The section of the Great Dividing Range nearest Sydney gets its name from the blue mist that rises from millions of eucalyptus trees and hangs in the mountain air, tinting the sky and the range alike. In the colony’s early days, the Blue Mountains were believed to be an insurmountable barrier to the west. The first expeditions followed the streams in the valleys until they were defeated by cliff faces rising vertically above them. Only in 1813, when the explorers Wentworth, Blaxland and Lawson followed the ridges instead of the valleys, were the “mountains” (actually a series of canyons) finally conquered, allowing the western plains to be opened up for settlement. The range is surmounted by a plateau at an altitude of more than 1000m where, over millions of years, rivers have carved deep valleys into the sandstone, and winds and driving rain have helped to deepen the ravines, creating a spectacular scenery of sheer precipices and walled canyons.
Before white settlement, the Daruk Aborigines lived here, dressed in animal-skin cloaks to ward off the cold. An early coal-mining industry, based in Katoomba, was followed by tourism, which snowballed after the arrival of the railway in 1868; by 1900, the first three mountain stations of Wentworth Falls, Katoomba and Mount Victoria had been established as fashionable resorts, extolling the health-giving benefits of eucalyptus-infused mountain air. In 2000, the Blue Mountains became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, joining the Great Barrier Reef; the listing came after abseiling was finally banned on the mountains’ most famous scenic wonder, the Three Sisters, after forty years of clambering had caused significant erosion. The Blue Mountains stand out from other Australian forests in particular for the Wollemi pine, discovered in 1994, a “living fossil” that dates back to the dinosaur era.
All the villages and towns of the romantically dubbed “City of the Blue Mountains” lie on a ridge, connected by the Great Western Highway. Around them is the Blue Mountains National Park, the state’s fourth-largest national park and to many minds the best. The region makes a great weekend break from the city, with stunning views and clean air complemented by a wide range of accommodation, cafés and restaurants. But be warned: at weekends, and during the summer holidays, Katoomba is thronged with escapees from the city, and prices escalate accordingly. Even at their most crowded, though, the Blue Mountains offer somewhere where you can find peace and quiet, and even solitude – the deep gorges and high rocks make much of the terrain inaccessible except to bushwalkers and mountaineers. Climbing schools offer courses in rock climbing, abseiling and canyoning for both beginners and experienced climbers, while Glenbrook is a popular mountain-biking spot.