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We're Off on the Road to Katoomba

Low-budget leisure `bushwalking' gains favor in Australia

THERE'S nothing more impatient than a bunch of tired bushwalkers waiting for the "billy" to boil.

The billy in this case was not the traditional tin can with a wire-loop handle, but a black, cast-iron kettle. It was too small to serve 14 people at once, so half of us had to be patient.

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This motley gang of bushwalkers gathered around the fire, mugs in hand, quite a few times on our three-day, 27-mile walk in the Blue Mountains. We were exploring the Six-Foot Track, probably Australia's oldest recreational walking and bridle path.

Bushwalking has been around since the 1890s, says Garry MacDougall, who owns Great Australian Walks, the company running our trip. "It's part of the `English pedestrianism' recreation movement associated with Romantic poets," he says. These days, it's undergoing a resurgence in popularity. Five years ago, Mr. McDougall had 15 walks; today it's 70 to 75.

Mr. MacDougall says that bushwalking always becomes more popular in hard economic times - like now: "Bushwalking's cheap. When people are strapped for resources they say, `Let's use what we have.' " Our three-day, two-night trek cost US$200, including meals and camping gear.

Great Australian Walks has been leading backpacking and four-wheel-drive-supported walks since 1988. This kind of trek, where our gear, tents, food, and equipment are carried for us, would seem pretty wimpy to other bushwalkers, whose muscular approach has given them the appellation "bushbashers." But this way of bushwalking is increasingly popular, particularly among seniors. Among our group of 14 were retired men, fathers taking their first weekend break from young families, parents with children old e nough to fend for themselves, and some singles.

Sam, a retired businessman, says he's been hiking a long time. In college, he signed on one summer to help geologists in Tasmania."We walked around in the bush for three or four months and explored," he says. "They used to drop our food in by aircraft. And in those days a lot of the creeks and rivers weren't even named. So we named [them] after our girlfriends.

"The first six weeks nearly killed me, but after that I got very comfortable in the scrub," Sam says. "And I've loved it ever since. I just get out whenever I get a chance."

The Six-Foot Track starts in Katoomba, about 90 minutes west of Sydney, and ends at the Jenolan Caves. Business leaders in Katoomba started building it in 1884 to regain some of the business lost to the popularity of the Jenolan Caves. The unfinished road has been a walking trail ever since.

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Our guide is Ron, a hearty ex-fireman from London with a thick Cockney accent. He starts us off with a look at the Explorer's Tree, a section of a tree supposedly marked by the early European explorers.

Our journey takes us first through Nellie's Glen, with its splashing waterfall. We travel through forests of eucalyptus trees. Calls of the aptly-named bell bird and whip bird pierce the air. Sometimes we hear the lyre bird, which doesn't have a call of its own but mimics the sounds around it, from magpies to chain saws to automobiles.

The Six-Foot Track also takes us through a bit of Australian history. We pass the foundations of the abandoned mining village of Megalong. It once had workers' cottages, a hotel, and shops. Ruins of settlers' huts are near the track. Periodically, we see the tops of old kerosene cans nailed to trees, early track markers.

Late in the afternoon we round a bend and there, on the banks of Cox's River, rows of turquoise tents await us. Howard, the support man with a maniacal giggle, has driven in and put them all up. After choosing tents and having our cuppa, we go yabby fishing. Yabbies are small, freshwater crayfish. We throw in a line with some meat on it and wait for the yabbies to grab the bait. Then we haul in the line slowly and scoop up the yabby with a screen. After the oohs and ahhs, yabby is thrown back.

Another guide, Mick, took out a guitar and led us in campfire singing - everything from '50s American show tunes to the Beatles to Australian childrens' songs. The next morning, after loading up on rib-sticking porridge, our trek takes us over some steep elevations.

By the end of the day, what started as a collection of strangers has coalesced into a group. You can tell because the teasing about snoring has started. Ron quizzes us occasionally ("How did the Six-Foot Track get its name?") and throws out Cherry Ripes - a chocolate candy bar with cherry filling - to those with the correct answer (the military named it that because it's wide enough for a car).

Several trekkers help peel carrots and slice onions for the chicken stew. Around the fire, we tell riddles and bad jokes. Then it's off to shine our flashlights in the trees for possums. Many of Australia's animals are nocturnal and "spotlighting" is popular. The tallest trees are where possums like to sleep and the beams crisscross each other in the night as we look. Finally, we spot one, a black-and-white catlike thing slung around a high limb. Its red eyes blink in the light.

The final day, we break camp in a light rain and head down some steep downhill stretches. Near the bottom, we have a photo stop in front of the Carlotta Arch, a dramatic rock arch with stalactites hanging down.

Our terminus is the Jenolan Caves, five limestone caves discovered in the 1830s. In the courtyard of an old German inn, this by-now "knackered" group sits around a large outdoor table and celebrates its triumphant descent. Here, the elusive Australian fauna become bold: Brightly colored Rosella parrots have no qualms about perching on our shoulders to snatch a bit of food.

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