It houses a swish new Emirates resort, but where on earth is Wolgan Valley? Michelle Wranik heads into the Australian bush to discover it for herself
Wolgan Valley. Never heard of it? That’s not surprising. Neither had I, and I’m Australian. It may be less than three hours’ drive from Sydney, but you’d be hard-pressed to find it on the average Aussie holiday itinerary. That’s all due to change now that Emirates has moved in. The airline unveiled its brand new Dhs424 million resort in November last year, and now this little-known valley in the Greater Blue Mountains region of New South Wales has been making a name for itself on the tourist trail. It’s right up there with swimming at Bondi Beach, climbing the Harbour Bridge and posing for a snap of yourself patting a kangaroo.
So where exactly is this place, and what is there to do when you arrive? On the map, Wolgan Valley just looks like a big blotch of green, hidden away in dense Australian bushland and surrounded by no less than two national parks. To get there, you have to drive along a bumpy gravel road that slices through a seemingly impenetrable forest of eucalyptus trees in myriad hues of khaki green.
We’ve been jolting along this road for the past 45 minutes. It genuinely feels like entering terra incognita, as though you could point in any direction and say with certainty that the bushland in front of your finger remains unexplored by man (except perhaps by Aboriginal tribes, which once inhabited the region).
It’s not far from the truth. Only a few years ago, bushwalkers stumbled across a nearby cave packed with ancient indigenous rock art dating back thousands of years, alongside a traditional Aboriginal fire stick. Incredibly, the walkers were the first Europeans to discover this anthropological bounty, which (much like Wolgan Valley itself) had lain undiscovered for centuries. What other secrets are in this wilderness?
Continuing along the gravel road, we pass the resort’s entrance but decide to carry on to explore the valley’s former mining town of Newnes, and its sole remaining structure: the charming corrugated iron-roofed Newnes Hotel. It’s now a private home, but was once the most raucous, lawless pub in the region. Proprietor Thomas Ebersoll tells us that its utter isolation meant punters could drink as much as they liked.
In the height of the oil shale industry in the early 1900s, Newnes was home to about 2,000 people, mostly miners and their families. These days, it’s a town with no townsfolk and the hotel is a pub with no beer, but Thomas, who is a friendly former engineer, has built a couple of self-contained wooden cabins for visitors who want to stay the night.
The cute eco-cabins are solar-powered, with porches overlooking the tranquil bushland, access to fresh eggs from the chicken coop or veggies from the garden, and they’re only a short amble to the creek where we swim that afternoon, whispering so as not to scare off a couple of kangaroos crouched a few metres away in the bush. Aside from a handful of tents pitched some distance at the public campsite, we’re completely alone. The few people to have discovered the spot this weekend are off exploring, probably on one of the bush walks up into the mountains.We spend the night on the porch, watching wallabies (miniature versions of kangaroos) nibbling at the grass and listening to birds sing as the sunset ricochets off the escarpments above.
The following day, we head to the resort and are swiftly transferred into a 4WD vehicle. As we’re driven to the main homestead, we pass a creek, grazing horses and a landscape so dramatic, it’s easy to imagine why Charles Darwin himself was captivated by the place. In the notes from his 1836 exploration of the region, the young naturalist described ‘amphitheatrical’ cliffs with sheer, vertical escarpments, and a flat-bottomed valley so charming that ‘in such spots the scenery was pretty like that of a park’. Darwin also made note of the valley’s fauna, including ‘beautiful parrots’ with vibrantly coloured plumes. He even went on an (unsuccessful) kangaroo hunt.
Some 170 years later, it seems not much has changed in the wildlife department. We eat lunch at the main restaurant overlooking the picturesque valley vista, only to be joined by a frighteningly large goanna lizard that creeps up from the grass – much to the delight of guests, who grab their cameras and start snapping away. ‘This has never happened before,’ squeaks the startled receptionist, who calls one of the resort’s field guides to come and coax the reptile, which has wandered into the pool area, back to the bush.
Yet this can only be a good thing. A 40-villa resort built anywhere in the world would usually deter the local fauna from wandering around. Here, it’s quite the opposite, and Emirates has strict environmental principles in place to encourage local wildlife. Much like the airline’s Al Maha Resort & Spa in Dubai, this new destination is an ode to its natural environment – and goannas are welcome.
In the process of building the resort, which only takes up 2 per cent of the property’s 4,000 acres, not a single tree was destroyed. Domestic water is recycled, tanks collect rainwater, and solar panels are used to power the hot-water systems. As for the surrounding bushland, the flora is flourishing thanks to the careful planting of native vegetation and fencing to discourage feral animals. There was some concern from locals about the effect the resort would have on the river and creek, but so far both seem unscathed. Even the platypus, a notoriously elusive creature, has been spotted splashing around.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a six-star resort without some good old luxury, which is ever-present in the form of a private swimming pool attached to our heritage suite villa (which also boasts a monsoon shower, a wide verandah with valley views and a custom-made four-poster bed). It would be far too easy to lie around doing nothing but admiring all the wood and stone decor, but the real draw here is the Wolgan Valley itself.
Setting off to explore the grounds on our personal mountain bikes, the natural surroundings prove magical – all eucalyptus trees, burnt orange cliff faces and constant mobs of kangaroos and wallabies bounding away at our approach. After riding for a while, we suddenly catch sight of a ghostly white shape appearing and disappearing through the trees. To our disbelief, we make out the shape of what we think is a pure white kangaroo and, pedalling furiously, try in vain to pursue it for a photograph. But it’s too fast for us, and we come away empty-handed, just like Darwin.
It turns out our ghostly kangaroo was in fact, an albino wallaroo (a hybrid kangaroo/wallaby), a rare creature that we were ‘extremely lucky’ to spot, according to one of the resort’s guides who takes us on a guided jeep safari the next day. In this endless dense bushland, it’s unlikely we’ll see it again, so we leave feeling fortunate (if not a little smug) to have witnessed something that even the great Charles Darwin missed.
Need to know
Emirates flies directly to Sydney from Dubai airport daily. Fare start at about Dhs5,895 (including tax). Wolgan Valley is a three-hour drive northwest from Sydney Airport along a tolled freeway and then a 13.5km gravel road. The nearest town is Lithgow.
Where to stay
Top end The resort has 40 super-luxurious villas, each with a private pool (below), as well as a gym, main pool and a Timeless spa. Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa(+61 2 9290 9733, www.wolganvalley.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Cost: Dhs6,615 per suite per night for two people, including meals, selected alcohol and two guided nature activities.
Newnes Hotel Historic Wilderness Retreat Charming wooden eco-cabins sleeping four to six people, with kitchens and outdoor barbecues. (+61 2 6355 1247, www.lisp.com.au/~newnes).
Cost: From Dhs375 per night for up to four people (see the website for detailed prices).
Camping It’s free to camp in the main campsite, though facilities are limited (think pit-toilets). For a small price, you can camp on the river flat in front of the Newnes hotel and access the private toilet facilities.
Population 76,080 (last census in 2006)
Area 1,436sq km
Where is it? Australia, east of New South Wales, just west of Sydney.
Climate Winter temperatures average 13°C, with the possibility of mist, rainfall and even snow. Summer temperatures rise to 20-30°C.
Ethnic Mix New South Wales is the most diverse area of Australia. Quarter of the population (1.5 million) are non-Australian born, originating in the UK (17%), China (7%), New Zealand (7%) and Vietnam (4%).
Major Sights Giant Staircase, Jenolan caves, Katoomba Scenic Railway, Scenic Skyway and Scenic Flyway.
Insider's Tips Try hand-made chocolates from the Paragon, and hand-made sushi at Shingo and Chisa’s Japanese.
Where's the Buzz? Shopping, food and cultural sights in the main township, Katoomba.
Etymology Originally named Carmarthen and Lansdowne Hills, the name Blue Mountains eventually won thanks to general usage.
Why so Blue? UV radiation is scattered by particles within the atmosphere. This creates a blue tinge on the mountains when viewed from afar.
Most Contentious Rock Formation The Three Sisters. According to indigenous legend, they were three tribal sisters turned to stone during a battle between tribes.
Deepest Gorge 760 metres.
Highest Peak Mount Victoria, 1,064 metres above sea level.
Distance to Sydney 50km.
Festivals Winter Magic Festival, Kowmung Music Festival, Blue Mountains Fine Food Festival, Blue Mountains Folk Music Festival.
Largest Cinema Screen The Edge – six storeys high and established in Katoomba in 1996. Features movie The Edge, a panoramic Blue Mountains film.
Record Breakers Scenic World boasts the steepest aerial cable car in Australia, the world’s first cable car with an electro-scenic glass floor and the world’s steepest incline railway.