OLD BUSH MAGIC
Sue Milne reveals an oasis on Sydney’s western doorstep
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
Outback up close: Clockwise from main, Jellybean Pool; Lennox Bridge; hand stencils at Euroka; Glenbrook street; eastern grey kangaroo