Six Foot Track (day 1): Jenolan Caves to Black Range
This Easter Long Weekend (or at least after spending Friday working on my thesis for about 14 uninterrupted hours), I decided to get outdoors, clear my head, and maybe work up a bit of a sweat that wasn’t the result of stress. My lovely friend Barbara and I had been chatting about the Six Foot Track for quite a while, so this felt like the perfect opportunity to drive out to the Blue Mountains and tackle this historic 45km hike from Jenolan Caves to Katoomba.
Trail Stats: Jenolan Caves to Black Range
Trail hours: 3hrs
Highlights: incredible scenery at Jenolan Caves, including Blue Lake and Orient Cave; aerial view of Carlotta Arch; wide and uncrowded track through the gum trees
Campsite: Black Range
Car packed and ready for adventure, I leave my house in south Sydney at 520am on Saturday morning to pick up my hiking companion, Barbara, and then get on the motorway towards the Blue Mountains. Thanks to our early departure, we manage to miss all of the usual Easter traffic and arrive in Katoomba within 90min, giving us plenty of time to grab a couple of beef pies for brekky before meeting the shuttle that will deliver us to Jenolan Caves.
The drive, winding through pristine countryside and misty valleys, is just over an hour and is narrated by our charming local driver, Nyla. A wealth of information on the region and the Six Foot Track, she shares fascinating facts with us throughout the morning, including the probably obvious information (which was still complete news to me) that the Six Foot Track is so named because of its trail width. At the time of construction in 1884, this was primarily a horse track between Katoomba and Jenolan, and 6 feet was deemed to be just wide enough for two horses to pass. The obvious benefit for us hikers when the track was converted into a walking trail exactly 100 years later was a wide, level trail perfect for chatting on the steep ascents and descents.
After a particularly windy section of road, an enormous cave swallows up our car and, amidst dramatic gasping from me, we have arrived at Jenolan Caves. Eager to explore this incredible complex before our 10am tour of Orient Cave, Barbara and I thank Nyla and then drop our bags in the guides office. Our first stop is the Blue Lake, a brilliant lagoon that looks so blue you’d swear it’s been photoshopped (these photos hardly do the colours justice!). Although the lake was formed by a nearby dam, the vibrant blue hue is surprisingly natural, the result of light reflecting off limestone particles suspended throughout the water. In combination with the bright green palms lining each bank and the lush foliage on the far side, this spot is simply magical. The only thing that could have improved the experience was spotting one of the elusive platypus that are said to live in the area, but that may have to be a mission for another visit.
Barb and I walk along the road a few dozen metres to get a superb view of Carlotta Arch towering above, and then hustle back to the meeting point in anticipation of our tour of Orient Cave. The entire complex is bustling with people and I am shocked that we managed to snag last minute tickets just two days ago to visit this impressive and popular cave. There are nearly a dozen show caves open to the public in Jenolan, each with their own unique features and incredible formations, but Orient Cave has been highly recommended by just about everyone I’ve spoken to. Even our guide tells me that this is one of his favourite caves, distinct for its sparkling crystal formations and long curtain-like stalactites.
Over the next 90min, our group descends through multiple chambers and various sections of magnificent Orient Cave, discovering more and more beauty with each step. Standing within Persia (the chambers have been named for Middle Eastern countries), we peer up and see what feels like a sky of stalactites several hundred metres above our heads, framed by candle wax columns and sheets of sparkling crystals. It’s like staring up at an entire galaxy of varied colours and textures, all painstakingly formed over thousands and thousands of years by a unique combination of minerals and conditions.
After our wonderful tour, we grab our bags from the office, enjoy a quick lunch in the sun, and then set out on our 45km trek towards Katoomba. Unfortunately, it is immediately gruelling, and in fact this early section is far and away the most challenging section of anything we do for the rest of the day. It’s about 1hr of unrelentingly steep climbing on the wide (6ft) track, punctuated only by an aerial view of Carlotta Arch. To be fair, the difficulty is largely the result of our recent lunch (which has given me a splitting side cramp) and the sweltering April heat, but it is with great relief that we finally reach a more level section of trail and resume our chatting.
The rest of the afternoon passes easily, as the trail undulates gently up and down, follows a boring section of road, and then descends steeply towards our campsite at Black Ridge. It’s been exactly 3hrs since we left Jenolan Caves, which is reasonably good time considering the slow pace we’ve naturally fallen into, not in a particular hurry to get anywhere quickly. There are only about a dozen tents set up around the grassy field when we arrive, which leaves us to take our pick of spots, eventually settling on a flat patch of grass near the centre of the site and throwing the tent up.
By 5pm, we’ve started boiling water for our dehydrated dinner of Chicken Tikka Misala, which goes down an absolute treat. Even though I had a snack just moments ago, I’m positively starving the second I smell our delicious curry and end up scraping the inside of the package, trying to get every last morsel. The only thing missing is wine, and I truly can’t believe I forgot to pack some. Barb is concerned that I wouldn’t have had room, but I assure her that I would have made room, even if that meant chucking out my jacket. Priorities.
Exhausted from our middle-of-the-night wake up and the full day of exploring a Jenolan Caves today, we retire to our tent around 630. In the space of me leaving to brush my teeth, Barbara has already fallen asleep and is gently snoring beside me, but as soon as I finish this post, I can’t imagine I’ll be too far behind. Tomorrow’s hike involves 20km of uninterrupted downhill, so we should enjoy all the rest we can get.