When I was researching things to do in Sydney, Blue Mountains National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, were definitely on most “must-see” lists. And indeed, the photos look almost mystical. But remember when I said that the weather didn’t exactly cooperate with us in Australia? Well, it was certainly all over the place that day. Mother Nature apparently was having some crazy menopausal mood swings that day, because it bounced from rainy and cold to warm and sunny at least five times throughout the day. If I’m counting my blessings, I can at least say I’m grateful that the sun did choose to peek out at various times throughout the day, rather than the full-on deluge of rain we experienced in Cairns (but more on that later).
blue mountains and katoomba scenic world
The day dawned with bruised clouds and a drizzle of rain as we walked to our meeting point by the aquarium, but the sun popped out during our two-hour “scenic drive” to the national park. According to our itinerary, we were supposed to stop for morning tea in Leura, but our guide, John S., called Grey Line’s normal stop there and apparently it was already insane there due to the beginning of tourist season (the downfall of going when nearly all the guidebooks tell you to). So we bypassed Leura and went straight to Katoomba Scenic World, which sounds kind of like an amusement park, but really, it just has three “attractions”—the skyway, cableway, and railway—which we could do at our own expense if we wished. Given that the fog lingered heavily along the mountaintops when we arrived, we decided to save our $39 (APIECE).
Instead, we decided to walk the Furber Stairs, an “easy” and short walk, given that we only had about two and a half hours there total. It was colder in the mountains than expected (unseasonably cold, as locals kept reminding us), but that “easy” hike (and the chai I’d gotten from the cafe) warmed me up pretty quickly (is it just me, or do stairs always caustically remind you how wildly out of shape you are?). We didn’t do the entire walk because we didn’t have enough time if we also wanted to eat lunch, but as we walked and hit up a few of the lookouts, the fog lifted slightly, just enough for us to see what all the fuss was about.
We were glad, in the end, that we skipped Leura and headed right to Scenic World, because it meant we missed the worst of the tourist onslaught as people started coming in droves around lunchtime. And when I say droves, I mean DROVES. The gift shop was ridiculously crowded as we wandered around, mostly sampling honeys, because that’s kind of become my thing. (I bought some really delicious cinnamon honey there, but alas, customs officials in New Zealand made me discard it; apparently, if I opened Australian honey in New Zealand, it could possibly put their bees at risk, so they’re very specific about the kind of honey you can bring into their country; just something to watch out for if you’re also going to be spending time in both countries.) We grabbed some pretty decent fish and chips (and ginger beers!) from EATS270 before heading back to the bus, onward to our next destination for the day.
En route to Echo Point, John took us to a higher elevation for another view of the mountains. By then, the sun was shining, the fog had burned off, affording us some pretty spectacular views. (Funny story about the Blue Mountains: John apparently had a person once ask for a refund for the excursion because the trees weren’t actually blue. Oh yes, this is a true story. And before you ask, yes, she was American, though John was reluctant to confirm our suspicions. I mean, what was she expecting? A Smurf forest? In case you’re wondering, it’s commonly believed that the blue haze is due to the ways the rays of light refract off of the mist rising off the eucalyptus trees blanketing the mountains.)
Our next stop is Echo Point, from which you can get the best view of the Three Sisters rock formation. Legend has it that three sisters belonging to the Katoomba aboriginal tribe in that region fell in love with three brothers from a rival tribe, and they were forbidden to marry. The brothers refused to abide by the law forbidding them from their loves, so they captured the three sisters, sparking a battle between the two tribes. To protect the sisters, a witch doctor turned them to stone. He had intended to reverse the spell once the battle was over, but he was killed before it ended, and the three sisters were forced to remain as the spectacular and unique formation we see today. (Australians and New Zealanders are really big on their folklore, by the way. We heard a lot of legends as we made our way through both countries, which I find endlessly fascinating.)
featherdale wildlife park
As we made our way back to Sydney, we stopped at the Featherdale Wildlife Park, which is not a zoo. Well, it’s not a traditional zoo, anyway. I specify this because the more I learn about zoos, the sadder it makes me. No, Featherdale is a sanctuary for endangered and injured Australian animals. If possible, they mend the animals’ broken parts and release them back into the wild.
This was where we got our first glimpses of those quintessential Australian animals: the Wallabies (which are freaking adorable, and you can pet them!), the kangaroo, the cassowary (which is a pretty prehistoric looking mofo), a smattering of interesting-looking owls and colorful songbirds, and, of course, the koala, just to name a few. (Note: It’s just koala, not koala bear. They’re not actually bears, even if they have bear-like features. We were corrected. More than once.)
Let me tell you, friends, our sleepy koala friends are just as adorable in real life as I dreamed they would be. And no, they’re not actually stoned, contrary to popular belief—they’re just really sleepy. They’re one of the few animals who can actually subsist on a diet of eucalyptus leaves; for most animals, eucalyptus leaves are poisonous. The koala’s adaptive digestive system is actually able to detoxify the poison in the leaves, but it takes quite a bit of energy for that to happen, which is why koalas sleep 18-22 hours a day, only waking up when they’re ready to munch on some more leaves. About 90% of the koalas we saw in various sanctuaries around Australia (and by the end of our trip, we’d seen a lot) were curled up into little balls in the treetops.
But Featherdale does offer you the option to take a photo with one of the little guys, though you cannot hold koalas in New South Wales (it’s against the law because a large population of them are infected with chlamydia—it’s true—and a huge problem threatening to wipe out a good percentage of our remaining koalas, and they don’t have numbers to spare. And though it’s a different strain than what we humans get, it can actually be transferred to us through the koala’s bodily fluids, like snot and tears, so yeah, no hugging, and no complaints here). So our first “interaction” with a koala was gently cupping his behind as he wedged himself in the V of what looked like a very artificial tree branch. Not that I’m complaining! It was still magical, despite our fairly awkward-looking photo souvenir!
A couple of hours and a very satisfying koala interaction later, we headed back to Sydney by boat. It was windy as hell, but the sky was a beautiful deep blue. As with our lunch cruise, we had the option of getting off at Circular Quay or Darling Harbor. Since we’d spent a lot of time the previous day in Circular Quay, we decided to spend a little time in Darling Harbor instead.
A couple dozen bustling bars and restaurants form a U around the harbor, making our decision ridiculously difficult. We ended up eating at I’m Angus Steakhouse, which was another expensive meal (but we were in an especially touristy area, so it’s to be expected), but SO TASTY. We started with the bruschetta, which was basically two slabs of Texas toast piled high with juicy tomato chunks—it was heaven. For dinner, I got a half-rack of ribs and it was enormous–-my eyes legit popped out of my head and our waiter laughed as he placed the slate slab with a mountain of meat in front of me and tied a plastic bib around my neck. (In hindsight, I don’t know why I was surprised. They’re listed as “giant pork ribs” right on the menu. They’re very literal in Australia.) But oh man, I was hungry enough to eat a horse and I did a surprising amount of damage to that meal considering how, um, unassuming my stature is. The hubby had to practically roll me out of there.
After that ridiculously satiating meal, we had to walk off some of those calories, so we strolled around the harbor as the sun sank lower in the sky. We noticed groups of people huddling along the waterfront and realized the harbor puts on a fireworks display on Saturdays throughout the summer, so we walked around some more until we found a good spot on the pedestrian bridge. I’m a sucker for fireworks, and for being a free show, it was pretty good, a nice distraction from the chill that set into the night and a great way to end our third day in Sydney.
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