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Grand Canyon Circuit, Blue Mountains – 10 September 2014

A spectacular walk showing off the contrasting habitats, magnificent geology, and spectacular scenery of Grose Valley. This walk contains many stairs, potentially slippery surfaces and a short tunnel. Check conditions at the Blackheath NSW Parks Information Centre if there has been recent heavy rain and, as always, be aware the day’s fire danger rating.

Afternoon sunlight streams into the secluded canyon as the sound of the waterfalls fills the air

 

Start/Finish: Grand Canyon Loop Car Park, Evans Lookout Road, Blackheath

Distance: Approx 7.4km (Officially 5km, but I’m not sure if that includes the distance between Evans Lookout and Neates Glen Car Park. Also, satellite signal for our GPS’s was extremely patchy in the canyon)

Time: Approx 3hrs

Difficulty: Medium

Elevation profile graph and map for Grand Canyon Circuit bushwalk - Blackheath, Grose Valley, Blue Mountains National Park

Following our successful early morning walk to Leura Forest (by successful I mean we started and finished before noon!) we were primed for an afternoon walk to pack in as much as possible on our last full day in the Blue Mountains.

Even though there were still walks around Katoomba where we were staying (eg Wentworth Falls), if it meant a drive in the car we thought we may as well see a different valley altogether.

The Grose Valley is a very large, long valley to the north of Katoomba. There are many walks dotted on our SV map near the town of Blackheath, situated at the western end of the valley. The Grand Canyon is briefly described on that map, but we also bought a much more detailed Walking Track and Visitor Guide solely on the Grand Canyon walk from the Echo Point NPWS Information Centre (and at $3.00 you can’t quibble at the price).

Our information sources - NSW NPSW Grand Canyon booklet and SV Map of Blue Mountains North

Blackheath is an easy 10min drive up the road (west of Katoomba). The turnoff to this walk is before you get to the actual township, if you’re coming from Katoomba like us. There are signs, but keep your eyes open all the same as you get close to the town.

Following the instructions in the NPWS booklet, we parked in the Grand Canyon Loop Car Park (the second of three car parks) near the end of Evans Lookout Road. Somewhat surprisingly, there was another car in the first (Neates Glen) carpark, but no one else in the second. Judging from the number of car spaces available, this area can be pretty popular sometimes. Once again I found myself thankful it was a weekday, and not during school holidays.

Grand Canyon Loop Carpark is quite large...and we had it all to ourselves

Grand Canyon Loop Carpark is quite large…and we had it all to ourselves

Just like over at Jamison Valley, the vegetation atop the ridges here is tough and dry, full of prickly acacias and rough-barked banksias, scrubby grasses and brakenfern. There’s no hint here of the Grand Canyon just a stone’s throw away, nor what it contains…

On the other hand, it’s no stretch to imagine how an uncontrolled bushfire could race through and decimate communities living here – human, plant and animal. With our climate changing leading to the frequency and intensity of fires increasing, even communities that are fire tolerant will come under pressure.

The path leading back up to the first carpark (Neates Glen) was easy to find. There’s a very gentle incline on the path between the two car parks to the start of the proper Grand Canyon track. But pretty much as soon as you turn into the bush you’re walking downhill, increasingly steeply.

It was only early afternoon, but the shadows on the western side of the ridge felt cool and welcoming as we dropped below the ridge line. The undergrowth becomes softer, and it’s not too long before we came to the first set of doors across the path.

The first portal (flood door) of many along the track - Grand Canyon Walking Track, Grose Valley, Blackheath, Blue Mountains National Park

Doors? What on earth are these for?

To keep walkers out of areas affected by flooding, apparently. A good idea, but I wonder if the Rangers are sent to close the doors before or after the rain ?

Stepping through the first black door was like passing through a portal to a parallel universe. Almost immediately the vegetation becomes lush – not just beside the path – completely surrounding you, as you carefully make your way down the rock and concrete steps.

There is water trickling over the path, down the boulders next to you, off every piece of moss and fern frond, after having been filtered through and slowly released by the hanging swamps above. Looking down to check my next step, I was amazed at the volume of plant life growing on the vertical rise of the step – in fact, there are ferns and mosses growing on every millimetre of surface that’s not regularly trodden, by the look of it.

Mosses growing on the vertical rise of each concrete step

Mosses growing on the vertical rise of each concrete step

Too soon the narrow gully widens and we found ourselves in a small valley. I thought at the time that these cliffs towering up to 100m above formed the ‘Grand Canyon’ referred to in the title of the walk… but this is just the start.

While nowhere near as large as the ‘real’ Grand Canyon in the USA (not even a speck compared to that) it is still impressive as you cross Greaves Creek for the first time and follow the canyon (aka gorge) down to the valley floor.

It’s not far before you reach the end of this upper, open section of the canyon, where a flight of stairs takes you down a level to a place known as the “beach”, I guess due to sand deposited here over time by the creek. It used to be known as the “Rotunda”, and was quite a popular spot. It’s not hard to see why. The afternoon sun was just at the right angle for a ray of light to pierce through the canyon onto the stream and yellow sand of the creek bed, illuminating the canyon wall with a dancing, golden light.

Tearing myself away from this fascinating area, we came upon the tunnel. In my brief scan of the NPWS notes over lunch I hadn’t noticed anything about a tunnel!

Fortunately Stephen had come prepared! Fishing the small torch out of his backpack we ventured in…

So it turns out it’s only about 5 metres long – but not knowing that I was happy for the torch. No, we didn’t get out and re-read the notes (also in Stephen’s backpack), but in case you’re wondering, it’s simply described as ‘a short tunnel having been formed by a rock fall’ and walkers are warned to “watch your step (and your head) as the floor of the tunnel is rough”. I didn’t notice it was particularly rough, but then – Stephen had brought a torch!

Looking back up at the tunnel's exit

Looking back up at the tunnel’s exit

Before you, after you exit the tunnel and walk down the steep stairs, is a… bowl? basin? a gigantic pothole ground out by a million seething swirl pools of debris after eons of flooding? I’m not sure how to properly describe the large round space. The middle of the floor is filled with large boulders and a few trees, while ferns and other plants grow down the sides of the canyon walls. The path continues to hug the canyon wall on the right and, by so doing, leads you under a waterfall that feeds Greaves Creek.

The path leads behind a waterfall - not flowing too strongly today

The path leads behind a waterfall – not flowing too strongly today

It wasn’t flowing very strongly that day, so the only reason I got just a little wet on the shoulder was because I had to wait for Stephen to be satisfied with the photographs he was taking. But fair’s fair – it was his turn next!

Entering the canyon proper I was awed by the rocks, shaped by the passage of water over millennia. The NPWS booklet explains the canyon is formed from what’s known as Burra-Moko sandstone. Not only does it look different to the Banks Wall sandstone that is widely recognised from photos of cliffs (most notably the Three Sisters) in the Blue Mountains, but it’s a softer sandstone, too.

The creek disappears from view down into the narrow, dark depths of the canyon. Ferns line the sides of the canyon walls, using any crevice, crack or ledge for support as they unfurl their fronds to catch the limited daylight – and the constant drip of water from the hanging swamps above – entering the confined space.

Walking across the scalloped side of the canyon, and through the cuts gouged into the walls made by the creek (some places deeper than others) I marvelled at the power and beauty of nature. For someone who loves rocks (in a forest setting), this was a place I could have only dreamed of prior to now… In short, it was fantastic.

Just before you descend to the valley floor, the canyon widens and the path transects some scrubbier forest on the hillside. The opposite side (much more of which is now visible) is topped with tall and straight eucalypts, silvery in the fading afternoon light.

Although it’s still only mid-afternoon, when you’re down this low in the protected canyon it feels a lot later. The light is fading quickly so we’re trying to hurry, yet at the same time at almost every turn there is a new sight to take our breath away.

Turning a corner and entering the gully that would reunite us with Greaves Creek, my immediate impression was that this would be just the sort of place to find elves (the benevolent kind); mossy and green, and perfectly arranged.

Tall straight trees trunks are a stand-out feature of this mossy gully leading down to Greaves Creek - Grand Canyon Walk, Blackheath, Grose Valley, Blue Mountains National Park

Tall straight trees trunks are a stand-out feature of this mossy gully leading down to Greaves Creek

Ferns quickly populate the gully as you descend this magical gully to Greaves Creek - Grand Canyon Walk, Blackheath, Grose Valley, Blue Mountains National Park

Ferns quickly populate the gully as you descend this magical gully to Greaves Creek

As mentioned, there hadn’t been all that much rain lately; while there are a few small sources of water feeding into Greaves Creek along the way, it’s just enough to keep it flowing. The deep, dark pools of water are calm and cool. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are leeches in the water though, and drinking from the creek is definitely unsafe without sterilisation. There was no chance of getting our feet wet as we crossed the creek a couple of times on perfectly spaced stepping-stones as we followed the track down to the intersection with Rodriguez Pass Walking Track. The NPWS notes warn that you may have to look carefully in places to follow the track; this might be the case when the water level is higher, though we didn’t have any problems following it.

The size of the tree trunks lying discarded in, or propped up against the walls of the canyon are evidence of the power of past flood events. It looks like it’s been a while since the last big flood. Or maybe they’ve fallen down from above… either way, I’m glad everything was quiet as we walked through. The logs there have a reasonable covering of moss, and there are plenty of young trees and ferns growing the canyon floor.

Near the track junction the creek forms a very small waterfall as it enters the roof of a little cavern and fills a pool with a sloping edge of fine gravel (almost sand) by the path that looks absolutely perfect for a quick dip. Lucky it wasn’t a particularly hot day or I might have been tempted to stick a toe in. Or simply walk in, boots and all!

Rodriguez Pass Walking Track will take you into the middle of Grose Valley before exiting at Govett’s Lookout. Had we started this walk at 8am then this may well have been the route we would have taken. It would mean an extra 6-7km (at a guess – I haven’t got a map that tells me exactly) which I expect would take about 3hrs (definitely allowing time for photo opportunities!) plus a lunch break.

Junction with Rodriguez Pass Walking Track

Junction with Rodriguez Pass Walking Track

After the intersection it’s pretty much all uphill back to the car park. As Stephen is known to sagely remark, “What goes down, must come up.”. Take heart in knowing the climb out is not as steep as any of the ‘Staircases’ we’d climbed in the last couple of days, because (for once) the track leads up a sloping gully to the cliff top instead of trying to scale the cliff itself! After climbing Giant Staircase that morning the climb out did seem to go on and on… and on some more, but on the other hand, it had been a lovely, long stroll to the bottom.

The air was already beginning to take on its evening chill; very pleasant in summer, but I imagine it can get really cold in winter! To begin with you’re still surrounded by lush forest, down on the valley floor where streamlets feed into Greaves Creek. Further up the gully the undergrowth thins out allowing a better view of the moss-covered trees and rocks along the path and the huge boulders and cliffs behind the reaching skyward.

With every step (and there are a lot of steps!) the mossy forest gets a little drier until there are just a few trees below two very large boulders. Climbing the stairs between them (here it was steep enough to put in a hand rail and, yes, I gratefully accepted) we emerged back into a eucalypt dominated forest – Blue Mountain Ash. Goodbye to the lush fern and moss adorned rainforests below, and surely, just at the top of this rise – hello Evans Lookout?!

But we weren’t there yet. Not until we’d climbed the dirt track up the hill, through the last gate and passed the information plaque (for people walking the circuit clockwise) could we breathe a sigh of relief. And then gasped in amazement, since this was our first look across Grose Valley! Magnificent! However, Evans Lookout is a still bit further on – another ~500m, but fortunately it’s just a gentle incline along the ridge to get there.

Anxious about being too late for a good sight (and photo opportunity), we didn’t dally but hurried along to the proper lookout and – thankfully – managed to arrive in time to snap a few photos in which the opposite cliffs were simply glowing in the late afternoon light. Mission accomplished!

Grose Valley is more intimate than Jamison Valley

Grose Valley is more intimate than Jamison Valley

Panorama of Grose Valley from Evans Lookout - Blackheath, Blue Mountains National Park

Grose Valley, whatever time of day, really is much more impressive than Jamison Valley. The cliffs on the opposite side of the valley are closer, and positioned so even amateur photographers can catch their evening glow. There are many interesting geological formations, walks, and even an impressive waterfall (Govetts Leap) that can be appreciated from a lookout adjacent to a car park – for free! It’s so big it’s hard to capture properly in its entirety, and possibly relief at finally being at the Lookout enhanced my experience, but there’s no doubt that it’s a magnificent location.

Easy steps back to Evans Lookout Car Park, past the distinctive shelter design used around Blackheath

Easy steps back to Evans Lookout Car Park, past the distinctive shelter design used around Blackheath

Photos taken it was time to set ourselves for the last few hundred metres (which felt more like a kilometre) back to the car to complete the circuit.

It was a short, if damp, walk back to the Grand Canyon Car Park

It was a short, if damp, walk back to the Grand Canyon Car Park

Done! And what a walk that was!

I think most amazing aspect of this walk is discovering a completely different and marvellous world so very well hidden and remarkably close to town. In a relatively short walk you journey from dry, grey bushland to wet, fern-filled gullies, through a deep canyon carved out over hundreds of thousands of years, beneath the canopy of a sub-tropical rainforest, and finally by a small forest of beautiful Blue Mountain Ash. Walking under and past waterfalls, over the creek more times than I can remember, reinforces that it’s water – that most precious of commodities on our dry continent – that created and continues to shape this environment. Even the drops of water falling down from hanging swamps above giving the impression that it’s raining contribute to shaping tomorrow’s Grand Canyon.

Of course, this route wouldn’t be accessible without the enormous amount of work done by NSW NPSW to map out and create the route, install the small bridge, a few kilometres of handrails and fencing in places, and even more than a couple concrete steps which would have been made on site. An unbelievable amount of work has made it possible for the public to come and appreciate this jewel in the Grose Valley, and I, for one, heartily thank everyone (past and present) who has been involved in setting up and maintaining these walking tracks.

When we return, we’ll definitely be re-visiting the Grose Valley. There’s a lot more to discover here.

: )

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Road Trip to the Blue Mountains – September, 2014

When my young sister announced that her wedding venue was booked for somewhere just outside of Sydney, my second (or possibly third) thought was, “Ooh! We can visit the Blue Mountains!”

Three Sisters with morning cloud in Jamison Valley - Katoomba. There's probably a million other people out there who have a photo almost exactly the same as this.

Three Sisters with morning cloud in Jamison Valley – Echo Point Lookout, Katoomba.

Neither Stephen or I had visited the Blue Mountains National Park before, although we’d both flown to Sydney on a number of accessions, either for work or leisure. We elected to drive because 1) we can take more stuff, 2) the Hume Highway is pretty good and Melbourne to Sydney (at under 900km) can be done in one day, 3) you get to see a lot along the way and, 4) taking the MINI was the most convenient and cheapest option.

We left Melbourne at just after 9am, and with just two stops along the way (lunch at Albury and petrol at Yass) we pulled up at our hotel in Campbeltown on the outskirts of Sydney at about 6:30pm. I didn’t take photos along the way; I didn’t think I’d be writing about it! I am sorry that there was very little natural light left as were getting closer to Sydney as the Hume Hwy crosses some spectacular looking gorges that I’d definitely like a better look at next time!

Like many small towns that used to be a day’s travel away by horse and buggy from the capital when they were first settled, Campbelltown has since been swallowed up by urban sprawl. Because the majority of these towns are some of the first that white settlers created, the road signs invariably label these towns as ‘Historic’. With the help of the (very enthusiastic but also nice) lady at the local information centre, located in the town’s original school building, we found Campbelltown’s remaining historical strip, Art Gallery and Japanese Garden. We also found Waminda Bakery, opposite Mawson Park, and had a delicious pie each for lunch. Stephen confirms their custard tarts are top-notch, and I reckon if you like peppermint, you’ll love their generously-sized peppermint slices.

So there are still a few nuggets of gold to be sifted out of the otherwise bland-looking, franchised, chain-stored, concreted, same-as-the-next-suburb, Campbelltown.

Another nugget, if I may continue the metaphor, to be found nearby are the Australian Botanic Gardens at Mount Annan – just down the road as you head towards Narellan. We didn’t spend much time here unfortunately, but I’m so glad we visited. These gardens are managed by The Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust – the people who look after the botanic gardens in Sydney, and The Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens at Mount Tomah.

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With plenty of walking tracks, barbecue areas and picnic facilities, it’s not hard to see why this is a popular place for families to come and enjoy. It’s also the home of the Australian Plantbank, which we simply ran out of time to see – we had a wedding to attend! Next time, for sure.

From Campbelltown, Katoomba is only about a 90min drive away. It had been cool and overcast with light showers all morning down on the plains, and when we arrived at Katoomba it was cold (not surprising) and wreathed in clouds (a little surprising). Needless then to say, we couldn’t see the famous rock formation known as The Three Sisters from Echo Point Lookout. I hoped the weather would improve over the next day or two so we could get at least a glimpse of it before we left!

Arriving at Katoomba shrouded in cloud

Arriving at Katoomba shrouded in cloud

We stayed at the 3 Explorers Motel, located about 300m from Echo Point. Comfortable, great host, close to bush walks and ScenicWorld (a popular tourist attraction). Walking back into town only took us 10min – add another 10min to get to the train station at the other end of town. There’s a chocolate shop directly opposite the motel, and a corner shop (note: not precisely a convenience store) a block back towards town that makes great sandwiches at a reasonable price (corner Lurline & Goyder Streets).

MINI at the 3 Explorers Motel, Katoomba

MINI at the 3 Explorers Motel, Katoomba

As for restaurants, we visited two during our stay. My parents joined us on the mountain for one day/night and shouted us dinner at the Old City Bank Brasserie. Good food, generous portions, not overly pricey. Owned by the Carrington Hotel next door, there is an invitation at the bottom of the menu to go and look at the hotel after dinner. So we did.

What a grand old place it is! Visitors are only allowed to explore downstairs (guest rooms are upstairs) but there is still much to see and admire.

Behind the hotel is the Carrington Cellars and Deli. The huge chimney seen rising above the hotel is actually part of the cellar/deli which used to be where they generated power for the hotel, using coal brought up from the mines at the bottom of the cliffs.

The other place we ate out at was Station Bar & Woodfired Pizza, located right next to the train station. I had the Wentworth Falls and it was de-lic-ious! Do note though, that the pizzas are about 30cm across – the only reason why we managed to finish two between us was because we were hungry and, being wood-fired, they have thin-crusts! I am pleased to report that they have local beer and cider on tap for visitors to try – and they’re pretty good too!

As we had no local knowledge of the walks, we bought maps from the Visitor Information Centre at Echo Point. All were very useful.

Echo Point Visitor Information Centre

Echo Point Visitor Information Centre

Over the next three days we did the following walks:

1. Three Sisters – Katoomba Falls circuit, start/ending at Echo Point (Katoomba, Jamison Valley)

2. Ruined Castle via Golden Staircase (Katoomba, Jamison Valley)

3. Leura Forest via Giant Staircase (Katoomba, Jamison Valley)

4. Grand Canyon circuit (Blackheath, Grose Valley)

How I wish we had more time there! So many walks still to do – and we only realised the Grose Valley is so much more awe-inspiring than the Jamison Valley on our last full day there. Next time we’re definitely planning to stay somewhere in Blackheath.

In a change of tac, I’m not going to write about the above walks in this post – each are going to get their own… as soon as I get time to wade through the photos and select/reject, describe them, type post, etc… But here are a couple of photos just to (hopefully) whet your appetite.

You’ll have noticed from the photo of the three sisters at the top of this post that the weather did indeed clear after we arrived.  Monday was gorgeous, Tuesday and Wednesday were rather windy but down in the valleys you’re protected from the wind as it whistles over the tops of the ridges, so bush walking – while always a good way to spend time – becomes even more appealing for this reason.

But good things always come to an end, and so it came time to head home. On the return journey we were heading south via Bathurst, Young, over-nighting in Wagga Wagga, then the final leg home to Melbourne would mostly rejoin the Hume Highway.

As we headed off we made a quick stop at Blackheath to view Govett’s Leap (aka Bridal Veil Falls) which can be conveniently viewed from Govett’s Leap Lookout at the end of Govett’s Leap Road. It’s well signed – you shouldn’t miss it.

 

By the time we were done here it was after 9am and the NPWS Heritage Centre and Shop (Visitor Information Centre) a few hundred metres back up the road was open. They have information displays on the history of the Blue Mountains, the wildlife in it, maps, reference books and souvenirs to purchase as at the Echo Point location.

One well-known attraction of the region that we didn’t visit, despite urgings from various parties, were the Jenolan Caves. Next time we’ll hopefully have more time to visit them. A side trip to the caves would have added at least 2hrs to our day, and while it’d be a mistake to think that if you’ve seen one lot of limestone caves you’ve seen them all, we’ve fairly recently been to the caves around Margaret River (WA), compared the pleasures between a self-guided and group cave tour, and so were happy to leaves these ones to our next visit.

That meant our first stop after leaving the mountains was Mount Panorama, Bathurst.

Yes, Stephen wanted to drive a lap of the famous Bathurst 1000 racing circuit. We ended up doing two laps (my fault – lack of warning from the driver meant the photographer wasn’t aware that an iconic part of the track was coming up, resulting in a quick shot that unfortunately focused on the bug-smeared windscreen instead of through it. Gah!). It’s a public road, so speed limit on a non-event day is 60km/hr. A good thing because not only do people live alongside and within the circuit (which I wasn’t previously aware of) but people are cycling, jogging and pushing prams around the track! Just check that the track hasn’t been booked out on the day you visit or you may be disappointed.

 

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We stopped in town for lunch found the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery (BRAG), in the same building as the Bathurst City Library on Keppel Street. A lovely space and some lovely works on display at the moment by Jason Benjamin. I was really taken by the massive single-piece of carved Mintaro slate as the table top in the Rees Reading Room.

Lunch was just across the street at Carah’s Cakes & Pies. Can’t go past their pepper beef pie, and we were impressed with their attention to detail in keeping the pies warm and even warming the serving plates when we said we’d like to eat in.

Carah's Cakes & Pies, Bathurst

Not surprisingly, the countryside so far had been hilly and reasonably green (being early spring, you’d hope so – whether more rain comes so it lasts is another question). We had expected the landscape to become flat and ‘boring’ as reported by some, but it didn’t. The road isn’t new or dual carriage way, so it takes a bit more concentration to drive than the Hume to avoid the rough spots, but it’s still a good and interesting drive. At this time of the year one sight you cannot miss or help being awed by is the number of fields – and the size of those fields – planted with canola. They are easy to spot – they’re the ones coloured gold!

Further down the highway is Young. We didn’t realise that they claim to be the ‘Cherry Capital of Australia’ but having driven by and seen the orchards visible just from the highway… yes I think I can believe it. I’m not sure where all the cherries go – probably Sydney, maybe into Queensland and also exported. I think most or all of the cherries we buy in Melbourne come from within Victoria, maybe Tasmania.

Pulling into Wagga Wagga our windscreen was rather more than speckled with bugs, and starting to get in dire need of a clean. You cross the Murrumbidgee River a couple of times as you come into town. We stayed at the Carlyle Suites & Apartments between the river and the main street. The rooms are large and there’s an in-room complementary breakfast of cereal, fruit and juice. After a quick walk down to the river the following morning to see the river (instead of just driving over it), we were on the road again.

Walking down to see the Murrumbidgee River - Wagga Wagga The Murrimbidgee flowing through Wagga Wagga, NSW

Not far out of Wagga Wagga you pass The Rock. A striking geological feature, reminiscent of the Grampians, the area around the hill is a nature reserve. There is a walking track to the top – I’m sure the view would be quite rewarding as the hill rises 354m above the surrounding countryside.

The Rock

The Rock

We rejoined the Hume Hwy just outside of Albury. This time it was too early to stop for lunch there so we pressed on, back over the border into Victoria and into Benalla, which sits a short way off the highway. I’m glad we did. Another pie for lunch; this time a square pie with the best pastry yet, at Bertalli’s. After lunch we took a walk along the main street which lead us over the bridge spanning Lake Benalla to the Benalla Art Gallery and Botanic Gardens. What a fine building design! They have a cafe there (had we but known… but our pies had been very nice) and the exhibition spaces are large and beautiful – especially with the triangle windows in the roof letting natural light into the space. Beautiful architecture. If all buildings were designed as creatively as art galleries and the like, what lovely places we’d all live and work in.

 

We didn’t go into the  Costume & Pioneer Museum. Despite how inviting it looked, it was time to tackle the last 200-odd kilometres back home.

We’d had a great time, and feel like we’ve just started to discover the Blue Mountains. Driving a different route back (over 2 days) was a good decision, too. Next time we’ll probably travel up that way. It’s interesting seeing rural towns, even if it’s just as we’re passing through.

: )