There’s nothing more invigorating than leaving the city for the brisk, cut-glass air of the mountains. As the Blue Mountains Range is made up of two smaller mountain ranges, the Explorer Range, synonymous with Katoomba and The Three Sisters; it’s the Bell Range, near Bells Line of Road, that is also worth exploring. So, point your car northwest and head towards Bilpin. After an hour on the road you will pass through outer suburbia and the historic convict town of Windsor on the banks of the Hawkesbury River.
After leaving the last set of traffic lights at Richmond, begin your ascent of Bellbird Hill. Soon you’ll be high enough above sea level to make your ears pop as you look over the wide expanse of the Sydney Basin all the way to the city skyline. Winding up the sandstone escarpment on Bells Line of Road, turn off the sound system and open the windows to feel the bracing mountain air, inhale the scent of eucalypts and hear the tinkling melody of native bellbirds.
Passing through Kurmond with its fields of cows, horses and alpacas, you’ll soon be flanked by orchards, netted to deter the evening blitz of flying foxes. Then you're in Bilpin, the "Land of the Mountain Apple." Bilpin was originally named Bell’s Pin (pinnacle) after 19-year-old Archibald Bell. Using the knowledge of the local Dharug people, Bell found the alternative route over the Blue Mountains. His diary entries detailed the soil’s fertility, which led to the influx of settlers’ eager to grow fruit trees for the colony.
Every Saturday morning, Farmers’ Markets are held at the Bilpin Community Hall and there are many roadside stalls selling locally grown fruit and vegetables. One delight is sampling the apple pies that Bilpin is famous for. There are several cafés that zigzag Bells Line of Road. Stop at Tutti Fruitti, the storybook, weatherboard cottage fenced with pickets and blowsy roses. Sit on the front verandah and watch the world go by as you sample their warm, cinnamon-sprinkled apple pie and cream. They offer Devonshire tea, gourmet pies, quiche and their own ‘real local fruit’ ice cream. The shop also sells jams, chutneys and the famous Bilpin Apple Juice.
After a refreshing break, it’s time to drive another 12 kilometres to The Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah, the cool-climate arm of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. There are several tours on offer such as the garden shuttle tour, guided walks and an iPod self-guided audio tour, but it’s wonderful to wander and discover this Garden of Eden by foot.
The sweeping 28-hectare site features an excellent collection of cool climate plants from around the world, with a staggering 40,000 native, exotic and rare specimens. There are 13 separately-themed gardens to wander through ranging from the traditional, European-style Terraced Formal Garden to rock gardens with ponds and waterfalls. There’s a woodland, a bog garden with its hanging swamp, and a heather garden where you can learn about the versatility of heather in making baskets, medicines, dyes and honey.
Don’t miss the Gondwana Walk through fern-lined gullies and across wooden bridges as you brush by plants, such as the Wollemi pine, which had their origins in Gondwana. As Australia separated and moved northwards from the super continent, it took its living cargo, which included this majestic, prehistoric pine.
Once back in the Visitors’ Centre check out the Botanists Way Discovery Centre with its tactile displays of botany, geology and crafts of the traditional custodians, the Dharug. Either stop for a lunch break at the café overlooking the Wollemi National Park or back-track along Bells Line of Road and take the turn-off to Kurrajong Village. The name Kurrajong comes from a local Aboriginal word meaning beautiful tree. Its roasted seeds were used as a substitute for coffee in the early settlement. Take a final break at one of Kurrajong’s gallery-cafés and sit on the rear balcony overlooking the Grose Valley, but leave time to browse the village’s antique shops, artisan galleries and historic buildings.
The road loops back onto Bells Line of Road to return to Sydney, possibly with the fragrance of a bag of Bilpin apples filling the car.