Wattle bird feeding on banksia bloom in the Blue Mountains.

I have been revising  a piece I wrote about pioneering women and their appreciation of Australia’s native flora.  Not surprisingly, the Blue Mountains featured heavily. Once the first road was constructed from Sydney through to Bathurst in 1815,  intrepid settlers followed.

Then the iron ranges echoed

To a long and ceaseless beat;

Old and young, and man and woman,

Marching on with tireless feet,

Through the noontide, through the twilight,

Winter-cold and summer-heat.

By Roderick Quinn 1920.

In 1822, the Hawkins family (Elizabeth, her husband Thomas, her mother and her eight children)  became the first  free European family  to cross the  Blue Mountains.  They were intending to settle at Bathurst.  Oh my word, what a daunting journey.

Elizabeth Hawkins, who crossed the Blue Mountains in 1822.
Elizabeth Hawkins

On the second day, they reached the foothills by bullock wagon. Elizabeth would later write home to England;

‘…imagine me at the foot of a tremendous mountain, the difficult of passing which is, I suppose, as great or greater than any known road in the world, not for the road being bad, as it has been made, and is hard all the way, but the difficulty lies in the extreme steepness of the ascent and descent, the hollow places, and the large rugged pieces of rock. You will perhaps, imagine, as I had done, that the mountains are perfectly barren……but as far as the eye can reach, even from the highest  summit, every hill and dale is covered with wood, lofty trees, and small shrubs, many of them blooming with the most delicate flowers, the colours so beautiful that the highest circles in England would prize them. 

Grevillea would surely have featured among the plants she admired;

Grevillea bloom in the Blue Mountains,
Nectar filled grevillea.
Bee on grevillea.
The complex beauty of a grevillea flower.



Early in the  journey the Hawkins’ spent an intolerable night at Springwood,  tormented  by bed bugs and  disturbed by drunken soldiers. Next morning, Elizabeth gathered her mother and  her daughters  and the three generations of women restored their spirits by walking ahead of the  wagons to pick wildflowers.  Elizabeth   later wrote; ‘It was such a relief to get away from that place that I never enjoyed a walk more. We gathered most delicate nosegays from the flowering shrubs that grew amongst the trees.’ .

Crimson rosella with mountain devil flower in the Blue Mountains,
Crimson Rosella sipping Mountain Devil flower
Wattle bird in the tea-tree.

In the winter of 1841, 27 year old  Sophia Stanger also made the arduous trip from Sydney across the Blue Mountains to Bathurst. She was accompanied by  her husband and  five young  children, one born each year since their  marriage in 1837.  In a long  account sent to her mother  she noted;  ‘Our road hitherto ( before Lapstone Hill)  had borne the appearance of a shrubbery or pleasure ground, lying through beautiful evergreens, thickly interspersed with flowers of different hues, and many of them quite equal to those dear Aunt brings from Wandsworth.

Wildflowers at Blackheath
So delicate
Apple berry bloom.
The soft yellow bell of the wildflower Apple Berry.
Bottlebrush (Callistemon).

The pretty heath, called acacia, and sold in London in pots, grows here in abundance, and, I think, must be the same;  but as we were strangers in this really lovely land, we could only guess at the names.’     These words not only reveal  Stanger’s sensitivity and powers of observation, but her open mind. Many newcomers  dismissed  the Australian landscape as  alien and inhospitable.




Writer and illustrator Louise Meredith was famously uncomplimentary about Sydney and  colony of New South Wales  in her book,  Notes and Sketches of New South Wales (1844). She deplored the way people cleared the land of every piece of greenery, creating  unsightly dust bowls.

Louisa Meredith

However, even the acerbic Louisa was  captivated by the bush when she travelled from Sydney to Bathurst in the spring of 1839, especially the native grass tree;  ‘..one of the most strikingly novel plants I observed in our mountain journey.’

Australian grass trees in t,he Blue Mountains
The wonderful grass trees.

The waratahs also lived up to her expectations;

I had often been told of the “waratah” (Telopea speciocissima) and its grand appearance when growing; and as we drove along, instantly recognized from the description the first of these magnificent flowers we saw, and soon after came more into their especial region, which is about half-way up the height of the mountains, few being seen either far above or below this range….The stem is woody, and grows perfectly straight, from three to six feet in height, about the thickness of a walking-cane, and bearing rich green leaves (something like those of the oak, but much larger) all the way up. At the top of this stem is the flower, entirely of the brightest and richest shade of crimson-scarlet. A circle of large spreading petals  forms its base, from which rises the cone or pyramid of trumpet-like florets, three, four, or five inches high; the whole flower being much the size of a fine artichoke. Sometimes the  stems branch off like a candelabrum, but more generally the flowers grow singly, one on each stalk, and look like bright flambeaux amidst the dark recesses of these wild forests.

Waratah bloom, a treasure of the Blue Mountains.
NSW Waratah  in the bush at Blackheath (Photo by  my neighbor  Nicole Schmidt}

For many years gardeners did not appreciate Australia’s  native flora.  Here in the Blue Mountains our cool  climate suited  trees and flowers  from the northern hemisphere and they were planted almost exclusively. Even when native plants became widely available in nurseries the emphasis remained on exotics.  Only now  are we  viewing them in a different light, driven  partly by  concern over climate change and the need to protect biodiversity.

I’m not sure I would have undertaken the difficult journeys these pioneering women simply took in their stride.  However,  I do find peace  and solace in nature during difficult times , just as they did. Thankfully the Blue Mountains, despite fires and floods, continues to be a place of great beauty.

Govett's Leap, Blackheath  in the Blue Mountains of NSW.
Spectacular Govett’s Leap at Blackheath.


  1. Despite all the amazing flowers and other sights these pioneers came across, I’ve decided more and more, but especially as I’ve got older, that I was never cut out to be one of the first pioneers anywhere, whether it be Australia, America or elsewhere. I know many left behind appalling circumstances to make that decision, but I’m sure trekking hundreds of miles would have been daunting under any circumstances.

    • Pauline

      Well I have to disagree Marcia. You would have been the perfect pioneer!

  2. I’m with you, Marcia – I’d be scared witless by the idea of all those mountains and virgin forest, terrified of what might be lying in wait for me! But those women – with young children too – were so incredibly brave. And sensitive to the beauty of what they were seeing – I guess that was what spurred them on.
    A lovely account, Pauline, and such stunning photos – thank you

    • Pauline

      But look at the adventures you and Captain Peter had with your children. I think, like Marcia, you are not giving your spirit enough credit!

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.