Australia’s Blue Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are just 2 hours north of Sydney, but they feel like they’re a world away. Cast in an eerie omnipresent glow, the area was given its name because of its many eucalyptus trees that emit a haze as light hits the oil evaporating off their leaves. While “blue” is a fairly apt description, “mountains” may be a bit of an exaggeration for what are mostly bush-covered hills and golden sandstone plateaus. But the area’s vast national park is full of jagged cliffs, deep gorges, waterfalls, dense rainforests, and ancient trees—the perfect geography for canyoning (or canyoneering).
This extreme adventure, which began as a commercial operation in Utah, takes you below the mountains’ surface and into their most interesting nooks and crannies. The basic idea is literally to explore cool, dark, and wet canyons.
To start, you’ll put on a wetsuit, a helmet, sturdy shoes, a climbing harness, ropes, carabineers, and a waterproof backpack. Then you’ll follow your guide on a fairly easy hike, descending into a canyon, and begin scrambling over slippery wet rocks through tunnels and caves, jumping off ledges, plunging into ice cold pools, swimming through pitch black waters filled with who-knows-what (though crayfish are usually among the creatures in there), and abseiling down vertical waterfall-covered rock faces.
If the idea of crawling over slimy rocks puts a knot in your stomach, not to mention feeling your way in the dark to avoid tripping over crevices because you can’t see what comes next, just wait until you actually try it. Your adrenaline will be surging for the entire 2-hour excursion, and maybe even for a while once you’re back on dry land.
Of course, there are some serious risks when canyoning. You don’t want to be stranded in a cave if heavy rains cause a flash flood. And, when you’re already soaking wet, you can become chilled pretty quickly if temperatures drop. But going with an experienced guide who knows the area well mitigates most of these hazards, making the thrill relatively safe and immensely fun.
To calm down after your spine-tingling experience in the canyons, take a leisurely hike to see the area’s most famous site—a rocky monument called the Three Sisters. These spires (Meehni, Wimlah, and Gunnedoo), carved from millions of years of erosion, tower more than 900m (2,953 ft.) over Jamison Valley, reaching toward the sky. After paying your respects to the ladies, walk around the villages of Katoomba or Blackheath, where you can grab some dinner.
The next day, consider booking another activity with Tread Lightly Eco Tours (www.treadlightly.com.au) if the fear-factor stunt of canyoning whet your appetite for more adventure. This company offers guided hikes, four-wheel-drive excursions, and night tours during which you can view the area’s amazing astronomy and nocturnal wildlife, including some fellow crawlers such as glow worms. —JS
The Blue Mountains Visitor Information Center, Echo Point ( 1300/653-408; www.visitbluemountains.com.au). Australia Tourism Board, 201 Sussex St., Sydney ( 61/2-9360-1111; www.tourism.australia.com and www.environment.nsw.gov.au/nationalparks).
Tour: Blue Mountains Adventure Company, 84a Bathurst Rd., Katoomba ( 02/4782-1271; www.bmac.com.au).
When to Go: Oct–Apr.
$$ Jemby-Rinjah Eco Lodge, 336 Evans Lookout Rd., Blackheath ( 02/4787-7622; www.jembyrinjahlodge.com.au).