Imagine walking past the lush ferns, giant eucalypts and clinging vines in the rainforest eeriness of the Blue Mountains, only to see a figure in a red cloak appear. As you approach you can't trust your eyes – is that human? Did her head move? Is it supposed to be Red Riding Hood, or someone more sinister? Just who is watching who?
These are the delicious questions visitors to the Sculpture at Scenic World exhibition were confronted with this year as the ancient rainforest morphed into a contemporary art gallery along a 2.4 kilometre boardwalk in the Jamison Valley.
The exhibition, showcasing national and international artists lured by a prize pool of $30,000, is themed around environment and sustainability and has been running for eight years.
Maybe it's the mountain air, or the historical derring-do that saw the construction of the still scary vertical Scenic Railway – first built in the 1920s – and the Skyway and Cableway with views of the Three Sisters, waterfalls and jagged sandstone cliffs, but Scenic World in Katoomba is expert at coming up with creative ways for visitors to experience, celebrate and help protect the stunning natural beauty of the World Heritage listed Blue Mountains National Park, west of Sydney.
And art works are not the only attractions causing visitors to rub their eyes. Round a bend in this Jurassic landscape late next year and you may think you've slipped through a chink in time as more than 20 roving animatronic dinosaurs stage their own extinction rebellion by going about their business as part of the Dinosaur Valley experience.
Sending children into raptures with raptors is all in a day's work for the park guides. Their thorough knowledge of this landscape and its flora and fauna combined with friendly good humour makes them as much a part of the Native Animal Experience – another popular attraction – as the stars of the show: a sugar glider, a sooty owl and a two-metre diamond python.
The day we arrive the python and his handler are in fine form helping a woman come to terms with the fact that she is close to a large snake. She stands immobile as the python drapes itself over others' willing shoulders, eliciting coos and pats as it seems to revel in its slithery suppleness. And then it zeros in on her, the one person who looks less than impressed to be here."Don't even think about it," she whispers. But this reptile is not one to be ignored. He flicks his tongue and appears to will his besotted handler to make introductions to the sceptic among us.The woman freezes as the python slides across her back with a friendly agility that causes her to admit that while she was "just here for the sugar glider", this snake does feel "surprisingly beautiful".
The Native Animal Experience involves interactive sessions for small groups with the three animals that are native to the area. The intimate setting, on a walkway deep in the Jamison Valley, ensures the animals are at ease, even if all of the participants aren't.The Take Flight bird show is run nearby with the aid of Feathered Friends, a group dedicated to bird conservation which rescues sick, injured or poached birds. Those that cannot be returned to the wild take part in the show. There are gasps as a red-tailed black cockatoo, a masked owl and a poached-then-rescued macaw dip and swirl above our heads.
Scenic World's operators, the family-owned Hammons Holdings, have won the 20-year contract to run climbing activities on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. But this has not deflected attention from the historic mountains site. Expanded eateries and a more comfortable queuing system are in the works as Scenic World aims to embed itself in a new generation of memories by adding new experiences and tweaking old ones.
And so the oldie but the goodie, the Scenic Railway – aka the roller coaster on the side of a cliff – now gives guests the chance to up their fear factor by adjusting their seat angle for a laidback, original or a cliffhanger experience. It's quite the ride.
Jane Richards was a guest of Scenic World.
Scenic World is open every day of the year. Submissions are now invited for next year's Sculpture at Scenic World which will run from April 9 to May 10. Like Dinosaur Valley, it's open to all Scenic World visitors during its run time with no additional charge. Tickets online. Dinosaur Valley will run from November 1, 2020, to January 26, 2021; the Native Animal Encounter will return next year, and the Take Flight bird show will return in 2021.
Scenic World, Katoomba can be reached in less than two hours' by car via the M4 and Great Western Highway.
Sydney Trains operate between Central Station and Katoomba Station on the Blue Mountains Line. Scenic World is three kilometres from Katoomba Station
Prices varies depending on the day. During NSW school holidays and public holidays entry from $43 an adult, $24 a child, $110 a family (two adults and up to five children). Includes unlimited access to the Skyway, Cableway, Railway and Walkway. See scenicworld.com.au