The Evans Expedition

As you travel along the Great Western Highway from Bathurst towards Orange, there is a signpost for Evans Plains. Depending on the time of year and recent rainfall, the outlook is often a vista of rolling green hills. That a man called Evans had travelled through this way is clear, but as many parts of Australia are named for people with loose associations with the area, it was only when I came across a statue commemorating George Evans at Bathurst that I realised that he was one of the early colonial explorers.

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Evans Memorial at Bathurst, commemorating his discovery of the Bathurst Plains

Recently there was an unveiling of an interpretative sign on the Hampton Road near Rydal in the hills beyond Lithgow. The sign has been created to compliment a memorial to George Evans and his exploratory party who crossed the Blue Mountains and the Great Dividing Range near Mount Cheetham, south of Rydal. The expedition was at the request of Governor Macquarie in 1813, and followed the track through the mountains left by the Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson crossing. This journey paved the way for the opening up of the western districts with Evans and his party travelling past the future town of Bathurst and out towards the village of Molong. The journey took 55 days and covered nearly 500 km. The party eventually turned back as supplies were running out.

Evans kept a journal, and he became increasingly effusive about the countryside which he was travelling through, identifying the potential of the grassed lands to satisfy sheep and cattle. With the colony in need of expansion, this was welcome news.

I cannot speak too much of the country. The increase of stock for some 100 years cannot overrun it, the grass is so good and intermixed with a variety of herbs.

The memorial near Hampton is close to the location of Evan’s camp on the night that the mountains were crossed on 30 November 1813. The sign is located beside an obelisk now located on Antonio Reserve, Hampton Road. The obelisk was erected in 1963 by the Lithgow Historical Society, and it commemorates Evans and his party. The interpretative sign was the work of the Lithgow branch of the National Trust, Lithgow City Council and Bill Hoolihan, a Hampton resident, along with three years of fundraising efforts.

The unveiling of the sign was attended by a large number of people from the local area and further afield, keen to keep the story of Evan’s journey alive. This included a welcome to country by a member of the Wiradjuri nation, and a short introduction by Lithgow Mayor, Stephen Lesslie, who said that without understanding our past, we struggle to find our future.

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Interpretative sign near Hampton

The common perception is that the Blue Mountains were crossed by Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, and whilst they did blaze a trail – largely by following the well-worn paths across the mountains travelled by Aboriginals – it is Evans and his small team of travellers and convicts who really deserve this recognition.

An overview of this exploratory journey and Evan’s life was provided by Paul Brunton OAM, Emeritus Curator of the State Library. From Evans’ upbringing in Warwick as the son of an estate manager to his various roles in the colonies of New South Wales and Tasmania, Evans lived an eventful life. Brunton provided an overview, noting that despite his considerable achievements, there is relatively little remaining in the way of personal papers to provide insight into the man himself. Evans seemed to be conscious of his lack of a classical education, and this also had an impact on his career opportunities. When his journals were sent to London to share the expedition’s discoveries, feedback on Evans’ educational shortcomings – such as ‘Riverlett’ which is still honoured today – overshadowed his achievements.

Despite his successful expedition out across the western plains, and the payment of a reward and land grant in Tasmania, Evans’ career was somewhat inconsistent. He continued on as Assistant Surveyor-General for a spell, and was sent to Hobart to help with rectifying issues with questionable land surveying practices there. Macquarie called him back and forth to help with further expeditions through New South Wales, and he accompanied John Oxley on various explorations.

Evans lived a long life, marrying again after the death of his first wife and having at least a dozen children. What personal records there are show him to be a brave, thoughtful man who treated the men including convicts who accompanied him with compassion. He displayed empathy towards the indigenous people and the changes that would follow for them with colonisation. He expressed admiration for the country he was helping to explore and chart. His occupations are listed as art teacher, bookseller, explorer, farmer, landscape artist, public servant, shop owner, stationer, surveyor and surveyor-general. Quite a resume!

It is apt that Evans’ role in charting the plains beyond the Blue Mountains is being recorded and expanded upon for more people to appreciate.

[Photo: Paul Brunton at the sign dedication to George W Evans]

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A Well Travelled Road

The Great Western Highway stretches from Sydney to the regional city of Bathurst in the central west of NSW. It is 210 kilometres long, beginning at Railway Square and travelling towards Parramatta before linking up with the motorway to Penrith. Once the Nepean River is crossed, the highway winds its way through the mountain villages before descending into the Hartley Valley via Victoria Pass. The western suburbs of Lithgow are passed by before the highway continues over the Cox’s River towards Bathurst.

Large sections of the original roads through to Bathurst remain in use. There have been inevitable changes and diversions over time, and some of the older sections of the highway remain in use as local roads. The length of the highway across a variety of terrains and grades means that roadwork seems like a perpetual feature for travellers along the road.

I have written before about some of the points of interest along the mountain stretch of the highway. There are many landmarks along the way, including buildings and particular views as the road wends its way, as well as numerous memorials to lives lost through accidents and misadventures along the highway.

I can only imagine the challenges of marking and carving out the original road two centuries ago. Early records attest to the difficulty of travelling along the Western Road (later the Great Western Road, then the Great Western Highway from 1928) and there were many attempts to reduce the impact of some of the inclines across the mountains, as well as easing some of the tight bends as usage changed from mainly foot traffic, horses and coaches to motorised transport. The road was a vital link to the pastures in Bathurst and beyond.

In 1915, there are various gatherings along the roadside as the men of the Cooee March made their way towards Sydney along the Great Western Road. Newspaper articles of the time record the townships along the highway turning out to offer refreshments as well as volunteers responding to the cooee call to enlist. This march has been re-enacted a couple of times including in 1987 and again in 2015 to celebrate the centenary of the march. I passed by the marchers in the most recent re-enactment, a blur of people striding down towards Hazelbrook.

Back in the last days of 2012 and across the first couple of weeks of 2013, journalist Malcolm Brown walked along the Great Western Highway from Sydney out to Dubbo in the central west. The journey of approximately 400 kilometres took a fortnight to complete, and throughout the journey Brown posted stories along the way. There is a clip of him preparing for the walk here, and he notes that there are sections of the journey where he would have to leave the Great Western Highway as there is no provision for pedestrians. There is mention of the road west during the Great Depression where thousands of men tramped through the countryside looking for work: the traffic on the roads was much less and travelled at a slower speed.

There is a collection of Brown’s writings along the road here, as well as articles from journalists in some of the towns he passed through along this extraordinary trek. I spotted him walking along the stretch of highway leading into Wellington, towards the end of his journey.

Have you spotted anything out of the ordinary along a well-travelled road?

[Photo: glimpse of the Great Western Highway from a train at Lawson]