New Year’s walk – a giant stairway and a miniature train

Blue Mountains near Leura - no crowds and no parties here!

Blue Mountains near Leura – no crowds and no parties here!

New Year’s Eve in Sydney – either you embrace it, or you escape it. As much as I love the fireworks, I hate the crowds. I also hate being subjected to the parties going on until the early morning in the back yards of the houses down the hill or in the flats adjoining mine.

So, in a decidedly “bah humbug” frame of mind, I left Sydney after work on 30 December to spend two days in the Blue Mountains. My base for two nights was the Leura Gardens Resort.

On New Year’s Eve day, my plan was to walk the roughly 10km (6 miles) from Gordon’s Lookout in Leura to Scenic World in Katoomba.
First, though, a stroll around the resort’s gardens was called for. The grounds incorporate the Lady Fairfax Garden, created by Paul Sorensen for Lady Mabel Fairfax in 1933. (more about the gardens here)

Then I caught a cab to Gordon Falls Lookout (no point adding extra kilometers!) to begin the first leg of my walk. I followed the Prince Henry Cliff Walk as far as the Three Sisters in Katoomba.

The path, as you might guess from the name, runs along the edge of the cliffs and offers sweeping views over the hills and valleys, and also lovely, tranquil paths through the forest. The path was constructed in the 1930s – spare a thought for the men who built this trail with pickaxes and shovels, carving steps from the rock, building metal stairways, fencing off the lookouts perched at the edge of thrusting spurs with vertiginous drops. The walk was named in honour of a son of King George V, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, who spent 20 minutes at Katoomba railway station in 1934. (source)

This walk is rated “medium” for difficulty. My book of walks (Blue Mountains Best Bushwalks) breaks it into two sections: from Gordon Falls to Leura Cascades, you descend 110m and ascend 150m; from the cascades to Echo Point (the Three Sisters), you descend 170m and ascend 90m.

link to map 1

click for larger image of Bridal Veil Falls

At Echo Point, it was time for a toilet stop and a cold drink. There are also fantastic views of the Three Sisters (a series of cliffs that jut out in a point), but I’ve seen them a number of times so skipped the view, although I have included an older photograph in the gallery below for reference.

Now came the fun part: the stairs.

Oh pooh pooh, you say, how hard can stairs be? Well, it’s not called the Giant Stairway for nothing. It’s 540m long and descends around 300m (or ascends, if you’re coming up!). Some 900 stairs are cut into the side of the cliffs making up the Sisters, or, in places where that is not an option, metal stairs are bolted to the rock. According to the book, there are “910 stone steps and 32 steel staircases of almost vertical descent”. These are not stairs for the faint-hearted or those who have a problem with heights. At times, there is only a metal grid between the soles of your shoes and the valley floor hundreds of metres below. Looking at the Three Sisters photo below, the stairway is on the other side; the path then runs out around the base of the cliffs and back.

Construction began in 1916 but was halted two years later. Work resumed in 1932 and was completed that year.

link to map 2

Once at the bottom, in the cool dappled shade of the forest, it was time to sit for a while until my leg muscles stopped trembling. I’ve gone down the stairway a number of times, but never up! I can’t imagine how a person’s legs feel after slogging up those stairs and ladders. The rest of this walk is a tranquil stroll among trees and ferns, past little waterfalls and over tiny streams. The sounds of birds fill the air, and if you’re lucky you’ll spot a brightly coloured parrot or two.

Of course, at the end of the walk you’re still a few hundred metres from the top of the cliffs. There are two options: walk back up to the top, or take the train. Yeah, you know what I opt for!

The Scenic Railway ascends 310m and is the world’s steepest passenger railway, at an incline of 52 degrees (click on the first picture below, I’ve circled the top and bottom points). When you get into the cars you are uncomfortably sprawled backwards, but as the train starts moving up that cleft in the cliff you are pushed forward. Hands shoot out to grasp the overhead rails and knees press against the padded rail in front.

The walk from Echo Point to the base of the railway is graded “hard” due to the stairs, but the actual walking is easy. After all that, I felt that I deserved a cool refreshment back on my balcony at the resort.

A well deserved cool beverage.

A well deserved cool beverage.

The next day, New Year’s Day, I had time for a short walk before returning to Sydney. I settled for a 4km jaunt from the resort to Inspiration Point and back. (I couldn’t find a map of this walk on the National Parks site, so the one in the gallery below is a rough approximation.) This little walk is graded easy, with ascents and descents both of 70m over gradually rising (or falling) stairs.

The two lookouts offer more stunning views of weathered cliff faces and gum trees sweeping to the horizon, all under the deepest blue sky imaginable. Then it was back to the resort to take a cab to Leura station for the train to Sydney.

click for larger image of the stunning view

Oh, and in Sydney, one of my neighbours had a party that started mid-afternoon and went on into the night, so my cunning plan to avoid the doof-doof-doof of music and the shrieks of drunken delight was not entirely successful.

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This post is my first contribution to Jo’s Monday Walk. You can find interesting walks by Jo and other bloggers on her site each week.

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