Early-European Exploration in the Blue Mountains
In June 1789, 18 months after first settlement, Governor Phillip and his party rowed up the Hawkesbury River to the junction with the Grose River where it rushes out from the mountains. Phillip named them the Camarthen Hills. For the next 20 years, the mountains marked the edge of the colony's westward expansion.
In December 1789, William Dawes, accompanied by two other experienced explorers, Lieutenant George Johnston and Surgeon's mate Lowes, forded the Nepean River near the present site of Penrith and headed towards Round Hill (Mount Hay). Several days later it is recorded that 'they returned, not having been able to proceed more than fifteen miles.' After meeting a 'sucession of deep ravines, the sides of which were frequently inaccessible' they had reached a point slightly north-west of Linden, beyond which, as far as the eye could see, the country was merely a repetition of that which they had just traversed with such difficulty. Two years later, Dawes and Tench climbed Knight Hill (Kurrajong) the view was just the same.
In September 1793, Captain William Paterson with a small party including George Johnston rowed up the Hawkesbury to the Grose River. After abandoning their heavy boats for lighter ones, they followed this stream west into the chasm. They encountered large rocks and numerous waterfalls until they came to the base of a precipitous rock face somewhere in the vicinity of Wentworth Creek.
Henry Hacking, a quartter master, set off to discover a passage in August 1794. Details of his route are unknown but he claims to have pushed twenty miles further than any other European but was forced to return by views of the same wild and inaccessible kind of country.
Discovery of fine country to the south-west of the colony in 1795 delayed further attempts to push west across the Blue Mountains.
Bass set out in June 1796 with two others. they took with them scaling irons and ropes to cope with the precipitous cliffs. They travelled on a southerly route into the lower Burragorang Valley and pushed west to a point just east of Kanangra Plateau but after 15 days during which they 'escaladed horrible perpendicular mountains' their provisions ran out and they were forced to return.
There were probably a number of other attempts which have gone unrecorded. There is mention of an attempt by Bass in the northerly area along the Grose River. John Wilson led an attempt in 1798 mainly to prove their was no fabled shangri-la to which convicts might aspire to escape. They returned exhausted and weak from hunger, having reached somewhere in the region west of Mittagong. Their expedition collected the first specimen of a lyrebird and the first written accounts of the wombat and the koala.
Francis Barralier, an engineer, set off in November 1802 from a base camp he had established in an earlier expedition along the Nattai River. he headed west through country which still ranks as some of the most rugged in Australia. He reached the Kowmung River and was within 15 to 20 miles of Jenolan Caves but still no route through the mountains emerged and there was the same conclusion 'that this formidable barrier is impassable for man'.
George Caley arrived in the colony as a botanical collector for Sir Joseph Banks. He set out in November 1804 and followed the ridge north of the Grose for part of the way but ventured into the valley - the devil's Wilderness - beyond Kurrajong Heights. The party reached Mount Banks on 15 November and with their provisions nearly exhausted decide to return. About thirty new plants were discovered on the journey.
There is a little known report of another unsuccesful attempt by a freed convict David Mann in 1807.
Gregory Blaxland, who arrived in Australia in 1806 was one of the new gentleman farmers affected by the shortage of available land. He made reconnaissance trips between 1810 and 1813 along the edge of the mountains. He discarded the two earlier approaches of either following a compass bearing over valley and ridge or following rivers and creeks to the inevitable encounter with waterfalls and cliffs. Blaxland decided to to attack the mountains 'by the ridge which appeared to run westward, between the Warragomby(sic) and the River Grose'. He would try to keep between the streams which flowed from this ridge into each of these large rivers.
He approached William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth to accompany him on the trip.
They departed on 11 May, 1813 with four servants, five dogs and four horses. The route they traversed is, with some slight variations, still the one used by travellers today. On the 31 May they reached Mount Blaxland from where they could see the plains to the west. They arrived back at Blaxland's property on South Creek on 6 June.
A surveyor, George William Evans was sent to confirm the account of Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson and to establish beyond doubt the existence of the valuable lands to the west. They reached Mount Blaxland in 8 days and pushed onto the western plains reaching the Macquarie River.
In July 1814 William Cox was appointed superintendent of the road building project and six months later, in January 1815, a road suitable for animal and cart transport had been completed.
Gradual improvements were made and in 1823 the whole Western road was resurveyed and a new route was discovered west of Kurrajong by Archibald Bell now known as Bell's Line of Road.
Major Thomas Mitchell became Surveyor-General of the colony in 1827 and constructed major public works such as Lennox Bridge and Mitchell's Pass at Glenbrook and the Victoria Pass at Mount Victoria. Much of the surrounding wilderness was also surveyed and mapped.
Nevertheless, by the 1860's the growth of settlement was still negligible. The Blue Mountains was still not a place in which to live except for innkeepers and toll collectors. Life was remote and lonely.
It took the construction of the Western railway under the direction of the engineer, John Whitton to make the Blue Mountains increasingly attractive as a recreational retreat and ultimately as a place to live permanently. The railway reached Mount Victoria in 1867.