After the bacchanalian excesses of Sydney’s Mardi Gras street parade and all-night dance party, a rest might be needed. Where better than the wild outdoors of Australia’s version of the Grand Canyon – the gorgeous, gay-friendly Blue Mountains.
Go west!”, the Pet Shop Boys once advised. So I did. After partying myself stupid at the Sydney Mardi Gras, I needed a real holiday to recover. Packing my bags, I headed 80 miles west of Sydney to the high ranges of the Blue Mountains.
Although queers are usually as rare as flying pigs in outback areas, these mountains are fast becoming a favourite retreat for fags and dykes who are into wilderness walks, the restoration of pioneer homesteads, and exotic gardens (the climate is absolutely perfect for Dame Edna’s gladioli).
Bad news for metropolitan-addicted scene queens: there are no gay bars or clubs; just a few gay-run guest houses and restaurants. But everywhere seems to be homo-friendly.
The Southern Cross Outdoors Group – Sydney’s gay rambling association – has a huge membership. It organises regular treks in the Blue Mountains, ranging from easy-grade hikes around Wentworth Falls to hair-raising white-water rafting on the Wollangambe River.
The best way to describe the Blue Mountains is Australia’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon, an awesome rocky plateau dissected by deep chasms. From some cliff-tops, there are drops of nearly 500 metres into the valleys below.
Smaller and more compact than the Grand Canyon, the Blue Mountains are also much greener and wetter, with abundant waterfalls, spooky fogs, and lots of very queer wildlife (but definitely not the kind of wild queers you see in some London bars and clubs!).
Katoomba, the main town, developed mostly in the 1920s and 30s, when mountain walking was a popular past-time. It is a treasure-trove of art deco and art nouveau buildings and interior design. Check out the extraordinary, museum-piece Paragon Cafe. And, if you get a chance, pop over to the nearby town of Medlow Bath to visit the pink palace, the curvaceous art deco Hydro Majestic Hotel, with its spectacular cliff-top panorama.
You can get to Katoomba by train from Sydney. The journey takes about two hours. But I decided to travel with Mountain ‘n’ Beach Safaris. They specialise in small-group, off-the-beaten-track, 4-wheel-drive trips to the Blue Mountains. I was collected from my hotel in Sydney – the fantastic New York-inspired, loft-style boutique hotel, Central Park, on Castlereagh Street.
Together with six others – including a gorgeous gay twosome from Kansas! – we headed off into the mountains. Instead of taking a direct route, our driver meandered leisurely, stopping off at a Koala sanctuary to cuddle the cute zonked out furry creatures. New research shows that Koalas get stoned out of their tiny minds munching on eucalyptus leaves all day. Eucalyptus does not, alas, have the same effect on humans. That disappointing revelation did not, however, stop the two queens from Kansas stuffing their bum-bags with leaves to take back to the USA!
Next stop was Euroka Clearing, where we were able to get within six metres of dozens of kangaroos in the wild. After feasting ourselves on a yummy bush barbecue lunch (with vegetarian option!), we moved on to view the Three Sisters, three gigantic pillars of rock that tower almost 1000 metres over the Jamison Valley.
I was then dropped off at my accommodation, Phoenix Lodge, run by a charming gay man and ex-restaurant chef, Colin Stokes. A log-cabin-style mountain hideaway with a heated spa in the garden, it is situated in Yosemite Park. Surrounded by thick forest, the nature trails out the back lead to the breathtaking Minnie Ha Ha Falls.
Next morning, I tucked into one of Colin’s gob-smacking man-sized cooked breakfasts in preparation for the big adventure ahead. I booked with Ted Taylor of Cox’s River Escapes to do a 16 km wilderness walk along the Six Foot Track, which stretches from Katoomba to Jenolan Caves. He provides a guide and a day pack of food and drink. You do the walking. Easy peasy!
Ted picked me up from Phoenix Lodge and drove me to the start of the walk at Nellie’s Glen. I was, of course, the only nelly in sight! But what a view! From the top of the plateau, peaking between wisps of low-lying cloud, I had a grand vista over the Megalong Valley.
Nellie’s Glen lies at the end of a v-shaped ravine with cliffs 250 metres high on both sides. As we began our descent, my guide, Grant Commins, explained that The Six Foot Track follows the route of the old pioneer trail, cut through the rugged terrain in 1884. It is about six feet wide – hence its name.
The first part of the track drops down through a temperate rain forest of giant ferns, mosses and boulders, following the course of waterfalls and streams. The bird life is prolific, with lots of yellow-tailed black cockatoos and crimson rosellas. We also had the good fortune to see a very rare native cat, the ferocious Spotted Quoll.
As we walked, I found myself enthralled by this very ungay wilderness experience. In homo culture, mountain trekking rates about zero compared to dance music, fashion, drugs and sex. But I found myself feeling relieved to escape from the urban gay flesh spots and the queer club scene.
Don’t we all need an occasional break from the often one-dimensional fast-track queer lifestyle of screwing, clubbing and shopping?
Onward, forward, we walked! Once down in the valley, the rain forest turned to thick ghost gum woods, the tall stands of white bark creating an eerie, other-world atmosphere.
As the forest opened out to semi-scrub, we came across towering phallic anthills and swarms of colourful butterflies. Owing to recent rains, Megalong Creek was higher than normal. Grant and I collected rocks to build a raised causeway, and then hop-skipped-and-jumped to the other side. Oooo! So butch!
Soon, it was time for lunch. Resting on some fallen logs, we devoured our packs of bread rolls, cheese salad, muffins and fruit juice, attracting curious lizards, birds and giant ants.
With our energy levels revitalised, we set off again. The track took us by Megalong Cemetery, a handful of decaying tombstones where pioneer homesteaders from the last century lie buried amid thick scrub.
My mind wandered again. When it comes to physical exercise, I concluded, walking is much more interesting than going to the gym. Moreover, all that fresh air is so damn good for you (and it makes a pleasant change from smoky bars and clubs!).
Passing down through a granite boulder-strewn landscape, we arrived at Cox’s
River in the late afternoon. One at a time, Grant and I crossed the tiny steel-rope suspension bridge that hangs 30 metres above the river. It bounces and sways as you cross. Not for faint-hearted fairies with vertigo!
Climbing the hill on the other side, we arrived at our campsite. Ted was already waiting, having driven there via a back road and got a campfire started. After a billy of “gum leaf” tea, I stripped naked and took a bush shower.
This involves heating water on a fire, pouring it into a big canvass bag with a nozzle, and hoisting it over a tree branch. Standing there starkers as the warm water drizzled over me, I was eyed-up by a couple of perverts (a kangaroo and a cockatoo!). Ignoring their quizzical stares, I carried on showering. The hot water was absolute bliss on my tired body!
A gorgeous open-air dinner beckoned. As the sun set, we sat around a rustic wooden table on a concrete platform under a corrugated iron roof, overlooking the small valley that leads down to Cox’s River. Ted served first-rate bush tucker: snapper fish powdered with ground lemon myrtle wrapped in paper bark and cooked on fire coals, with a side dish of rain forest herb fettuccine and bunya tree nuts. It is hard to imagine a more authentic, original and tasty meal!
The dessert was, however, the full queeny, high-class restaurant deal: succulent pears with cream and brandy.
Totally stuffed, I retired to bed – a lilo air mattress in a tent, set on a grassy hillside ledge. I slept like a log until 3am, when a thunderstorm broke. It bucketed down noisily for an hour, after which I dozed off again until 9am.
After a breakfast of fried eggs and tomatoes, Ted drove us by 4-wheel-drive along the rest of the Six Foot Track, passing five-foot high termite mounds, petrified trees, grazing kangaroos, and ruined remains of early settlers cabins.
Arriving at Jenolan Caves, I opted out of the standard walk-through guided tour. It was a difficult decision because this network of 360 caves is one of the most spectacular in the world. It includes brilliant coloured giant stalactites and stalagmites, some cock-shaped and others more like capes, ribbons, minarets and waterfalls.
My preferred choice was an adventure caving expedition called The Plug-Hole. The name derives from the s-bend twists and turns of its many passage-ways.
A dozen of us donned overalls, boots and miners lamps and, led by a guide, set off into the subterranean darkness. We spent the next two hours crawling, walking, sliding, climbing and slithering from one chamber to the next, often through tiny crevasses and along tunnels only half a metre high. I was behind three gay Canadians. Most of the time, my face was up against their arses. Fortunately, they were cute!
Returning to Katoomba at dusk, I was famished. So I booked a table at Bodds Cafe. Run by a couple of queer boys and a straight diva, it is the closest thing to a gay bar in the Blue Mountains. Rainbow lights hang out proudly along the porch. The cafe is gayish all the time, but on Saturday mornings fags and dykes take over the outdoor terrace, sipping cappuccinos, reading the gay papers, and trading gossip.
Bodds speciality is modern Australian cuisine. My main course was the tastiest-ever smoked salmon, served with potato waffle, sour cream and caper berries, followed by chocolate chunk cookies and double-pineapple milkshake.
The next day I shifted base to the neighbouring town of Blackheath, checking into Glenalla Guest House, run by the ever-helpful Brett and Lisa. A large, wide-veranda homestead built in 1905, the dining area overlooks a garden bursting with flowers and fruits. You can pick your own breakfast fresh from the trees. I did!
Yearning for a bit of rough, I joined an abseiling and canyoning day-trip with High ‘n Wild Mountain Adventures. Ten of us set off to conquer the Empress Falls, kitted out in wet suits, safety helmets, abseiling gear and waterproof backpacks.
The first part of our trek followed the course of the Empress Creek, through a long, winding canyon that ranges from 10 to 150 metres deep. In some places, it is only eight feet wide at the bottom, and quite dark. Undaunted, we walked along sandy banks, waded and swam through water, and clambered and slid over boulders. When we came to a four-metre vertical drop, we jumped – very carefully! – into the tiny rock pool below.
After lunch, there was a quick abseil refresher session, and then it was on to “the big one”: the 30 metre drop down the face of the Empress Falls.
Looking over the precipice, it seemed more like 100 metres. The people below were tiny! Too late to chicken out! I stepped to the edge, released my rope and jumped. Hey! Ho! Over and down I went, just a couple of metres to start with. Then a few more. I paused to look down as I dangled in mid air. Wow! What a thrill! A few more drops down and I was in the middle of the falls, with water pelting down on me from above. Exhilarating!
The rest of the abseil went fine until, when near the bottom, I bounced out over a rock overhang and slipped on some slime, pulling my left hamstring. Ouch! Releasing the rope, I dropped the last two metres into the lake below.
A brilliant adventure, even though it left me limping for the next week! Well, that was my action-packed break from the backrooms, booze, bath-houses and boys of Sydney. The Blue Mountains may not be the most obvious gay holiday destination. But for this rather jaded scene queen it made a welcome change from the repetitive bar-hopping and sex routine of big city gay life.
QX magazine, 253, 27 October 1999
Another version of this article was published under the title “Into the blue”, Time Out, 1-8 September 1999
Copyright Peter Tatchell 1999. All rights reserved.