in 1901. The pass follows a ledge in the middle of the cliff for nearly four miles, either beginning or ending at the cascades that give the village its name. You can't fail to feel as though you're flying over the wondrous landscape. Currawongs swoop past at eye level, and pink-and-grey gang-gang cockatoos float over the crinkled green like shadows, their rusty-hinge calls echoing outlandishly. Of the Blue Mountains' 400 animal species, birds are the most conspicuous.

Once out of the canyon, you'll find yourself in a wide valley beneath towering crags. You can continue the circular trip, which takes three to four hours, or carry on into the gorge of the Grose River. While journeying along the ridges on either side of this impressive gorge, Aborigines would descend into its fertile depths to gather food and camp. Evidence of their visits, grooves in rocks where axes and spears were sharpened, engravings, and the remains of campfires, is everywhere.

On lush flats near the Grose River's junction with Govetts Creek, blue gum trees grow to 165 feet or more. This is Blue Gum Forest, which was rescued from logging by conservationists in 1931 and incorporated into Blue Mountains National Park in 1959. Eucalypts dominate here as they do throughout the Blue Mountains. The region has the world's greatest variety of eucalypt species: of 700 species worldwide, 92 are found here.

Continued in: Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - The Blue Mountains & Corner Country

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