The one place outside the city that seems to be on everyone's bucket list when they visit Sydney is the stunning Three Sisters sandstone rock formation in the Blue Mountains about 40 miles (60 kilometres) inland at Katoomba on the Great Western Highway.
The Three Sisters Rock Formation in the Blue Mountains
Me by the Three Sisters Rock Formation at the Echo Point Lookout
The Jamison Valley and Blue Mountains
According to legend (and immortalised by statues outside neighbouring Scenic World) the three rocks are three sisters from the local Katoomba Tribe who were turned to stone by their tribe's sorcerer to protect them from the unwanted advances of three young men from a neighbouring tribe but that the sorcerer himself was killed in battle before he could turn them back to life again.
Statues of the Sorcerer and the Three Sisters outside Scenic World
Me beside the statue of the Sorcerer outside Scenic World
Scenic World itself began life as a coal mine in the 1880s. In 1928 a funicular railway was built to transport miners down the Jamison Valley side to the mine in the rainforest below which turned out to be the steepest passenger railway in the world (52 degrees contained within a total incline distance of 1,316 feet - 415 metres). When the mine closed in 1945 the funicular railway remained as a tourist attraction which became the Scenic World Railway we see today.
The Scenic World Railway about to leave its Top Station for the Rainforest floor
On our way down to the Rainforest floor aboard the Scenic World Railway
Coal Mine entrance on the rainforest floor at Scenic World
The walkway through the Rainforest on the valley floor at Scenic World
Since then the railway has been upgraded (including quite recently in early 2013) and the Scenic Skyway across the valley and Scenic Cableway back up from the rainforest floor added. The Skyway passes across the Katoomba Falls and includes a glass floor that defrosts as you set of so you can look down on the tree tops of the rainforest below.
The Scenic World Skyway making its way across the Rain Forest
The Katoomba Falls from the Scenic World Skyway
The floor of the Scenic World Skyway defrosts to reveal the Rain Forest beneath us
Looking back at the Rainforest on the way up to the Top Station on the Scenic World Cableway
On the way back to Sydney we stopped at the Featherdale Wildlife Park, an award winning zoo that opened in 1972 containing the world's largest collection of Australian native animals. Many of them such as Quokkas, Kangaroos, Emus and New Zealand Blue Penguins I had already encountered earlier during my round the world trip.
A pair of Quokkas at Featherdale Wildlife Park
An inquisitive Kangaroo at Featherdale Wildlife Park
An Emu on the prowl at Featherdale Wildlife Park
The Penguin enclosure at Featherdale Wildlife Park
However there were plenty of other types of Australian animals at the Wildlife Park I had not yet encountered including the ever adorable Koala, Swamp Wallabies, Dingoes and the Tasmanian Devil (and a lot more besides).
Koala at Featherdale Wildlife Park
Swamp Wallabies at Featherdale Wildlife Park
Dingoes at Featherdale Wildlife Park
Tasmanian Devil running around his enclosure at Featherdale Wildlife Park
Of course this time the animals were up close and personal so you were often also able to pet and feed them; although like my previous encounter with one outside Perth I still did not trust the Emu!
Me with a Koala at Featherdale Wildlife Park
Me with a friendly Swamp Wallaby at Featherdale Wildlife Park
This Emu was so enthusiastic pecking the food I gave I feared he would get my hand!
In addition to the native Australian mammals there were also native Australian birds such as Pelicans standing still like statues, brightly coloured Macaws and impressive looking Sea Eagles.
Pelicans at Featherdale Wildlife Park
A pair of Blue and Yellow Macaws at Featherdale Wildlife Park
White-bellied Sea-eagle eating a fish at Featherdale Wildlife Park
When we left Featherdale Wildlife Park the Sydney road network was totally gridlocked. To avoid spending the evening stuck in traffic we managed to get on a ferry near the 2000 Olympic Stadium and travelled down the river for a hour and a half to Darling Harbour in the centre of Sydney. As it got dark, the views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Darling Harbour all lit up were amazing.
Approaching the Sydney Harbour Bridge on a ferry at night
Just over an hour's drive south of Denver is Colorado Springs, Colorado's second largest city and the gateway to The Pikes Peak Region. On the way we passed Castle Rock, a prominent castle tower shaped butte above the I25 Freeway. Colorado Springs itself is a pretty bland city with nothing much worth seeing, it's the home of the United States Air Force Academy and the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) but the former only had the daily noon parade by its cadets to offer as a spectacle and the nuke proof headquarters deep within Cheyenne Mountain of the later understandably doesn't welcome visitors.
Castle Rock Butte beside the I25 Freeway to Colorado Springs
Freeway and railway both heading south towards Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak
Mesas beside the I25 Freeway north of Colorado Springs
Our first stop was at the Broadmoor Hotel, a gigantic Italian-Renaissance style complex of 30 buildings built around its own purpose built lake. Originally completed in 1918, the Broadmoor Hotel prides itself on being the longest-running consecutive winner of the AAA Five-Diamond rating (there's only about 100 of them) and is probably the poshest hotel I have ever visited.
The main building at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs
A view across the lake at the Broadmoor Hotel
The view of mountains above the Broadmoor Hotel
In addition to the central lake the hotel also has a Georgian ballroom, frescoed ceilings, 3 golf courses, 6 tennis courts and a stables. With the US Air Force Academy and NORAD Headquarters close by the Broadmoor Hotel appears a popular venue for military conferences and there were a lot of people in uniform around the day we had lunch there on the lakeside veranda.
Lounge area inside the Broadmoor Hotel
A view across one of the golf courses at the Broadmoor Hotel
The bridge across the lake back to the main building at the Broadmoor Hotel
Our next stop was the Manitou Cliff Dwellings just north of Manitou Springs. These were originally built more than 700 years ago by the Anasazi Indians in the south west corner of Colorado near the famous cliff dwellings in the Mesa Verde National Park. These particular dwellings were carefully moved 230 miles (370 kilometres) here brick by brick from Cortez in 1907 to protect them from being destroyed by treasure hunters while campaigners tried to put the National Park in place.
The Manitou Cliff Dwellings
One of the houses at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings
The view of the mountains from inside the Manitou Cliff Dwellings
Stone tower at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings
The cliff dwellings are preserved underneath a protective red sandstone overhang and you are able to walk through them exploring the different houses and climbing the ladders. One of the more interesting buildings was the Kiva, which was a circular pit used by tribal men as a ceremonial chamber. In its day it would have had a roof made of cribbed timber covered in cedar strips and clay with a square entrance to climb down a ladder through the sacred smoke. It had a small hole called a Sipapu behind the firepit which was a symbolic passageway through which people's spirits were said to enter and exit at birth and death.
Inside the Manitou Cliff Dwellings
A 'Kiva' (ceremonial chamber) complete with 'Sipapu' hole behind the firepit inside the Manitou Cliff Dwellings
Another view of the Manitou Cliff Dwellings
Just below the cliff dwellings there is a three-story pueblo-style building that has been built in the style of descendants of the Anasazi Indians. The Pueblo Indians would have built their buildings with adobe which is mud mixed with straw as a binding agent and would have needed re-plastering annually. The pueblo style building at the Cliff Dwellings is primarily used as a museum explaining the life of the Anasazi and didn't have the excitement of the cliff dwellings themselves but did have the best souvenir gift shop I had seen during my stay in Colorado.
The Pueblo Indian style museum built below the Cliff Dwellings
Indian cradleboard in the Anasazi Museum at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings
Me sitting cross-legged in the entrance of an Indian tepee
Having been inside an Indian tepee we now moved on to the Ghost Town Wild West Museum on the west side of Colorado Springs. Colorado is known to have over 1,500 ghost towns; they were abandoned when mines closed, or when new railways made stage coach stops redundant or just simply through rural depopulation. The whole area is in the shadow of Pikes Peak which at 14,110 feet (4,300 metres) is not the tallest of Colorado's mountains but is probably the most famous as it became immortalised by the slogan "Pike's Peak or Bust!" during the 1859 Colorado Gold Rush.
'Pikes Peak or Bust' covered wagon outside the Ghost Town Museum in Colorado Springs
The street inside the Ghost Town Museum in Colorado Springs
Me by the Stage Coaches inside the Ghost Town Museum in Colorado Springs
The concept might be corny but we had fun looking around the Ghost Town Wild West Museum and I proved to have quite a decent aim with a rifle in the shooting gallery! Founded in 1954, the museum primarily consists of a street of re-created wild west shops inside the disused workshops of the Colorado Midland Railroad. Included amongst the shops along the street was a general store, blacksmiths, newspaper printers, stage coach office, jail and sheriff's office; each filled with artefacts and small cameos of everyday life in the Wild West.
Blacksmith's Shop and General Store in the Ghost Town Museum in Colorado Springs
Wanted posters at the offices of the Pikes Peak Bugle
The local Wells Fargo Office seems unsure whether their next stage coach will arrive safely
The Sheriff asleep in his office in the Ghost Town Museum
Our final stop of the day however was the most magical. The Garden of the Gods is a strata of red sandstone raised vertically by the lifting up of nearby mountains and then eroded over millions of years into the most amazing rock formations. From the Visitors Centre there is a terrific view of the North and South Gateway Rocks with the snow capped Pikes Peak in the background.
The Garden of the Gods 'Gateway' Rocks from the Visitors Center
The Garden of the Gods 'Gateway' Rocks with snow capped Pikes Peak in the distance
As we made our way around the park it was like driving through an alien moonscape with all the strange rock shapes each christened over the years with names such the Kissing Camels, the Siamese Twins and the Three Graces. One of the stranger rock formations for me was the Cathedral Spires with its narrow fins of rock pointing like church spires into the sky. As we got closer it was possible to spot rock climbers who had made their way to the top.
The Central Garden at the Garden of the Gods
More amazing rock formations at the Garden of the Gods
On the left it is just about possible to see climbers on top of the 'Cathedral Spires' at the Garden of the Gods
Close up of the climbers on top of the 'Cathedral Spires' Rock Formation
The 'Gray (Cathedral) Rock' at the Garden of the Gods
Stone marking the Indian Trail to Ute Pass just north of Pikes Peak
The most famous rock formation in the Garden of the Gods is the Balanced Rock, admittedly one of many so named in the Western USA but very photogenic as it appears to balance almost impossibly on a narrow stem. It did remind me of the Balanced Rock I saw on the Cars Land Ride at Disneyland California Adventure but the inspiration for this I understand was more likely to have been the Balanced Rocks in Arizona and Utah and not this one in Colorado.
The famous 'Balanced Rock' at the Garden of the Gods
Me stood by the 'Balanced Rock' at the Garden of the Gods