Sue Milne re­veals an oa­sis on Syd­ney’s west­ern doorstep

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News -

HOLD on, folks, our driver says, warn­ing us of a river cross­ing ahead. The four-wheel-drive plunges into the val­ley and boldly takes the cause­way. Wa­ter cas­cades over the wind­screen and seeps un­der the doors. Left and right I glimpse a shal­low creek, strewn with boul­ders, and eu­ca­lypts shad­ing wa­ter­holes.

The en­gine strains as we climb the op­po­site bank, then skid on to a red dirt road that stretches straight as an ar­row into the dis­tance. Dense for­est fringes the track: mostly slen­der gum trees but also blood­woods, banksias and grass trees. Above the roar of the en­gine only the rhyth­mic drone of ci­cadas and the mourn­ful cry of yel­low­tailed black cock­a­toos can be heard.

We are star­tled when a pair of grey kan­ga­roos hop out of the bush, cross­ing within cen­time­tres of our front bumper, forc­ing us to swerve and skid on the gravel. We spot a large lizard, per­haps a wa­ter dragon, bask­ing in the sun.

It’s a mag­i­cal scene and re­mark­able, too, for we are far from the out­back. We are in the Glen­brook sec­tion of the 267,000ha Blue Moun­tains Na­tional Park, only an hour’s drive (about 60km) from Syd­ney’s CBD. It’s an easy day trip from the city and a favourite place for us to bring friends and fam­ily visit­ing from in­ter­state or over­seas.

On one such oc­ca­sion we meet my fly­ing­pho­bic daugh­ter at Syd­ney air­port af­ter her first fraught trip alone from Lon­don. Faced with how to fill her first few hours, we de­cide on a quick trip to Glen­brook for a quintessen­tially Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ence. Within 24 hours of leav­ing Heathrow she is stand­ing, stressed and ex­hausted, watch­ing kan­ga­roos bound through the bush. ‘‘ Too, too weird,’’ she mut­ters and stum­bles back to the car, where she buries her head in a book and smokes a pack of cig­a­rettes.

Our friends to­day, though, are ea­ger to pack as much as pos­si­ble into their brief Syd­ney stopover, which has in­cluded an overnight stay in the up­per Blue Moun­tains to gaze in awe at the bound­less vis­tas of the Me­ga­long and Jamison val­leys and to ex­plore the shops and restau­rants of Leura and Ka­toomba. We set aside a few hours at Glen­brook, driv­ing east along the Great West­ern High­way, pass­ing through a string of moun­tain vil­lages, de­scend­ing all the way un­til we reach Glen­brook in the foothills.

We stop first at the Na­tional Parks and Wildlife Ser­vice in­for­ma­tion cen­tre to pick up maps, then turn off the high­way and into the vil­lage cen­tre to buy pro­vi­sions at Deli Glen­brook for a pic­nic lunch.

The deli-cafe is a newish ad­di­tion to the vil­lage, which has un­der­gone a trans­for­ma­tion in re­cent years and is well worth ex­plor­ing, with at­trac­tive gal­leries and home­wares shops and sev­eral good restau­rants and cafes. There’s his­tory here, too, for Glen­brook stands on the route taken by Blax­land, Went­worth and Law­son on their his­toric first cross­ing of the Blue Moun­tains in 1813.

On the north side of the vil­lage lies Len­nox Bridge, built by con­victs in 1832 and the old­est stone bridge in main­land Aus­tralia. Nearby are the eight arches of Knap­sack viaduct, built in 1867 as part of the Blue Moun­tains rail­way line.

At the deli, we drink cof­fee while our wraps and rolls are pre­pared and homemade cakes, ginger beer and fruit juice are added to our pic­nic bas­ket. We drive down Ross Street, into Bruce Road and ar­rive at the gate­way to the na­tional park. Only $7 buys us en­try to a very dif­fer­ent world.

We are just inside the park when we spot a track lead­ing to Jelly­bean Pool. On this hot day it looks invit­ing and we’re tempted to take a dip. Peo­ple have swum and dived here for years but in th­ese liti­gious times stern no­tices warn against div­ing from the rock ledges that over­hang the wa­ter. Blue Pool, also on Glen­brook Creek, is an­other pop­u­lar swim­ming spot. Clay par­ti­cles sus­pended in the wa­ter give the pool its star­tlingly blue ap­pear­ance.

We head first for Red Hands Cave, leav­ing our favourite spot, Euroka Clear­ing, for last. About 12km along a well­main­tained gravel road, eas­ily nav­i­gated by two-wheel-drive ve­hi­cles, we turn right at the Oaks pic­nic area and, a few kilo­me­tres fur­ther, pull into Red Hands car park. It is a week­day and apart from us there’s no one about. We eat our pic­nic lunch and, fight­ing the urge to doze in the shade, walk about 300m along a well-marked track lead­ing deep into the bush, un­til we stum­ble on the cave. This is one of the best ex­am­ples of an Abo­rig­i­nal hand sten­cil gallery in the Syd­ney re­gion. For thou­sands of years the cave and its over­hang pro­vided not only a blank can­vas for the Darug peo­ple but a refuge from the el­e­ments.

The hand sten­cils, cre­ated with nat­u­ral red and white pig­ments — some are the prints of small chil­dren, even ba­bies — are clearly de­fined and here, where even the birds have fallen silent, there’s an eerie sense of con­nec­tion with the past.

The cave was re­dis­cov­ered in 1913 by a lo­cal group search­ing the bush for a lost child. In 1924 a party from the Aus­tralian Mu­seum braved ‘‘ the per­ilous and stren­u­ous climb’’ to the cave and mar­velled at the sten­cils and arte­facts they found.

Soon af­ter­wards the lo­cal coun­cil set up a re­serve to pro­tect the cave but it didn’t de­ter van­dals, and by 1935 the sten­cils were all but de­stroyed. In re­cent times the sten­cils have been re­stored and clear plas­tic sheet­ing placed in front of them, pro­tect­ing but not ob­scur­ing this trea­sure.

Our brush with the past leaves us sub­dued but we have an ap­point­ment with the kan­ga­roos at Euroka, an­other place steeped in his­tory that has spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance for the Darug peo­ple. They used it as a camp­ing ground (euroka trans­lates as sun and warmth) and camp­ing is still per­mit­ted here. The Darug chose well, for this is a beau­ti­ful place where ma­jes­tic trees, in­clud­ing blue gum, for­est red gum and rough­barked ap­ple trees pro­vide food and a haven for the abun­dant wildlife.

We tum­ble out of the car and gaze around. Our driver points, ‘‘ Look, there.’’ At first we see noth­ing in the sun-dap­pled grass but then we spot a small grey kan­ga­roo, and an­other with a joey peer­ing from its pouch. Here’s a group of young males cir­cling each other war­ily, while a large buck kan­ga­roo, tall as a man, stands at the edge of the group. The mob, per­haps 50 in all, lift their heads to stare at us, then re­turn to their graz­ing, un­afraid.

Sul­phur-crested cock­a­toos clown about in the high tree­tops while on the ground galahs and corel­las for­age for seeds and in­sects. Kook­abur­ras swoop on tiny lizards, bear­ing them away, still strug­gling, in their beaks, and a lace mon­i­tor, more than 1m long from snout to the tip of the tail, saun­ters past, then clum­sily climbs a large tree from where it eyes us war­ily.

Apart from bird­calls and the munch­ing of grass, the si­lence is pro­found.

The light is fad­ing and we must re­turn along the dirt road to the park en­trance be­fore the gates close at sun­set. Not that Glen­brook would be such a bad place to be stranded for a day or two, giv­ing us an op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore the many walk­ing tracks, re­mote look­outs, even cy­cle­ways in this wilder­ness area — once known with good rea­son as the Blue Labyrinth — on Syd­ney’s doorstep. www.glen­brook­blue­moun­tains.com.au www.na­tion­al­parks.nsw.gov.au

Rock art pic­ture: Dave Robert­son

Out­back up close: Clock­wise from main, Jelly­bean Pool; Len­nox Bridge; hand sten­cils at Euroka; Glen­brook street; east­ern grey kan­ga­roo

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