I’ve never really experienced the Blue Mountains before. Despite living relatively close to this iconic Australian wilderness just west of Sydney at different points in my life, I just never found the time to get out there and explore the area, but it’s always drawn me. Solo overnight hiking was another thing sitting on my to-do list, but not anymore – I ticked both of these items off the list recently with a fairly epic weekend trip.
Looking back towards Katoomba
The Golden Stairs to Mt Solitary, via the Ruined Castle, is actually doable in a day – out and back from Katoomba. However I thought I would take it easy, do it over two days, and take the time to get some great photos if I was lucky with the weather (and I was very lucky!)
The walk starts at the top of the Golden Stairs (a rather glamorous name for a steep, slippery rapid descent down the escarpment) on the Narrow Neck plateau, a short drive from Katoomba town centre. Once you drop down you meet up with a path, which traverses along the bottom of the escarpment, and you have entered another world!
Lush rainforest filled with ferns and moss-covered boulders echoes with the calls of lyrebirds. If you’re lucky you’ll catch a glimpse of one, but you can identify them by their mimicry – I heard one particular bird work through a repertoire of currawong, parrot, black-cockatoo, bowerbird, whipbird and other bird calls… mesmerising to listen to! This landscape is reminiscent of other walks I’ve done, including the Overland Track in Tasmania, and the Routeburn Track in New Zealand.
You can detour up a little spur called the Ruined Castle if you like – probably not worth the effort given the better views you will receive a bit further along. However there were lots of banksias and mountain devils (an indigenous bushfood) to be found up there in the drier climate. If you continue along the bottom track instead, you have the opportunity to use a real toilet if required, and have a rest under a recently constructed shelter in the event of bad weather.
Mountain devil - tasty!
A little further along the real challenge begins – the ascent up the Korrowal Knife Edge. You’d better be fairly comfortable with some rock-scrambling and basic rock-climbing for this part, and it’s easier getting up than down! The views are well worth the effort though – a panoramic view back across to Katoomba overlooking the Ruined Castle. This is a good turn around point if you are doing a day walk.
The route from here up to the top of Mt Solitary is indistinct at times, and quite technical with more rock-climbs involved. I’m not kidding when I say I’ve abseiled down gentler sections than these climbs, so climbing up and down them with 15-20kg in your pack is a challenge, and it definitely took it’s toll on my legs!!!
I chose to camp at Chinaman’s gully – a little depression running across the narrow ridgeline that caps Mt Solitary. There is a good range of campsites to choose from, especially if you are the only one up there (which I was). Rock overhangs providing plenty of shelter, with convenient flat rocks for cooking on. I was fortunate enough as well to find the creek actually flowing, although it is common for there to be no water up here – so make sure you bring enough, and also sterilise any water you do find.
View off the southern lookout at Chinaman's gully
There are fantastic lookouts at the north and south end of Chinaman’s gully just 5 mins walk apart. South looks out over the Waragamba Dam catchment area, and north looks over the Jamison valley to Katoomba. From here you get those iconic Blue Mountains views (although I was struck by how similar these dramatic cliffs look to the Stone Country escarpments in Kakadu). Despite the cloudy weather the stars aligned and I was blessed with a fantastic sunset and a clear, starry night.
Enjoying the views, setting up camp, cooking dinner and just enjoying the solitude lived up to my expectations and desires to venture out alone… although I recommend not thinking about movies like The Blair Witch Project or Wolf Creek while you are out in the bush alone at night!!!
After watching the magical sunrise, greeted by a chorus from the resident lyrebirds, I had a leisurely brekky and packed up camp. Gave the sore legs a quick massage and a stretch, then hefted up the pack to return to civilisation.
Despite being a little apprehensive about the technical rocky descents, I took it very carefully and made it down unscathed. Once down the Knife edge, you can settle into a good rhythm back towards the escarpment (I skipped the Ruined Castle climb). At the base of the Golden Stairs, my screaming thighs begged me not to do anymore climbing! So I chose the alternate route – continue along the base of the cliffs, through more lyrebird filled rainforest, skirting around towards the easy option uphill – the scenic railway. It is another ~1.5hrs walking, with some minor scrambling across the exposed historic landslide section, but probably the easier route.
One downside to returning this way is that you do get a bit of a jolt when you rejoin civilisation at Scenic World, where the world’s steepest train takes you to the top. Hordes of tourists flocking to see the Three Sisters inundate you as you make your way to the train station – quite a shock after a night alone on top of Mt Solitary, with nothing but the lyrebird’s call to keep you company.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first adventure in the Blue Mountains. I’ve done some pretty challenging hikes in my time – the Inca Trail in Peru, Torres del Paine in Chile, and part of the Kungsleden in Sweden – but this was by far the toughest hike I have done. I think doing it solo added a certain mental challenge I haven’t previously experienced.
It is important to make sure you put your safety first when attempting a walk like this. Katoomba Police Station (and other locations in the Blue Mountains) loan out Personal Locator Beacons free of charge. Make sure you get one. Also, carry enough water for your journey – don’t rely on finding any on the trail. This particular route is recommended for experienced bushwalkers with good navigation skills. Detailed track notes can be found for free at Wild Walks, which should accompany your topographic map and compass.