Friday, November 6, 2009

We missed breakfast again - we packed and had little time for anything else before our 8:30 pickup. We got picked up at a hotel that resides above a bar, so our guide, Graham, was more than a little surprised to find out he was taking us to Lilianfels, a 5-star hotel in the Blue Mountains. He was going on and on about how nice (and expensive) the place was, which was making us uncomfortable, especially since everyone else on the van was getting this as their first impression of us (they were all on a day trip, coming back to Sydney). We were the last people picked up (there were 10 of us on the bus), and we drove down past Darling Harbour and then went west over the ANZAC bridge and out towards the mountains. Graham gave us some history on Australia, both before and after European discovery. We heard about Gondwanaland for about the fifth time this trip. Graham also told us about current Australia - its economy is very strong, and it has actually been raising interest rates to strengthen the Australian dollar (which is probably why everything was so expensive to us).

The Blue Mountains are just west of Sydney, with the foothills starting only 50km from Sydney. The mountains primarily consist of soft sandstone, and thus there are many gorges and sharp vertical columns. The Blue Mountains are part of the "Great Dividing Range," which separates the east coast from the vast continental interior, somewhat like the Sierra Nevada range in California. For many years, the Blue Mountains were impassable to the Europeans, hoping to travel between Sydney and Adelaide. It is not entirely clear when the first successful expedition was made, because the British may not have wanted the convicts to find out that there was a relatively easy way out of Sydney.

The first official credit for crossing the Blue Mountains was given to Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth, who crossed the mountains in May 1813, over 25 years after the British first settled in Sydney. Like nearly everywhere else on our trip, the Greater Blue Mountains Area was voted a World Heritage Area by UNESCO on November 29, 2000. The main reason for the listing is the eucalyptus vegetation, and the unique flora and fauna living in the area. The mountains are "blue" because of a blue tinge the mountain range takes on when viewed from a distance. Many people believe that the blue tinge is created by light reflecting off of vapors from the Eucalyptus leaves, but in fact this is incorrect. The blue tinge is just Rayleigh scattering (the same effect that turns the sky blue), which occurs whenever you can see well off into the distance. Granted, the moisture and oil released from the gums causes the Rayleigh scattering, but the same effect would be present if you could see over the Amazon rainforest for miles and miles.

We had morning tea in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, and saw some kangaroos and a bunch of birds that were pestering everyone for their snacks. The rain came in as we were leaving, and as we drove up the mountains we were quickly in the clouds, with no visibility. We kept driving around from place to place, but nothing was visible. So we bided our time until lunch, with everyone being kind of down. At lunch, there were Crimson Rosellas and King Parrots, and they got people cheered up. They are used to people, and would fly down right onto your hands (or heads - video of that here).

After lunch, it had cleared up, so we went back to Govetts Leap on the northern side of the Blue Mountains - now we could see, and it was pretty nice. Alas, right as we were getting to Three Sisters - on the southern side of the Blue Mountains - it had fogged up again, and there was no view. We got dropped off at our hotel, and the others on the van got 30 minutes to sit and wait for things to clear up, but they never really did. We were going to take a long walk through the forest, but it was cold and we weren't really feeling it, so we explored the city of Katoomba instead. It was a backpacker city, quite a difference from our hotel, and frankly we felt more comfortable in town.


We came back to the hotel, and didn't really know what to do, so decided to have an early dinner. We walked back up to "downtown" Katoomba, and ate some Thai food for barely more than a burger would have cost at Lilianfels. Everything was over-the-top expensive at Lilianfels, from $29 hamburgers to $39 internet access to $14 garlic bread. We decided to not spend a dime at the hotel, no matter how far out of the way we needed to walk (the hotel was 20-30 minutes from the CBD). On our walk back from dinner, it seemed clearer, so we decided to give Echo Point and the Three Sisters another try - fortunately we did. It was much clearer than earlier, and the Three Sisters were very impressive. Moreover, there were huge untouched valleys to the south. This made us wonder whether there are untouched areas this big back home - perhaps Yosemite or something. The scenery had us excited for visiting Colca Canyon in Peru next year, especially after seeing an Andean Condor the day before at the zoo.