Blue Mountains Railways Celebrate 150 Years

From a vantage point beside the moving throng of commuters, thousands of them on any given day, the bust of John Whitton keeps a watchful eye on all who pass through Sydney’s Central Station.

Whitton was the Engineer-In-Chief from 1857 to 1890 and his extensive tenure coincided with the rapid development of railway lines across much of New South Wales. A mere 37 kilometres of tracks were in use at the time of his commencement in the role. By his retirement this had expanded into over 3,500 kilometres branching north from Sydney through Newcastle, Werris Creek and Tenterfield, south to Cooma, Albury and Hay, and west to Dubbo and Bourke. The key to opening up the gateway to the west was overcoming the challenging terrain of the Blue Mountains.

Initial challenges for the railway construction included building a railway bridge across the Nepean River and negotiating a way through Knapsack Gully in order for the western railway line to cross the mountains. Victoria Bridge, designed by Whitton, still survives today. The viaduct at Knapsack Gully was also designed by Whitton.

The character of many of the mountain villages have been defined by the arrival of the ‘iron horse’ and the railway opened up employment and housing opportunities. Prior to the establishment and extension of the railways with the arrival of Whitton, various other transportation ideas were proposed. Reverend Hulbert suggested the importation of elephants or camels as a solution; Sir William Denison spoke of horse-drawn railways. What a different world it may have been without Whitton’s vision.

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Tribute to John Whitton, Central Station, Sydney

Last weekend marked the 150th anniversary of the Blue Mountains railway line, which reached as far as Weatherboard (now Wentworth Falls). The first passenger train to Weatherboard ran on 22 July 1867. The line was then extended to Blackheath and Mount Victoria before the construction of the famous zig zag descent into Lithgow – another achievement of Whitton’s. The coming of the railway was to alter and redefine life in the area, and all these decades later, the railway remains an integral aspect of mountain life for locals and visitors alike.

Read through the letters most weeks in the Blue Mountains Gazette and you’ll find that train timetable changes continue to create a flurry of interest and weekend trains are so regularly packed with tourists that additional carriages have been commissioned. The noise of freight and coal trains is regularly compared to existing and anticipated aircraft noise. Like many mountain folk I can hear trains trundle by at all hours, but for me the short toot of commuter trains leaving the station and the low rumble of freight trains remind me of the perpetual motion of life, of people and goods moving about, travelling from one place to another.

Celebrations over the weekend included heritage train rides, and you can see some footage of the trips here.

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Creative Challenges

Every now and then I like to set myself a creative challenge. I should disclose that these challenges are seldom well-thought out, but tend to be based on a suggestion picked up from elsewhere or a random thought which seems like a really good idea. From this somewhat vague beginning I’m off on a journey which may last mere moments or months, depending on the situation.

Recently I attended a workshop on taking photos with a smart phone. It is easy to take for granted the ease and speed at which such photos can be taken then mentally discarded or left to take up space in the cloud – quite a contrast to what was involved in taking and printing a photo previously. Now instant gratification of the impulse to record a moment is within our grasp, but I was interested to learn a bit more about framing a shot and to work on quality rather than quantity.

The course was informative and interactive, and also provided insight into some of the many tools available these days to tweak shots and highlight aspects of a photo. It created a heightened sense of awareness too – on a brisk walk into Blackheath at lunchtime I felt as though there were photo opportunities everywhere. And what better way to embed these skills than to take some photos. Perhaps every day for the month of May. This was decided on 30 April, the day that I completed the course.

Early on in May I was blessed with some stunning sunsets and one morning, whilst thinking about some issue at work, I passed a beautifully painted doorway that I’d not noticed before. Even in a distracted state it seems my mind was scouting about for photo opportunities. But what occurred to me on reflection was that this collection of moments is as much about what isn’t captured as it is about what can be contained in the briefest wink of time.

There were the stunning palettes of sunsets that changed incrementally with silent grandeur when I took the time to be still and admire them. And the graceful dance of autumn leaves eddying this way and that, a meandering waltz towards the earth. The bare branches reaching skywards, as if with outstretched arms waiting for a cloak of spring leaves and blossoms. Or the clarity of the night sky, and the gradual progress of the moon.

It isn’t always possible to capture a moment that seems to hum portentously, nor should it be. Often it is enough to simply experience it, for the moment to leave the lightest of impressions on our minds, something to be called upon and reimagined as required. A perpetual reminder to be present when you can, to be ready for the delights and surprises that await your attention.

[Photo: frost on leaves spotted during a morning walk]

 

Micro and Macro Moments

I tend to go through phases where a thought or idea settles upon me like a fine mist; light yet with a perceptible weight. A recent thought has been about the small moments or phrases in writing that can represent much more than a handful of words otherwise might.It is the challenge of reflecting something much bigger in a concise manner.

The example I had in mind came from a short story that I wrote a few years back. It is the story of a man who is down on his luck due to either behaving badly, or spinning enough of a yarn to give the impression that something inappropriate had happened. A line towards the end reads: ‘He could smell her skin, the coarse soap scent of her.’ Reading this line years after writing it, I can still conjure up the image of a woman on an isolated property, surrounded by too much space and sheep and loneliness until the swarm of shearers arrive.

In all likelihood this line has resonance only for me, but it comes at a time when I am interested in detail. Today I went along to a photography exhibit at the Blue Mountains Heritage Centre at Blackheath. It was called Moments in Nature (from the Macro to the Majestic) and it featured the work of three local photographers: Jenny Gill, Sue Wildman and Shelley Oliver. The photos included a wide array of exquisite, close-up shots of insects, plants and a stunning spider web after a storm, as well as magnificent sunsets and sunrises, locally and further afield. Highlights included ‘Taking a Break’ featuring five zebra finches on a branch by Sue Wildman and ‘Held Safe’ by Shelley Oliver, which captured the image of a stone Buddha’s head entwined within the roots of a tree. Jenny Gill’s macro images of star fish fungi and the cavity of a sea urchin provided a different perspective.

It reminded me that there are benefits in both approaches; the broad, overarching perspective as well as the very small, detailed viewpoint. To rebalance myself I headed to the end of the road and lost myself for a while in the wonder of the Govett’s Leap lookout.

Govett's Leap, Blackheath

Govett’s Leap, Blackheath

What do you do to regain a sense of perspective in your creative life?

[Photo: insect up close, spotted in Sydney]

My I Spy: Something beginning with ‘H’

Heading towards halfway in the alphabet challenge, and there is still much to spot and spy. This is what I’ve tracked down beginning with the letter H.

Henry Lawson, Grenfell

Henry Lawson, Grenfell, NSW

Henry Lawson

I came across this rather whimsical statue of Henry Lawson in the main street of Grenfell. Lawson remains one of Australia’s best-loved poets and writers, and there are several towns throughout the central west of NSW that claim a connection with him. These include Gulgong (the association with Lawson was memorialised on a previous $10 note) and Grenfell. Both of these towns hold annual festivals with literary awards in his honour. There is a Henry Lawson Walk at Mount Victoria, and his trek from Hungerford to Bourke in the west of the state was legendary. Lawson had his personal demons but his work is still read and referenced. ‘The Drover’s Wife‘ remains a favourite of mine, and his poetry contains much humour and pathos. ‘The Loaded Dog‘ is also a great yarn.

Bird Houses at Lithgow

Bird House, Main Street, Lithgow

Houses

It is true that these are bird houses, but they are such a bright collection that I couldn’t resist. This artistic installation is one of many popping up in the streets and laneways in Lithgow. You can see the actual installation here. I love the details, no two are the same.

Heron Island

Heron Island

Heron Island

Earlier this year I had a couple of days on Heron Island with one of my oldest and dearest friends. I had no idea where it was, geographically speaking, and discovered it was on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. The island is compact, about 40 acres in total, and has a research station and resort where the amazing bird life and ocean life can be experienced up close. This photo was taken from a sunset cruise trip – very mellow. An incredible place.

Hargraves Lookout, Blackheath

Hargraves Lookout

Hargraves Lookout, Blackheath

This lookout, past the tiny town of Shipley, offers an expansive view of the Megalong Valley. There are some more panoramic shots here. If you follow the cliffs back around from Katoomba towards Blackheath, the smudge of white on the horizon is one of my favourite ‘H‘ spots – the Hydro Majestic Hotel.

Have you spotted any interesting things beginning with ‘H’ this week?

You can catch up on previous alphabet posts here: A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Next? I. Pop over and see what Autumn has spotted here.

My I Spy: Something beginning with ‘E’

It is with much excitement and enthusiasm that I present my favourite ‘E’ spies from the week that was. Enjoy!

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Emus in the Hartley Valley

Emus

I have passed these birds for over 3 years as I have wound my way through the Hartley Valley. They are usually in the distance, but are used to drawing attention and often loiter near the fenceline in hope of a treat. Knowing that E was coming up, I paid closer than usual interest to their location and pulled over on the way to work recently to take a photo. They weren’t fussed at all. I took several shots inbetween laughing when one of them yawned, and was surprised by the low throbbing noise that they made. A quick Google search confirmed it was normal. Their brown eyes were huge – you can catch a glimpse on the emu at the front. I was pleased to finally make their acquaintance.

Elephants spotted at Vinnies

Elephants

Elephants

Sticking with the animal theme, I spotted these two elephants at a Vinnie’s store, waiting for someone to take them home. I like elephants and have a couple of garden ornaments but I thought there might be someone out there who needed them more than I did.

Evans Lookout

Evans Lookout

Evans Lookout, Blackheath

There is a turnoff on the edge of Blackheath before the road bends its way towards Medlow Bath. The sign is for the Evans Lookout, and despite passing it many times, I hadn’t gone to have a look. I had been to Govetts Leap, which is off the main road at Blackheath, but I hadn’t taken the four kilometre drive out. Thank goodness for I Spy, is all I can say. It was just before dusk and I thought I’d have a quick look. The sheer scope and magnitude of the view honestly took my breath away. As the light faded there were two raucous cockatoos (is there any other kind?) who screeched and wheeled their way into the canyon, quickly becoming mere dots of white against the backdrop. The lookout is named after a local solicitor and landholder, George Evans, and is well worth a stop. It has been my favourite spy so far.

Onwards now with spying F items. You can see previous I Spy outings here: A B C & D. Special mention to Autumn’s D posting featuring donkeys and Pip Lincolne who started me off on this tangent.

The Man from Coxs River: A Review

This local documentary came out a couple of years ago. It tells of the efforts of several disparate parties to remove about 80 wild brumbies from a pristine water catchment area. The operation was headed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) with input from other government organisations including the Sydney Catchment Authority and the RSPCA. The area was near Lake Burragorang, a sister valley to the Megalong Valley in the Blue Mountains National Park.

A local stockman, Luke Carlon, was engaged to help out. The Carlon family has an extensive history in the area dating back to the 1830s, and his parents used to run packsaddle tours until the area came under preservation orders and access was prohibited. The environmental impact of these tours, including the effect of the horse hooves, was deemed to be too much for the area.

The interweaving of this complex family association with the land, intricate knowledge of the area and the ability to carefully plan, trap and extricate the wild brumbies was fascinating. It required skills, patience and adaptability that you rarely get to witness. The horsemanship in particular was impressive, along with the care taken to get the brumbies out. The alternative to trapping, removing and resettling them? Shoot them as feral pests.

The thick scrub created a myriad of challenges as the brumbies initially evaded the bait and traps laid out for them. Night vision cameras captured wild boars and kangaroos cleaning up the food, but eventually the brumbies began to come in closer, tempted by lucerne. Once a few were trapped in the yards that were flown in by helicopter due to access limitations, the challenge was to move them from the yards across the river and up a steep incline to the yards and stock truck about four kilometres away.

Quite apart from the logistical challenges, footage of conversations, usually around a campfire, provided insight into the personal stakes in this quest. The long association of the Carlon family with the area is recorded on plaques in a valley that is virtually inaccessible. Luke’s grandparents, Norbert and Alice, provided hospitality to early bushwalkers and key figures associated with the movement to preserve the area for generations to come. This personal passion and association is counterbalanced by NPWS ranger Chris Banffy. He admitted to no emotional attachment to horses but his respect for the land and working with all parties to ensure the best outcome from an environmental and humane perspective was evident.

The scenery was incredible and I loved the background music. The last shot of a stock truck rumbling through Blackheath with a handful of wild horses looking out will stay with me for quite some time. You can find the trailer to the movie here as well as a link to the website. Well worth a viewing or two.

[Photo: view from Mount Blackheath]

Govetts Leap at Blackheath

If you have driven along the Great Western Highway through Blackheath, there is a fair chance that you would have spotted the statue of a man on a horse, braced for a jump, a look of desperation on his face. It is located on the western side of the highway in Neate Park which stretches along the railway line. It is a popular stopping point for travellers who have crested the mountain ridge and need a break before the steep decline of Victoria Pass.

As with all statues, there is a story behind it. The popular legend was that there was a bushranger called Govett who was being hunted by the police. They finally tracked him down and called upon him to surrender. But he spurred his horse on instead, plummeting to his death over the edge of the cliff to where the water falls into the valley below.

If you have travelled into the national park at the end of Govetts Leap Road, walked to the viewing platform and risked vertigo from glimpsing over the side, you might be able to imagine how desperate you would have to be to plunge over the edge and tumble down into the valley. A close inspection of the statue shows a mixture of fear and resolution on the rider’s face.

Bushrangers form an intriguing part of early colonial history, and a handful remain as examples of wilder times including Ned Kelly, Ben Hall and Captain Moonlite. The Western Road (Great Western Highway) was well-travelled from the time of its construction, and there was bushranging activity in the area, particularly during the time of the gold rushes at Bathurst, Sofala, Hill End and beyond.

But it is, alas, a myth. A persistent myth which added to the fabric and history of Blackheath.

The waterfall at Govetts Leap which cascades into the Grose Valley had been surveyed in 1831 by William Romaine Govett. A descendant of Govett responded to the later claims of Govetts Leap being named for a bushranger with the same name who managed to elude police by seemingly vanishing at a cliff regarded as impossible for a man or beast to climb. It was suggested that the bushranger and the surveyor had been conflated. It had been named by Major Mitchell, Surveyor-General, in recognition of Govett who was his assistant surveyor.

The statue was created by Arthur Murch and was erected by the Blackheath Rhododendron Festival Committee in 1974. It is a nod to the importance of myths in our history.

What myths are on display in your local area?

Sources: Exploring the Blue Mountains, ME Hungerford and JK Donald, 1982 and Blue Mountains Journeys by Ken Goodlet, 2013.

[Photo: Govetts Leap statue in Neate Park, Blackheath]

A Different Track

The journey from Sydney to the Blue Mountains by rail is a well-travelled one, particularly for the people who commute each work day to the city. Depending on where you start and finish, it can be quite a lengthy journey through the mountains and the ever-extending suburbs of Sydney.

On a Wednesday afternoon, I embarked from Central Station on the Indian Pacific. The Indian Pacific leaves every Wednesday, heading to Perth via Broken Hill and Adelaide. My journey took me to Adelaide in 24 hours.

I could quite easily rave about the train and the trip as it was extraordinary in many ways. Once I got over the excitement of getting onboard, patiently waiting whilst the two sections of the train were coupled together (it is too long for a single platform with 2 locomotives and 27 carriages on my trip), I settled back to watch the Sydney suburbs slip by before we began the slow climb up the mountains.

The gradual ascent was felt physically through the train – you could feel the engines at work, and I sat by the window entranced as it curved around the bends. There were sandstone segments as we approached Lapstone, moments of darkness through tunnels before bursting out amongst an ocean of trees. At Warrimoo there were houses tucked into gullies. Then a glimpse of a sandstone cottage built in 1867 near Springwood. Passing by the Corridor of Oaks at Faulconbridge, then scorched tree trunks came into view. There were vistas towards Sydney or acres of wilderness, depending on the turn of the track.

It was interesting to see what was familiar from a different angle, a higher viewpoint. I spotted some lovely character cottages near Hazelbrook, then we were running alongside the Great Western Highway and the shops and pub at Lawson sped into view. Little ferns poking out of stone walls, a kid practising discus near Wentworth Falls. As we approached Leura I saw the last lingering remnants of autumn colour and the beautiful sandstone cliffs in the distance. Then Katoomba, the soft glowing lights of guest houses, welcoming weary travellers. Tree branches slapping the side of the train, then the Hydro Majestic, lit up amongst the darkening shadows. Towards Blackheath, the depths and folds of the valleys in the last light, through Mount Victoria, last light over the Hartley valley.

Have you taken a different track on a well-travelled road?

[Photo taken near Emu Plains before the climb up the mountains]