Most only scratch the surface of the 2500-square-kilometre Blue Mountains National Park. Bruce Elder ventures deeper.
Each day about 7.30am, a number of bus operators head out from Sydney's city centre on a day trip to the Blue Mountains. In less than 12 hours they drive the 250-kilometre return journey and include the icons of the area - Wentworth Falls; Scenic World, which includes the scenic railway and cable car; the Three Sisters at Echo Point; dramatic views over the Megalong Valley; and, if time permits, a wander around Leura or a trip to Govetts Leap. It is, according to the brochures, a comprehensive viewing of "the highlights".
Beyond the major tourist attractions lie the unknown Blue Mountains, places of rare beauty that are, in many ways, the heart and soul of the area. These magical destinations are hidden simply because most of them are only accessible by four-wheel-drive and, ironically in the case of the Lost City, are difficult to find even with maps and a state-of-the-art global roaming system.
We made the journey in a new Toyota LandCruiser Sahara and even then we managed to get lost (we followed a 4WD drive club because we thought they knew the way) as we battled our way down deeply potholed tracks, across streams and rivers, through rivers of mud and, occasionally, along roads accessible to conventional vehicles.
Our bible was the excellent Boiling Billy publication 4WD Treks Close to Sydney, which provides detailed trip information on 25 adventures. To explore the unknown Blue Mountains we followed the Kings Tableland, Six Foot Track and Bungleboori & Newnes treks. The result was a delightful series of bush adventures and a deeper appreciation of one of Australia's most iconic attractions.
Who has heard of McMahons Lookout? The reason for its anonymity is simple. It is 23 kilometres down a dirt road, and then a healthy 80-metre walk down a rarely cleared path where ferns and trees grow wild. The visitor moves from the typical scrubby Kings Tableland down through a remnant of rainforest and comes out at a viewing point that provides an excellent view over Lake Burragorang, created when the Warragamba Dam collected the waters of the Coxs, Kowmung, Nattai, Wingecarribee and Wollondilly rivers. Far to the south are the honey-coloured sandstone cliffs but, in the foreground, smudged with the mountains' distinctive blueness, are rolling hills covered with virgin forest. And below is the drowned river valley with the occasional hilltop, still covered with trees, emerging from the waters like strange islands.
The Lost City
It is not necessary to travel to the Kimberley to see structures similar to the Bungle Bungles. The Lost City, on the Newnes Plateau above Lithgow, is one of the true wonders of the Blue Mountains. Formed by sheets of ironstone sandwiched between layers of sandstone, the formations have weathered so they look like a series of dramatic, conical Asian pagodas. The sandstone was laid down by a massive river delta that flowed across the area about 230 million to 250 million years ago. No one knows where the iron came from or how the formations occurred. For more on the subject, see bluemountains.org.au.
The Lost City is an amusing example of an accurately named destination. We drive backwards and forward on the State Mine Hill Road out of Lithgow, identify the campsite at Bungleboori and head off on an unmarked track.
The potholes are huge and full of recent rainwater. Ahead, the drivers in a convoy of 4WDs seem to know where they're going so we follow them only to learn that their guide, who has been to the Lost City before and is using global tracking, is lost.
He has taken the right-hand track, not the left. Eventually we reach the car park with its vistas across a valley dotted with pagodas. It is a short walk to inspect the formations. The guide looks at our LandCruiser Sahara and laconically remarks: "I used to have one of those. They'll go anywhere. I lost courage before it did."
Maiyingu Marragu Aboriginal site
Here is one of the great dilemmas of tourism. The cave-cum-overhang is not signposted and no one is keen to tell visitors where it is. In the past it has been vandalised. There is, on the rutted and difficult 4WD route known as Blackfellows Hand Trail, no indication of how to get there. Yet it is a huge overhang and the depictions of ancient indigenous hands and arms on the wall - some by children, others by adults - are superb.
A National Parks and Wildlife visitors' book explains: "The stencil art on the walls of this shelter were placed here by Aboriginal people. Most of the images were made by placing the hand or implement such as a stone axe against the wall and blowing a spray of ochre mixed with water from the mouth. It is thought that the rock art may be between 500 and 1600 years old and that the hand stencils are the 'signatures' of the people who lived in the area." Consult National Parks and Wildlife for directions.
Beyond Blackfellows Hand Cave is the most beautiful valley in the Blue Mountains. What makes the Wolgan Valley so special is that, unlike the Megalong and Grose valleys, it is intimate. The valley is narrow, and the warm stone cliffs rise on either side of the road as it winds through the grazing lands on the valley floor. At the end of the valley is the tiny town (a general store and a couple of houses) of Newnes. Cross the river (once again a 4WD is essential), and 1.3 kilometres up a track are a locked gate and parking area. From here, the visitor has to walk on a one-way circular route (it takes about two hours) through the extensive ruins of the Newnes oil-shale mine and refinery. Here are the remnants of a bygone industrial age when kerosene, paraffin wax and pitch were extracted from torbanite.
The hugely useful Newnes & Glow Worm Tunnel Walking Track Guide is available at the Newnes general store for $6 and is an essential aid to understanding the ruins, which include about 90 beehive-shaped coke ovens and remnants of a wax refinery, paraffin sheds, a naphtha plant, oil washers and crude-oil stills.
Walking back to the car-park gate along the old railway line, the visitor can experience an amusing reminder of the certain victory of nature. Wombats, determined to reassert ownership, have ensured their matchbox-shaped excrement is on every rock. Gone are the miners. All that is left are the wombies and their poo.
Six Foot Track
If you are a serious walker and have time to spare, then you can walk the entire length of the 45-kilometre Six Foot Walking Track. Built in the late 1880s as a bridle trail to the Jenolan Caves, it was six feet wide to allow two horses to pass.
It starts west of Katoomba at the Explorers Tree, follows the Megalong Creek south-west to the floor of the Megalong Valley, crosses Coxs River at Bowtells Swing Bridge at an altitude of 270 metres and then rises to 720 metres up a winding road, which runs beside Murdering Creek before crossing the plateau and dropping to the Jenolan Caves.
It is a hard walk with easy sections, especially once down in the valley, but we prefer the comfort of the 4WD. We head off the Great Western Highway along Coxs River Road and, by following the clear instructions in 4WD Treks Close to Sydney, we travel three kilometres down the steep Six Foot Track to the Coxs River camping ground. It is so "Australian bush" idyllic.
Only people who have never been to Kanangra Walls believe that Echo Point offers the best panorama in the Blue Mountains. The problem is that Kanangra Walls is a long way from the heart of the Blue Mountains.
It is 33 kilometres on winding, often unsealed road, beyond the Jenolan Caves. The views from the lookout to the Grand Gorge and across to such evocatively named places as Mount High and Mighty, Mount Stormbreaker and Mount Cloudmaker take the breath away. The sheer cliffs are a near-perfect example of a box canyon - daunting walls with creeks tumbling hundreds of metres into inhospitable valleys.
Even on a perfect day, blue mist rises from the eucalypts and softens the distant mountains, giving the views an unreal, artistic, feel. Across the heart-stopping Kanangra Deep the silent, sandstone cliffs, pock-marked by ancient eroded caverns, glow in the sun. There are no eateries. Pack your lunch. This is the best of the Blue Mountains wilderness.
Getting there All the major car hire companies have offices at Sydney Airport if travelling from Melbourne, but not all have four-wheel-drives there all the time. Book ahead. Some companies list 4WDs as commercial vehicles. If in doubt, phone the call centre.
The Blue Mountains (Leura) is 112 kilometres, or about 1½ hours' drive, from Sydney Airport. Take the M5 towards Liverpool/Canberra; exit Westlink M7 towards Blacktown/Newcastle; take the M4 towards Penrith; continue on to National Route 32.
Staying there There is a large range of accommodation styles available right across the Blue Mountains. B&Bs, camping and caravan sites, historic hotels or motels, and luxury spa retreats are located in the townships as well as in between. Destination NSW's website offers a comprehensive list. See visitnsw.com/destinations/blue-mountains/accommodation.
Bruce Elder travelled in a Toyota LandCruiser Sahara courtesy of Toyota.