I think that one of the best ways to visit places you wouldn’t otherwise think of, or couldn’t afford is to do work exchanges in hostels. Last summer we had the chance to visit the Isle of Skye in Scotland for two weeks doing just that, and now we’ve had our second opportunity. When we originally were thinking of coming to Australia, I spent some time searching on helpx.net, a website for people needing workers in exchange for food and lodging. Kind of like WWOOFing.
When I was looking there, I came across a posting looking for helpers at the Flying Fox Hostel in Katoomba, a few hours west of Sydney. The thing that stuck out was that it’s nestled in the Blue Mountains, and advertised lots of hiking, climbing and mountain biking. Sounded pretty cool, so I filed it away in my head as we traveled around Asia. In the end, we came to Australia to housesit, rather than work, so I sort of lost track of it. But when we needed a stopover between our stays in Cairns and Melbourne, I looked again, and it was still available, and still jumped out at me.
So, now we’re up in the Blue Mountains, in the little mountain town of Katoomba. Immediately when we arrived on the evening train from Sydney, we both knew we’d love it here. It’s really like a Colorado town, cool air, lots of cafes and gear shops.
And Flying Fox is awesome. It’s a smaller hostel, only about 35 beds plus tent space, and really homey. There’s almost always a fire going in the main room, with lots of couches and people playing cards and chess. The owner, Ross, does big communal pasta nights about once a week, and we often will cook up pancakes for the guests in the mornings when we’re not too busy turning over beds and tidying up.
I mostly handle cleaning, while Alina got roped into reworking the business website. She’s great at it, but I think she’d rather not be on the computer all day.
One of the great things about working in a hostel is all the people you meet. There’s a German couple just out of high school who have been working here for about 6 weeks and had traveled all over Australia for the past year, and are now off to America via Hawaii. There’s a guy from Chicago who’s been working in Sydney and is now up here in the mountains training for a 100k ultra marathon next weekend. There’s just people from all over the world, traveling all over the world. It’s amazing how worldly everyone is. Sometimes you just have to remind yourself that this is the self-selected bunch of people to whom this applies.
Of course, the big draw here is the amazing nature. We usually finish work around noon, and then get to spend every afternoon exploring the nearby trails, or sometimes just the beautiful park in the gully behind the hostel.
It’s about 20 minutes walk down to the cliff face where everything starts. I should say that the Blue Mountains are less mountains in my mind, and more of a series of vertical walled gorges, ala Arizona. Very much like the southwest U.S., in fact, with big sandstone cliffs dropping down into arid scrub, but then also temperate rainforest, which is a bit of a hodgepodge.
We’ve been able to go on a bunch of really nice walks while here. The main area near town is Echo Point, a great lookout over the surrounding mountains From there you can see and then hike towards the Three Sisters, a group of sandstone pillars that have resulted from erosion along the vertical fault lines in the rock.
We headed that way and then down the Giant’s Staircase, which are something like 900 steps mounted on the side of the cliffs, taking you down into the Jamison Valley below. Then you can walk along the cliff base through the shaded forest, and make your way up again through the ferns and waterfalls of some valley cutting back through the rocks. We did this a few times, in different directions, getting to see a lot of lush greenery, and meandering streams and waterfalls. Very pretty.
Probably our favorite excursion was to Wentworth Falls. A trail leaves the train station in the town of the same name and winds for a few kilometers down a lush creek towards the cliffs.
It’s called the Charles Darwin Track, as Darwin was here in the 1830’s and walked the creek, making note of the amazing falls at the end in his diary. And indeed, when you reach the edge, Wentworth Falls drops off the edge of the world, seemingly, as you look out over the wide open valley.
The coolest part of the hike though is taking stairs halfway down the cliff face to where a narrow ledge runs west for several kilometers. You follow this, the National Pass, hiking under waterfalls spraying from far above, and crouching under overhanging ledges, all with sheer sandstone to your right, and a long drop to the rainforest below on your left. It’s really quite striking. As an added bonus, as we were getting off the train to start our day, we bumped into a Canadian doctor who we’d been on a walking tour in Sydney with just a few days before. He joined us on our trek, and added some nice conversation to the day.
Another time, we had a bit of an adventure, hiking the Devil’s Hole. I’d looked at the guidebooks, and topo maps and decided on a nice looking loop that would take us down the hole, a really narrow and steep gorge leading the the bottom of the cliffs, then through the Megalong Valley and up an old Water Board access road to scale the cliffs again. Well, the first few hours of steep descent and then steep ascent went ok. But when we got to the second set of cliffs there was a sign stating that the ladders had been removed! Well, we searched around for a while, and indeed, the iron had all been cut out of the rocks. No way up the sheer face. So we had to turn around and backtrack all the way. Really good excercise, but a bit frustrating. And of course, when we got back, I looked in the book again and clearly read “Warning, the water board ladders up to Narrow Neck have been removed”. Oops. We did get to see some excellent wild birds though, for our trouble.
Our last big trip was a long hike out to the so-called Ruined Castle. We hiked down the cliffs again, and passed by the old Katoomba Mines, which are a big tourist area now. They even had a replica of the old incline railway car. I was afraid.
We followed the track out over old landslides for a few kilometers, and then through the forests again before climbing up a ridge to find a series of great rock pillars that resembled the battlements of a ruined castle.
We climbed up on top and had a nice lunch, and took some pictures for Mother’s Day cards, including this aborted heart.
After a nice rest, we completed the loop, heading up the Golden Staircase to the Narrow Neck, a sort of cliff-peninsula, only about 100 feet wide or so, with sheer 300 meter drops on either side.
As we hiked up the development road back to Katoomba and the sun set, we finally saw where the Blue Mountains get there name. The mist hangs in the valleys and as the sun gets lower, it refracts through the water droplets, creating this blue haze that almost looks like watercolor.
We’ve really enjoyed our time in Katoomba, both working and relaxing at Flying Fox, and out hiking in the woods. We didn’t get a chance to climb or mountains bike, but the opportunities are certainly here, and I’d love to come back some time for a long stay and truly explore the area in more depth.