Blaxland’s journeys of exploration: Blue Mountains conquered [chapter 12 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 12 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 2 September 1934.]

The story of Australia — XII.

Blue Mountains conquered

Blaxland’s journeys of exploration

It is a remarkable fact that for a period of 25 years the early settlers of New South Wales were confined to a narrow strip of land stretching from the sea to the Blue Mountains. The tall ridge that could be seen from the shores of Port Jackson had proved an impassable barrier to any western extension of the settlement. Many attempts had been made to scale the heights and reach the interior, but all had ended in failure.

In June, 1796, the gallant Bass did all that pluck and perseverance could accomplish in the hope of forcing a passage by way of the valley of the Grose. Francis Barallier in 1802 led a party and reached a point near the source of the Lachlan River. In the latter part of 1804 George Caley made his famous attempt to cross the Blue Mountains in a westerly direction. As he advanced, he found the country rugged and barren, and the valleys for the most part impassable. After incredible fatigue, Caley and his party got to Mount Banks the twelfth day after he had left Richmond Hill, only to find an “inaccessible valley” in front of him. His report on returning was most despondent, and Governor King in summing up the result of 18 years labour wrote:—

“As far as respects the extension of agriculture beyond the first range of mountains, that is an idea that must be given up, as the rocks to the west of that range wear the most barren and forbidding aspect which man, animals, birds, and vegetation have ever been strangers to,” a better proof of which may not be adduced than the remark of one of Caley’s party in returning, who explained on seeing two solitary crows, “that they had lost their way.”

Gateway of the west

Eight years passed away, and still the Blue Mountains were regarded as impenetrable. Drought ravaged the land, and the dwindling herds grew less and less as the days went by. One thing, and one thing only, could save the settlement — the mountains must be made to yield up their secret, the gateway of the west must be unlocked.

And once again the hour brought forth the men. Gregory Blaxland, who had settled on a farm at South Creek, near Penrith, was confident that the problem could be solved, and after making two journeys of exploration to the range, he came to the conclusion that if he kept on the crowning ridge or dividing watershed between the Warragamba and the Grose he would attain his object.

He determined to make the attempt, and when he had arranged his plan for the great adventure, he confided his intention to his two friends. Lieutenant William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth, the future framer of the constitution of New South Wales. They both were eager to accompany him; and with the good wishes of Governor Macquarie they set out from Blaxland’s farm on May 11, 1813. The exploring party consisted of the three principals attended by four servants, with four horses loaded with provisions and other necessaries, and five dogs.

The last struggle

The same afternoon they crossed the Nepean at Emu Island, and the next day they began the ascent of the first ridge, encamping for the night a little distance from the present Blaxland railway station On May 13 they travelled through forest country all day, and at night they camped at the foot of a ridge that was to witness the last struggle between man and the mountains.

Here the scrub of brushwood, was so thick that their progress was barred at every step. It was then decided to cut a path through those bushes, and for two days the leaders and two men were thus occupied, leaving two men in charge of the camp. On Sunday, May 16, the explorers rested at their camp. As no grass had been discovered for the horses en route, it was necessary to load each horse with two hundredweight of grass on Monday, when they journeyed six and a half miles.

Throughout all their difficulties they clung to the actual ridge top. On May 18, a track was marked for only two miles further, and the next day was spent in moving camp to the end of this track. It was on this day that they came upon a heap of stones which they thought must have been piled up by Bass. The cairn was afterwards called Caley’s Repulse by Governor Macquarie, but recent research suggests that Caley was never near the spot in question.

Lines of cliffs

Undergrowth still impeded their progress, and they had to continue cutting a passage until Saturday, May 22, when they reached and camped on King’s Tableland. Here the progress towards the west was blocked by an impassable line of cliffs. On the following day they travelled in a northerly direction, and encamped on the swamps above Wentworth Falls. For the next few days they followed a circuitous route, eventually pitching their camp on the edge of Mount York on May 28. As there was no water at the camping place the horses were taken down the mountain in the evening where water and abundant grass were discovered, the first fresh grass the horses had eaten for 12 days.

On the next day, Saturday, the horses were brought up the mountain, loaded, and taken down Cox’s Pass, a passage which they had discovered the day before. The country presented no further obstacle and they rightly concluded that they had found a passage over the mountains. Coming to a high sugar-loaf hill, they ascended it, and from the top saw, as Blaxland describes: “Forest and grass land, sufficient to support the stock of the colony for the next 30 years.”

The explorers were now compelled to return. The whole party was weakened by fatigue and sickness, and their provisions were nearly exhausted. On June 1 the return journey was commenced, and on Sunday, June 6, they arrived at Blaxland’s farm after an absence of 26 days.

“The names of Blaxland, Wentworth, and Lawson,” says a gifted writer, “will live as long as Australia exists. Their valour changed the destinies of the great island continent, and made possible the wealth, progress, and prosperity of thousands of Australia’s sons, banded together to-day in a mighty continent.”

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 2 September 1934, p. 29

Editor’s notes:
Emu Island = Emu Plains; located on the western side of the Nepean River, this area was originally named Emu Island as when explorers first saw the area (which happened to be populated by emus), they thought it was an island on the Nepean River
See: 1) “Places: Emu Island” (Journeys in Time: 1809 -1822: The journals of Lachlan & Elizabeth Macquarie), Macquarie University (accessed 30 September 2013)
2) “Emu Plains, New South Wales”, Wikipedia (accessed 30 September 2013)

[Editor: Corrected: “Blue Moutains in” to “Blue Mountains in”; “of Govenor Macquarie” to “of Governor Macquarie”; “Wau Island” to “Emu Island” (this correction was made with reference to an earlier publication of this article, “The march over the Blue Mountains” (part of the “Great events in our history” series, by Martin Hambleton), Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 15 February, p. 18).]

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