They call that range Blue Mountains but those mountains are not really blue, and they call the peaks nearby The Three Sisters, giving them names—Meehni, Wimlah, and Gunnedoo—and creating an elaborate story around their lives. We are in magical terrain, awestruck by the beauty. The charms are real, but the stories are made up.
The great beyond: (left) The Three Sisters. AFP; and a curious kangaroo.
But none of that mattered when we set out to explore the mountains that formed the boundary between Sydney and the vast emptiness beyond. Google Maps rob us of the imagined romance of flying over that stretch of nothingness but, from the sky, the sheer expanse of that vacuity takes your breath away, as if explaining, though not justifying, why the colonizers called this “terra nullis”. And then they decided the entire land was theirs, ignoring the 40,000 years of continuous history the Aborigines remembered, and lived.
We left the sparkling city, with its friendly harbour, its Opera House looking like a fluttering swan spreading its wings in the morning light, and the old Harbour Bridge, like a trusty hanger, shining at dawn. And Sydney itself, looking resplendent and colourful, like a Ken Done artwork. Rather than the beaches, we were interested in the mountains where, as Jan Morris pointed out in her eponymous book about Sydney, you could find snow occasionally, when the log fires in resorts would keep you warm. Once you left Sydney, as Morris noted, you were in frontier territory, “extending mile after mile after mile of scrub, waste and desert into the infinite never-never of the Aborigines. Nearly all Australia is empty. Emptiness is part of the Australian state of things”.
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The rough landscape, comprising sheer cliffs and the rainforest around the Blue Mountains, gives the place a primeval quality, and you feel like an intruder, even though there are thousands like you, each weekend, negotiating the narrow paths. And it is the miracle of those mountains that you feel you are the first to discover that little brook, the wild flowers, or the shaft of sunlight that penetrates through the tall trees. My younger son, only five years old at the time, discovers ladybirds (the bugs, not the books), and falls to his knees, crawling behind one, gently letting one of them climb on his little index finger.
We enter the limestone caves with stalactites and stalagmites, inching onward, at a pace so slow that even the ladybird thinks of herself as a Ferrari in comparison. They look like a woman’s unkempt tresses magnified a million times as she emerges from a waterfall; or the waterfall itself; or icicles, dangling tantalizingly; or shards of ivory, extending their millions of fingers, as if to clasp the other million fingers thrust upwards, outstretched, and yet, failing to connect. The caves are cool inside, and when they play choral music and turn on the spectacular lights, the atmosphere gets ethereal and surreal.
The mountains are not blue, but you can’t deny the blue haze which envelopes them, giving them a soothing, calming presence. It charms the evening. Scientists have found the way to make this poetry prosaic: The eucalyptus trees that crowd the mountains emit oils, which refract the light, which produces the unique blue tinge. There are even more complicated explanations that challenge the eucalyptus theory. But why bother? In his 1888 poem, Henry Lawson wrote:
Now in the west the colours change,
The blue with crimson blending;
Behind the far Dividing Range,
The sun is fast descending.
And mellowed day comes o’er the place,
And softens ragged edges;
The rising moon’s great placid face
Looks gravely o’er the ledges.
That’s good enough for us. We leave the mountains for The Three Sisters, peaks sculpted by wind and water. The stone is soft, leading to frequent erosion, and water seeps through small cracks, gradually making the indentations bigger, and the peaks change their shape ever so slightly over time, as if they are reluctant statues, unable to stand still. Some day, the peaks will disappear completely.
There is a fake legend built around the peaks—that the three sisters fell in love with men from a different tribe. An elder fought a battle to defend their honour, and to protect them he turned them into stone. He died in the battle; the three sisters remained mute witnesses. In his book, The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains, Martin Thomas has reflected on the irony of the colonizers not only disrupting the Aboriginal life, but creating legends they hadn’t dreamt. “As a myth created by the invading colonial culture, it reveals underlying truths about petrifying the Aboriginal sisters and turning them into things you just look at,” he writes, adding a sombre note.
For that’s what the powerful outsider does—erasing parts of history he does not like, rewriting the story to suit his world view, destabilizing the past, and affirming a world view that’s entirely mythical. And so the three peaks become The Three Sisters, in a mountain range not quite blue.
But that outsider also left behind songs of praise. In the song the poet Alfred Noyes wrote about the mountains, he noted the angelic presence of the Southern Cross, guiding his journey.
No stars guide our return journey. Rather, something warmer, more real, more this-worldly, does. As our train races towards the shining city, when we look out of the window I swear I see them—four kangaroos, leaping magnificently, keeping pace.
The train would stop where the tracks ended. The kangaroos would go on. It is their mountain, their country.
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