200 years on: Crossing the Blue Mountains

By Matt Smith 14 May 2013
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May 2013 marks the bicentenary of the first European crossing of the Blue Mountains.

THEY WERE CONDEMNED BY eminent explorer George Bass as “horrible perpendicular mountains”. Governor King conceded, “This formidable barrier is impassable for men.” The British House of Commons glibly concluded that beyond these mountains, “the colony will not be capable of extension.”

It seemed that the Blue Mountains, in modern-day New South Wales, had hoodwinked explorers since colonisation. From 1789 to 1806, 10 expeditions had penetrated this formidable natural fortress, most of them deemed heroic failures.

On 11 May 1813, Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Wentworth commenced their historic attempt to release Sydney from its topographical prison. Twenty-one days later, they ‘crossed’ the Blue Mountains.

Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth

Mythology depicts Blaxland as a practical, resourceful man with a steely resolve. He had previously conducted two reconnaissance missions into the area, motivated by the need for pasture land for his cattle.

Lawson was a qualified surveyor but required more stimulation than his profession permitted. He was a tough character and a veritable bushman.

Youngest of the lot was 23-year-old Wentworth. Nearly a surgeon and almost a soldier, he possessed an adventurous spirit and a passion for life. The party also included four servants, four pack-horses and five dogs. Together, they carried six weeks of supplies, tents, seven hand guns, compasses and cutting tools.

The 1813 expedition

Blaxland implemented the strategy of following the ridges and not the valleys. It was arduous work. Every day they hacked through dense brushwood, returned for the animals, and proceeded once again through the cleared path.

Their plight was exacerbated by precipitous cliffs, foreboding gorges and perilous waterfalls. Blaxland offered a succinct assessment of the landscape through which they floundered with his scornful description: “A dreadful convulsion of nature.”

On 31 May, after 21 days and 93km, the explorers reached the end of their epic journey. They climbed a hill shaped like a sugar loaf, where Blaxland famously opined: “Forest or grass land, sufficient in extent … to support the stock of the colony for the next 30 years.” The hill was later named Mt Blaxland.

Indigenous groups: the first explorers

Chris Cunningham, author of The Blue Mountains Rediscovered, asserts that this triumph should be seen as a “single heroic act” rather than the first crossing, as local Aboriginal groups had crossed these mountains well before the 1813 expedition.

Dr Martin Thomas, an historian from the Australian National University in Canberra, agrees. “Undoubtedly there was an Aboriginal route,” Martin says. “The archaeological evidence, a continuous chain of occupation sites, leaves no doubt.”

Convicts, foreigners and intrepid explorers before them had also made significant contributions to the geographical lexicon of the Blue Mountains.

In terms of the 1813 event, even Blaxland admitted that the three explorers had not traversed the mountains, rather “at all events proved that they are traversable.”

Despite never claiming to be the first Europeans to make the crossing, Governor Macquarie bestowed upon them this honour in 1814.