Driving west along the Great Western Highway between Katoomba and Medlow Bath there is a tree trunk enclosed by a fence on the left hand side of one of the many bends. It is signposted as the Explorers Tree. To see it up close you can take a sharp turn to the left into Explorers Road where there is a car park for bushwalkers heading to Nellies Glen or Pulpit Hill.
The eucalyptus tree was reputedly marked with the initials of the three men who are acknowledged as completing the first successful crossing of the Blue Mountains by Europeans. Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth commenced their journey on 11 May 1813, accompanied by a local guide and three convicts. The journey took them 21 days, travelling along the mountain ridges. The crossing marked the way for the road, later built under the guidance of William Cox, across the mountains and into the western districts.
The significance of the tree was realised early on, and it was preserved with a wall, fence and plaque in 1884. Unfortunately this had the unintended impact of killing the tree it was meant to protect. The dead trunk became dangerous and the top was sawn off and taken to the grounds of the Hydro Majestic Hotel, where in 1922 it was destroyed by a bushfire.
Conservation attempts over the years included plugging the trunk with concrete, and binding the stump and remaining bark together with a steel band. At one time it was capped with concrete; this was later removed and a gazebo built over the top of the stump to protect it from the weather. The stump was partly vandalised and there was an arson attack in addition to bushfire damage.
Vandalism isn’t just a recent issue for the marked tree. An article in the Lithgow Mercury in 1939 recorded an incident: ‘It is a matter for regret that the “yahoos” have found means of hacking their initials on the coping of this monument: left alone in Westminster Abbey, such fiends would not hesitate about scratching their worthless names on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior.’
In 2012, a passing driver crashed into the monument, hitting the sandstone podium. Efforts to conserve and protect the tree continue.
The historical significance of the tree is often questioned. Blaxland kept a diary during the crossing, and there is no record of any tree being marked by the explorers. Journals of the crossing recorded that their route was marked only with the blaze of an axe, and any initials on the tree rotted away decades ago.
The successful crossing is regarded as a defining moment in Australian history as it lead the way for the opening up of the pastures of the western plains as the colony struggled with drought and limited grazing land. The tree is the only reputed relic of the historic journey, which helps to explain why it is regarded as significant, even if it is historically questionable and in a sad state of repair.
There is a summary of the importance of the crossing here along with acknowledgement of other crossings here. An early photo of the tree, looking more intact, is available here.
Have you come across any links to the past, genuine or otherwise, lately?
[Photo: remains of the Explorers Tree overlooking the Great Western Highway]