Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Crossing the Blue Mountains

You don't have to be present at the celebrations to appreciate the significance of this year's bi-centenary of the crossing of the Blue Mountains by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth in the year 1813.

Simply reading about this expedition, and later crossings, makes it possible to refresh one's understanding of the huge impact on Australian history when this natural barrier was breached. Australia's vast interior was opened up and the pastoral industry began. Australia rode on the sheep's back for the next 150 years or so.

I've just refreshed my memory by reading Crossing the Blue Mountains, Journeys Through Two Centuries, by David Foster and Michael Duffy, (Duffy and Snellgrove, Potts Point NSW, 1997). For someone like me, raised in Sydney, with Blue Mountains memories stretching back to my earliest childhood, and primary school projects about the Australian wool industry still stashed somewhere in my house, the book was a fascinating read, a page-turner.

As my friend Shirley Evans has pointed out, the book relies heavily on popularising ten stories from another academic book, Fourteen Journeys over the Blue Mountains of New South Wales 1813-1841, by George Mackaness. I particularly enjoyed the tales by Elizabeth Hawkins and Sophia Stanger, who astonishingly cared for numerous children en route, and the description by Charles Darwin of his journey. His observant, scientific mind was much in evidence.

In the interests of context, I wish I'd read this book before writing my three books about convicts living at the Hawkesbury. Robert Forrester, his friend Paul Bushell and son-in-law Charles Martin never got further than the lower slopes of the heavily-forested hills almost adjoining their farms.

The stories in the book highlight the physical and psychological nature of the barrier - how a range of blue hills less than 4,000 feet high proved such an obstacle - and how the spectacular and baffling terrain still cannot be taken for granted. The journey struck fear into everyone who undertook it prior to the gold rush. Men, women and children suffered privations during 'the crossing', achieved in several stages over three days. Horses and bullocks often could not take another step and had sit-down strikes, while many animals died along the way, given the lack of pasture and fresh water.

Disappointingly, the book contains no account of the trail-blazing journey by Archibald Bell and his aboriginal guides in 1823, establishing the alternate route across the mountains via Kurrajong - Bell's Line of Road. This information would have been invaluable for my book Southwark Luck - because its main character Charles Homer Martin was a sawyer at Kurrajong and had a minor involvement with clearing part of the first track.

Chapter 11 about the Wollemi Pine took me into my sister Jennifer's world, as one of her university friends was Wyn Jones and her former husband Peter Prineas wrote the book Colo Wilderness. I was recently reminded of the original anxiety over the survival of the Wollemi pine when I was charged with the care of a Wollemi pine while house-sitting for a friend in Sydney. The pines are commercially-available now, but still precious.

As a keen walker, but never much of a bushwalker, I was chuffed to be reminded in Chapter 12 of my walks in the Blue Mountains in the 1960s. Particularly memorable was a walk along Narrow Neck and that incredibly scary climb down the cliff face at Taros Ladder, en route to the Ruined Castle. Conquering my fear took a huge effort. Chapter 12's exposition of the nature and benefits of wilderness was convincing, but it reinforced why I never took to bushwalking - the discomforts, the sunburn, the food, the embarrassing toilet arrangements.

All of my Blue Mountains memories feature risk and danger, beginning long before those steel pegs on Taros Ladder. When I was three years old my poor mother was coping with myself, two younger sisters and my father, all of us recovering from whooping cough. The doctor advised a rest cure. At Leura in the winter of 1949 we took a holiday cottage, heated only by one open fire. Intending to be helpful, I pushed the clothes-horse closer to the fire, it tipped over and the family washing went up in flames. Money was scarce and this was a devastating blow for my poor mother. The mountains instantly became a scary place for me.

Fast forward a few years, and I recall the adventurous car trips getting to and from the dusty car races at Bathurst in the early 1950s. We jammed together in a roadster with no seat belts (of course) and a canvas hood. No worries about those bushfires visible from the road - we carried water bottles to douse any inconvenient sparks landing on the canvas roof. Today, in such conditions, the road would be closed to traffic.

Later came the family holidays in a rented cottage next door to two spinster sisters, friends of my grandmother's, who lived beside the golf course at Leura. We dodged the flying golf balls.

The trips across the mountains back to Sydney every month when I lived at Dubbo in the later 1960s were hazardous night-time drives. The road is far less dangerous now, on my journeys to visit my sister Jennifer at her home near Bathurst, but the Victoria Pass descent down to Hartley Vale is as mind-blowing today as it ever was.

And the Blue Mountains remain scary for reasons other than the terrain: the vegetation. As indefatigable bushwalker David Foster wrote on page 212 of this book: Eucalypts are astounding trees. Botanists can’t keep up with them, so rapidly are they evolving. They hybridise freely and are always being reclassified, shining their blue laser beams on the fault lines of Linnaean taxonomy. They are the shocktroops of a warming planet because they like firestorms, which civilized people don’t. And the Blue Mountains is as good a place as any to make the acquaintance of these strange creatures, to get to feel their qualities, their variety. I never feel I possess them, or they me. I hardly dare divine their purposes. Their spirit, their genius, has yet to speak to me. I find them very dangerous.

The traditional view of the Blue Mountains embraces the area surrounding the Great Western Highway and Bell's Line of Road. I believe that the actual area of the Blue Mountains is now regarded as stretching from the Broken Back Range of the Hunter River Valley southwards to an area just north of Goulburn. The book's introduction does provide this definition, but it's easy to miss the few references within the text.

It's even harder to spot the distinction between crossing the Blue Mountains and crossing the Great Divide. The latter is the point beyond Lithgow, at Mount Lambie near Wallerawang, where the rivers such as Cox's River cease flowing eastwards to the coast and begin, like the Fish River to flow westwards into the Macquarie River and onwards to the dry interior.

The book contains a few explanatory maps, and colour photographs of some pertinent geographic features. For a modern reader, more enjoyment would be derived from this book with a greater use of square brackets after the old place names, giving today's geographic name. Alternatively, an increased use of maps, showing all the place names and not just a selection, would help readers trying to retrace these remarkable journeys in their imagination. Nevertheless, the book is a worthwhile read for any history buff.

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