John Dunmore Lang’s Travels
John Dunmore Lang wrote about many of his travels in New South Wales and the next two pieces relate to his trip to Wiseman’s Ferry and subsequently on the Great North Road from Wiseman’s to Wollombi. The description comes from his book, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, Vol. 2, 1834, published in London by Cockrane and McCrone.
a. John Dunmore Lang’s travels to Wiseman’s Ferry
The first time I travelled across the mountains – in the year 1827 – I had a young man, who lived as a settler at Hunter’s River, for my fellow-traveller, and guide. Our horses had each a long tether-rope wound about their necks, to fasten them with at night; we had each a valise or portmanteau affixed to the saddle behind, containing a small supply of provisions for the mountain-part of the road, and a boat-cloak lashed to it before, to serve as our covering when bivouacking in the open forest during the night. A tin quart-jug to make tea in on the mountains, and a pistol to strike a light, completed our equipment.
b. John Dunmore Lang’s travels the Great North Road from Wiseman’s to Wollombi
Having slowly gained the summit of the ridge, we again mounted our horses and trotted at a brisk pace along an excellent road, over a mountainous and sterile country, for about twelve miles; we then dismounted for breakfast, near a small stream of limpid water, in a valley called The Twelve Mile Hollow, unsaddled our horses and, fixing the ends of their tether ropes, turned them out to browse for a little on the miserable vegetation which the place afforded. My fellow-traveller then struck a light with his pistol and immediately kindled a fire, on which he placed the tin-jug, which he had strapped for the purpose to his saddle bow on our leaving the small settler’s, and which he had previously filled with water from their well. He put the requisite quantity of tea in the palm of his hand, and threw it into the pot; and then, adding a quantity of sugar, he broke off a twig from the dead branch of a tree, which he humorously told me was called a ‘spoon’ in the Australian dialect, and stirred the mixture … For a mile or two from the place where we halted for refreshment, the road, which was only a footpath at the time I refer to, though it is now a good road throughout, lay along the bottom of the valley; but we were soon obliged to dismount again to climb up the precipitious side of a steep mountain, to gain the summit of which the colonists call a ‘dividing range’. These ranges which are flanked on either side by deep and sometimes impassable ravines, traverse the country in many places for a great distance, … and the traveller has therefore merely to ascertain the proper range, to ascend to the summit and to follow it in all its circumlocutions, to reach the proposed termination of his journey; for if he should attempt to pursue a direct course by descending into the gullies, he would in all probability lose his way and perhaps perish of hunger. The summits of these ridges are just broad enough for the construction of a carriage road, and they are often so level that a person on horseback can trot along them for miles together without the slightest interruption.
The stage we had now commenced was eighteen miles in length but the frequent mountings and dismountings, to climb or to descend the rocky sides of the mountains, made it appear much longer. In many parts of the route, the road was so very bad, that I am sure most English horses would have refused to face it; it seemed as precipitous in some places as the stair of a church-steeple; and how the poor horses could either ascend or descend I was frequently at a loss to conceive. The colonial horses, however, are remarkably adept in such situations; my own was an Australian by birth and was so trustworthy … on the mountain road that I had only to throw the reins on his neck in the dismounting places and he would either ascend or descend the steepest and ruggedest precipices, as quickly as I could follow him, without ever leaving the track.
Along the miserable valley of the Twelve Mile Hollow, and up the sides of the rugged and sterile mountain beyond it, to a height … of not less than fifteen hundred feet above the level of the sea, I was exceedingly gratified at observing innumerable specimens of one of the most splendid flowers in the whole botanical kingdom … commonly called … the gigantic lily (the gymea lily) …
At the termination of our second stage, we arrived at a place, of which the mere name is sufficient description – ‘Hungry Flat’: it affords neither bread for man nor grass for horses, and its only recommendation is a stream of delicious water, at which both the horse and his rider … quench their thirst. We again unsaddled our horses … and allowed them to roll themselves on the sand.
In half an hour we were again on horseback and trotting along towards the valley of the Wollombi, at the head of which we arrived towards sunset, after traversing about eight or ten miles more of sterile mountainous country.
Baron von Hugel Travels the Great North Road
In 1834, Baron Charles von Hugel, visiting from Germany, travelled on horseback along the road from Newcastle to Sydney. His description of his travels along the Great North Road give a genuine picture of the route that he took and what he saw as he went along:- “Tuesday 15th July 1834. After breakfast I began my journey … About 4 miles from Maitland, after crossing a number of small ponds (often over bridges) with their outlets to the Hunter, you come to a road running from Wollombi to Port Stephens and, at the 17th mile, you enter a forest on a rise which is the site fixed by the Government for the town of Maitland … You cross Wallis Creek by a bridge and, after another mile, you are in what is now Maitland.
[This Wallis Creek bridge is mentioned by the Baron in the following terms:- ‘For a number of years, this bridge played a prominent role in the newspapers. It was built by the Dumaresq brothers, who were Mrs Darling’s (wife of the Governor) brothers. As a condition laid down in advance, Governor Darling gave the the right in perpetuity to collect customs and tolls, in return for building the bridge. But the pretty bridge collapsed and the brothers demanded compensation. … The new bridge is a complete monstrosity, as regards both design and site.’] We reached Lewin’s Inn at evening. Fear of the bushment, the robbers who robbed St Aubin, has spread to Maitland and not without reason, for while the mounted police have sent their main force up north, the robbers have been seen here in this vicinity …
From Wollombi, the road, that is to say, the route of the road, runs straight through the forest. … This is all open forest country, with nothing to stop you riding as fast as you like in any direction until you reach the mountain range. … Twenty-eight miles from Wollombi, I came to a fine bridge on which 40-50 men are at work. Nearby is a detachment of convicts without chains who are working on it. Soon after that, you come to the junction of the Watagan and Wollombi (creeks). Here I found a newly erected inn, which in fact consists only of a hut made of treebark, but was spotlessly clean. … The road ran continuously down a valley surrounded by considerable hills, with occasional narrow patches of excellent soil, but the valley is too narrow for a more extensive property. …
Sunday 20th July. Of all the lonely roads of New South Wales, today I had to travel the loneliest; neither a hut nor a single patch of cultivation is to be seen for 36 miles. Although the morning began without rain, I did not wait for daylight to appear before setting out, so as to cover the 41 miles before nightfall. …
There is now a most romantic route which, instead of running like the earlier one steeply over the highest peaks, has been built on the eastern side of a rocky mountain range. However, this road is so far only just wide enough for one vehicle and often passes very close to deep abysses. …
After travelling 30 miles through sand and stone and a wild, lonely countryside without a vestige of cultivation, you suddenly see before you, as if by the wave of a magic wand, the fertile little valley of the Macdonald, with its green fields and houses, and the Hawkesbury in the further distance. …
Down to it led a roadway which may, with confidence, be compared with any road in the world for its solid and aesthetic design and its even gradient (Devine’s Hill). It is by far the finest piece of work the colony has to show. The run-off gutters for taking away the water are particularly fine and well designed. The verges of the road are overgrown with (gymea lilies) and down below, on the opposite bank, stands Mr Wiseman’s pretty establishment with extensive fields and gardens.”
Mitchell on the Devil’s Backbone
Sir Thomas Mitchell was investigating the route that had been set out for the Great North Road and was travelling from Twelve Mile Hollow to Hungry Flat. He set out this piece of the story in his Field Note and Sketch Book 1828-1830 (C41 Mitchell Library):- “Saturday 12th, (1829) left the encampment at half past eight and travelled along a very bad path along the range – so bad that one of the horses names Sharper – making a false step – fell and rolling was precipitated from rock to rock, till he was out of sight, which the crash of his fall from rock to rock was still heard. To the surprise of everyone, he was afterwards found below, still alive and subsequently carried his load! Being only injured by a severe cut on one of his thighs which made him lame a little. My table and seat were broken to pieces, but the rest of the load consisting of my tent and bedding were uninjured. We continued with difficulty along a rugged crest of a winding ridge, Sharper falling down again and other animals requiring adjustment of their loads, so that we made with difficulty at sunset, a poor open spot, clear of timber from mere sterility, called Hungry Flat, where we encamped for the night, the distance travelled being only 10 miles.
“Sunday 13th, while the animals were loading, I went to the top of a hill to reconnoitre the country. Saw Warrawalong, apparently distant about 12 miles – but from the sinuosity of the ranges, I thought it would be better to proceed to Young Wiseman’s and then strike across to it. Before we left the camp, I sent back an overseer with a note to Mr Abbott requesting him to come by the Mangrove Road, this being so bad, and I directed this man to conduct them as soon as he could to Warrawalong – and then find out my encampment and conduct the party to it – It having appeared to me that the road by Mangrove must be both better and more direct to the mountain.
Sir Thomas Mitchell – Parramatta to Hawkesbury
In his book, Three Journeys Into the Interior of Eastern Australia (page 7, Mitchell Library 981/2 D1-2), Sir Thomas Mitchell describes a journey which he made from Parramatta to Wiseman’s Ferry on the Hawkesbury River. As with descriptions by others, the ridges, ravines and valleys and the “sterile” country seem to require full emphasis. Yet there is always a mention of the strange botanical specimens which live in these regions. This excerpt is no different in this respect:-
“My ride on that day was along a ridge which extended upwards of fifty miles through a succession of deep ravines, where no other objects meet the eye than barren sandstone rocks and stunted trees. With the banksia and xanthorrhoea (Blackboy or grass tree) ever in sight, the idea of hopeless sterility is ever present to the mind, for these, in sandy soils at least grow only where nothing else can grow. The horizon is flat, affording no relief to the eye from the dreary and inhospitable scene which these solitudes present; they extend over a great portion of country uninhabitable even by the aborigines. Yet here the patient labours of the surveyor have opened a road, although the stream of population must be confined to it, since it cannot spread over a region so utterly unprofitable and worthless. It is not until a traveller has completed a journey of fifty miles that he enjoys the sight, doubly cheering after crossing such a desert, of green cultivated fields and the dwellings of man. The broad waters of the Hawkesbury then come unexpectedly in view, flowing in the deepest and apparently inaccessible of these rock-bound vallies. He soon discovers a practical proof of the advantage of convict labour to the inhabitants of such a country, in the facility with which he descends by a road cut in the rock, to the comfortable inn near the ferry across the Hawkesbury.”
On page 9 of his book, Mitchell describes a journey north from the Hawkesbury. On part of this journey, he was accompanied by Percy Simpson who gets a complimentary recognition of his work on that part of the road which was used on Mitchell’s visit there:- “The country traversed by this new road is equally barren and more mountainous than that traversed between Parramatta and the Hawkesbury. Amid these rocky heights and depths, across which I had recently toiled on foot, marking out with no ordinary labour the intended line, I now had the satisfaction to trot along a new level road, winding like a thread through the dreary labyrinth before me, and in which various parts had already acquired a local appellation not wholly unsuited to their character, such as ‘Hungry Flat’, ‘Devil’s Backbone’, ‘No-Grass Valley, and ‘Dennis’s Dog-Kennel’. In fact, the whole face of the country is composed of sandstone rock and but partially covered with vegetation. The horizon is only broken by one or two summits which are different both in outline and in quality from the surrounding country.
… We had passed No-Grass Valley, the Devil’s Backbone and were approaching Hungry Flat, when Mr Simpson produced a grilled fowl and a feed for our horses-and we willingly alighted for half an hour, to partake of this timely refreshment near a spring. On re-mounting, I bade Mr Simpson farewell, after expressing my satisfaction with his clever arrangements for opening this mountain road, a work which he had accomplished with small means in nine months.”
On page 9, Mitchell also gives a description of Mount Warrawalong, where he surveyed part of the route for the Great North Road:- “… These isolated heights generally consist of trap rock (volcanic rock) and are covered with rich soil and very heavy timber. The most remarkable is Warrawalong-whose top I first observed from the hill of Jellore in the south, at a distance of 108 miles. This being a most important station for the general survey which I made previously to opening the northern road, it was desirable to clear the summit, at least partly, of trees, which work, after considerable labour, was accomplished- the trees having been very large. On removing the primeval forest, I found the view from that summit extended over a wild waste of rocky precipitous ravines, which debarred all access or passage in any direction, until I could patiently trace out the ridges between them, and for this purpose I ascended that hill on ten successive days, the whole of which time I devoted to the examination of the various outlines and their connections, by means of the theodolite.”
On page 11, Mitchell gives a picture of the country around Wollombi with a mention of the settlers who had moved into this area:- “It was quite dark on the evening of the 26th before I reached the inn near the head of the little valley of the Wollombi, a tributary stream to the river Hunter. …In the … Upper Wollombi we find but little breadth of alluvial soil but the water never fails, and this has already attracted settlers to its banks – and those small farmers who live on a field or two of maize and potatoes and who are the only beginning of an agricultural population as yet apparent in New South Wales – shew a disposition to nestle in any available corner there.”
Sir Thomas Mitchell – Warrawalong and Wollombi
On page 9 of his Three Journeys Into the Interior of Eastern Australia, Mitchell also gives a description of Mount Warrawalong, where he surveyed part of the route for the Great North Road:- “… These isolated heights generally consist of trap rock (volcanic rock) and are covered with rich soil and very heavy timber. The most remarkable is Warrawalong-whose top I first observed from the hill of Jellore in the south, at a distance of 108 miles. This being a most important station for the general survey which I made previously to opening the northern road, it was desirable to clear the summit, at least partly, of trees, which work, after considerable labour, was accomplished- the trees having been very large. On removing the primeval forest, I found the view from that summit extended over a wild waste of rocky precipitous ravines, which debarred all access or passage in any direction, until I could patiently trace out the ridges between them, and for this purpose I ascended that hill on ten successive days, the whole of which time I devoted to the examination of the various outlines and their connections, by means of the theodolite.”
The Mirage and the Theodolite
It is worth considering another aspect of Thomas Mitchell’s work in New South Wales, using the content of a paper by Martin Thomas, Limited Legibility: Sir Thomas Mitchell and the Great North Road, in the Forum Papers presented at the conference on Exploring the Great North Road in 1998.
As one of its most senior officers since 1828 as Surveyor-General, Mitchell had made lengthy expeditions out into New South Wales, west from Sydney. In all of his travels, there was a ceaseless extension of his trigonometrical survey, setting new standards in scientific travel. He was skilled in drawing and mapping, practising as both an artist and a scientist. He had experienced the optical illusion (known to us as a mirage) produced by rising hot air and moisture to make akin to a great lens in the lower atmosphere – a refractive effect.
Mitchell’s astonishment had been his reaction when he was surveying for the Great North Road and on the ranges adjoining Mount Warrawalong encountered the illusion. There, on the western horizon, he noticed “Several gigantic ranges … overhanging with trees & glistening with rocks.” Staring at his notebook in stupefaction-previously he had sketched the view-Mitchell reached for his telescope, enlarged the enlargement, and watched the mountains “change shape” until one “fell away in the middle”. (Mitchell; Field, note and sketchbook 1828-1830 MS Mitchell Library [C42]) This first encounter would set the tone of his dealings with optical illusions. On the River Darling, six years later, he not only observed the vision through his telescope, but took readings with a theodolite, obtaining bearings on the refracted ranges that appeared before him “from a spot whence it could be but seldom visible,” and thus incorporating the “mirage” into his trigonometrical survey. (Mitchell, Three Expeditions Vol.1, p239)
The Country around Wollombi
Mitchell gives a picture of the country around Wollombi with a mention of the settlers who had moved into this area:- “It was quite dark on the evening of the 26th before I reached the inn near the head of the little valley of the Wollombi, a tributary stream to the river Hunter. …In the … Upper Wollombi we find but little breadth of alluvial soil but the water never fails, and this has already attracted settlers to its banks – and those small farmers who live on a field or two of maize and potatoes and who are the only beginning of an agricultural population as yet apparent in New South Wales – shew a disposition to nestle in any available corner there.