It’s already the penultimate leg of our long journey that started on the last day of October this year. There was a back-to-reality feeling when we struggled along with pre-Christmas shoppers at the Coles supermarket inside Westfield mall in Liverpool, near the airport in Sydney. The wide open outdoors feel like another planet when you re-enter a city – where we encountered ‘trolley traffic’ in the aisles and the hire car in the multi-storey car-park seemed to be hidden in a corner we couldn’t find. Getting back into beautiful nature seemed like a really good thing to do.
Leura is a pretty little heritage town in the Blue Mountains, under a couple of hours, by road from Sydney- known for its gardens. It was pitch dark when we got there and the heavy overgrowth around the front of our cottage prevented us and the GPS from finding it. When we did manage to locate it, the entrance to the house was at the top of what felt like a hundred gravelled steps. Our three suitcases had become four by now and lugging them all up felt like climbing Everest and having to drag the stubborn yaks and their packs. Getting inside this converted feeding shed of a dairy, we found a spacious, comfortable place with a twinkling Christmas tree in the living room. Collapsing after two weeks of driving many a mountain-side in New Zealand, a real bed was a luxury we had missed. Light shone through the skylight before 6 a.m. and then started the most incredible cacophony of bird sound. Raucous cackles, a musical drop, the chirping and the singing – what were these creatures? Giant cockatoos (white with a sulphur crest), tiny green parakeets and the cuckoo (both similar to India), the bright red parrots, the currawong, a crow like bird with white flecks, the laughing kookaburra (up the old gum tree) and the lyre bird (thanks to http://www.oztrek.com.au/pages/blue-mountains-fauna/birds.php).
Christmas morning dawned bright and warm and a walk to see Leura Cascades seemed like a good idea before opening the barbeque to grill some vegetables and halloumi cheese we’d shopped for. The blue mist of the mountains hang over giant red rocks of the mountain and the dense vegetation deep below looks formidable.
Seeing reptiles – a snake and a slithering lizard made the walk to the bush a little more edgy than Leigh Woods or Ashton Court in Bristol! The humid conditions could only go one way – to a pouring thunder-storm. What better way to celebrate Christmas than sit in front of the telly – watch the Queen’s Christmas message (eleven hours before England) and see Godfather 2 with our late lunch.
Katoomba is the slightly larger town near Leura and we went there next for a day at Scenic View, a theme park in the Blue Mountains where we could see the Three Sisters from a cable car, rattle down the steepest railway, down a mine-shaft and walk some more to the Katoomba Falls.
Our accommodation for the night was at Leura cottage, built in 1880 – the oldest in town, complete with wrap-around verandahs and wooden-shuttered windows. It used to be a convent in the 1950s and when there was a fire, the nuns escaped to a nearby church to pray – all the other grand houses in the neighbourhood burnt down, except Leura Cottage. They believed it was the power of prayer that preserved it.
There’s a distinct feeling of slowing down – where the chores of living out of a suitcase means spending time in a Laundromat – slotting the dollar coins in and forgetting to pull the sliding contraption out – six dollars gone, clothes remain untouched by water and detergent. We met fellow travellers from Oxford and I shared my newfound wisdom as we bonded at the Washing Well in Katoomba town.
Heading out of the hills, we weren’t entirely sure where we were going next. There were choices of Kangaroo Valley, Kiyama beach where the water surges up in the blow-hole between the rocks – but it felt like too much effort to drive for two more hours to get there. Instead, we put the radio on in the car and there was cricket commentary of the third test between India and Australia. The suburban sprawl was endless and boring, but events at the MCG kept us alert. Stephen Smith and Ryan Harris were eulogised as the Indian bowling seemed ineffective. Shouting at the radio felt satisfying, albeit futile. Virat Kohli and Rahane made up for it the next day. Aussies love their cricket – it makes headline news on the TV and the papers everyday.
We found ourselves in Botany Bay all of a sudden – the exact place where Captain Cook landed back in 1770. We couldn’t believe our luck in finding a place of such historical significance purely by accident and took a walk in the woods close by, parallel to the ocean. Part of the plaque there reads – “Celebrated as the birthplace of modern Australia, mourned as the site of original dispossession of the Aboriginal people, a place that has remembered and has silenced, a symbol of hope for reconciliation, this is a meeting place of histories, cultures and people.” Nearby, we could hear clap-sticks and children being instructed in play – little did we know that these were soundscapes – recordings of Aboriginal workshops, not some bush-folk hiding cleverly from us. The rocks lie flat with deep holes like giant amoeba – each having a little pool of sea-life in them. The small monument explained that the person who set foot first on Australian soil was Captain Cook’s wife’s cousin. Elsewhere there was a long inscription on the ground which said that was the place where they laid claim to 650 acres of land – theirs forever. I began to understand that this pioneering zeal is something that still carries a sense of great pride.