No I don’t mean going off-grid, like John Krakaur’s hermit story — Into the Wild, but to live and work, in a small town, within a designated (UNESCO) World Heritage listed National Park – The Blue Mountains.
Famed for their blue haze, a form of natural pollution created by eucalyptus oil evaporated from gum leaves; the Blue Mountains (Locally referred to as The Mountains, rise like a mountainous tsunami, two hours west of Sydney, Australia.
It’s easy to imagine a life of sunrise cliff-top hikes, bush tucker and tranquility, but the reality is far different.
Most famous as a weekend getaway because of it’s bushwalks, waterfalls and cliff-top views to rival the Grand Canyon, it’s easy for visitors to fantasize about giving up city life, for the serenity of the bush (I was one of them). But before you commit yourself to packing-up, and calling The Mountains home, there’s some things you should probably know.
I first moved to the Blue Mountains at 17, my mum and step-father bought a house, which was more affordable than anything in Sydney. The suburb was called Bullaburra (aboriginal for Blue Skies Village) and it had a train station (trains only came by hourly) a gas station (now closed) and a community hall that seemed ever vacant.
Back then, my bedroom had floor to ceiling windows and all I could see was trees, lovely at first, but within a few months, it was akin to being locked in a natural jail. The expanse of the bush; the freedom of the wild, soon became a constrictive swaying mass of natural bars.
On any given weekend (as a visitor) you’ll likely encounter lively markets heaving with stalls selling locally crafted art, restaurants with open crackling fireplaces, and brightly coloured outdoor gear on adventurous tourists, trundling off, down rocky paths; but it’s all a facade.
On Sunday, as their brake lights snake east towards the sprawling mass of Sydney The Mountains become deserted once more. Come Monday through Tuesday, it’s a ghost town. You want a coffee? Forget it. Dinner? You’re joking aren’t you? It’s like they never really wanted to open in the first place.
There was rumours of an international fast-food chain opening up. That didn’t last long. It was quickly shut down by dread-locked hippies holding placards with hastily painted words, ‘Not in my town’, like it was some kind of threat.
Sure there’s cinemas, sporting associations, and the most basic of shopping, but anytime something new is mentioned, out come the tree-huggers intent on keeping The Mountains more like a hippie-commune.
I have a love-hate relationship with The Mountains. Having grown up in trendy inner-west Sydney, I was accustomed to 24-hour bakeries, comfy cafe’s playing zesty lounge music (late into the night), and multiple award winning Thai restaurants within a few minutes walk from home.
As a creative, I love the main sounds outside my bedroom are the shrill chatter of red and green rosellas and the hearty cackle of kookaburras, or at the end of my street, is nothing but bush. I can walk for days and still be in the Blue Mountains National Park, but I’m also a fan of modern conveniences.
I don’t always carry cash (a habit picked up in New Zealand) and so I expect to be able to use EFTPOS wherever I shop or eat. A view not always shared by retail businesses in the mountains.
As a freelance writer and podcaster, much of what I do, requires the internet. It would be incredible, to have a day of work, just one full day, where the internet does not drop out. On average I can expect 15–20 dropouts a day. It should be noted, this occurs after our lines were upgraded to the national broadband network.
I love food, all types of food (except soup) and as a traveller, I’ve become addicted to cuisines from across the globe. Falafel and baba-ganush from the Middle East, tempura udon from Japan, and quesadilla from Mexico; but forget trying to find authentic international cuisines in the Mountains. Sure there have been improvements in the past five years, as more Sydneysiders have moved here (chasing affordable housing), but still the ubiquitous Chinese with it’s sweet and sour pork and lemon chicken is the norm; and you may think it’s pretty hard to mess up a pizza, but every single pizza restaurant in the Blue Mountains that I’ve tried so far, manages to do just that (too much sauce, burnt, additional ingredients like chilli and onion added, over two hour delivery times).
Then if you’re young, and want to socialise, pretty much your only option is to get drunk in a friends garage, then catch the last train home at 10:30pm. Miss that train and you have no other options. Taxi’s? Don’t bother. I once jumped in the back of a taxi who said “I just have a quick drop off on the way.” An hour and a half later and I was back where I had started, and the same driver was now requesting triple the meter rate to drive me home, a trip that should have taken 15 minutes originally.
As a city within a National Park, you’d think that tourism would be the main source of jobs, but that was thrown out when the Blue Mountains Tourism board was merged with New South Wales Tourism, thus competing for marketing dollars with Sydney. The local council’s idea of tourism management is to put parking meters wherever visitors may like to stop and admire the views.
The lack of a specific tourism body has allowed a privately owned hop-on hop-off bus to set up shop beside a major railway station with a ‘Tourist Information’ sign. The only information they provide is to buy their overpriced bus tickets.
Likewise most Blue Mountains tour companies operate out of Sydney, shuttling international tourists up for the day, spending money only in designated pit-stops, with few stepping beyond the marked paths or even meeting a local. As a result, tourists are more often seen as a hinderance causing unnecessary snarls.
Pretty much the only jobs available for locals are in hospitality, retail or healthcare with little opportunity for movement or growth, unless you’re prepared to make the two hour commute to Sydney.
Then there’s the bushfires. Every summer, (however with global warming the bushfire season continually stretches into spring and autumn) locals are on high alert from potentially catastrophic bushfires. The most recent occurred in 2013, where almost 400 houses were destroyed or damaged by fire.
My parents house burnt down that same year, and they lost everything (including all my possessions which I stored at their place before I moved to New Zealand), although that fire was started by a toaster.
If you’re older (40+), single, and live in the Blue Mountains, expect to remain so as the pool of singles is ridiculously small. In fact you’ll probably recognise them working at your local supermarket.
You’d imagine that with limited services in the Blue Mountains, locals would relish the opportunity to travel to Sydney for concerts, dining and nightlife. But the attitude of many locals I’ve met is anyone going to Sydney should expect to be robbed and murdered, because there’s a perception that’s all that happens in the city. Years ago, (when I first moved up here) I met a number of locals that had never been to Sydney nor did they intend to – a journey that is an hour and a half drive away (or two hours by train).
I drive to Sydney once a week which helps keep me sane. It’s hard though not to feel like I’ve just stepped out of the jungle, a tribesman looking to barter goods in town before hastily retreating to the seclusion of the bush.
So sure, it’s easy to be captivated by the beauty of the Blue Mountains, especially if you love going for bush-walks, but even though it’s a short hop to a multicultural and sprawling city, the lack of job prospects, the threat of bushfires, and lack of modern conveniences mean it’s more like a million miles away.
Plus it’s not all waterfall showers, cliff-top yoga poses, and home-baked lemon myrtle cookies as instagram would have you believe. Still there’s no denying the magnetism of the bush.
Have you relocated somewhere stunning that ended up being a little different than you imagined? Comment below!