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Blue Mountains

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Blue Mountains

Just 30 miles west of Sydney, the urban scenery goes through a sea-change – or, rather, a mountain-change. You've reached the Blue Mountains: one million hectares of hill and rock, sandstone cliffs and pelting waterfalls, canopied with fragrant eucalyptus trees whose airborne oil droplets give the range the blue haze it's named for. The first European settlers looked towards the mountains from Sydney and believed that they were impassible: it was 25 years before a group of explorers crossed over them, and another two years before the first mountain road was built. Nowadays, though, you're spoiled for choice for ways to see the peaks in their ethereal blue aura, from stunning hiking and biking trails to a steam railway and the world's steepest funicular. Though as you cruise over the town of Katoomba in the comfort of your cable car, spare a thought for the poor old explorers who made the journey the hard way: they're said to have carved their initials on Explorers' Tree, a little to the west of the town, which you can still see today.

Clamber down the endless-seeming steps of the Giant Stairway to the rocky escarpment where the Three Sisters brood: three standing stones, shaped like human figures. Aboriginal
Australians from the Blue Mountains tell the story of how these rocks were once girls, turned to stone by their magician-father to protect them from the evil Bunyip; pursued by the monster himself, the unhappy father dropped his magic bone and was unable to turn the girls back, leaving them stranded forever in stone-form. At least the poor sisters have a good view: the tree-clad Jamison Valley stretches beneath them, watered by the silvery rivulets of the Katoomba Falls. Trek to the Red Hands Cave, where the Darag people used to initiate their young warriors: you can still see handprints left by the Darag elders and their children, some dating back over 1500 years, stencilled in white, red and yellow on the rock wall of the cave. And if that wets your appetite for a truly spectacular cave complex, you can't do better than head for the Jenolan Caves, on the other side of the mountains. These sacred limestone caves, where the Aboriginal clans used to carry their sick for a healing underground bath, are a marvellous karst maze of dripping stalactites and subterranean rivers, where you can admire soaring natural cathedrals of rock and water in ten lighted "show caves", plunge into the dark on a caving expedition through the less-explored recesses of the complex, or even welcome Christmas at a 'Carols in the Caves' concert, where the echoes of angelic voices resound off rock walls barely illuminated by the flickering candlelight.