Sydney is an interesting city to in which to live, I am aware that there’s more to Australia than the harbor bridge and Bondi Beach. But before coming here, I can’t say I was prepared for the vastness of the place and the expense and logistical difficulties that go into exploring it. I had hopes on the flight over of doing some camping in the bush and making a circuit that included all four coasts and even took me to Ulluru in the center. Alas, it was not meant to be. Australia is a continent as well as a country after all. I have to content myself with a restrained itinerary, trading the “gotta see ’em all” mindset for a more thoughtful exploration that prioritizes quality above quantity.
With that in mind, I resolved to get out and see what New South Wales has to offer aside from Sydney. Visiting Girlfriend in tow, I set forth in a rented car on a quest to see some regional hotspots. First up, we drove to the Blue Mountains. The trip would have been much shorter than it was, but it took a little while to suss out the highway toll system. The toll checkpoints were all automated, and you couldn’t pay with cash or credit and we couldn’t find any place to buy one of the e-tags. The option that numerous gas station attendants offered was to text the toll authority and pay over the phone. It was a capital idea, although we had no Aussie-compatible cellphones and there was a dearth of phonebooths. We drove in worried circles until we realized that we could call after we went through. There is an apparent 3 day window.
In any case, we soon reached the Three Sisters rock formation and took the requisite pictures. The best vantage was from Echo Point, but you could see the mountains everywhere you looked. Echo point did offer some serious wide open views of Jamison Valley, but my digital camera proved a poor medium for capturing the grandeur of the vast rolling shadow the clouds cast as it passed over the lush greenery of the valley below. So I stopped trying and just enjoyed the show. My words clearly don’t do such a hot job either, but we work with the tools we have.
Moving on to Katoomba, we entered the aptly named “Scenic World” and soon found ourselves on a rollercoaster-like cart descending into the Jamison valley almost vertically while a sound system pumped the theme from Indiana Jones. It wasn’t a fast descent, but the unsettling nonetheless. At the bottom, there was a raised nature trail of wooden planks. Walking on these things never fails to make me imagine myself as an Ewok, and this usually leads to me mumbling to myself with Ewok noises.
The whole time we were down there, the Blue Mountains surrounded us like a jagged fence off in the distance. After I had my fill of nature-fueled nostalgia, we took a large glass-bottomed gondola up out of the valley and back to Scenic World. There was also an option to go horizontally across the valley from one Blue Mountain to another, but by this point we had a relatively good idea of what the Blue Mountains were all about and there is only so much natural majesty one can gaze at meaningfully before they need a beer.
The sun was going down, so we left the actual Blue Mountains off in the distance and returned to Katoomba for dinner and drinks. There were more restaurants in the downtown strip than I would have thought. The one we chose offered pumpkin lasagna on the menu and I had to know what that tasted like. The answer: not great. Fortunately I had some James Squire Pale Ale to wash it down. Overall, Australian beer has been hit and miss with me, but this was quite good. It was enough to replenish my strength. While we never did any serious hiking, we did cover some ground.
We spent the night at motel in Richmond, a town about which I have very little to say save that it is very small and it is between Katoomba and Hunter Valley. There was a nice little coffee shop where a kindly server clued me in to Australian coffee designations. I am a daily drinker if not an avid coffee connoseur, so had I quickly noticed that they don’t have “just plain drip” like we do in America. No, the Aussies eschew our pedestrian coffee for a variety of espresso drinks (the meaning of most of which was opaque to me before this Richmond-based barrista set me straight). Cappucino is the same, as is latte. But they also have flat white (cappucino sans foam), long black (espresso w/water), and short black (plain espresso). Not to mention Woollamochakaroomgajingo (I made that one up, but it wouldn’t suprise me). Since I usually stick to cappucino anyway, I was already drinking my first choice as she gamely explained it to me.
Properly caffeinated, we began the trip to Hunter Valley. It was a fateful journey that would change our lives forever…