Sat, Mar 19, 2011 - Page 16 News List

Avenues of escape

Peace reigns in the hazy Blue Mountains of southern Australia, with awe-inspiring landscapes and some magical places to stay

By Anita Sethi  /  The Guardian, LONDON

A table is set overlooking the Blue Mountains, Australia.

Photo: Bloomberg

I’m sitting on the pea-green seats of the train, gazing out into a world fast vanishing beneath a gauzy, shimmery mist. As we climb two hours west from Central Station, Sydney, the mist cloaks the vast plateaux, snakes through the dark forests and curls around the cliff tops and canyons that comprise the Blue Mountains.

I’ve come in search of the peace that attracts Sydneysiders year round to the million hectares of New South Wales that are named after the blue haze of vaporized eucalyptus oil. As the angry sky darkens and rain thunders down, I confess to feeling slightly fearful, as well as excited, at the prospect of staying alone in a secret eco cottage with hectares between myself and the nearest human being.

I step out into Katoomba, the tourist hub of the Blue Mountains. It’s as if I’ve stepped into some wonderland at the top of the Magic Faraway Tree. The mist clears to reveal the awesome landscape: vast, rugged cliffs, ferns, tall gum trees. A short taxi-ride away, the two cottages at the isolated Woolshed Cabins stand beside a wooden shearing shed. Marion, the owner, and I sip hot sweet tea on the veranda and she tells me about the mountains, before showing me round my cabin. In the lounge, huge windows have views of the chalky cliffs. In the loft bedroom, the triangular windows show distant forests.

“Don’t go near the fences — they’re electric. And don’t walk in the fields over there,” says Marion, pointing to the grass, which reaches taller than both of us, “as you might not come out again. Snakes!” Indeed, this area has some of the most lethal snakes in Australia. The information booklet in the cottage provides further warnings: “Not all horses are approachable and cattle are definitely NOT ‘pattable.’” As she leaves me, I almost run after her and beg her to stay, or to take me with her. But soon I relax and discover what solitude in nature is all about.

Horses are chomping in the fields. Peewees sing. Great yellow butterflies flutter past. I walk west from the cottage with the long wet grass tickling my legs, past tall gum trees and along the creek paddock, keeping an eye out for wallabies and kangaroos and wombat holes — and snakes! As I walk towards the blue hills of Oberon and the Jenolan Caves, I feel quite tiny. The sun begins to set, silhouetting the trees; night-time encroaches over the cliffs until the sky is on fire, although I spin round and it’s still broad daylight behind me. It’s little wonder that the Blue Mountains are a favorite haunt of artists.

Back in the cottage I stick on one of the CDs, the multi-volume Complete Classics, and delve into the basket of goodies left for me. In the kitchen, done out in Australian hardwoods, with a slab timber bench, I soon have a pan of sausages sizzling on the stove. Later, in the airy loft bedroom, I fall asleep to the sound of rain pattering against the windows and horses whinnying outside.

The Blue Mountains area is full of little villages and I move on next to Leura, a scenic 15-minute drive away. It’s hard to believe that the Old Leura Dairy was once a dilapidated ruin, for now its six lodgings — Moo Manor, Buttercup Barn, the Studio, the 1920s Worker’s Cottage, the Milking Shed, and cavernous Straw Bale House, where I am staying — have been gloriously restored to eco-principles. The houses are still luxurious though, despite being built from recycled materials and hand-painted tiles, with decor reminiscent of a giant doll’s house, full of treasures procured from auctions: a wooden rocking horse, old typewriters, a beautiful statue of a mother and child. The owner is an art collector, and original paintings adorn the walls. I relax in the rocking chair, then bathe in the claw-foot bath.

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