Sydney… how excellently exciting! A big city, and one we’d heard lots about – the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, the coffee shops… But all that would have to wait until we had completed our visit to the city’s closest national park – the Blue Mountains.
We had been told it was a must-visit, especially as it was autumn and the colours were to be stunning. I was still getting used to the fact that autumn falls in March in Australia, but apparently it was running a little behind schedule as the trees were all pretty much still a vibrant green.
The Blue Mountains get their name from the blueish haze which settles over the magnificent vistas, caused by dust and eucalyptus oil suspended in the air catching the sun’s rays in a particular way (I don’t know… ask a physicist). However, I would say that the name ‘mountains’, although technically accurate is a little misleading in terms of what you expect from this area, although it is by no means any less majestic than it suggests.
Wherever we went in the national park, we were effectively on top of a flat-topped mountain, meaning you don’t see any craggy alpine peaks rising out of the ground. Rather you are standing on a plateau covered in dense, lush rainforest, staring down into colossal craters of more rainforest. Imagine the Grand Canyon with trees.
There were plenty of walks to choose from in the Blue Mountains, many of them featuring waterfalls and interesting rock formations. We had stayed the first night in the Bulls Camp Reserve (basically a car park off a motorway), and began our trip in the mountains in the central town of Katoomba. Once we had found parking (tricky, and expensive), we made our way to the information centre, which was situated at a huge viewing platform at the end of a road. There were coach-loads of mainly Chinese tourists, selfie-ing by the Three Sisters rock formation which was visible to the left of the platform. It was the busiest national park we had been to by far.
Having arrived at the campsite quite late the night before, we felt like having more of a chilled day, and decided to leave the walks until the next morning and explore the area’s towns. We drove to the lovely little town of Blackheath (named after the place in SE London, but I forget why as it’s nothing like it), a little further along the highway, and checked out the shops, cafes and rhododendron garden there. Sadly, if you’ve ever been to the Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park, you’ll know autumn is not the time for rhododendrons, and there were none in bloom. The houses lining the roads to the gardens in Blackheath were absolutely gorgeous, and I presume, very expensive.
Using the Travellers Autobarn app we had, we found there was a campsite quite close by on the Megalong Valley road. Yes, it is a mega-long valley. This site was far nicer than the roadside job of the night before, situated in the woods with a little stream. I still have not, however, quite got used to long-drop toilets yet though.
For dinner Dan made packet instant noodles. I mention this because I am somewhat experienced in the field of instant noodles, and I feel this needs highlighting. Instant noodles in Australia, (and I presume Indonesia, as they were nasi goreng flavour) are far, far superior to ones available in the UK. Yes, they may come with an Australian price tag ( $1 each vs 15p in Lidl), but they also come with four, yes FOUR different seasonings in each package. The powdered MSG we all know and love, plus soy sauce, chilli sauce and a garnish of fried onions. With Dan’s addition of fried mushrooms and peppers, this was a dish to rival Wagamama.
The following day, full of energy from the Michelin star noodles, we began our day of walks in Blackheath, starting with the Govetts Leap lookout. It was a lot quieter than Katoomba, and we walked through quite dry eucalyptus forest, emerging onto a beautiful lookout.
We then drove on to the Evans lookout, also in Blackheath. More beautiful views of tree-covered canyons. There are a lot of lookouts in the Blue Mountains.
None of the walks are particularly challenging in the park, as they are all on mainly flat paths, and the numerous information signs tend to massively overestimate how long they take (one said 20 minutes, and it only took 5). So, feeling that we had not yet earned our lunch we completed two more walks around the nearby town of Leura with views of cascades, and staggeringly tall cliffs.
We drove back to Katoomba to eat (an excellent falafel wrap if you’re interested), then finally went on to complete our day’s trekking (if you could call it that) with the beautiful Wentworth falls.
Having ticked off the Blue Mountains, we were very excited to hit Sydney. Parking was going to be an odd one, as there are no camping grounds in the city itself, so we ended up on a side road a few train stops outside of the centre. We had to shower in the local leisure centre at $7 a pop (although we did swim too of course).
Aussies consider Sydney to be a big city, but coming from London it really doesn’t feel it. Having been recommended the free walking tour, we ironically had to catch a fairly pricey Uber into town to reach it in time, as we had taken so long parking. We’d never done a free walking tour before, and had fairly low expectations, but we found it to be absolutely BRILLIANT. I couldn’t recommend it enough.
Meeting at the town hall, we spent the next three hours with our incredibly knowledgeable guide Ramsey (yes, like the street) who happened to be a primary teacher too. He took us to all the sites of significance around central Sydney, and explained the history of each place from Aboriginal times, to Captain Cook’s arrival to the present day, and he showed us some original street art installations.
As well as this he gave us some very good tips on bars and eateries – even pointing out that the food court in the Central Business District slashes its lunchbox prices after 3pm in order to get rid of them – a great tip for hungry, broke backpackers like me and Dan (no, it shouldn’t be Dan and I). Ramsey was a ‘Sydneysider’ himself, and clearly passionate about the city; we were so impressed with the tour we actually decided to do the evening tour of The Rocks area too.
I felt quite ignorant when I realised what an important historical city Sydney is, in such a modern country (by western standards). I didn’t even know that The Rocks was where Captain Cook settled first (violently ejecting the Aboriginal folk who had established a homeland by the rich natural harbour there in the process). I made a resolution to visit all the museums and libraries Ramsey recommended, but the evening Rocks tour was a great place to start learning a bit more.
With a different guide, the tour took us around the oldest part of the city where the convicts originally were settled and put to work. There were fascinating tales of treachery and mutiny in the days when the only currency was rum, and prisoners were given building jobs as a city had to be created! It finished with a beautiful sunset walk to Observatory Hill, overlooking the Harbour Bridge. We were surprised at the age of some of the buildings in the area – the cottages in The Rocks looked straight out of the factory worker streets in York, which was a bizarre juxtaposition with the Marriot Hotel skyscraper towering over them.
After the tour, we went for a drink with a New Yorker we had met at one of the pubs we had seen in the Rocks, called The Hero of Waterloo (Sydney’s oldest pub – although that is contested by several other pubs, and relatively young by British standards – 174 years young.) The legend goes that in the Victorian times, no young Sydneysiders wanted to join the navy, so the landlord at the Hero of Waterloo would encourage boys of 18 or 19 to get totally sloshed, then when they passed out from the drink, tossed them in the cellar, which had a secret passage to the harbour. They would wake up the next day on a boat with no means of return. This is from the pub’s website:
“There is an enduring legend that a secret tunnel running from the cellar of the hotel to the harbour was used for rum smuggling and the involuntary recruitment of sailors. An unknowing young man might find himself drunk at the bar, dropped through a trapdoor into the cellar and dragged through the tunnel, only to awake to the morning shanghaied aboard a clipper.
Reminders of the Hero’s notorious past are everywhere. The downstairs cellars still have shackles on the walls and the entrance to the smuggler’s tunnel can still be seen.”
Dan, our new friend Alex and I grew hungry quite late, and remembered that on the tour a nearby pancake house had been recommended that was open 24/7, so we headed there for a late dinner.
We spent three more full days in Sydney – more than we were intending, but there was so much to do and see in the city – the ANZAC memorial, the botanic gardens (I think it is law that every city in Oz has to have one), the Reserve Bank of Australia, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the NSW gallery, the State Library, the Royal Mint, Luna Park, The Rocks museum, and of course the bridge ($300 to walk over the top, or free to walk at regular level – can you guess which we did?).
Having heard that Sydney was full of interesting suburbs at the forefront of food trends, one evening we took the train to a the high street of Newtown where we ate incredible vegan pizza at Gigi’s pizzeria and vegan ice cream at Gelato Blue (coconut milk if you want to know).
On our final evening, we actually attended an opera at the Sydney Opera House. Our first tour guide had told us the incredible story of the Danish architect who won a global competition and designed the entire thing, but never got paid or even acknowledged for his work, and died a few years ago, having never returned to see his glorious creation in the flesh. You can walk all the way around the building for free, but the interior tour was something like $100 for an hour, so we thought to see Tosca in the main auditorium would kill two birds with one less expensive stone.
The Opera House is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen, even close up. The uniform white colour you see covering the ‘sails’? It’s actually over a million small tiles. From outside, the Opera House is eye-pleasing from every angle. The inside, although not 100% true to the shunned architect’s original plans still holds its own in sixties design, with daring, glossy wooden structures holding the building together beautifully.
The opera was great too, especially as it had subtitles, so we could understand what on earth was going on!
We left Sydney the following day, feeling as though we had seen the bulk of it -my head was so stuffed with fascinating facts about the city from the tours we did and the places we visited it almost hurt. However, I would never say never when it comes to visiting again one day, as it was one of the most interesting and lively cities I’ve experienced.