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 Mountains. They were intending to settle at Bathurst. Oh my word, what a daunting journey.
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;
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.’ .
In the winter of 1841, 27 year old Sophia Stanger also made the arduous trip from Sydney 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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.