Words || Max Lewis
As a formerly Hornsby Heights born-and-raised suburb bitch, Katoomba is weird. Like much of the Blue Mountains, it’s a small nugget of a location seemingly stuck in time, safe from the gentrification of the city.
Katoomba derives its name from the phrase ‘Kedumba’ or ‘Katta-toon-bah’, meaning ‘falling water’ in the language of the Gundungurra people. Unfortunately, there’s not a large amount of information about who lived here before invasion; it seems evenly split between the aforementioned Gundungurra group, and the Darug peoples who spread throughout much of Sydney.
Post-invasion, Katoomba and its surrounds were picked out as destinations for hotels and guest houses around the end of the 19th century, many of which were developed as Katoomba grew in prominence.
Many of them are still around as heritage buildings today, redeveloped into cafes or shops. Some are still in service, like the Carrington Hotel.
I’d never really experienced Katoomba until my Mum (who was born and raised here) moved back in 2016. Since then, the three hour journey up to the Mountains has become a staple in my life for birthday visits, Mother’s day and our Halloween horror movie night.
There’s often an hour-long wait for a bus between my Mum’s house and the station, so I’ve had plenty of time to roam the streets of Katoomba looking for weird shit. Katoomba St is the main drag; a straight road that heads downhill, flanked by shops on either side. Lots of places have a weird art-deco vibe, like The Savoy, which is modelled like a 50s diner replete with burgers and shakes which I can personally vouch for.
There’s also a fuckload of antique shops full of bizarre things. One two-storey warehouse filled to the brim with oddities stocked a bronze statue of a dog-man with a very ripped human torso and the head of a dog, holding an old timey camera. A tag informed me the piece was called ‘Paparazzi Dog; Bronze’ and was worth $7,700.
Another shop nestled away in the shopping ‘village’ near the local library was appropriately called Odd Mountain Oddities. After being greeted by the shy goth at the counter, I perused tables full of antique medical equipment liked speculums and dummies.
I grimaced at a variety of insects and arachnids pressed in glass. I sort of lost my mind at what looked like a replica clown painting from John Wayne Gacy, and a pile of genuine letters from a Sydney murderer who ate his girlfriend’s face.
The shop also had tons of cute homemade badges, patches and brooches with things like pentagrams, pictures of cats, or old medical diagrams of organs. A sticker at the front counter read in large letters ‘KEEP KATOOMBA ODD.’
Sometimes if I can’t be arsed waking up and down Katoomba St I’ll sit in the garden out the front of the Carrington Hotel – neatly in eyeline of where my bus stops – and people watch. You get a weird mix of what many refer to as ‘drop-kicks’, looking like they are 12 years old and glaring at me while they smoke cigarettes. There are also so many hippies; you’ll see them on steps barefoot despite it being 6 degrees, smacking on bongos while occasionally puffing from a roach full of the ol’ stinkleaf.
You also get some beings of unknowable power: I’ve seen on many occasions men wearing nothing but shorts and thongs walking around in the middle of Winter where it usually reaches a high of 6-10 degrees. Another highlight was a man on a street corner shouting at a loaf of bread. Passers-by to any of these don’t even bat an eyelid – it’s definitely my city-bitch privilege that makes these things stick out to me.
I love Katoomba, but at this stage of my life as a young, dynamic go-getter, I don’t think I could live here. It’s a nice getaway from the city; one thing I love is that you can actually experience absolute silence here, and get a view of the night sky without light pollution.
That said, I usually feel like I’ve gotten everything I can from Katoomba after a few days. Apart from the obvious tourist attractions of Scenic World and the Three Sisters, and the endless sea of cafes, there’s not really a lot to do here. I do get the sense that in many decades time a place like Katoomba will be right up my alley; I can settle down and just exist without the pressure of a city.
For now, though, it’s a neat place for me to escape and experience something outside of vanilla city life, without the stress of actually living there. Isn’t that the best way to experience a place?