Today dawned before the chickens. My alarm went off at 6:15am. The sun was up, but barely. In fact, it was so early that neither of us wanted to go downstairs for breakfast. We finally found the hot water heater in our room (it took us long enough) and made tea and coffee in the room.
We met Trevor down in the lobby at 7:00 and slid back into his Landrover to start our drive up to the Blue Mountains. There was a nasty accident on the high way, but it was in the lane coming into Sydney, so we were fine. Trevor had on a radio station so he could listen to the traffic updates, but as they were playing solely 80s music, I quite liked it.
The drive up to the Blue Mountains is fairly long, about 100 kilometers (2ish hours). We were going farther than that (about 170 kilometers) because our first stop was Jenolan Caves.
Trevor kept us very entertained on the drive up. We talked about different car brands/markets, wine, and several other tidbits here and there. Once we got into the foothills he had lots of neat history to share with us.
The forecast was for rain today. We were afraid even though the main purpose of our trip was not the actual Blue Mountains that we wouldn’t be able to see anything on the drive. But fortunately it never really started raining.
Trevor turned off the main road and took a few little back streets (very back street) to what he told us was the best view in the whole mountain range. The lookout point (off an utterly invisible turn out if you don’t know it’s there) was called “Flat Rock.” As expected the main feature of the lookout point was an incredibly large flat rock followed by an 800 foot plunge down to the valley floor. Did I mention there was no safety railing?
It was a little bit foggy and cloudy, but we stuck it out for a few minutes and the clouds rolled through, briefly opening up a very scenic vista. As we looked out at all the greenery on the forest floor Trevor told us that everything we could see was Eucalyptus trees. There are apparently over 180 different species of Eucalyptus trees within a 100 mile radius of Sydney. After some careful study I could differentiate at least four of them.
There are the ribbon bark variety, the string bark kind, the reallyreallyreally tall kind (Eucalyptus trees are also the second tallest tree species in the world, growing up to 200 feet), and another kind with more oak-like bark.
Trevor pointed out a pretty flowering tree, called Waratah, which is the state flower of New South Wales. The one we saw as only about to my knees and looked more like a bush, but they actually do grow to tree size.
Trevor also cavalierly grabbed a handful of a bush with thin green stalks (I’ve learned grabbing anything in Australia is a no-no). Since it didn’t appear to have bitten or stung him I accepted a handful when he held it out. It was called “Tea Tree,” and when crushed up it smelled a little like the best rosemary you’ve ever had. It’s often used in women’s facial creams.
And the sounds! There were so many distinct bird calls! I recognized a few of them from the Zoo yesterday, including a Whip (think whippoorwill but only one ‘whip’ comes out). And there were two king parrots with a nest underneath the overhang. If you closed your eyes (which I was to chicken to do that close to the edge) you could tell the valley was so alive.
After our scenic stop, we hopped back in the car, and raced the cloud through Leura (Pamela’s old stomping ground), toward the iconic feature of the Blue Mountains, the Three Sisters. We lost. Oh well, I’m sure we’ll be able to find a picture of them somewhere, and I’m sure they look just like that in person.
After our failed attempt to see the sisters we continued on to Jenolan Caves. Timing is fairly important when visiting the caves because there is a long access road that is only one lane. During different parts of the day it runs different directions, so you do not want to miss your window of opportunity.
Fortunately we were very early. Driving into the caves is very spectacular because you actually drive through an enormous natural arch. Dad observed that there were more interesting features in the parking lot here than at Mammoth Cave in the States…
We picked up our tickets at the little guide center and saw a 3D model of the cave (did I mention the model was built in 1923?). We had about half an hour to wander around the access road and the charming little stream. A sign saying “Caution: Watch for Snakes” put a damper on our exploratory urges (I’ll remind readers Australia is home to 9 of the 10 most venomous snakes on the planet).
Our tour was through Orient Cave. They offer a wide variety of tours, through several different caves, and with varying levels of athleticism required. For the most extreme tour you’re issued overalls, protective gear, a headlamp, and you crawl your way through muddy parts of the cave, using just the light from your headlamp. Ours was a little bit easier than that…
To get to the cave they vet their patrons by making you walk up and down an outside path with lots of stairs. It was very cool though because about halfway up the path there was a rock wallaby chilling by the side of the path. Now I’ve seen really Australian wildlife on the hoof.
After the walk you arrive at a locked metal door. The entrance to Orient Cave had to be dynamited in, because the natural way in involves crawling though the bottom. However, when they dynamited the entrance in 1956 they blew it. Caves “breathe” in and out, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to explore them because they would be full of carbon dioxide from the crystal formation. Blowing a hole in the side of the cave changed the way the cave breathed. That in itself wasn’t exactly a problem, but there was a boiler room just beyond the opening, which belched black soot all day. The soot got sucked into the cave and quickly coated everything.
They had no choice but to close they cave and clean every inch of it. It took them ten years! They built an elaborate steam cleaning machine to do the job. Now there are a series of three airlock doors that you must pass through to get from the outside world into the cave. As it is, with all the dust and fibers brought in by visitors they still have to clean the cave fairly regularly, but they’ve figured out that you can just use a normal hose.
In the cave you are of course not allowed to touch anything because the oils from your fingers stop the crystal formation, and this cave was ALL about crystals.
Crystals form when limestone is dissolved by slightly acidic water. The water carries the dissolved minerals through it until it finds a small crack to drip through. When the water droplet falls a small number of mineral are left behind, which harden, and then the next drip follows, and so on and so forth. White crystals are very pure. Any colored crystals (in this cave they ranged from cream to orange to red) contain impurities (like iron).
To satisfy your curiosity about what the walls feel like the guide had a fist sized sample of crystal you could touch. It was very smooth. The cave is about 52 degrees Fahrenheit all year, and today, the weather outside was also about 50 degrees, but because there’s no wind in the cave, it felt much warmer than outside! When we were at the caves in Tennessee earlier this summer the guide observed that the constant temperature equals air-conditioning in summer and heating in winter!
This cave walk seemed like it had done an excellent job of making it tourist friendly without destroying the cave. They had added walkways (with handrails) everywhere, which on first glance made you wonder how much crystal had to be removed. But when you stop to think about it the handrails confine you, and in many places there was chicken wire to keep you from touching anything, so I’m sure that by confining you they save more crystal than other caves.
This cave was spectacular. It was the Great Barrier Reef of caves. The formations were just beautiful. The reason the cave is called the Orient Cave is that it reminded its discoverer of the oriental lands. The chamber we entered first is known as Persia, the next deepest is Egypt, and the final chamber is India. There are formations in each chamber that (with an imagination) you can see being reminiscent of those places.
Persia was the larges cavern, with a stunning domed ceiling. There was an optional walk down into the bottom of the cavern, 33 meters below the high point in the domed ceiling. Down at the bottom is a formation (actual a cluster of formations) known as the Cabinet of Curiosities.
Everyone is familiar with stalactites (the ones hanging from the ceiling) and stalagmites (the ones on the ground). But in the Cabinet of Curiosities there were hundreds of helictites. These formations are squiggly little pieces of crystal that seem to defy gravity. They aren’t formed in the traditional manner of water dripping off of or onto a surface, but rather by the humidity of the cave causing water to be pulled into the rock, leaving crystal deposits at odd angles (microscopic crystals are rhomboid – rectangles that you leaned on – in stalactites and stalagmites they line up geometrically, in helictites they align randomly).
It was a really cool cave walk. It lasted about an hour and a half and there were 358 steps, not including the down and back trip to the cabinet of curiosities. I think Dad and I have now been spoiled for all other caves…
Once we resurfaced into daylight (let me assure you the sunglasses were the first thing to go back on when we got outside) we had a little more than half an hour to wait before the one way road changed direction and we could leave.
We grabbed a sandwich at the bistro at the hotel (you can come and stay at a hotel right on top of the caves and spend several days seeing all there is to see under the ground). It was pretty tasty. We quickly attracted a pair of very pretty king parrots. There are signs all over the place telling you not to feed the birds, but he was just so brave and inquisitive, hopping right up to us on the table… between you and me, he managed to wring a few crumbs from us. He gently took one right out of Dad’s hand!
Trevor collected us and we wound our way back up the snaky little access road, headed back towards Featherdale Wildlife Park. We were here ten years ago, and it was definitely a hit. I was a little worried it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered, but it managed to one-up itself in the parking lot, because there was a greeter holding a joey in his arms! The little baby kangaroo was so soft! And adorable, did I mention adorable?
I am a sucker for anything small, cute, and furry, and Featherdale is an animal lover’s paradise. You are allowed to touch anything you can reach (and doesn’t look like it bites). But best of all there are kangaroos and wallabies hopping around everywhere! You can buy an ice-cream cone full of food for them and have at it.
The park wasn’t too crowded so it wasn’t hard to find a group of kangaroos not being monopolized (okay, only the big grey one is a kangaroo, the two smaller ones are wallabies). I offered a handful of food to the kangaroo and he very gently took my hand in his two paws to hold it still and nibbled at the offering.
I didn’t get a good count, but it seemed like they had a large number of fingers on each paw. I’m not 100% sure but I think he had six fingers on each paw, as it seemed many of the others did. I was surprised how agile his fingers were actually. They seemed almost opposable as he held on to my hand. Kangaroos also have pads on their paws, they’re small like a cat’s, but feel more rough like a dog’s.
When the kangaroo ate out of my hand it was more like a horse shnuffling grain in your palm. The wallabies, while still gentle, pecked at the grain more like a bird, and you could feel their teeth.
However, the grain was not the highlight as far as either the wallabies or the kangaroos were concerned. The desirable item was definitely the ice-cream cone. Isn’t it amazing how animals of all species seem to always prefer the least healthy offering?
There are designated areas for the animals to retreat to if they don’t want to deal with humans any more. There were a significant number of kangaroos in this area, but they didn’t exactly look stressed, in fact, given the amount of food available, I think that area should be labeled “Full Kangaroos” instead of “Animal Retreat.”
Dad and I saw something we’d never seen before. One of the kangaroos was lying on its side and there was a joey in its pouch!
The other really cool thing you can do at Featherdale is pet a Koala and have your picture taken with it. The Koala was much softer than I remember from our visit ten years ago. He (his name was Clive) also seemed more awake and interested in what was going on. I’ve heard Koalas have a bit of a mean streak, but this one seemed quite friendly and his handler told me I could put my head right next to him.
All the animals at Featherdale are Australian and we got to see lots of them! The giant furry-faced wombats were a highlight. I decided I’d rather have a wombat than a dog.
Dad also got to touch an echidna (there is only one correct direction to pet an echidna in!). We saw dingos, several species of wallabies, crocodiles, and several other marsupials, including an albino kangaroo.
Trevor picked us up for the last time and we managed to make it back to Sydney in a little less than 45 minutes. Trevor gave us the names of a few of his favorite Australian wineries to look out for. I’m not sure how many of them Dad will be able to find in the states, but you never know.
Trevor’s parting gift to us was a dinner recommendation. He said we should check out Fish at the Rocks, a 10 minute walk from our hotel. It was delicious! We had the sampler meal for two, so we got to try a little bit of everything.
My personal favorites, from the appetizers: the tempura rock shrimp with sweet chili dipping sauce and the vegetable salad it was sitting on. From the entrees: the beer battered whiting fillet and the home-made chips dipped in the curry sauce.
Today was an awesome day.