THE GIANT STAIRWAY OF THE BLUE MOUNTAINS
The Three Sisters is a natural rock formation in Katoomba, about an hour and a half drive from Sydney, Australia. They were formed by erosion and tower above the valley below. To get there you travel along the Great Western Highway to the Blue Mountains, where you will find a windy, steep incline to the top of the mountain. Continue to follow the highway till you reach Katoomba, then take a left turn and the valley is about two and a half kilometres dead ahead.
The Three Sisters from Echo Point Lookout
Echo point is a look out from where you can view the sisters and the Jamison Valley. It is a natural wonderland and the eyes struggle to see the horizon as there are trees as far as you can see. There are timed telescopes for rent and some people brought their own binoculars to gain a close up view of the scene. From the lookout you are three hundred metres above the valley floor. You wouldn’t want to fall from here.
Echo Point Lookout
These days it is easy to forget the pioneers of a by-gone era that paved the way for generations to come. James ‘Jim’ McKay (1869 – 1947) and his assistant, Walter ‘Wally’ Botting (1887 – 1985) were such men. Rangers in Katoomba, they were instrumental in creating ‘The Giant Stairway’, a feat to showcase what people are capable of. These two men and their crew sculpted over nine hundred steps into rock, descending three hundred metres from The Three Sisters to the valley floor.
McKay with workers, showing use of picks, hammers and chisels to cut back rock prior to step making
Until Ranger McKay had a vision, The Three Sisters and the Jamison Valley were commonly only viewed from areas at the top. Echo Point was a common area for sightseers, as it offered a great view of The Three Sisters. In 1911, Ranger McKay took it upon himself to climb from the valley to the top of the mountain range, along what we now call ‘The Giant Stairway’.
In February 1911 it was reported in The Blue Mountains Echo Newspaper:
A New Track
Last week, Ranger McKay did a very ticklish piece of climbing. He came up from the Federal Pass under the Three Sisters and into Lilianfels Paddock. It was one of the roughest climbs he has done for some time, but he is satisfied that a good path could readily be readily made along the route up the cliffs if sufficient, labor and capital were available. Mr. McKay knows dozens of places worth opening up, and says if three permanent men in summer and one additional man in winter could be kept at work on the reserves, new roads and fresh sights would soon be ready for public use.
Jim McKay had apparently climbed the cliff from the valley floor, unaided, without ropes and undoubtedly in his ordinary clothes and leather shoes! Originally ridiculed and scoffed at, he proposed that a stairway could be created to allow the public to bush walk to the valley below. In 1916, they were granted council permission to start work on the project. After proceeding with great fervour and under the control of Ranger Jim McKay, they were able to hack away into sheer cliff face a quarter of the distance by 1918. Unfortunately in August of that year work came to an abrupt halt as council deemed the project to costly.
Chief Ranger Jim McKay poses on the steps still under construction. B&W photograph by Harry Phillips 1916
The idea was forgotten for over a decade, until in the 1930’s, Harry Phillips, who was a noted mountain photographer, made a small pamphlet suggesting what Katoomba could do to boost tourism and develop the area. Among these was the completion of The Giant Stairway which, he argued;
“It can be completed at a small outlay; it leads directly into the most prolific and prettiest Fern Glen Forest in the Jamieson Valley, Leura, where magnificent motor tracks and camping areas can and should be, opened up immediately.”
This pamphlet renewed interest in the project and in 1932 a motion was passed in the local council chambers and work began again under Ranger McKay. An engineer noted that the project could be completed with just three hundred more steps. Work started soon after and McKay and his crew carved the steps out of the sheer face of the sandstone cliffs, crossing crevasses and indentations here and there with stout ladders.
Entrance to the Giant Stairway. Left : 1929 source unknown. Right : 2012 taken by me
The Giant Stairway. Left : 1918 source unknown. Right : 2012 taken by me
On the First of October 1932 the official opening took place. It was by all accounts celebrated with much fan-fare. Speeches by different levels of politicians, concluding with that of the premier of New South Wales, the Hon. B.S.B. Stevens, who declared The Giant Stairway, and the new viewing platform at Echo Point, open. He paid tribute to the men who carried out the hard physical work, work that on occasions was so dangerous that they had to be roped to prevent them falling. He praised their skill and courage and assured them that ‘they will always have the satisfaction of knowing that their initiative and labour will bring pleasure to countless thousands in the years to come’ and the Premier also said to ‘have shaken the hand of Chief Ranger McKay made this a memorable day’.
The crowd at the official opening on 1st October 1932
The day is also remembered for the three rock climbers who climbed The Three Sisters and planted an Australian flag on top of the second sister. It used to be possible for anyone to climb onto the three sisters. I remember when I was a boy I visited and there was an abseiler traversing from one of the sisters to the other. Erosion was taking its toll and it is no longer possible to climb them, but it is possible to walk onto the side of them, which is at the top near the entrance to The Giant Stairway. It is a very tranquil spot. There are several bench seats and rest areas to sit and look out at the valley below.
Top of the Giant Stairway carved into the first of The Three Sisters.
Picture courtesy : Matt and Alyson’s Aussie Walkabout
99 enjoying a reflective moment
If you are fit enough, with a sense of adventure, why not climb down the stairway that Ranger McKay created? It takes about three hours. Take a bottle of water and make sure you have sturdy footwear. As you descend remember who first thought of this track and made it possible for you to climb down. Once you reach the bottom, you will amazed at the flora you will see, especially the large ferns which cover the area. Make your way across to the scenic railway which will take you back to the top. At a 51 degree angle, it is reported to be the steepest railway in the world. It was previously used to haul coal and shale to the top, before the mine closed in 1945 before being converted to a tourist attraction. Make sure you are there before 4.50 PM for the last train or you will be walking back up The Giant Stairway in the dark or spending the night on the forest floor.
The Scenic Railway. Photograph Courtesy of http://www.creativespirits.info
The Katoomba Colliery Scenic Railway. Photo Courtesy of Harry Phillips 12 April 1935
While in the modern age, bush walking is not as popular as it once was, The Giant Stairway, with its panoramic views, and companion the Scenic Railway, survive as popular tourist attractions in the area. As a memorial to the work and vision of Chief Ranger Jim McKay, and others like him, its value to the Blue Mountains is even further enhanced.
The Giant Stairway, Katoomba. Photo Courtesy of Harry Phillips 12 April 1935.