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!”
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.