Katoomba, NSW: Day 3, The Hard Way Up The Giant Staircase

The forecast called for rain on Sunday morning. Still, Ross, one of the owners of my hostel the Flying Fox (along with his wife Wendy), kept waving his hand at me saying “Go, the weather will change, you’ll have a great time, just take a light raincoat.”

With my raincoat and peanut butter-and-Nutella sandwich packed, I set off for the Federal Pass. I started my hike the same place I ended it the day before, even overlapping the first bit of it. I hiked to the Leura Forest, where the Dardanelles Pass ended and split off onto the Federal Pass.

This time I had my iPod with me and was hiking along at a pretty serious clip. An hour and a half later I made it to ScenicWorld, where a type of rail car can take you up the steep incline of the cliff wall to the top. It’s $8 and supposedly alot of fun, one of the steepest climbs in the world. Near ScenicWorld was something easily missed but very interesting: water was flowing down some of the rocks, and they had placed a pipe there to direct some of the water into a fine stream so that visitors could fill up their bottles. The area was marked with a sign saying “Miner’s Rest” (the mountains used to be heavily mined for coal). I filled up my water bottle and gave it a taste, and I kid you not, it was some of the best tasting water I’ve ever had. More pure than anything that’s come out of a tap.

From ScenicWord the path ran into a portion of the mountains that had undergone a landslide. It required me to scale small and large boulders to get through the trail, definitely an interesting alternative to the traditional hike. Although, it was troublingly easy to lose the trail and not know where to go next (I lost my way several times).

Other than occasionally going up and down stairs and hills, the walk wasn’t too difficult, just long. It took me about 3 hours of pure walking to get there.

After finally reaching the path up to the Ruined Castle, I encountered this sign:

I loved that they intended for some qualifier to be placed after “Track in very poor condition:”, as if it was only matter of how very poor was the condition of the track. “Yes”. “Seriously.” “Trust Us.” I really can’t imagine what they expected to put at the end of that sentence.

The trail was indeed in very poor condition. When I got to the top I reached what appeared to be a very large boulder, but got my hopes up thinking it was a part of the castle. It happened again shortly thereafter with another run-of-the-mill rock. I forced myself to check my hopes as I walked past the third set of rocks, which was good because it only enhanced my surprise when I found out they comprised the “castle”.

I was exhausted. I was hungry. I had been walking continuously, without a break, for 3 hours. And that was the @#$!%-ing Ruined Castle?!

I made sure there wasn’t anything further by walking to the end of the trail and the edge of a steep cliff. Then I stood on one of the rocks and surveyed the land. I was still pretty doubtful until I spied what appeared to be the foundation of a building:

Yep. It appeared that this rather random set of boulders was the famed Ruined Castle.

I made my way through a small opening and climbed to the top of one of the highest rocks. There, amongst a strong breeze blowing through the valley, I ate my sandwich, took my cold medication and listened to my iPod. I spent about an hour on top of those rocks, and was grateful for the experience. As Ross had predicted, the weather started improving and the clouds were disappearing, making way for warm shafts of light, enveloping the top of my picnic area. By the end of lunch, and the hour I spent on top of those rocks, I had a newfound respect for the castle. It may not have been worthy of Arthur or Lancelot, but it offered some spectacular views of the mountains and valleys, and after such a long journey to get there, it was exactly what I needed.

On the way back, I ran into a couple at one of the other boulders on the same hill. The boyfriend was atop the giant rock taking pictures while the girlfriend waited on the ground. I asked them if they were there to see the castle and they answered in the affirmative. I told them they weren’t far, just a few more meters. The boyfriend said “Oh, I thought this was it.” Haha, been there, my friend, been there.

The last railway car up the mountain was at 4:55 PM and even though at the pace I covered the ground back to Katoomba I could’ve made it, I decided to walk back to the hostel. Why? ‘Cause I was a man. I don’t need no stinkin’ railway car to take me back, I’ve got my bloody legs. And if I can’t use those then you might as well take them from me. And I wasn’t just going to walk up the mountain back to Katoomba, I was going to take the stairs.

I reached the Giant Staircase and stopped to drink some water and catch my breath. My legs were really sore and I was beginning to think that I should’ve taken the railway car. But it was 5 PM, and I had missed my opportunity. There was no way out but up.

I once did cardio at the gym for 3 hours before playing a game of ultimate frisbee for another two. I once hiked 18 miles over the mountains of the Applachain chain in Pennsylvania. I once walked 20 miles around the city of Boston. Never, in any of those situations, did I think I’d ever completely lose control of the muscles in my legs, until I finished the first flight of the Giant Staircase. I was in pain. If it weren’t for the short breaks I kept taking — until, of course, someone came by and I had to “man up” and keep going — my heart would have certainly exploded. When I didn’t think I could take any more, I reached the top of another flight and saw a sign: “Halfway Point.” Sweet mother of god.

About 3/4 of the way up I encountered a family who let me pass before they made their way down (the Staircase is very narrow). They asked me how much further it was until the bottom. I told them I’d been walking for about 25 minutes, taking breaks, and that they were not even halfway done yet. The mother reluctantly explained to the two children that “that man said we’re not even halfway done and he had been walking for almost 30 minutes. Sorry guys, I don’t think we can walk down the whole thing, why don’t we head back up.” The poor kids complained a bit, but the parents were steadfast in their decision. I felt bad, but then thought about the condition I was in: I hadn’t shaved for several days, I had been sweating profusely since about 11 AM, I smelled like a goat and I probably looked like I was about to faint. As she looked at me, in the mother’s eyes, I could see an evolutionary instinct saying “this one doesn’t have much longer, I can smell it on him.”

Even further up I came across an old woman who was taking a picture of the valley.

She smiled at me and told me to pass her, as she would probably take much longer than I to climb up the stairs. I thanked her and continued up. By this time I was near delirious and was thinking about how much ice cream I’d eat when I reached the top. After a few stairs I looked back to realize the old lady wasn’t too far behind me! Oh $hit, she’s gonna beat me! I stepped on the gas for the last couple flights and finally finished. Oh, sweet release.

I stopped by the store and bought some supplies for dinner, including a celebratory six-pack. Back at the hostel I met Nellie, another German, whom I had passed while walking back on Federal Pass towards the Staircase. I told her about my plans to visit Blackheath (a couple towns over, featuring a walk through a “Grand Canyon”) the following day, depending on how my legs felt in the morning, and she said she’d come with me.

That day, Doreen had spent much of the day in bed, as the night before she had said she was coming down with something. Some of the other backpackers were also dropping like flies. I’d find out the next day that even Ross had gotten sick, enough to miss work. I had managed to take out the majority of the guests and employees at that one hostel with whatever bug I brought from Sydney. Now that’s one heck of a virus.

Stay tuned for the Grand Canyon Walk in Blackheath and a test of honesty proctored by the Buddha himself.



  1. i think most definitions of ‘manning up’ don’t include almost getting caught by old women. come on! the ‘track in very poor condition:’ sign cracked me up ; the pics look awesome, and it sounds like the hiking was a lot of fun. they don’t call it the giant staircase for nothing, i guess.

    just make sure you don’t bring back that ebola virus with you.

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