The Blue Mountains were long the natural border that kept white Australians from penetrating the interior of the continent. It took decades after initial settlement of the East for the line of steep cliffs of crumbling sandstone and hanging gardens of dripping vegetation to be overcome, for settlers to clamber Up And Over; they eventually broke free – as all convicts must, given time – by traveling along ridges for miles rather than scaling them, following the dramatic line along the edge of undulating peaks instead of attempting what even today would be a perilous climb over treacherous terrain.

We just drove. In a car. On a road. It was easy.


The men who achieved the feat of first crossing the Blue Mountains are still renowned as heroes – and Lisa and I, despite our soft American-ness, had no trouble understanding why.


It’s not enough to look at a map: maps don’t convey anything of the drama of landscape. Even contour maps, even for someone with a vivid imagination.


No imagination could invent this landscape. Fortunately one isn’t required.


They don’t call the region around Katoomba, precisely west of Sydney, “The Edge” for nothing. This is where the botanic equivalent of a dinosaur was recently found tucked away under a hidden rim deep in the unseen wilderness, happily undiscovered and thoroughly unknown to science. (Of course now that it has been discovered the Wollemi can achieve its destiny: as an exotic houseplant.) The place as a whole is an exhilarating skein of spectacular scenery, an endless zoo of eucalypts: paper-barked blue gum, mottled coachwood, red-barked “turpentine tree” (resembling a redwood); brown barrel, mountain ash, sinuate-leaved sassafras; hanging swamps of coiling water vine, mulberry and “lilli pilli” – all overhung with the piney incense of eucalyptus oil, so thick in the air it gives everything blue look, and framed by dramatic Triassic geology. A long low mesa fills the horizon.


At first The Edge and environs weren’t easy to see – literally. We arrived in Katoomba late in the afternoon of a sunny day and awoke with plans for a full day only to discover whiteout fog that swallowed the town until sunset. By the third day the fog had drifted south (though wisps continued to float over Katoomba’s thoroughfares), and we were able to explore more than the town’s four used bookstores and several excellent cafes (see especially the Paragon).


We trundled down the steep stone Furber Steps to Reed’s Plateau, along the path of Katoomba Falls where it spills via terraces into the valley to join the Kedumba River. A mountain goat would get vertigo here. Precipitous shelves of shale dangle over a huge chasm, really a canyon, opening into the valley: hazy blue and blue-green, vast, enormous, where the trees go on forever. We pass Witches Leap, where brown algae feeds on sewage runoff, and Vera’s Grotto, where we spy a couple lyre birds (featured on the Aussie 10-cent coin) nesting in the peat and papery leaves of the forest floor. The brightly-plumed, peacock-like lyre bird hoots like a pigeon, with a whistle – a complicated mimicry of other bird calls – and is said to move tons of earth in a lifetime of rooting and nesting.


We watched the airborne birds in the shadow of the Three Sisters, yellow-grey sandstone plinths that are remnants of “blocking” as clay bands sap away to form fault lines. The Sisters are a kind of headland jutting into the valley, covered in tiers of trees clinging and leaning into the void. Below, where the rock has tumbled – every 10,000 years or so – as it finally loses its grip (dramatically, one imagines), the hillside is jagged with massive blocks of moss-covered stone, around which we stepped when we finally reached the bottom. Rusty coils, buckets, sieves and bits of machinery from a long-abandoned mining operation make an interesting addition to the valley milieu. The mine’s coal track is now used to haul lazy Americans and the wheelchair-bound back to the top after the long knee-cracking descent of the Steps. For a nominal fee of course.


Back on the rim, $20 poorer. From a lookout point we stared down at a flock of black cockatoos wheeling and turning in the canyon. Their calls echoed off the sandstone. Despite the high visitation there was no other sound, except the wind.


“I can see how the Wollemi could go undiscovered here,” Lisa said. And how this place – this entire line of country – could have daunted for a generation a society of even the doughtiest explorers.