crossing the blue mountains, the blue mountains, aussie english, blaxland, lawson, wentworth

AE 668.2 – Aussie Fact: Crossing the Blue Mountains

Learn Australian English and history in this Aussie Fact episode of the Aussie English Podcast where I talk about Blaxland and crossing the Blue Mountains.


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G'day, you mob. Welcome to today's Aussie English Fact episode where I'm going to be telling you the story of getting over crossing the Blue Mountains. Let's get into it.

So, the Blue Mountains are a mountain range located about 60 kilometres, as the crow flies, to the west of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia. The area forms a small part of the extensive Great Dividing Range, Australia's largest mountain range, which traverses the majority of the continent's eastern coastline from south to north.

The Blue Mountains range is characterised by numerous mountains and plateau escarpments of sandstone that have been eroded away over millions of years. The result was the formation of a vast labyrinth of jagged cliffs and deep ravines topped with a blanket of temperate eucalyptus forest. The area was named the Blue Mountains because of their colour as they were viewed jutting out above the horizon by the first European settlers to the east at Sydney Cove in Port Jackson, the location of modern day Sydney.

The settlers were merely new kids on the block, new arrivals setting up shop in Port Jackson less than 250 years ago, in the year 1788. The local indigenous people, on the other hand, had lived in the area for unknown millennia. The Darug people inhabited the area stretching inland to the west, from Port Jackson to the foothills of the Blue Mountains. These were some of the first people to ever come in contact with European settlers.

As you travel further south west, up into the Blue Mountains, this is the country of the Gandangara people. One of their creation stories tells of an epic battle that took place between two mythical dream time creatures named Mirigan and Garangatch. They were half fish and half reptile, and as they fought, they scarred the landscape and turned it into the Jamison Valley.

You may have also heard of The Three Sisters, an unusual sandstone rock formation in the Blue Mountains on the north escarpment of Jamison Valley. This thin cliff has been eroded away by rain and wind until it broke up and formed three towering rock monoliths. The commonly told Aboriginal legend tells of three sisters, Meehni, Wimlah, and Gunnedoo, who lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe.

The three of them fell in love with three men from a neighbouring Nepean tribe, but were banned from marrying the men due to tribal law. The brothers couldn't accept the law and decided instead to capture the three sisters, which led to a major tribal battle. In order to protect the three sisters, they were turned to stone by an elder, but he was killed in the fighting and thus they've been trapped in their rock formations overlooking the Jamison Valley ever since that day.

Thus, the Blue Mountains are full of important cultural sites to indigenous people. In the Red Hands Cave, a rock shelter found near Glen Brook, the walls have been painted with handprints from both adults and children. At Wentworth Falls, there's a rocky knoll with a large number of grinding grooves that were created over countless generations as people rub stone implements on rock surface to shape and sharpen them.

And there are even carved images of animal tracks and an occupation cave at a site known as King's Table and Aboriginal site, which has been dated to at least 22,000 years old. Although it's been discovered that, at the time, indigenous people had two well-trodden routes that have been used for thousands of years to cross the mountains, Europeans wouldn't officially make it over for 25 years after their arrival.

Europeans settled Sydney Cove in 1788, but it wasn't until 1813 that the first white man officially crossed the Blue Mountains. To make a long story short, the sediment was established as a British penal colony where all kinds of lower class, undesirables, who could find themselves being transported to the other side of the globe for something as trivial as stealing a handkerchief or some cheese were sent in order to lessen the load on British jails, and more importantly, on British civil society.

For the first several years, life was pitiful for everyone in the colony, whether you were an official, a marine or a convict. Disease ran rampant and the colony often had dwindling rations and failing crops, which led to starvation of its members. And there was the ever present threat of a largely unknown and inhospitable land and its inhabitants.

Thus, governors of the colony were in a very difficult position, stuck between a rock and a hard place, having to balance fear with survival in order to keep convicts under the thumb. The colony was meant to be a punishment for criminals. One much worse than the already brutal British jails and convict hulks back home. The idea of being sent to the Great Southern Land was meant to strike fear into the hearts of any would-be criminals back in Britain, and thus keep them on the straight and narrow for the rest of their poor, miserable, lower class lives.

On top of this, conditions in the colony had to be balanced between being a punishment for the convicts, severe enough to scare those back at home in Britain, whilst not so severe, that large scale mutiny or abandonment into the bush might take place. It also had to leave convicts with the incentive to behave well whilst completing their sentences, and then become freeman to settle the surrounding land and farm it for the benefit of the colony.

Thus, the Blue Mountains and their native inhabitants played two pivotal roles in keeping convicts in line. Firstly, the Blue Mountains were the insurmountable jail walls reported to be an impenetrable barrier. A rumour that was thoroughly encouraged by the leadership of the colony for decades. Secondly, the native inhabitants were the unwitting guards said to be merciless cannibals who would quickly pick off any escaped convict and feast on his flesh.

The authorities had to play this game in the short term in order to control their prisoners, whilst also establishing a viable colony that could support itself and continue to grow. But in the long term, they knew the native guards would be displaced and that the natural walls would crumble as it was only a matter of time before the colony expanded. And so for the time being, the penal colonies, impregnable walls, unforgiving guards and its melancholic prisoner population sat balancing on a knife's edge.

The first governor of New South Wales, Arthur Phillip, had actually got his first up close look at the Blue Mountains only a year after his arrival. He looked out over them from a ridge in the present day suburb of Castle Hill and named them the Carmarthen Hills, some 40 to 60 miles distant and thought that the ground was most suitable for government stock. The first documented use of the name Blue Mountains appears in Captain John Hunter's account of Philip's 1789 expedition up the Hawkesbury River.

He described the events as follows. 'We frequently in some of the reaches which we pass through this day, so very near up the hills, which we suppose as seen from Port Jackson and called by the governor The Blue Mountains'. As word spread back in the colony, people began to consider what might lay beyond the mountains. Settlers pondered fertile lands for farming and grazing their livestock and increasing their wealth, whilst convicts spread rumours that China lay just beyond and would be a place worth escaping to.

Despite this, there was no real fear of settlers leaving or convicts escaping as everyone except those few people up top, like Governor Phillip still considered it an impenetrable barrier. And for the next 25 years, most who tried to cross the barrier in that time failed, and anyone who managed to cross it was simply ignored. It wasn't until the colony had grown fat within its walls, the guards had become thin on the ground, and the right group of acceptable settlers came along that the authorities allowed, and by this point, encouraged the attempt to cross the Blue Mountains.

By 1813, the colony was well and truly bursting at the seams. Most of the land between the ocean and the mountains had been divided up and handed out to the growing number of settlers and freed convicts who were hungry to try and make it as successful farmers. More than two decades had passed since the colony had been founded, and many a man was making his fortune on free land handed out by the government, as well as on the backs of his many free convicts as they could handle to work at.

Three prosperous settlers who had made their fortune in farming were about to team up in order to find a route over the Blue Mountains. They hope to discover fertile, verdant land to expand their fortunes as well as the colonies borders.

The man who led the expedition was 35 year old Gregory Blaxland. He was of English aristocratic heritage and decided to immigrate to Australia when he was gifted land, convict servants, and free passages for his wife and three children. After arriving in 1805, he rapidly built his fortune through business and farming. William Lawson was another British immigrant and the oldest of the group, at 38.

He'd been trained as a surveyor back in England, but enlisted himself as a soldier in the New South Wales Corps, in order to come to the young colony on the other side of the world. He eventually ended up becoming a lieutenant, and, like Blaxland, had quickly turned his attention to agriculture and started buying up land to farm in order to build his wealth.

On top of this, he was an experienced bushman, considered to be as tough as nails who'd been given the nickname "Ironbark". This fact, along with his knowledge of surveying, made him a particularly valuable member of Blaxland expedition. Lastly, 19 year old William Charles Wentworth was the youngest of the three expedition leaders. He was a native-born 'currency lad', as they were known at the time, as opposed to 'sterling' or those of British heritage. He was the son of a wealthy ex-convict farmer who had done business selling land to Blaxland in the past.

Although not Sterling, like his counterparts, he'd been sent to England by his father in order to be educated and returned to New South Wales in 1810 when he was given land and made Provost Marshal, a person in charge of a group of military police by Sydney's governor Lachlan Macquarie.

Blaxland knew that without these men, his attempt at crossing the barrier would likely fail. He would later write to those gentlemen, 'I have to express my thanks for their company and to acknowledge that without their assistance, I should have had but little chance of success'. The three men were acutely aware of their position and what was at stake. The company needed to keep expanding to acquire more land for the growing number of those willing to settle it, and to grow more food for the growing number of mouths needing to be fed.

And those already successful farmers wanted to continue to expand and grow their own wealth. They knew the time was right and that they had to strike while the iron was hot. Faced with the unknown ahead of them, Governor Macquarie gave Blaxland and his team the green light to go ahead, and so the pieces had all fallen into place, and the stage was now set for the three men to succeed, where so many had failed before, and expand their fame and fortunes in the process.

This is probably the point where I should mention that this was actually Blaxland third attempt at crossing the Blue Mountains. Twice before he tried and failed and had been forced to turn back after running out of rations, not making significant progress or members of his team falling ill.

He also previously relied heavily on indigenous guides, likely Darug people unfamiliar with the land, who'd been brought along in the hopes of leading the way. Blaxland wrote in the past two attempts, 'the natives proved but of little use, which determined me not to take them again on my more distant expedition. Very little information can be obtained from any tribe out of their own district, which is seldom more than about 30 miles square'.

This time, indigenous guides were left behind and the group would have to go it alone and rely on their own skills and sheer tenacity. The trip began in early May, and Blaxland wrote in his diary, 'On Tuesday, May 11th of 1813, Mr Gregory Blaxland, Mr William Wentworth and Lieutenant Lawson attended by four servants with five dogs and four horses laden with provisions, ammunition and other necessities, left Mr Blaxland's farm at the South Creek for the purpose of endeavouring to effect a passage over the Blue Mountains between the West River and the River Grose'.

At first, the journey was easy going, as they made their way through the farmland and into the foothills of the Blue Mountains. However, it wasn't long before the going got a lot rougher. Once the team was up in the mountains, they were faced with thick bush, steep sandstone cliffs and escarpments and deeply carved valleys and gorges with rapidly flowing rivers and creeks.

Though travel was slow and tedious, the team pushed forward, cutting their way through the thick scrub, climbing up rocky hills and cliffs onto escarpments, where they were then forced to dismount their horses and walk on a knife's edge as they moved along the ridges with hundred meter drops either side of them. On Monday, the 17th of May, Blaxland wrote that the ridge on which they were travelling, 'was not more than fifteen or twenty yards over with deep precipices on each side was rendered almost impossible by a perpendicular mass of rock nearly 30 feet high, extending across the whole breadth, with the exception of a small, broken, rugged track in the centre, by removing a few large stones, they were enabled to pass'.

Two days later, on the 19th of May, the team discovered something that suggested they were about to penetrate further into the wilderness of the Blue Mountains than any European had done before. Blaxland reported that "at a little distance from the spot at which they began the ascent, they found a pyramidical heap of stones. The work, evidently, of some European, one side of which the natives had opened, probably in the expectation of finding some treasure deposited in it. This pile, they concluded, to be the one erected by Mr. Bass to mark the end of his journey."

"That gentleman attempted some time ago to pass the mountains and to penetrate into the interior, but having gone thus far, he gave up the undertaking as in practicable reporting on his return, that it was impossible to find a passage, even for a person on foot. Here, therefore, the party had the satisfaction of believing that they had penetrated as far as any European had been before them."

The Mr Bass, who Blaxland is referring to is the famous British naval surgeon and explorer of Australia, George Bass. In 1796, Bass had made a failed attempt to cross the Blue Mountains, but in doing so stumbled across a now massive herd of cattle that had originated from a handful of cattle brought over by the First Fleet. Shortly after their arrival, with a lack of fences and a bounding grazing land, the cattle had taken to the bush to try their luck alone.

Bass was also the discoverer of the stretch of ocean separating Van Diemen's Land, modern day Tasmania, from the mainland, which was named Bass Strait. At this point in Blaxland journey, the team was now deep within Gandagarra country and were acutely aware of the potential danger posed to them by the local inhabitants. Many a sleepless night must have passed with a mysterious sounds of the bush echoed out to them from the darkness. In fact, the team may have only just avoided a deadly ambush by the skin of their teeth on the night of the 20th of May, Blaxland recounts the following.

In the beginning of the night, the dogs ran off and barked violently at the same time, something was distinctly heard to run through the brushwood which they supposed to be one of the horses got loose, but they had reason to believe afterwards that they had been in great danger, that the natives had followed their track and advanced on them in the night, intending to have speared them by the light of the fire, but that the dogs drove them off.

As the team progressed, travel was made even more difficult as the winter rains arrived, but unperturbed, they pushed on. On May the 28th, the team set up camp on the edge of a vast precipice that they'd arrived at. Blaxland shares what he saw next. To their great satisfaction, they discovered that what they supposed to be, sandy, barren land below the mountain was forest land covered with good grass and with timber of an inferior quality.

Finally, after more than a fortnight of the team leaving Blaxland farm on the east side of the Blue Mountains, they were the first Europeans to successfully traverse the impenetrable barrier. The jail walls had thus crumbled down and a vast expanse of fertile, verdant land was opened up to the ever expanding colony. On the 29th, the team awoke, got the horses ready and descended the mountain. It was a delicate process as the horses couldn't find sure footing on the steep descent, which took them more than two hours.

for the next few days, they explored the land. Blaxland was so impressed with "the forest or grassland, suggesting it would be sufficient in extent, in their opinion, to support the stock of the colony for the next 30 years."

This may have actually been an underestimate. In the following year, Governor Macquarie would send out the surveyor, George Evans, to further explore the interior lands. It was later reported in a government order that the greater part of those planes are described as being nearly free of timber and brushwood, ending capacity equal, in Mr Evans opinion, to every demand which the colony may have for an extension of tillage and pasture lands for a century to come.

After a few days of exploring the vast newly discovered land, the Blaxland team decided it had 'sufficiently accomplished the design of their undertaking, having surmounted all the difficulties which had hitherto prevented the interior of the country from being explored and the colony from being extended'.

They had partly cleared and marked out a road allowing the Blue Mountains to be crossed. However, despite Blaxland wanting to push forward and to continue his explorations, the team's provisions were running low. So, they decided that the time had come to head back home and break their news to the governor. The return home to Sydney Cove proved nearly as tough as the journey out there.

On the 5th of June was the most unpleasant and fatiguing they had experienced.The track not being marked, they had great difficulty in finding their way back to the river on the following day. They crossed a river just after breakfast and found that they had completed their journey home.

News spread like wildfire and the trio were hailed as heroes. Blaxland knew that he had hit pay dirt and would be richly rewarded. Meanwhile, Lawson had already begun his plans of taking cattle across the mountain range. Governor Macquarie wrote in a government order that he was 'happy to embrace this opportunity of conveying his acknowledgments to Gregory Blaxland and Williams Charles Wentworth Esquires, and Lieutenant William Lawson of the Royal Veteran Company for their enterprising and arduous exertions on the tour of discovery, which they voluntarily performed in the month of May last, when they effected a passage over the Blue Mountains and proceeded to the extremity of the first valley, particularly alluded to in Mr Evans tour, and being the first Europeans who had accomplished the passage over the Blue Mountains'.

'The governor desirous to confer on these gentlemen substantial marks of his sense of their meritorious exertions on this occasion means to present each of them with a grant of 1000 acres of land in this newly discovered country'.

A great task was now set at the feet of the convicts of the colony building the road from east to west. This would be an arduous and horribly punishing task that would take many months to complete.

Governor Macquarie turned to a man named William Cox, said to be kind and sympathetic in nature and placed him in charge of the road's construction. He was given 30 convict labourers and eight soldiers to guard them. In mid 1817, the work began and was initially estimated to require at least six months to complete.

However, perhaps due to his kind treatment of the workers, Cox and his team managed to complete the road by January the 21st of 1818, a full two months ahead of schedule. The road to the west of the Blue Mountains was now open and settlers came in droves. Among them were Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth, each of whom was dying to mark out their reward of a thousand acres of land in the best possible locations.

Today, you can still travel the route that these explorers trace through the mountains and numerous landmarks bear the names of the men involved, including the suburbs of Lawson and Blaxland, Mount Blaxland, Wentworth Falls, Coxes Road and many more. However, the story isn't quite complete without an honourable mention to some other early explorers.

In the two centuries to follow, it was discovered the Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth were almost certainly not the first European men to find a way across the Blue Mountains. They were just in the right place at the right time when they achieved it. In fact, there have been numerous men who probably successfully crossed the Blue Mountains in the preceding two decades, let alone, who attempted the feat.

The earliest example of someone likely to have crossed the barrier is John Wilson, a convict transported to Sydney on the First Fleet for the crime of stealing nine yards of cloth. After gaining his freedom in 1792, he went Bush. According to Judge Collins, 'Wilson preferred living among the natives to earning the wages of honest industry for settlers'. After several years living in the bush around the Blue Mountains, Wilson recounted his stories of exploring the area to Governor Hunter and Judge Collins.

At the time, his stories were considered suspect, however, based on the details recorded by Collins. In retrospect, it seems likely he was telling the truth. He'd probably used the Bilpin Aboriginal Highway to cross the mountains, a route known to and frequently used by the local indigenous people.

A second example of someone who may have crossed the Blue Mountains successfully is Francis Barralier, a refugee from the French Revolution. He had a knowledge of engineering, surveying, and navigation who arrived in New South Wales in the assistance of the New South Wales Corps.

Although not informed of Wilson's travels, when rumours of a white settlement inland started spreading in the colony, an exploration with Barralier at its head was sent out in the hopes of refuting them. After all, the authorities didn't want convicts to get any ideas when it came to making an escape. And if some had made an escape in the past and set up a chain free bush utopia, they would want to know about it and put an end to the fun.

Barralier and his team ended up crossing the Blue Mountains, though they never laid eyes on any other white settlement. Ironically, the absence of any such settlement was used as evidence that crossing the Blue Mountains was impossible, despite the fact that Barralier had to effectively cross the insurmountable barrier in order to retrieve that evidence.

Even though an ex-convict and a Frenchman may have found routes through the mountainous labyrinth, they were the wrong men to receive any recognition. After all, they were lacking in the requisite English aristocratic heritage and made the journey two decades too early, when the colony was more focussed on successfully farming the land it had already claimed and controlling its convicts rather than worrying about expansion.

So, Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth may not have been the first European men to cross the Blue Mountains. That said, although Blaxland and his team had had their fair share of luck in terms of timing of crossing the mountains and their wealthy and respectable heritage, Blaxland definitely earned some boasting rights after trying three times to achieve this task.

In doing so, he connected the settlement to a seemingly unending source of wealth in the lands west of the Blue Mountains and paved the way for what would, over the next 200 years, become Australia's largest and richest city, Sydney, in the country's richest state, New South Wales.

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