Southern Crossings — Day 2: Climb Every Mountain

15 June
Up at an ungodly hour again — well, 7:30, but I’m still a student and anything before half past nine is an act of war against my body. Normally this is exceptionally true when it comes to travelling: I’m on holiday, damn it, I go abroad specifically to escape the hell of waking up early. But there’s no alternative: our destination today is three hours’ train away from Sydney, and we have to get up early to make the best of it.

Our destination today is the Blue Mountains, a 100-km long range that reaches inland from Sydney’s fringes. Despite its distance from the city, it regularly features high on tourist lists, presumably because the idea of mountains being blue is a novel prospect for many. We’re visiting a particularly well-trodden section of the Mountains, and as it’s quite the distance from Sydney we have to rush down to Central station early in the morning, so that we can grab a seat on the supposed “express” that heads inland.

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The first thing I notice when I get on the train is the noise. Hailing from Hong Kong, I’m no stranger to the stereotypes of Chinese tourists: loudmouths shouting everywhere, unbearable Karen-style behaviour, leaving a trail of dirt and destruction in their wake. Yet the uncomfortable truth is that this applies to so many countries that have the nouveau riche: economic power is almost always followed by an eagerness to show it off, to imprint yourself on as much of the world as possible — and that applies regardless of where you’re from. Case in point: the inland train today is half-filled with Korean women, all middle-aged and all chatting away at a voice level just slightly above irritating. Not that I myself am entirely immune from this kind of behaviour, but even so I can’t help but crease my brow a little and wish that I could be somewhere else. Take recourse in my headphones, only to find that they’re only partially helpful, and that Gabrielle Aplin’s voice is surprisingly close to a Korean ajumma’s.

At last, the train moves, and my mind turns to the buildings flying past, getting shorter and shorter, the stations becoming less and less fancy. We are about five minutes out from our second station, Strathfield, when the train slows earlier than expected. I look outside: the beginnings of a dull, suburban station greet me. We screech to a halt on the platform. Five minutes pass by, during which nothing happens. Then nothing happens some more. Then a disembodied voice floats over the telecom: “er, ladies and gentlemen, please get off from the train. There has been an electronic problem. You can get on the next train”.

Well, this is a rum do. We were already running ten minutes late; this newest delay pushes it up to an hour. The crowds gathering on the platform tell a grim story — there’s no way we’ll be getting a seat on the next train, what with its own load of passengers and all the angry Korean mothers. Unless…

We bring out the Sydney Trains map and the gears start turning. The schedule tells us that if we backtrack to Strathfield, we stand a chance of getting on the next train — and also a seat for the next three hours. The alternative doesn’t even need to be said: within five minutes we’re bounding across the platforms and bundling ourselves into a city-bound train. It progresses agonizingly slowly through the suburbs, and I count the stations as they pass by: Auburn, Lidcombe, Homebush. Every stop seems to take ages, and I keep on praying that this is not the day we experience two breakdowns. Eventually Strathfield station comes into view, and most of us literally catapult ourselves out of the train and down the corridor — until Betsy reads the departures board, and nonchalantly tells us we have five minutes to spare. Even so, the last twenty minutes feel a lot like our very own action movie sequence, and the adrenalin is still pumping as the 10:33 for Mount Victoria finally pulls into the station — and miracle of miracles, we find four empty seats.

“I am never doing that again,” breathes Amy as we crash into our hard-earned couchettes. We breathe a sigh of relief as the train starts moving, and I turn my attention to my copy of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” — a thrilling tale of death, intrigue and psychological horror, set in the Australian countryside. An apt book if there ever was one: the scenery it describes might as well be the one flashing past my window. I’m not sure if it’s the tinted windows or just my tired eyes, but everything slowly turns sepia-tinted: the dense trees, the rustic platforms, even the interior of the carriage. Everything seems like a thing of the past, as if I’m being transported back in time instead of into the mountains. The rocking of the train sends me nodding, but I resist for a bit. I don’t want to close my eyes just yet.

By the time we alight at Katoomba station, we’re well into lunchtime and I’m seriously wondering how much of the mountains we’re going to get to see today. In the meantime, we explore the town of Katoomba: although it sounds like a monster from the world of Pokémon, this place is actually pretty idyllic, if slightly pimped up for the tourists. Small corner shops and restaurants dot both sides of the main street, and although there are modern cars running to and fro, the rest of Katoomba looks like a time capsule from early last century, all stately buildings and red brick.

We stop outside a store selling burgers. The girls are hungry and would like to eat, but the departure time for the bus to the mountains is drawing perilously near. I look nervously at the town centre clock. With more irritation in my voice than I was hoping for, I point this out to Amy, who is standing closest to me.

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“So what are you suggesting then?” she asks, training her very round eyes on me, a look of naivete and amusement on her face.

I try not to burst out in return “I am suggesting that we get on the damn bus do you think I tell you the time for fun” but I hold my tongue. The truth is that she’s right: there’s no point in hurrying through lunch just to make sure we hike on time. After all, I was the one who had the strongest objections to the early start in the first place. So we settle down for some very large burgers in a lovely tearoom: not for the first time, it is impossible for us to stop praising the chef in a language he cannot understand.

Half past two, and we’re standing outside the gates of “Scenic World”, the ultimate touristified attraction. I can understand how some nicely arranged rock can be considered “scenic”, but they seem to have gone slightly overboard in milking it: in quick succession we are promised a Scenic Railway, a Scenic Cableway, a Scenic Walkway, and a Scenic Skyway. (Well, they do say that hyperbole is the language of tourism.) The first of these, the Scenic Railway, is already advertised as “the steepest railway/funicular in the world”, and as we queue for the ride downhill, the park plays up the potential peril: gasps of exhilaration are heavily featured on the TV screen next to us, and the landing steps are quite the drop down. Even when you’re actually on the ride itself, the PR continues: you are given a choice of tilting your seat even further, so that you and your friends can stare deeper into the abyss while the pre-ride announcements warns you of your impending doom or whatever.

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As we depart, the megaphones overhead blare the Raiders March from the Indiana Jones movies. It sounds like the adventure of a lifetime — and yet the entire ride is over in a matter of seconds: we are simply eased downwards while the Katoomba Canyon opens up before us. (Sadly, photography was out of the question unless I wanted to send my phone on a one-way journey down a gully.) It’s steep, yes, but the entire experience was very measured, and no different from riding in a glorified lift (which, I later discover, is exactly what it was).

At the bottom of the railway, we emerge into a leafy enclosure that forms the entrance to the Walkway. This place, the Jamison Valley, used to host a mine, and after a few turns on the quiet boardwalk we stumble across one of the entrances. A sign next to the miniscule entrance informs us of a lot of history, but as it’s caked under layers of dirt we don’t learn much. At the press of a button, a couple of old cogs spring into action and the cart rolls back and forth half-heartedly. The girls eagerly peer into the tunnel, looking for more encouraging signs of life.

Beyond the mine, however, there’s even less to see. Trees and views populate the gaping chasm below us, but it’s not long before we decide that a New South Wales rainforest is actually quite boring, even if it’s at the bottom of a deep valley. There aren’t any other tourists around to break the monotony either: the two passenger systems at either end are surely bringing down tourists by the dozen, but they are nowhere to be seen. For all appearances, we four are the only one in this sea of green, and it is, to say the least, tedious.

The Walkway is quickly dispatched with, as is the Cableway, our transport back up to the clifftop. The final one of the four, the Skyway, provides a little more entertainment in that it’s literally a cable car strung above a canyon: the bottom of the car is transparent, so we can clearly see the 890-foot drop that awaits us should one of the cables fail. The Sun comes out briefly during our wait for the Skyway, and it’s genuinely heart-warming to see a few Koreans rushing for the window, delightfully squealing “mujigae” — “rainbow”. God knows how much I’d like to share their enthusiasm for this place.

It’s on the Skyway that we hatch another hairbrained plan. As plentiful in views as Scenic World is, we haven’t been able to get up close to any of the rock features themselves — they’re like zoo animals, cordoned off so that we don’t get too close/attached. A faraway portrait does very little in satisfying youngsters, so we break out the map and discover the epically named “Prince Henry Cliff Walk”. By a happy coincidence, it stretches from the cable car stop all the way to Echo Point, the most famous lookout on the whole mountain range, and takes us past three or four of the most famous formations. It seems simple and short enough — the whole thing is just over a kilometre long, and doesn’t have a lot of ups and downs — so just a piece of cake for us on this overcast afternoon, right?

We had not, however, counted on the weather. Australian weather is a beast at the best of times and it’s at this point that it pulls one of its quick-changes. As soon as our feet touches the first step of the staircase down, a freezing wind hits us, and rain begins to fall. The weather app I’ve opened (just to check for bragging rights later on) advises us that we are being hit by winds upwards of 60 km/h — easily a gale and, for my Hong Kong readers, something equivalent to a signal 8.

I imagine that the rock face is sheltering us from most of this wind, but even so walking upright is HARD. It’s not just wind blowing in our direction: there’s also water flying in impossible directions (I was taught at school that rain fell downwards, so why is it leaping up and smacking me in the face?). It’s not cats and dogs — otherwise we’d have turned back immediately — but neither is it easy going: the wind gusting with force, the raindrops hitting us like a thousand tiny hammers on our skull. My hands are numb and freezing, and for the first time in my life I seriously worry about frostbite — did you lose all feeling in your fingers first or did they just drop off without warning? Despite all this I still manage to take my phone out for a couple of shots, because I give a damn about travel journals I’ll be writing in two years’ time.

A dozen sights are available: the Katoomba Falls, way down underneath our feet, continuing the magnificent erosive works of nature; Mount Solitary, looking dark and foreboding even as the stormclouds move further away; the Three Sisters, perched precariously on a ridge, their rocky humanoid forms guarding the cliffside from all who dare lay eyes on them. At times the going gets tough — we stop twice just to take a break from the wind — but there’s an exhilaration that’s springing from this walk, the promise of discovery that keeps you going despite everything that’s hitting us in the face. It takes us almost an hour for us to reach Echo Point, and every touch of the cold steel banister that guides our way up there is agony — but once we get there, the views are rewardingly perfect, and Amy lets off a shout of joy into the valley.

Back in Katoomba, 40 minutes too early for the train. Finding a place to hide from the cold weather, we stumble into a restaurant in a side street, within spitting distance of the station. Nobody’s here at five in the afternoon — nobody but the proprietor and her young son. Both are surprisingly Asian, and upon greeting each other we discover that she speaks fluent Cantonese. Quite what a Cantonese speaker is doing here, operating a greasy spoon in the backhills of New South Wales is a question left for another day: instead, she asks us what we’re doing here. Erm, the Blue Mountains? She nods knowingly, but seems indifferent towards the tourist trade that’s booming around the town: “I suppose that there’s a beauty to the Blue Mountains themselves”.

Serving us fries and a few hot drinks, she asks about things back home. Conversation turns to politics, as is often the case about Hong Kong, and Kathy and Amy tell her how things are back home. The woman — we never do quite catch her name — has a lot to say about the matter. “The key is patience,” she says. “Obviously you’ve got Hongkongers and Mainlanders living with each other every day, and it’s packing a lot into a very small space, so there’s a lot of manoeuvring to do.” One of us raises the issue of immigration — is it possible that the government’s packing too much in, should we be limiting the influx? But she’s having none of it: it’s all about learning how to adjust. “It’s definitely going to be uncomfortable. And yes, you do have some problems with getting along. But it’s possible: so many of us have emigrated and found ourselves in a strange land, and who are you to deny them a chance of a better life? All you need is a little patience, a little willingness to adapt and adjust to each other.”

Despite all the sticky Western food — every item on the menu is greasy all the way through — the corner café still feels intimate, a little corner of Hong Kong cut loose and floated all the way here into the Australian hinterlands. We could have talked for hours, but the train has arrived, and the woman wishes us well as we say our goodbyes. Within minutes, we’ve fallen back into the seats of the train, watching the darkness outside. The other three slowly drop into Dreamland, but by the virtue of blasting loud music I hold on for just a little longer before I, too, nod off.

Arrive in Central as dinnertime goes into full swing, and after the simple faded palettes of the hills it’s a weird thing to see the richness of Sydney: bright, glaring fluorescents, people rushing to and fro, the gleaming trams and displays and city lights.

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We decide on something Chinese for the night: Chinatown is a couple of tram stops away and Betsy’s found this brilliant place which promises good noodles. Halfway down Harbour Street (within its quaintly translated streetsigns), we’re looking for the elusive noodle store when a burst of colour fills our eyes and ears. Look up to see fireworks shooting into the sky over Darling Harbour, wheeling and exploding with radiance, every new one a splash of brightness in the night. For a moment we pause, shouting and staring like the children we are at heart. One last surprise in a day that has certainly been full of them.

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