Mt Wilson has a quiet, contemplative aura — and it’s remote enough that mobile phones don’t work there.
Many people who live in Sydney, with its splendid beaches, parks and array of arts and cultural entertainments, are happy to stay put and seldom venture west into the hinterland.
Unlike Perth, where you can drive from the city to the country quite quickly, leaving a city the size and complexity of Sydney can take more than two hours.
For the more adventurous, the drive is worth it, because 60km west and 1300m above the coastal plain loom the magnificent Blue Mountains.
Although it looked mountainous to early settlers, hence the name, the area is actually a deeply incised sandstone plateau covering 10,000sqkm and is recognised as outstanding by UNESCO.
In 2000 it was also granted World Heritage listing in which it was described as an area of “breathtaking views, rugged tablelands, sheer cliffs, deep, inaccessible valleys and swamps teeming with life. The unique plants and animals that live in this outstanding natural place tell an extraordinary story of Australia’s antiquity, its diversity of life and its superlative beauty.
“It is the story of the evolution of Australia’s unique eucalypt vegetation and its associated communities, plants and animals.”
No wonder people have always been drawn to the mountains, which early on challenged explorers keen to find rich pastoral land to support farming in the growing colony. But they were a natural barrier stretching north and south beyond sight and thwarted many attempts to broach them.
It took nearly 30 years after British colonisation before Gregory Blaxland, William Wentworth and William Lawson found a way. A road was put through in 1814 making possible the establishment of Australia’s first inland settlement at Bathurst. The road, and in 1867 the railway, lured the more adventurous into the mountains and beyond.
A number of towns and villages sprang up and new roads were made. Rather than try to describe the whole Blue Mountains experience, I have chosen one small jewel of a place — the village of Mt Wilson, founded in 1880 as a popular summer retreat.
Accessible by a circuitous route from the town of Bell, 25km north of Katoomba on the Darling Causeway, it’s one of the prettiest villages in the mountains but it’s not well promoted as a tourist destination because the locals, all 218 of them, prefer the quiet life. There are no shops, cafes, petrol stations or medical services, though it is possible to rent a few of the private homes in the village.
The village homes remind the visitor of English stately properties, and a few of them are open to the public.
Their elaborately planned gardens with a mix of huge native eucalypts and European deciduous trees such as oaks, elms, walnuts, chestnuts and beeches make the place a visual delight in autumn.
Then, the village is bathed in colour from bright red through orange to yellow with tints of green and grey. While much of the Blue Mountains are made of 300-million-year-old sedimentary sandstone, Mt Wilson has a volcanic basalt cap that provides the rich soil that supports luxuriant temperate rainforest.
Some properties display signs in autumn offering visitors the opportunity to pick chestnuts and walnuts. High local rainfall also encourages the growth of magnolias, rhododendrons and azaleas which are a feast for the eyes in spring.
The village is surrounded by Blue Mountains National Park bushland and rainforest with walking tracks to huge bluffs and yawning canyons.
Early settlers named the Blue Mountains for the blue haze caused by finely dispersed droplets of eucalyptus oil combined with dust particles that hovered over them. The rugged and raised plateau is dissected by numerous streams that flow between cliffs, some more than 280m high, making it popular with rock climbers and bushwalkers.
Mt Wilson has a quiet, contemplative aura and it’s no surprise locals have actively discouraged the tidal wave of development that has swept through the rest of the Blue Mountains; it’s remote enough that mobile phones don’t work there.
Its isolation and beauty have attracted artists and writers over the years. Novelist Patrick White’s parents lived there between 1912 and 1937, and he spent some of his youth in the village, writing about it in his memoir Flaws in the Glass.
More recently Australian film director Baz Luhrmann shot scenes for The Great Gatsby there on a 40ha property, Breenland Gardens. Property owner Tom Breen recalls Luhrmann, his wife Catherine Martin and star Leonardo DiCaprio helicoptering in and out over a four-month period in 2011-12. According to Mr Breen, between takes DiCaprio would dash into his house to watch the American Super Bowl.
Breenland Gardens are open to the public for a few weeks from the second week in September through October.
My wife and I rented a house for a long weekend with friends last autumn. We spent the whole time walking around the property, the village with its lovely buildings and the spectacular lookouts, hardly seeing anyone, just sharing the natural beauty and birdsong.
It was restorative. We found the Italianate Turkish Bath Museum, with its exquisite leadlight windows, within the Wynstay Estate built for his wife in 1875 by Richard Wynne, founder of the Wynne Art Prize.
The museum displays exhibitions of the history of Mt Wilson and nearby Mt Irvine.
We also visited St George’s Church, built by the children of Henry Marcus Clark, founder of a chain of department stores. The church has never had a resident minister but has remained in active use.
For a number of years the Anglican diocese doubted its viability but services are held on the second Sunday of each month. The congregation consists of a small group from the Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine communities who maintain and care for the church, garden, grounds and graves, dating back to the town’s settlement.
We left the village for a day to drive to the Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens at Mt Tomah.
These gorgeous gardens cover 28ha around the summit of the mountain and provide spectacular views across the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. It seemed strange to us to be among so many people after our reflective time in Mt Wilson.
The village is a backwater drenched in history and nostalgia, and it is charming.
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