Balancing on the slippery stepping stones at the edge of a cliff, I am standing inches above the magnificent Wentworth Falls. Underneath my feet, gallons of water rush off the top of the cliff and plummet 180 meters to the bottom of the densely-forested valley. The only thing preventing me from following suit is a thin metal guardrail bolted into the rock.
I stare at the vertical sandstone slabs of the monumental Kedumba Walls that rise out of the endless expanse of the Jamison Valley, and my daily worries dissipate in the face of such vastness.
The awesome power of the falls and the surrounding landscape are invigorating. This is exactly what I was looking for – an escape from the buzz of the city life, from the endless demands of the nine to five lifestyle.
The Blue Mountains National Park is all about vastness. Located only 2 hours by train or car from the centre of Sydney, this rugged World Heritage-listed wilderness is a 2,690 square kilometre-medley of mountains, gorges, canyons and waterfalls.
Down the side of a cliff
The dramatic cliff top is just the start of the 5.6-kilometre hike. From the top of the Falls, the trail dives into a steep descent via hundreds of roughly hewn stone steps cut into the side of the cliff alongside the waterfall. I take it easy down the rough steps – they are too high to skip along and the 200-meter drop to my right is the only reminder I need to keep my eyes on the trail.
But I am lucky to be climbing down these steps. The occasional hikers I meet climbing in the opposite direction have a battle-weary look to them. They are only too happy to step aside and give way to me, using politeness as an excuse to pause and catch their breath.
Tackling the rocky stairwell one giant step at a time, I imagine the hardships that the builders of this trail faced. The stairs are part of the National Pass track that first opened to the public in 1908. This was well before the days when helicopters would deposit pre-processed sandstone blocks along the trail. These stairs were carved by a team of four men known as the “Irish Brigade” with nothing more than shovels, crowbars, and dynamite. In comparison to such a feat of endurance, my job of merely climbing these steps feels like a walk in the park.
I finally reach the bottom of the stairs at the base of the first drop of the falls, 110 meters below the start of the trail. Here the falls split into a myriad of smaller veils cascading over weathered sandstone shelves. I plonk myself on a shaded rock among the fellow hikers enjoying their hard-earned reward for the arduous climb.
Down the Slack Stairs
When I feel ready to continue exploring, I follow the Wentworth Pass track that zig-zags over relatively flat grown with the backdrop of dramatic views of the falls and the Jamison Valley. But the deeper I go, the rougher the trail becomes until it plunges into the steepest descent yet.
Known as the “Slack Stairs” this part of the trail is made up of a set of extremely steep steps and stairs encased into protective iron shoots. While perfectly safe, this stretch is not for the faint-hearted. Especially if, like me, you are carrying a heavy tripod, and only have one free hand to lower yourself into the shoots that seem to be suspended in mid-air over hundreds of meters of empty space.
After the challenges of the Slack Stairs, the pool at the bottom of the second drop of the falls is a refreshing oasis of trickling water and cool air. I am tempted to take a dip in the pool, but as I think about it, a large group of noisy hikers emerges from the trail, and the tranquillity is lost.
Into the dreamy Valley of the Waters
I leave the rowdy teenagers to their selfie sticks and follow the trail along the base of the cliffs through the open eucalypt forest. After about 1.5 kilometres I come to the first creek crossing. It looks like there used to be a bridge here, but it is long gone.
Tripod in hand, I scramble over the huge boulders across the creek and climb back onto the trail. I am now in the Valley of the Waters – a waterfall wonderland with five falls packed into a relatively small area of dense forest. It is a photographer’s dream, and the few people I meet on the trail are all busy with their cameras and tripods. There is no noise, no crowds, just the sublime beauty of nature.
The trail winds up the side of the cliff crossing the creek back and forth, and at every crossing, there is a new waterfall. Lodore Falls, Sylvia Falls, Flat Rock Falls and Empress Falls follow in quick succession, as the creek runs down the side of the mountain. I linger at each waterfall to soak in the solitude and to dip my toes into the cold brown-tinged water of the pools.
As I wander from waterfall to waterfall, I am slowly climbing out of the valley. The ascent becomes more arduous when I leave Empress Falls behind, as there are no more distractions taking my mind off the climb.
What follows is a long stretch of steps that eventually take me past Empress and Queen Victoria lookouts towards the Conservation Hut cafe. Of course, I spent too much time in the valley and the café is already shut.
After a brief rest and an encounter with a lyrebird, I head along the shortcut trail that brings me back to the Wentworth Falls picnic area about 20 minutes later. By now I feel, and probably look, like a battle survivor myself, but it is the kind of fatigue that I have been looking forward to.
How to get to Wentworth Falls
By car: Coming from Sydney via Great Western Highway, turn left at Falls Road near Wentworth Falls and the picnic area is at the end of the street.
By train: Take the Blue Mountains line train to Wentworth Falls station. From the station, cross the Great Western Highway, turn left onto Falls Road and follow the road to the end.