Christina Danner experiences more than she expected hiking in one of New South Wales’ beautiful national parks… Great white sharks, rip currents, and box jellyfish; some of the dangers I expected to encounter in Australia. I had prepared myself for these before arriving in Sydney for my semester abroad. I remember reassuring my worried mom before leaving: “I’ll be living in the city centre on the sixth floor! Snakes shouldn’t be a problem! But yes, okay, I will check my shoes every morning.” I did not anticipate venturing into any wilderness, let alone facing the dangers that befell me: not from snakes, but from the environment itself.
Two hours from Sydney lie the beautiful Blue Mountains. Within the range live a few remaining prehistoric trees called the Wollemi Pine; scientists thought the species extinct until explorers recently discovered a few specimens hidden here. The thought of these methuselahs evokes the aura of the mountain range itself: ancient, vast, mostly untouched. Many people visit the area to see the Three Sisters, a cliff formation that forms the shape of three finger-like figures protruding 900 metres into the sky. This landmark along with other hot spots attracts tourists to the mountains, yet the wilderness attracts adventure seekers as well.
My memory of one visit to the Blue Mountains in particular, will forever remain vivid. My friend Ryan and I decided to spend a day hiking. We met early in the morning for the two-hour, lulling train ride from Sydney and disembarked from the train at a stop within the mountains called Wentworth Falls. We planned on hiking from there to the Three Sisters. The sun tapped at our shoulders, yet it was cool enough to hike comfortably. It drizzled lightly, refreshingly, periodically. We found ourselves on an “expert” level trail; no worries, as they say in Australia. We had common sense, were in good physical condition, and had twenty-year olds’ courage – what problems could we possibly encounter? At first, the trail snaked up and down along the cliff face, proving demanding, yet straightforward.
When Ryan and I reached the foot of our first Wentworth Falls cascade, we both stopped and stared. I find it impossible to evoke with words alone, the feeling of looking up at a 187-metre waterfall crashing down in front of where you stand. The closest I can come is to say that the feeling is akin to falling in love at first sight: instant, violent, impossible, and permanent. You feel the sight physically, a wringing in your heart, some vertigo in your brain, utter peace in your soul, and you remember the feeling of the sight long after the sight itself fades from memory. Questions cascade: how can the water be so patient as to spend millennia carving this valley? How amazing is it that the same waterfall exists indefinitely, yet new drops of water perpetually fuel its motion? Perhaps the most perplexing: How small are we as humans that such a simple, mechanical feature of nature drives us to such contemplation and rapture?
After fifteen minutes of hypnotism, we come to, blinking, realising that we’re soaking wet from the mist. I’m scared to speak at first for fear I’ll shatter the feeling, so I start whispering: “Should we keep hiking?” Sure enough, the conversation soon escalates into accolades. Ryan and I experienced this captivation countless times that day as we traversed Wentworth Falls and descended into the Valley of the Waters.
Once we reached the floor of the valley, no longer did we walk along cliffs, but instead, we found ourselves in a rainforest. Clear markings no longer caught our eyes, and at many points we had to stop to navigate; however, Ryan and I still enjoyed ourselves heartily. The forest was a musk of earthy smells and a sea of greens. Eventually, we encountered a marked post that stated: “Caution: due to recent mudslides, certain areas of the path may be concealed by fallen trees, rocks, and debris.” A few minutes after this sign, we spotted a mudslide’s remains, so, assuming it concealed the trail, we struggled uphill until we reached the edge of the valley: a rock wall that rose sheer into the sky. We thought that we could find our way out of the valley if we followed its perimeter along this wall. Continuing along its edge, we found what could conceivably be a path within the spaces between trees and shrubs. We continued in this way, walking balanced on tree trunks, crossing a narrow waterfall at the crest, even crawling under miniature caves within the rock wall, until we finally admitted to one another that this terrain could not conceivably be a real trail, and that we were lost.
We did what made the most sense – turned around and retraced our steps. I let Ryan take the lead and simply followed him. Barely speaking, we rushed no longer languorous, back from (hopefully) whence we came. Branches whipped left and right in the wake of our hurried, worried march. Jubilant, we reached the waterfall that we had walked across before. I crossed the rushing, watery sheet first, I slowly placed one foot in front of the other upon its smooth bottom. I reached the other side and turned to watch Ryan. Confident, he crossed three fourths of the way. Suddenly, his feet slipped. I saw him pour over the edge of the waterfall, while twisting and falling and reaching his arm up and plummeting until he grasped a root with his left hand and dangled over the watery precipice. In the half second between his fall and pulling himself back up onto his feet, in effect saving his own life, his eyes, sparkling with joy, met mine as a boyish grin illuminated his entire countenance. I returned the glance with, I imagine, a horrified pallor and a dinner-plate stare. Ever since this day, I imagine that the true character of a person can best be found in whichever facial expression they display as they hang over a foreign, morbid drop, secured only by their sweaty one-handed grip on a slippery root.
Ryan pulled himself up and finished crossing. Carefully, we made our way back to where we took the wrong turn, and from there, we quickly found the trail and soon reached the end of the path. Wary of the forest and pressed for time, we then set out for the Three Sisters by way of street rather than trail. We traversed the mountain-aired, suburban roads and arrived as the sun drew near the horizon. As the copper disc settled into the mountains, we watched the sky fade from indigo, to purple, to magenta, and to orange. We observed the cockatoos, white specks flying in flocks, and heard their dinosaur-like shrieks. The forest below darkened into a blanket of shadows as families around us bustled and clicked pictures in front of the Three Sisters. We gazed upon the scene, safe at the lookout point. For the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to be entirely enamoured with a place, yet to relish so greatly my freedom from it. Christina Danner