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Journal of Inspired living

We discover hidden gems in the Blue Mountains, one of NSW’s most beloved destinations


We discover unexpected gems in World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains

Credit: Kate Duncan

Floating from a rope, we’re lowered 20 metres into the canyon. I land on the rock floor with a yelp of glee. Above us, shafts of sunlight protrude into the dark and secret chamber, home to water dragons, yabbies and bats. I can’t help looking for Gollum.

Outside iconic must-see landmarks like the Three Sisters, some of the best things to do and see in the Blue Mountains lie beyond the gaze of the common tourist.

Two hours west of Sydney, the indigo ridges are technically not mountains but a sedimentary plateau that rose some 170 million years ago. Carved by millennia of water erosion and bound by the Nepean, Hawkesbury, Colo, Wolgan and Cox rivers, the region is home to about 1000 canyons including Australia’s greatest-known number of slot canyons, those deep, dark, narrow chasms beloved by adventurers.

The Grand Canyon by the village of Blackheath is one of the most beautiful and accessible says Dan Mitchell, our guide with the Blue Mountains Adventure Company. We’re in a keyhole canyon, he explains: a large, round cavern with a narrow slot above. Bathed in the sound of trickling water and distant lyrebirds, it’s now the course of a creek. However, a river once raged through here.

Canyoning is an extreme form of bushwalking that requires participants to don wetsuits and harnesses and lug waterproof backpacks packed with ropes and snacks.

An experience that encompasses abseiling, scrambling over boulders and logs and wading and swimming through freezing water, canyoning is an extreme form of bushwalking that requires participants to don wetsuits and harnesses and lug waterproof backpacks packed with ropes and snacks. Swimming through waterholes proves enchanting. Buoyed by my pack, I float like a platypus and gaze up at the towering cliffs for as long as I can stand the water’s iron frigidity. You morph into the bush setting; it’s a union with nature that triggers some resident, primeval gene and is as far from modern civilisation as it gets.

Canyoning is not without risk, from falls to flooding, and should only be undertaken with an experienced guide. Fortunately, Mitchell says, a hanging swamp that absorbs and retains water protects the Grand Canyon from flooding.

It’s a steep 50-minute walk out. Staggering uphill through giant coachwood trees, towering rock walls and ferny glades, I get a sense of the drama and prehistory that formed the area. Overhead, thunder stirs the exhausted air and, when we finally reach the top, rain plummets far in the distance. It’s a “eureka!” moment.

The cinema of yesteryear

Back in civilisation, a more relaxing treat awaits five minutes away at the Mount Vic Flicks. Fittingly located in heritage-listed vintage town Mount Victoria, the humble circa-1934 Town Hall building is easy to bypass.

We purchase tickets at the old-style entrance booth before filing past velvet drapes and down the aisle. Kirsten Mulholland, who purchased the cinema in 2013 with partner Adam Cousins, serves homemade choc-tops, soup and cakes at the candy bar while her eight-year-old son hands out 3D glasses. As the movie starts, the curtains sweep open and we relax into our ample Art Deco-style seats.

According to a 2014 Sydney Morning Herald article, the Flicks is one of about 52 single-screen cinemas still in operation across Australia. In a world of lightning-swift change and multinational conglomerates, it’s a charming memorial to village life and a slower era.

Secret farm country

The winery

Twenty minutes from Blackheath and we’re wending our way through the Megalong Valley towards Dryridge Estate, a small boutique winery and the first and only cellar door operating in the Blue Mountains. Bypassing rainforest and fairytale glens, the road descends into a sun-drenched emerald valley cupped by sandstone cliffs and native bush.

We surprise a family of kangaroos and pass a rattling creek and paddocks with some of the best horse riding in Australia. And it’s here, beyond a winding track, that the vineyard sprawls out upon secret hills on pink granite soils — a surreal sight among the eucalyptus. Purchased by Simon Doyle and Emma MacMahon in 2015, Dryridge produces three varieties of cold-climate grape including Riesling and Tempranillo.

Sampling the estate’s handcrafted wines from an open-air pavilion overlooking the vineyard, I feel like Bacchus in paradise. A Riesling using only the juice of the grape is the standout — but the pleasure of the wine is eclipsed by the view. It’s a gem yet to be discovered by the masses.

Wine tastings are offered on weekends and the 130-acre property also offers accommodation and caters for weddings and other events.

The last orchard

A single commercial orchard originally planted in 1919 lies just a five-minute drive from Blackheath, a lone survivor on the 1100-metre Shipley Plateau, an area once strewn with apple farms. Since purchasing Logan Brae from the Jackson family, Sam Edwards has replanted 90 per cent of the orchard with rare heirlooms including Kidd’s Orange Red, Spitzenburg and Fenoillet Gris (a russet French apple he describes as high in flavour and nutty).

Canyoning is an extreme form of bushwalking that requires participants to don wetsuits and harnesses and lug waterproof backpacks packed with ropes and snacks.

“There’s not a lot of these small farms left,” he says. “It’s a bit of a relic.” It’s a gorgeous spot but, according to Edwards, being the only orchard in the area also has its problems: “There’s all this national park around it and there’s millions of birds and lots of bats. Every single bird in the Blue Mountains comes here.”

In this historic orchard, 5000 apple trees in 40 varieties glow in a medley of hues. Visitors pore over the boxes of Gravensteins and Royal Galas housed in the packing shed, which doubles as a shopfront. Purchasing a freshly baked apple pie and a spicy hot cider, we sit in the brisk mountain air overlooking a spectacular view of the Mount Blackheath escarpment. It’s a romantic, old-world way to sample the local fare.

The farmers’ market

Those lucky enough to be visiting on the second Sunday of the month can forage a wider range of local produce at the Blackheath Growers Market. Held at the Blackheath Community Centre, the market offers goodies from 60 small local suppliers including home-baked cakes, soaps, jams, honey, seedlings, nut butters, fresh fruit and vegetables, flowers, organic breads, ciders, wines, gluten-free goods and more. Join the locals who traipse into Blackheath Park, spreading out on picnic blankets beneath the shade of deciduous trees to enjoy coffee, waffles and other treats.

Uncovering history

Back in Katoomba, the main tourist town, 1920s jazz and blues croons through the Carrington Lounge. Patrons nestle on antique lounges and wingback chairs, soaking up the Art Deco ambience. It’s one of the few venues where you can linger for hours without attracting so much as a glance and the pick of the possies is by the fireplace.

Originally named The Great Western and built in 1883, the hotel remains a local institution thanks to its hands-on owners Mark Jarvis and Michael Brischetto. Less known is its living history. Few visitors, for example, know the original painting of Mary Queen of Scots — the Seizure of David Rizzio — has graced the wall since 1944.

That’s where Paul Innes of Blue Mountains History Tours comes in. He brings the heritage of the region to life with tales that include rumours of an underground war-time tunnel in Katoomba. He conducts his talks at the Carrington, on walking tours of the local towns and aboard tourist coaches. “I get a lot of material from old newspapers — in the 1900s the newspapers were the only source of information and they told all sorts of things,” he says.

The iron man of Hartley

After a 20-minute drive down the sandstone incline of Victoria Pass west of Katoomba, we reach the peaceful valley of Hartley, home to the wizardry of metal artist Ron Fitzpatrick. A self-trained blacksmith, Fitzpatrick fashions art mirrors, clocks, candle holders and sculptures from his workshop at the Talisman Gallery. “My sculpture is about my spiritual journey,” he shares, revealing meditation is central to his life.

Curious visitors often watch him fashioning pieces on the forge. “People like that. Nobody sees things made any more.” His fire poker challenges, in which people have a go at blacksmithing, have also been a hit with the public.

Perched on the side of the hill in an old woolshed, Fitzpatrick’s gallery is a perfect stepping stone for a jaunt through the historic village and surrounding countryside.

The wildlife sanctuary

Another 15 minutes along the Great Western Highway, the Secret Creek Cafe and wildlife sanctuary at Lithgow lies nestled in the bush in a hidden gully. Founded by former coal miner Trevor Evans, the 200-acre sanctuary plays an important role in endangered wildlife conservation and houses the largest captive population of Eastern Quolls on mainland Australia.

Evans’ daughter Tenille runs the onsite vegan cafe and explains, “He never wanted a public zoo environment. But he did want a way for people to come and experience and support [the sanctuary].”

Spencer estimates there are around 10,000 glowworms in the colony, which continues down the canyon as far as the eye can see.

Animals here include a pure-breed black rainforest dingo, white alpine dingos, potoroos, quolls, rat kangaroos, brush-tailed rock wallabies and pademelons. Sunset tours with Trevor provide a closer encounter with the animals and help support the work of the sanctuary.

After meeting a curious emu, I retreat into the shade of the cafe. Crafted from natural timbers and decorated with fresh blooms, the building is filled with the aroma of the bush. The vegan fare respects animals and the environment and includes Kentucky-fried cauliflower with ranch sauce, milkshakes and “fish” and chips that tastes unbelievably like the real thing.

Glowworm kingdom

Evening falls and we creep through the bush, our path lit only by small headlamps and moonlight, following our guide Jochen Spencer into a canyon. We’re just five minutes from Bilpin and in remote rugged bush bordered by Wollemi National Park, a less-known region of the Blue Mountains.

This canyon is the perfect environment for the Arachnocampa (spider-worm), a type of fungus gnat that thrives in wet, dark environments sheltered from the wind. Testament to the largely unexplored nature of the area and the importance of its continued conservation, this colony of grubs was discovered only 18 months ago by a drunken guest of the Wollemi Wilderness Cabins, Spencer tells. Water trickles through the inky darkness and, as we descend deeper into the coolness of the gorge, we’re witnesses to a sea of beaming lights. It’s like stumbling upon the elven forest of Lothlórien.

Spencer estimates there are around 10,000 glowworms in the colony, which continues down the canyon as far as the eye can see. “They spend one year in the larval stage and only live about four days as an adult [to reproduce],” he says. “They’re relatively under-studied considering their magnificence.” A chemical reaction in the glowworms’ transparent bodies produces luminescence designed to attract prey like mosquitoes into their string-like webs. Fated to remain in the position they were laid as an egg, the larvae are known to eat one another when food is scarce.

A passionate advocate for the glowworms, our guide explains that the tiny larvae are ultra-sensitive to light and noise. In response, they will extinguish their luminescence for half an hour at a time. “When their light is off they don’t feed,” he says, adding that unregulated tourist activity has led to decimation of glowworm colonies. According to Spencer, there are only nine such species in the world, eight of which are found in Australia and one in New Zealand.

Stay

Wollemi Wilderness Cabins

Housed on 624 acres of bush surrounded by the World Heritage-listed Wollemi National Park, these six eco-friendly cabins offer the ultimate retreat into nature. The Enchanted Cave, built into the cliff and with a circular door, looks like a hobbit hole; the Treehouse merges into the canopy. Guests are scarcely roughing it, though, with in-house chefs, yoga and more at their disposal. Owner/builder Lionel Buckett gets his inspiration from the bush and incorporates natural materials and energy-efficient principles into his ingenious designs. The unique, primitive-style dwellings include outdoor showers and spas with natural, hand-cut rock tiles and expansive windows overlooking remarkable views.

Eat

The people’s choice cafe

Rubyfruit Vegan Cafe and Bakery is hidden upstairs within an arcade and, while it may not be well-known to the tourists who flock Leura Mall, it’s made a name for itself among the locals, winning the coveted Blue Mountains People’s Choice Award each year running from 2012 to 2014. A sanctuary for those who avoid animal products, its meat-, dairy- and egg-free delights tempt even hardcore carnivores. Gluten-, nut- and sugar-free dishes are on sale, too, for allergy sufferers.

Shop

Blue Mountains Food Co-op

This bustling hive of activity set in a lane off Katoomba’s main street won’t be found in any tourist brochure. Prioritising goods that are local, Australian, fairtrade, GM, organic and chemical-free, its aisles are crammed with dry goods, oils, organic fruit and vegies, cold goods, hand-woven baskets, personal care and cleaning products and much more. According to Anne Elliott of Slow Food Blue Mountains, it’s the largest food co-operative in the Southern Hemisphere.

The local fruit and veg stocked here are labelled with the name of the grower and the food miles the produce has travelled — like Paul’s plums grown less than a kilometre away and Maeve’s apples, freshly picked in North Katoomba. It’s a unique support for local green thumbs who bring in surplus food and herbs to sell on consignment.

Local organic produce such as this, completely seasonal and offered cheaper than the certified food, can sell out fast — and clear labelling is a bonus. “There’s a subtext of education, about giving people information to make ethical decisions and choose sustainably,” says Prue Adams, education co-ordinator at the co-op.

Want to know more?

Blackheath Growers Markets

Blue Mountains Food Co-op

Blue Mountains History Tours

Dryridge Estate

Glow Worm tours

Logan Brae orchard

Mount Vic Flicks

Rubyfruit Vegan Cafe

Secret Creek Cafe and Wildlife Sanctuary

Talisman Gallery

Wollemi Wilderness Cabins



 

Linda Moon

Linda Moon is a freelance feature writer reporting on health, travel, food and local producers, work, parenting, relationships and other lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in International Traveller, Voyeur (Virgin Airlines magazine), Jetstar Asia, Slow Living, Traveller, Domain, My Career, Life & Style and Sunday Life (Sydney Morning Herald), Sprout, NZ Journal of Natural Medicine, Nature & Health, Australian Natural Health, Fernwood Fitness, The New Daily, SBS, Essential Kids, Australian Family, Weekend Notes, The Big Bus Tour & Travel Guide and more.

Based in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, Linda is a qualified and experienced naturopath, spa and massage therapist and a partly trained social worker.

Her writing interests focus on health, responsible consumerism, exploring beautiful places and the quest for a fairer, healthier and happier world for all.