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August 31st, 2010

The Blue Mountains

They really are blue.

The color, our hostess informed us,comes from the oil evaporating from the eucalyptus.  There are billions of them, tall, graceful, curving trees with long, graceful, curving leaves at the ends of the branches.  The effect is lacy, sensuous, oddly formal when the trees are isolated in a meadow, something like the the green sponges I used to cut up to indicate forests on 3-D maps when I was in grade school when viewed in aggregate, at a distance.  Only prettier, of course.  I had a lot of time to think about all this as we trained up beside the Great Western Road from Sydney to Leura, where our friends live--a 2 hour trip from urban sprawl to ranks of folded blue mountains receding off into the distance, with blooming wattles (which I think are a kind of acacia) flashing Hi-Liter yellow by the train tracks, and little towns with stolid Victorian brick stations every 20 miles or so.

It is very beautiful.  And although I love cities, and Sydney is a particularly nice one, after a week of concrete and glass, I was ready for some Australian Nature.

Since the train takes the easiest route through the old pass through the mountains, I didn't really understand how high and dramatic they could be until our hostess drove us to Sublime Point.  As we walked to the overlook, she pointed out the banksia trees, whose fruit is the weirdest thing I've seen, little fuzzy barrels studded with seedpods like closed eyes or beaks.  We walked down some steps cut into the sandstone, through a little grove, and there, suddenly, was a great deal of air and sky, with a view of creamy rock escarpments across a wooded valley far below, and ranks of gently undulating blue mountains behind.  Ellen and hostess went to the end of the path to get the full effect.  I went until my body told me I was about to die, then retreated into the grove and sat down.  I loathe being acrophobic.

Our next stop was a National Trust property called The Everglades, built by Henri Van der Velt, a Belgian wool magnate, in the 30's.  The thing about the Everglades is the gardens, laid out by a genius landscape architect called Peter Sorenson.  The house is lovely--a real Art Deco jewel, not too big, not too grand--except for the bathrooms, which are sumptuously tiled and supplied (for him) with one of those steam cabinets that's got a hole for you to stick your head out of I've only seen in cartoons.  I took a picture, but it didn't do it justice.  Her bathroom has an octagonal bath you could easily bathe a family of four in without crowding.  The rest of the rooms are pleasant enough, depending for their air of luxury on the spectacular views from their windows.

But the gardens.  Oh, the gardens.  It's just barely spring, so there's not a lot out.  The earliest of the azaleas were just beginning to blossom, and there were some native wildflowers growing among the rocks--little yellow bells rising out of rosettes of soft, ferny leaves.  We saw plenty of rhododendrons ready to pop, and banks of azaleas and weeping cherries well-budded.  But it was the layout, the bones of the garden, that impressed me even more than the plants.  Everything looked natural, even when it couldn't possibly have been.  The path to the grotto, the grotto's charming little waterfall, the lookout with the rustic bench set a comfortable (even for me) distance from the drop, the little stream, the daffodil meadow--everything.  Of course, it had all gone to wrack and ruin when Van der Velt died, and I take my hat off to the National Trust people, who have been bringing it back bit by bit, entirely by volunteer labor.  We saw a flock of gardeners digging and pruning and working on a cracked path as we wandered, getting ready for the Garden Festival next month, when everything will be in bloom. 

Lunch was at the Conservation Hut, overlooking yet another glorious view.  I have gotten to the point of downloading the pictures from my camera, and will upload them to Flickr the next time I have both time and a good internet connection, after which I will make at least some of them public, because words are beginning to fail me.  And I haven't even told you about the Jenolan Caves yet.

Anyway.  Our hostess dropped us in Leura, where we recruited our forces with tea and bought some truly lovely wooden things (including a wine-bottle stopper made out of a banksia nut) at a crafts shop, then went back to her house for internet and roast lamb with her husband and daughter.  Very hospitable, these Australians.  Also, a lovely 1930's bungalow (I do love bungalows), with soft yellow walls and mixed hardwood floors, medieval plaques and manuscripts on the walls, and a glorious, glorious view of rolling mountains, over which we watched the sun rise next morning--briefly--before rolling over and going back to sleep.  Australia seems to have kicked us over into, well, not morning people, exactly, since we still can't talk much before 11 am.   But we are getting up earlier, quite happily.

On Tuesday (our Tuesday, not your Tuesday, since it's Wednesday morning here now), our kind hosts took us to Katoomba, where we bought our tickets to Jenolan and a tour of the Orient Cave, then said goodbye.  The bus trip to Jenolan took about 1 1/2 hours, which we spent glued to our windows, watching the landscape change from wild eucalyptus forest to managed pine forest to a sudden, shocking scene of devastation where a hundred acres or so of pine had been harvested, leaving a site that looked a lot like post-Sauruman Orthanc, without the tower, of course.  We passed through farmland, past herds of goats, sheep, and cattle, and back up into the highlands along a twisty, narrow, switchbacked road the bus had to crawl up for fear of meeting something coming in the opposite direction.  And then we plunged down into the heart of a sandstone cliff, right on through an arch that was a lot higher than it was wide, and into a deep cut between two cliffs, where a beautiful ochre Victorian hotel presides over hoardes of cave-happy tourists.

Our tour to the Orient Cave was not for another 3 hours, so the nice bus driver had given us a freebie for a self-guided tour through the Devil's Coach-House and the Nettle Cave.  We had a sandwich, then headed to the Devil's Coach House.  It's pretty impressive.  You can see where the techtonic plates pushed up against each other to make the cavern, and the floor is scattered with gigantic pale-red boulders and trees.  Since there's a hole above and an arched opening at each end, the light and shadow effects are pretty spectacular.  We mooched around there, oohing and aahing and taking pictures, then climbed a long flight of steep stairs (you can see where this is going, can't you?) to the Nettle Cave.  Which I don't remember much of.  Because there were a lot of steep stairs, and one side let out onto a long drop into the Devil's Coach House, and I know I was perfectly safe, but my body hadn't got the memo and wouldn't have believed it anyway.  I found a nice platform to sit on with my eyes closed and listened to the acoustiguide tell me all about stalagmites and stalagtites and sooty cave owls and John Lucas and Jeremiah Wilson and all the other cavers and explorers who opened up these caves for tourists who like high places far, far under the earth.

After a while, Ellen collected me and talked me down the stairs to the ground, and then we went and watched a platypus swimming in a very blue lake while I collected myself.  Then I got a stiff tea and a rather tasteless brownie, and it was time for the Orient Cave tour.  I was feeling highly dubious at this point, but it turned out to be (mostly) fine.  It's not a cave for a claustrophobe, but the tight spaces and extra-narrow stairs made me feel all safe and cozy.  And the rock formations were beyond spectacular.  I fell in love with the shawls and the helictites, which look like super-modern fiber-optic chandeliers and sconces, and the flowstone forests.  The stone not only looks alive there, it is alive--growing, feeding, responding to its environment.  And it feels alive, too, in a deep, slow, disinterested way.  As I came down the last, barely shoulder-width staircase between pinky-brown walls to the exit, I thought muddled thoughts about rites of passage and rebirth and renewal.  But I still had to close my eyes when we went around the hairpin turns on the way back, and indeed, slept through most of the bus trip to Katoomba.

From whence we took the train to Sydney, in the dark, which left us 2 hours to finish planning our New Zealand trip.

So we come to our last day in Sydney.  It's clearly time to move on.  The cut lilies that were tight buds when we arrived are all open and dropping their petals and leaves with surprisingly noisy plops.  I've done three loads of laundry in anticipation of no washing machine until Wellington, two weeks down the line.  We're beginning to gather adapter plugs and bottles of shampoo and shoes from the far reaches of the flat and line them up around the suitcases and think about what we want to do with our last afternoon.  After a cloudy morning, the sun's coming out, so I'll wind this up and send it.

Next stop, Melbourne!

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