Following the ‘crossing’ of the Blue Mountains by Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson in 1813, Governor Macquarie engaged surveyor George Evans to further investigate the country west of their expedition’s end point (Mount Blaxland), about 5 km short of the then unknown Great Dividing Range (~25km south of Lithgow). Evans completed his expedition in 1814 naming en route a range of geographical features including Evans Crown, Mount Blaxland, Lawsons Sugarloaf and Wentworths Sugarloaf, the Fish, Campbells and Macquarie Rivers, and a series of associated plains including the Bathurst Plains.
Based on the information gained as a result of the three explorers’ expedition and Evan’s subsequent trek to the Bathurst Plains, Lieutenant William Cox, under instruction from Governor Macquarie, masterminded the building of Cox’s Road. In reality it was little more than a cart track with high ongoing maintenance costs, running from the Nepean River at Emu Ford to the inland plains. Nevertheless it was a challenge that his team accepted and accomplished in six months on the 21st January 1815, in all a distance of approximately 101.5 miles (163.4 km). He was aided by a team of up to 50 men, including settlers, convicts and soldiers as well as two Aboriginal men who assisted as guides and intermediaries. It was a remarkable achievement, from both a logistic and an engineering point of view. Nevertheless it was a ‘road’ that would soon need upgrading and major and minor route changes to improve travel times and road grades. Cox’s Road and subsequent derivatives and/or alternate routes, provide the back drop for the many descriptions of landscape, including paintings and photographs, and natural history associated with these various routes as recorded by explorers, naturalists, scientists, travellers, landholders, miners and settlers who travelled over them. Contemporary ecologists view these routes as ‘sampling transects’ from the Nepean to Bathurst, enabling a focus on various aspects of the natural history and ecology of these transmontane routes. These hug a narrow ridgeline across the Blue Mountains, while west of Mount York they cross granite country, the geological change partly accounting for the quite different vegetation east and west of Mount York.
By visiting the sites chosen to interpret the natural history of Cox’s Road and its derivatives, participants will be able to reflect on what various travellers saw or did not see, and how their various world-views constrained their understandings. .Most early travellers failed to recognise the ridge-top route across the Blue Mountains as a meeting ground of at least three Aboriginal nations: the Darug, Gundungurra and Wiradyuri people, prior inhabitants since time immemorial of their various Countries. Long-term Aboriginal land practices resulted in a ‘contrived cultural landscape’ that was able to support the Aboriginal lifestyle. Such landscapes were viewed by most Europeans as ‘waste land’ and Cox’s Road as a triumphant gateway through Hartley Vale to what would be ironically and literally dubbed ‘West-more-land’, soon to be transformed by grazing, farming, squattocracy, infrastructure and an array of fledgling industries.
Cox’s Road was for many years effectively the Bathurst region’s umbilical cord joining Sydney with its first inland settlement and the imagined lands beyond. Cox’s Road persists east of Mount York as fragments on the edges of the now dominant Great Western Highway, mostly buried underneath metres of filling and layers of bitumen, housing developments, and occasionally as a relic bituminised section. Fortunately much of Cox’s Pass (named by Macquarie) remains in rude form with its challenging 1:4 steep grade sometimes dropping precipitously down the northern side of Mount York to the adjacent western valley floor. A significant relic has miraculously survived near the Woodford Trig Station and on the Linden ridge. Even today it would be a challenging ask to cross their sandstone bumps and ridges in a conventional modern motor vehicle, let alone by bullock-pulled, heavily laden wagons or poorly sprung horse drawn carts and stagecoaches. We can be reasonably certain as to the authenticity of the remaining sections of Cox’s Road east of Mount York. West of Mount York, much of Cox’s Road persists on private land, or as readily accessible narrow bituminised or dirt minor public roads. The exact location of Cox’s Road once it crosses the O’Connell Road south of Bathurst (developed by the Cox’s Road Project Group formed by the Bathurst, Lithgow and Blue Mountains Branches of the National Trust) is less certain. However, where the route remains in reality a tentative best guess or a hypothesis we indicate this for particular sites and in the accompanying text.
There is much more to be explored and to know about this cultural relic. That is partly the task of this Greening Bathurst bicentennial project to help celebrate and rediscover a national treasure – one layer in time – and to reflect on its associated natural history that began in one sense, with the Big Bang some 14.7 billion years ago. Some of that history is written in stone, some in the artistic and industrial endeavours of ancient Aboriginal nations, in the plants and animals, the sculpting force of water, wind and lichens over aeons, and through soils and local landscape features. Other components of the natural history are described in song, verse and written records as seen through the eyes of particularly observant and resourceful travellers, skilled artists, photographers, and first nation people.
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