Blue Mountains, Blackheath and Jenolan Caves
Well, I managed to get Winnie out of the garage, and out of the City and beyond the suburbs along the Parramatta Highway, passing the Olympic complex in Homebush. We were Blue Mountains-bound. The further we travelled, the greener it got until it got to a point whereby all we could see as we hugged the curved roads was a blanket of trees.
Echo Point, Katoomba
The first stop was at Katoomba, home of the Three Sisters rocks (about which there is a story). Katoomba could be considered the unofficial capital of the Blue Mountains region, and it's certainly the tourist's friend. At Echo Point is a large tourist information centre where most people pick up their Blue Mountains drive routes, details about lodgings and so on. But of course, the reason that the tourist centre is there at all is due to the spectacular view of the Three Sisters rocks out beyond out across the Jamison Valley. This is what people come to see.
There are a number of walks around the area, including routes that take you down to the first and second of the 'sisters' and below into the valley (we went to the first sister, but passed on the second).
Just a short distance down the road are two tourist must-dos - the Scenic Skyway and the Scenic Railway. The skyway is a cable car which has been going back and forth over the valley for over 50 years (but hey, don't let its age bother you - the 600ft drop should do that for you!), while the railway is an even older attraction. It was constructed in 1880 and took miners from the base of the valley up to the town. Its also the world's steepest incline railway, and on the way down it almost feels like freefall. There's a helpful sign that informs people to avoid holding things outside the carriage as if they are dropped, they are gone. You know, things like cameras, wallets, small children ...
We did both the skyway and the railway, then concluded with a cuppa in the revolving restaurant overlooking the valley. They were having some building works at the time. Well, destruction works is probably more true to say. As we sat taking in the view, the restaurant shook to bits as a JCB digger was pummelling concrete walls feet away from us.
A Majestic cuppa on the balcony
Back out along the Great Western Highway, we continued until we reached the Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Medlow Bath area. This was a stop that Andy had mentioned to us and it was difficult to miss. The hotel is a luxurious art deco affair with fantastic views over the Megalong Valley, so we stopped for a cup of coffee on its balcony. Even though we felt as though we were away from the hustle and bustle of Sydney, the games were being shown on a television screen in the lounge, and people were milling about in Sydney Games paraphernalia - the horse riding events were held not too far from here.
The next stop was Evans Lookout. In all honesty, we didn't know what to expect at any of the places we stopped - we just looked for the brown road signs that pointed out something of interest. Evans Lookout was one such place, and the view, as with the Hydro Majestic's view, was incredible. The sun was just setting, so it wasn't the clearest of outlooks, but stunning all the same. We were the only people there, and the silence was broken only by the birdsong and the sound of an unseen waterfall somewhere in the distance.
Continuing back on the Great Western Highway, we planned to travel to Blackheath and find somewhere to stay, be that in a cabin/chalet/B&B or, if need be, in the camper. The road seemed to go on for a while, and we didn't see Blackheath. In fact, we'd gone straight past it without realising. Seeing a sign to Jenolan Caves, we took a left turning and decided to stop at the next inhabited place. The plan had originally been to stay in the Blackheath area and travel to the caves the next morning.
Journey into blackness
The road from the Great Western Highway to Jenolan Caves is not a short one. It's also a very twisty-turny road, on account of it wrapping around some extremely steep geography. It just kept on going. I was starting to get concerned - in over 45 minutes we had seen just one other vehicle, no stopping points and no artifical light. This felt like the middle of nowhere. Well, possibly the middle, there was no way of telling.
Along the way, we pulled over and switched off all the lights to take in the night sky which was incredible due to the complete lack of street lighting. It was possible to make out the milky way (or at least something that looked very much like it - I don't know the constellations well!). Stunning though it was, we had to press on and find somewhere suitable to stop for the night. It was not late - only 9pm, but it felt like midnight.
The road became ever more twisting. Although I couldn't see beyond the road's crash barriers (which were little more than a token gesture), I knew that beyond them was a shear drop. There's darkness, and there's a complete blackness that signifies a sheer drop. Later, when I told Andy about the night journey, he did say that I was mad to drive at night there - if we had gone off the road, we would not be seen, and probably not be found for weeks (if at all), and would not likely be in a rescuable state if we had!
Into the giant's mouth
I nervously watched the petrol gauge go down and wondered if we would even get to somewhere with lighting, let alone petrol. This was starting to get a little worrying! One reassuring sign was a cyclist (pedal, not motor) who we passed. It may be remote, but this suggested there must be something nearby. Either that or this man was equally lost. Eventually, though, I could make out some lighting as we dropped even further into a valley. As we got nearer, I could see the light was from the inside of a cave - the entrance to Jenolan Caves. As we drove through, it was like driving into the mouth of a giant. Above us the rocks looked like molars ready to grind us to a pulp.
Just the other side of the Grand Arch (as it is actually known) we found ourselves in a lit area - hooray - a car park adjoining a hotel, complete with seating/eating area and even a toilet and sink to freshen up at. We took a look around for a while, I did a bit of clambering inside the giant's mouth and spotted the cyclist we'd seen earlier as he arrived for an evening shift, presumably.
We slept in the van in the car park overnight and hoped that no-one would mind us taking such a liberty!