Friday, January 13, 2012

Views Over and Under the Mountains

Most of our trip to Australia last October was quite consciously pre-planned. I'm not saying that we knew exactly what we were going to see before we got anywhere, but there were a lot of things that we knew in advance we did want to see, and we made sure we fitted them in.

The trip to Jenolan on the 20th of the month, though, was a bit of serendipity. When we were booking various segments of the holiday, we discovered that we could get another coach trip for not much extra, on something like a buy-one-get-one-free deal, and Jenolan caught our eyes in passing. Which just goes to show something, I suppose. Okay, these caves are one of New South Wales's major tourist attractions, it seems, but I don't think that they're really known in the UK. They should be.

The coach journey out to the Blue Mountains had some good stops and sights on the way, too. After a moderately early start, it took in a flying visit to the Blue Mountains Scenic World, at Katoomba. This is basically an old coal mine close to a town up in the Blue Mountains, which, as it's no longer working as a mine, has been converted to a kind of mini-theme park, with the old mining track down the side of the mountain converted into a ride that claims to be the world's steepest passenger railway. Or an angled elevator, if you prefer, really. Whatever. The views of the mountain scenery were great, including the "Three Sisters" (a striking triple rock formation with a couple of supposed aboriginal legends, probably fake, attached), and the tree-fern forest was wonderfully subtly alien.

Then it was back up the hill by cable-car, back on the coach, past the Hydro Majestic Hotel (which we'd seen a week or so before from the train), and down a narrow winding mountain-valley road to Jenolan. Which would just be a striking little Edwardian resort hidden in the mountains, until one discovers why the hotel was built there; the caves. And by "the caves", it turns out we mean "some of the oldest publicly-accessible caves on Earth, possibly as much as 400 million years old, with limestone formations that have clearly been developing all that time".

I've posted a fair number of the photos we took on the tour (which only covered a partial segment of the whole complex - there are several tours available), but it's really very difficult to do these things justice with a camera - it's all underground, with restrained but effective lighting (not many garish coloured lamps, I'm happy to say) reflecting off masses of damp textured limestone. It comes out weird with flash on and grainy and orange without, and it's very hard to convey the scale of the thing. Let's just say there's cave after cave of stalactites, stalagmites, sheet/curtain formations, and bizarre textures, plus some areas of jumbled broken rock for variety. The result is bizarre, almost Lovecraftian at times but strangely beautiful and fascinating.

Then, just after the coach had set out back towards Sydney, the driver announced that, if we didn't mind a brief diversion, there was a place where we'd have a good chance of seeing some wild kangaroos, if we were interested? Funnily enough, on a coach full of tourists in Australia, this didn't need much of a vote. (Cry from the young female British tourists at the back: "Yay for Skippy!") So we pulled over to the side of the road, and the driver took us for a short walk through the woodlands to a clearing with some chalets that are rented out to holidaymakers. And the kangaroos didn't let us down; there was a mob of what I gather were eastern grey kangaroos, sitting or standing around casually grazing and entirely happy to be photographed. (I assume that this group are very used to people; apparently, the species normally avoids humans.) They were even happy to live up to the full stereotype; there was a mother with a fair-sized joey in her pouch, its head sticking out cutely. So our Aussie-experience meter ticked over another notch.

Then, once we'd been back to our hotel, we went out for dinner, strolled past a sight or two, and ended up eating in a place on top of the Customs House by Circular Quay. Eating out on the balcony was a little cool that evening, but the view more than compensated, and the food was good.

 So, yes. Serendipity.

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