Katoomba

The day started early. Too early.

I woke up at 8:00 am on Sunday morning, my head throbbing painfully. Katoomba was the furthest thing from my mind. My body was still processing the excessive amount of beer I had consumed the night before. Allow me to elaborate… 

I had just single-handedly saved America’s gold medal in the previous night’s Beer Olympics at my Sydney hostel. There were only 4 teams, with about 4 players each. Team USA gracefully accepted the membership of a Canadian neighbor in order to qualify as a team. The remaining 3 teams were entirely British. Our Olympics was imperialism-themed.

In the process of drinking my way to a gold medal, I lost my shoes (???). This is the only time in my life that this has happened (though I would find them 2 days later). The only backup pair of shoes that I had brought were my brand-new Sperry’s. Perfect footwear for a long hike, no?

So, back to the beginning.

Bright and early after what felt like the shortest nap in history, I awoke to loud noises in my room. My cousin Sarah and our new friend Daniel had barged in to wake me up. We had to get on the next train out of the city. Sundays in Sydney are family days. You never have to pay more than $2.50 for public transport for the full day. It was the perfect time to take a 3-hour ride (one-way!) to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. 

We had no idea where to go once we arrived in Katoomba, but we were ravenous. Obviously, the only choice was to start our day off right by sampling a delicious local mom-n-pop shop. During the long train ride we had learned that Daniel’s parents owned a Korean restaurant in Seattle. As luck would have it, there was a local, family-run Korean place in town. We had Daniel pick the entrées and we dug in with gusto.

The food was absolutely sensational. However, people who know me know that you can’t always take my food recommendations since I like everything. Well, everything except those duck throats I had in Sydney’s Chinatown… those had been a little too slippery for my liking.

We were unsure of how to proceed after our meal.

Eventually we asked our waitress for guidance. She was very helpful; she was even kind enough to draw us a map! We followed the map dutifully, our eyes eventually finding a sign for the path to Katoomba Falls. It was a beautiful day – the sun was really beating down on us. We were excited to get started. I was also very surprised that I wasn’t figuratively dying in the fetal position from a debilitating hangover.

Conquer Fear Katoomba
I still have this map laying around somewhere if I could only find it…

We began walking the path to Katoomba Falls.

This first portion of the path started off running parallel to the pre-Falls stream. This was when Daniel taught me a valuable lesson – without even knowing it. There was a short wooden barricade that separated path and stream. On the other side lay a fallen log that stretched about halfway across the water. As soon as Daniel came to where the log was, he hopped over the fence and started walking down the log, holding his arms outstretched for balance.

The simple act of ignoring the fence for a minute – hopping over it to explore a bit of nature beyond the path – changed my mindset. Not just for this trip, but for every moment going forward.

I don’t know what kind of lull I was in before, but I had been thoughtlessly following the established path, and playing by all of the rules.

It’s like I had been living on autopilot for months on end.

“If somebody tells you that there is a rule, break it. That’s the only thing that moves things forward.”

– Hans Zimmer, award-winning composer (love this guy for studying/writing)

I had to stop worrying and wondering about what everyone else was doing. It was time to just focus on what I was doing. Just as you probably expected, I followed Daniel onto the log, where there was absolutely no room for us both. At least neither of us fell in…

After I had my mini-revelation, we began exploring off of the trail with enthusiasm and renewed vigor. We found so many caves, boulders, and ledges. We then followed a steep trail down to ‘Underfalls Pass’, at which point we found a large group of fellow international explorers that had hopped the fence to have some fun on the ledge where the waterfall was. 

Katoomba
Daniel (red shorts) sits alone at the edge of Katoomba Falls, pondering life (probably).

I proceeded with caution to the edge of the cliff myself.

I wanted to get a feel for it. And let me tell you – your body can feel it. My legs got heavy; it felt as if they knew that I was one slight mistake away from a quick demise. To me it was a clear message from my body and my subconscious mind – “we really don’t want to die.”

I’ve got no doubt that you’ve also seen the headlines of selfie-takers all around the world plummeting to their deaths after they slip and fall as they take their shot, but I have no plans to join them. While I was around the cliff’s edge, I banished all thoughts from my mind except for maintaining a focus on putting one foot in front of the other, as if I was learning to walk again. It’s hard to screw up something easy like that (a.k.a. lose your balance or trip) when it’s literally the only thing that you’re thinking about.

Katoomba
I’m really glad no one decided to push me off…

We spent some time at the ledge. We snacked, explored, and Sarah even made friends with a vlogger who happened to be present.

After some time, I realized that I could climb higher up the waterfall.

Once I ascended, I came right back down to grab my two compatriots so that we could go “waterfall swimming.” This was truly one of the most magnificent areas that we explored. And not just in terms of this day trip – the highest level of that waterfall remains one of the most magical places I’ve visited in my entire life.

The waterfall above poured down from overhead like a pair of wispy white vampire fangs. One fang of water landed directed onto a pile of rocks and pools, and the other landed atop a boulder with a small 6 foot overhang, and the water then dribbled from the boulder off of this elevated ledge. We were about two ledges above where the majority of the other adventurers were stationed.

The “waterfall swimming” aspect of it wasn’t as amazing as it might seem – one could stand underneath the falls as if taking a shower, but the water was coming down with great force. Or at least it felt like great force as it assaulted my heinous sunburn.

The reason why this place felt so incredible was that when we were in the waterfall on that highest ledge, it was as if we were the only people around for miles. We couldn’t see the others down below, and the beautiful landscape in our view straight ahead was untouched by civilization. After we spent what must have been about an hour in our little waterfall oasis of paradise, we readied up and moved out, seeking the trail once more. We continued downward, toward the forest at the base of the cliff.

On our descent we saw the Three Sisters in the distance.

They were so far away that I distinctly remember that we decided as a group that seeing them from here was fine, and we needn’t trouble ourselves by trying to get any closer.

Katoomba
How far away? Yeah. Nope, this is fine.

We continued climbing down to the valley below. When the trail turned into a staircase carved directly into the rock, I was able to locate another hidden gem off the trail. All you had to do was hop the fence, hold onto a tree for balance, and then carefully crawl forward to get to a magnificent sitting-spot. Easy, right?

I had my back up against the rocky outcrop. It definitely made me feel much safer than when I had dangled my legs off the previous cliff. I enjoyed this spot and this view that much more because of it.

Katoomba
Here I am, feeling extra ‘safe’ on my cliffside ledge as I dangle my legs off a 200m~ drop.

My travelmates eventually scolded me for taking my sweet time enjoying the view, and then we got back to trekking. We made it all the way down to the base of the waterfall, and found ourselves in a lush, green forest. The air was filled with the wonderful and unfamiliar sounds of the Australian wildlife. Now that we were at the bottom, there were a few paths to choose from that we could take. A few were too long, and we would not be able to go out and come back before dark.

We picked a shorter route and resumed our exploration.

A few minutes after we started on the trail, the flora became so thick that it became very dificult to spot the cliffs from which we had come. We kept our eyes open for koalas, kangaroos, and other fauna native to Australia, but we saw nothingThey could probably smell me from a mile away by that point…

After what must have been an hour and a half of hiking, the vegetation became to give way, and we looked up to see a familiar sight – the Three Goddamn Sisters were literally right above us. We had had absolutely no intention of going to see the Three Sisters, but once we got to walking down in the forest we had evidently walked all the way to them. I blame the lack of signage!

This is where we would face our greatest challenge.

Up until this point, we had been exploring for 6~ hours. We were ready to call it a day. Only one thing remained for us to conquer.

Conquer Fear Katoomba
Note to self: don’t save The Giant Stairway for last.

The Giant Stairway was aptly named – it is 900 steps carved into the cliffside. The sign at the bottom projects that from that point, you still need TWO full hours to return topside. And these are not ‘friendly’ steps, so to speak. They ranged from steep to downright ridiculous. The best part of the climb was encountering what must have been an 80-year old local man, who on his way down mentioned that this climb was a “piece of cake,” (I paraphrased) as we struggled our way to the top, drenched in sweat. 

We were rewarded with stunning views of the beautiful Blue Mountain scenery once we summited the Giant Stairway. Though the mountains were decidedly orange (a.k.a. not blue), the horizon was shrouded in a pleasant blue mist. The mist, the lush green of the seemingly untouched forest below, and the stark orange of the distant rocky mountains made for a beautiful collection of colors that I’ll not soon forget.

Katoomba
Three Sisters (right), Three Exhausted Travelers (left)

After the short walk from the lookout back to town, we grabbed some grub to kill time (and our humongous appetites) before our train arrived. Sarah and Daniel went ahead to get some sandwiches. Me? Well I couldn’t say no to a loaded Domino’s pizza for $5.

I mean, could you? 

All in all, it was a 7-7.5 hour hike, and according to my phone, we walked over 10.9 miles and climbed over 140 flights of stairs. All this I somehow accomplished with little sleep, a curiously noncombative hangover, and my brand new Sperry’s as my stand-in hiking shoes.

5 hr sleep + 7.5 hr hike + 10.9 mi + 140 flights climbed  = I’m napping the entire train ride home.

The Blue Mountains opened my eyes to the kind of adventures I could pursue in Australia (and elsewhere). It was here that I really began my fascination with photography (this and Bondi).

The day’s lesson was that sometimes you gotta color outside the lines to get the most out of lifeExplore beyond your boundaries, and get outside of your comfort zone. That’s how you grow.

Just don’t die doing it.

Being inquisitive ≠ being dangerously reckless.

Which reminds me! Bonus lesson!

Look up the dangerous critters of places you are going to explore – Many venomous snakes and spiders call the Blue Mountains their home. A fact which – had I understood fully – might have led to some more caution in my offroading adventures. The locals in Katoomba have to put up with a lot!

Well, at least I was wearing shoes.

Originally Posted March 13, 2017

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