Saturday, July 21, 2018

Australia: Blue Mountains

We had a full day in the Blue Mountains today. The Mountains are a dissected plateau carved in sandstone bedrock, and are now a series of ridge lines separated by gorges up to 2,490 feet deep. The highest point in the Blue Mountains, as it is now defined, is an unnamed point with an elevation of 3,901 feet, about 4.3 miles northeast of Lithgow. However, the highest point in the broader region that was once considered to be the Blue Mountains is Mount Bindo, which has an elevation of 4,469 feet.

Mostly because of its location, our first visit was to the Three Sisters,  a rock formation formed by land erosion on the north escarpment of the Jamison Valley, in Katoomba. The sandstone of the Blue Mountains was eroded over time by wind, rain and rivers, causing the cliffs surrounding the Jamison Valley to be slowly broken up. When Europeans arrived in Australia, the Blue Mountains had already been inhabited for several millennia by the Gundungurra people. The commonly told legend of the Three Sisters is that three sisters, Meehni (3,025 feet), Wimlah (3,015 feet), and Gunnedoo (2,972 feet), lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe. They fell in love with three men from the neighboring Nepean tribe, but marriage was forbidden by tribal law. The brothers were not happy to accept this law and so decided to use force to capture the three sisters. A major tribal battle ensued, and the sisters were turned to stone by an elder to protect them, but he was killed in the fighting and no one else could turn them back.

our view of the Three Sisters from the Queen Elizabeth Lookout
Queen Elizabeth II had viewed the Sisters from this lookout in February 1954.

Our plan had originally been to visit Scenic World, but we decided we weren't in the mood to be surrounded by swarms of tourists; instead, we had lunch, and turned our car (and GPS) towards Lithgow, a town about 20 miles north of Katoomba, and took a drive through the Blue Mountains. The Greater Blue Mountains Area is inhabited by over 400 different forms of animals - among them rare mammal species like spotted-tailed quoll, the koala, the yellow-bellied glider, and long-nosed potoroo; there are also some rare reptiles, like the Blue Mountain water skink. We decided we'd stop if we saw anything interesting, and we did, although we saw nothing animal-related: We came across a series of lookouts that required driving over some extremely bumpy (sometimes unpaved), hilly, ever-narrowing paths.

Our first stop was Govett's Leap, so named for William Romaine Govett, an assistant surveyor who first came upon this particular point in June 1831. As with nearly everywhere we went, the lookout was well maintained, included benches (other lookouts we visited had picnic tables), trash cans, and signs that provided historical background.

our view of Govett's Leap; off to the side (not in this particular picture)
is a waterfall, which at the moment seemed to be rather dried up

We hopped back in our car and followed the signs to Hassans Walls, the highest lookout in the Blue Mountains at approximately 3,600 feet above sea level. A metal walkway was constructed over pagoda rock formations, a combination of the soft Narrabeen sandstone underneath overlaid by ironstone. Not much research has been done on these formations, but they're classified into both plated and smooth pagodas, both of which are represented in Hassans Walls.

some of the pagoda rock formations at Hassans Walls

While traveling along the newly constructed Western Road in 1815, the governor, Major General Lachlan Macquarie, was reminded of the hill forts of Northern India, where he had seen active duty in 1803-1804; and so Hassan Walls was named. (Macquarie served as the fifth and last autocratic governor of New South Wales from 1810 to 1821.) We were able to look out to Mount Wilson, Mount York, Mount Tarana, and Mount Blaxland and the whole Hartley Valley below. Evidence of Aboriginal activity exists in the form of middens and rock art.

our view from the Hassans Walls lookout

We backtracked a few kilometers and followed the signs for the apparently recently revamped Bracey Lookout, which gave a 180-degree view of the Lithgow Valley. Lithgow itself sits on the western lip of the Sydney Basin bioregion and at the western extremity of the Greater Blue Mountains area. Erosion has cut through sandstone creating the canyons; in some places (such as Airly Mountain), diamond and gold have been mined from the granite tops and oil shale from the sandstone below.

our view from Bracey's Lookout, looking down at Lithgow

Our trip is winding down; tomorrow we head back to Sydney, and then back to the States on Tuesday. We're not sure yet if we'll find anything much to do in Sydney during our last full day there, but we'll hope to find something interesting to celebrate our last nights in Australia.

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