I can feel the warm air rushing up from beneath me. My eyes are closed and my fingers are tingling. My heart is beating so very fast. It feels almost like a bolt of electricity is running through me. I open my eyes and through the hazy light, focus on what’s in front of me: a vast valley, stretching out for miles, covered in a blanket of eucalyptus trees that are shrouded in a light blue mist. Then I look down; inches from my feet, the land plummets away. I’m right on the edge of the cliff. In the distance, a waterfall spills over the rocks. I can’t hear it, it’s too far away, but I can see whips of water flicking up into the wind as it cascades down into the valley. There is no noise, only stillness, and the quiet is bliss. I put my arms out and it’s as if I can feel everything.
I’m standing on the edge of Baltzar Lookout, a bare rock ledge that juts out over Grose Valley in the Blue Mountains. I came here to escape the pace of city living; to refresh, refocus and also challenge myself. I’ve been in Sydney to promote my latest book, and after a week of interviews and events I’m desperate to re-set. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore cities, and Sydney is one of the most charming in the world. After all, I’m a born-and-bred Londoner, so I feel very much at home in urbanity. To me, it makes far more sense than where I am now. I love the noise, the smells and the availability of late-night bourbon and burritos. I find crowds of people thrilling. I love the city, as I can find constant amusement anytime; great, as I have the attention span of a goldfish.
But I do relish experiencing the opposite, the other extreme, the feeling of calm and quiet that comes from being in the great outdoors. It helps me zone out and think straight. It makes me focus on what I want in life. So here I am, on the edge of a cliff. And I’m buzzing.
I drove from Sydney to the little town of Leura in the Blue Mountains a few days ago. It’s only a hundred kilometres, but feels a world away, with a manicured high street selling farm fresh foods and organic skincare. But I’m not here for that. Well not for now, at least. I’m here to experience the great outdoors in the national park that surrounds the town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site spanning over 250,000 hectares. I’ve booked a day ‘canyoning’ along Fortress Canyon and a full day’s hiking to let the outdoorsy guy that’s inside of me out.
I meet my guide Dan, an ex-journalist who has swapped the daily grind of The Sydney Morning Herald for a more wholesome existence in the mountains. He’s nearly fifty but doesn’t look a day over forty. We kit up (which involves me ditching my standard black skinny jeans for an even skinnier black wetsuit and an abseiling harness) and off we go. It’s a short drive followed by a couple of hours’ hike into Fortress Canyon. Dan explains its human topography, in that the area has been inhabited by the Darug and Gundungurra people for thousands of years. More recently, it boomed after the railway was laid in 1867; so even back then, it was responsible for bringing stressed-out city folk out here into the wilderness. Geologically speaking, the Blue Mountains are actually a massive sandstone plateau, which over time has moved, ripping open into vast valleys and narrow canyons. The landscape is dominated by a closed canopy rainforest and a fragrant eucalyptus forest. There are over a hundred species of eucalyptus trees and it is this fauna that give the area its hued name. Collectively, the trees give off natural oils that react with light to form the mystical, hazy blue mist that shrouds the scenery.
We park the car and head off deep into the bush. It’s early morning and there is a cold, wet dew in the air. It’s fresh, and smells of tea tree and wild flowers. We rope down into the canyon and make our way into the cold water. It’s a trickle at the moment, only a few inches deep. The tree canopy covers the sky and casts a moody green light over everything. The water gets deeper and we start to wade. I’m in a group of four intrepid travellers; Dan tells us all to stay in a line and pass information backwards to each other, like whether or not there’s a submerged tree stump in the water and what colour rocks we’ll step on next. Some are good to climb over and others should be avoided at all costs; white rock is all right to walk on, yellow is mellow, green is mean and black, well, you’re going to “land on your back.”
The canyon rises up above us. They call this a slot canyon, one that is deep and narrow. The sandstone has been eroded into cool curves that twist and turn. The rock is surprisingly soft to touch and beautifully coloured, laid down in layers of pink and mustard yellow.
Dan stops. He is squatting on a boulder that’s blocking our way. He hurls his backpack over the side, beckoning us to follow suit. He grins and leaps down into the water, an eight-foot drop into a deep, dark pool. I take the plunge. The cold water rushes over my head. I kick up and take a breath, it’s a fantastic feeling.
Each step we take means adapting to the curvature of the canyon. We walk sometimes and we also swim. We wade and we splash. The experience is utterly beautiful. I’m struck by how remote we are, just us in the wilderness. I have to concentrate on what I’m doing. Each step requires thought, every jump needs a considered pause. It’s nothing short of incredible.
I am living in the moment and nothing else matters. We reach a narrow ledge. The water flows over the edge, dropping about twenty feet into a pool and then carrying on its merry way into a stunning gorge; so crystal clear that it looks like a mirror. It’s time to use our harnesses, so one by one we are to abseil down. Suddenly I feel my vertigo kicking in and with that, I’m forced to admit to the group that I am a first time abseiler.
My sweaty palms tighten on the ropes and my muscles start to tense even though I haven’t started to descend yet. I shoot Dan a look of what must have look like pure and utter terror. He nods back reassuringly, the kind of nod that says, “Oh come on, get on with it.”
I push off, my feet dangling in the air. It’s the oddest feeling, really. Naturally, I’m inclined to grab the rocks and scramble back up to safety, but I know I mustn’t. I summon my inner superhero and the calm I’ve acquired from these days out here in the city. gradually lower myself, a little at a time, slowly down until I feel touch the water below, prompting me to look up. I’ve come a long way, literally. I’m really proud of this moment.
The final leg of this canyoning adventure involves swimming though a narrow gulley. I lie on my back and my backpack helps me float. I look up and see the bright blue Australian sky above. Shafts of sunlight pierce through into the canyon, determined to light up the dark water. When my toes touch the ground, I drip onto a beautiful plateau. The sides of the canyon widen and the trees part. We are on a precipice overlooking Grose Valley. The water we have been wading through tumbles over the edge. A golden light soaks everything and we sit marvelling at the view. I take off my wetsuit and sit on the cliff. The sun warms my face and the cold water refreshes my hands. My feet dangle over the ledge. There’s a soundtrack of whistling lyre birds and roaring cicadas. Breathing the fresh air, I realise that this is the most relaxed I’ve been in years.
The next day, I wake from a well-deserved, heavy sleep. My body feels fantastic: well exercised, strong, and – after a huge, carby dinner of pasta and pizza (don’t judge) – well fed. I have one last hike to do before heading back to Sydney and I’m grateful, as I feel that I’m not quite done with the Blue Mountains.
I set off to Baltzar Lookout. It’s a dusty trek into the bush to get there and the trees shade me from the blistering sun. The path gets increasingly steeper. A narrow ridge leads me through the foliage and out onto a small ledge. It’s early and there is no one else here. I have this magical place to myself, so I sit and let the spectacular view wash over me. It’s an extraordinary feeling being this exposed on all sides. I have to stand, vertigo or not. So I close my eyes and pull myself up.
I head back to the Sydney, feeling at peace. I’ve been outside and active for two whole days, and I have also slept like a baby. I have allowed myself to stay focused on what I was doing: no mobile and no social media, just being in the moment. I’m at my most creative when I’m in the wilderness and I’m buzzing with new ideas. I can’t wait to get back home and see where they take me. As I’m writing this, I’m in a packed member’s club in London, but I still have that sense of serenity that I’ve absorbed from the Blue Mountains with me. I’m keen to tell everyone that I have a secret to share with them, something that will help them stay focused in the cool chaos of our city; head to the mountains and let time stop. Draw breath and just be, and then come back fighting. I know I have.
John was a guest of Visit New South Wales who used Blue Mountains Adventure Company for his canyoning experience. www.visitnsw.com
For more inspiration, also visit www.bluemts.com.au
John flew from London to Sydney with Etihad Airways. www.etihad.com
John Gregory-Smith is a chef and author.
- Pack the right gear, including good footwear that can get wet (or stay dry), a sweatshirt and spare socks and shorts to walk in after you get out of the canyon. Make sure you get a dry bag so your kit doesn’t get wet.
- Get up early in the morning and go and see the wild kangaroos bouncing around the Megalong Valley. It’s worth it.
- Do coffee like a pro (or Australian) and get your early morning caffeine fix in slick surroundings of Synonymous Café, Medlow Bath – easily the best brew in the mountains.
- Remember to take your swimmers to wear under your wet-suit when canyoning. Trust me, it provides extra comfort where and when you’ll need it most.
- Don’t worry if you are short on time. The wonderful thing about any adventure in the Blue Mountains is that you can drive up and down to it from Sydney in a day. Of course, if you can, stay awhile.
- Visit the Gilt Lounge bar at the QT Sydney hotel when you make it back to the city. Also, Gowings Bar & Grill, a modern Australian brassiere, gets pretty packed in the evenings, so it’s worth booking in advance in you want a table.
The inside track
Michael Brown is one of Australia’s go-to beauty gurus, making up some of the worlds most famous faces and appearing on Channel 9’s Today Extra morning program. @mbrown_beauty
With slick interiors and a fantastic slow-food inspired Italian menu, (think perfect pizzas, pasta
Pick up some of the best local produce from Blackheath Growers Market. They have a gorgeous selection of farm-to-fork foods like olive oil, honey, wine
Relax in style at the Japanese Bath House; unwind after a hard day hiking with a rejuvenating herbal steam bath and then chill in their outdoor hot pool, complete with stunning, scenic views.
Photography courtesy of Destination NSW