Passages to the North West Plains by Michael O'Rourke.
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PASSAGES TO THE NORTH-WEST PLAINS P.7
To Mudgee and the Liverpool Plains
William Lawson (1774-1850), as every Australian school-child used to know, with Blaxland and Wentworth, found a route almost across the Blue Mountains from Sydney in 1813. They sighted the western slopes but did not descend. (It was George Evans who marked out the rest of the route to Bathurst in 1815.) It is less well known that Lawson was a leader in opening, or ‘invading’, the country north from Bathurst, past Mudgee, allowing cattlemen to reach the edge of Gamilaraay country east of the Warrumbungles. In this region he is less well known as an explorer than Allan Cunningham, who came after him to discover the famous Pandoras Pass.
The first colonist to enter the country above Bathurst was James Blackman, the young superintendent of convicts and district constable at Bathurst since 1819. He blazed a line to the Cudgegong River in 1821.
With three companions, Blackman (aged about 29) explored a route from Bathurst to the Cudgegong River. He went through Aaron's Pass, named after his Aboriginal servant and guide, followed the Cudgegong for about 40 km, and came to the Burrundulla Swamps, but did not reach the major Aboriginal camp-site at Mudgee.
William Lawson, now aged 47, was the recently appointed Government Commandant at Bathurst. With Blackman he followed Blackman’s route further out to Muggie [Mudgee] later the same year.
Lawson made further exploratory trips north of Mudgee in 1822, accompanied once again by Blackman and guided as before by local Aborigines. In January 1822 he explored the Talbragar River which runs WSW from near Cassilis to Dubbo. He found the Goulburn River, which runs east to the Hunter, on 30 November 1822. (Pursuing their different botanies—pastoralist vs. scientist—he and Allan Cunningham literally crossed paths on one occasion.) In 1823 Lawson even crossed briefly over the Liverpool Range near modern Coolah, several months before the botanist-explorer Allan Cunningham would discover and name ‘Pandoras Pass’.
Cunningham proceeded north from Bathurst in the autumn of 1823, with five men and five pack-horses (the party travelled on foot), and proceeded into the upper Goulburn valley (6 May), crossing it eastwards as far as modern Scone on the upper Hunter before turning back westwards. He mentions that the headwaters of the Goulburn featured a tall species of Danthonia or oatgrass.
On the first, eastward leg, they briefly went to the top of the Liverpool Range near Mt Moan. They were able to look out northward onto Oxley’s Liverpool Plains. The treeless plains were covered by brown grass that shone in the autumn sun like the sands of a desert. A few detached mounds and conical peaks were here and there picturesquely dotted over the open country. This was the region west of Willow Tree and Quirindi, specifically the view past Blackville to ‘Windy’, where we know there was a vast stretch of treeless country that extended for about 40 km. When he saw the same region again on a later journey, in 1827, Cunningham thought the rolling grass plains resembled the ocean. The detached mounds and isolated ridges with which they were studded were like groups of islands.
Encouraged by this glimpse of the north-west plains, Cunningham decided not to return immediately to Bathurst but to look for a pass in the north-west. This meant putting himself and his men on reduced rations. After crossing the Talbragar River, some difficult travelling eventually brought them to an easy pass into the Liverpool Plains north-east of present-day Coolah on 9 June 1823. It is located just west of today’s Coolah Tops National Park. Our botanist named it Pandoras Pass because he found it, like Hope, at the bottom of the box, i.e. when he had given up everything except hope.
Their supplies being nearly exhausted there was no option of crossing through the pass. Turning back, they learnt that the northernmost pastoral run was Lawson’s outstation ‘Talbragar Hut’ on the Coolaburragundy River SW of Coolah; they spent the night of 11 June 1823 there. As we will seen below, it was 1825 before Cunningham would return and cross through to the northern plains.
Meanwhile further exploration in the Hunter Valley was taken up by the local government surveyor, 28 years old Henry Dangar:
In July 1824 [Dangar] named Fal and Foy Brooks, in August explored the present sites of Muswellbrook, Aberdeen and Scone, crossed the Hunter and discovered and named Kingdon Ponds and Dartbrook. Soon afterwards he arranged an expedition to ascertain “the nature and point of junction of the stream from the westward” which he had observed on his earlier journey up the Hunter. Accompanied by John Richards and two servants, Williamson and Allen, Dangar discovered in October 1824 the confluence [near present-day Denman] of the Goulburn and Hunter Rivers, explored Dartbrook to its head where Allan Cunningham had crossed it in 1823, named Lamorran Brook (Wybong) and briefly crossed the Liverpool Range to the plains beyond.
On their way up from Dart Brook, well to the west of Murrurundi, Dangar’s party was ambushed near the top of the Range by as many as “150” Aborigines, all “warriors” according to Roger Milliss. One of Dangar’s men was wounded, not fatally, by a spear in the head. “Some shots” were fired in response, but “without effect”. For three hours the whitefellows halted and kept guard. Eventually they abandoned their pack-horse (wounded or dead) with most of their provisions and all of their cooking utensils, and pressed on over the range by a very steep pass and down to the plains via the northward-flowing Macdonalds Creek.
Although this was Kamilaroi country, Dangar supposed (probably correctly) that they were ‘Bathurst natives’, i.e. Wiradjuri-speakers from the Bathurst-Mudgee region. Local people would have been living in small groups. One would guess—one can only guess—that they were refugees from the Mudgee region who had taken shelter in the ranges during the Bathurst-Mudgee “war” of 1824. We noted earlier that posses of soldiers and settlers had ‘scoured’ the area around Mudgee as recently as September 1824. One would also guess the “150” included women and children as well as men.
The highest farm in the valley in October 1824 when Dangar came back from his expedition to the Liverpool Plains was Dr James Bowman's property 'Ravensworth', south-east of our Liddell Power Station. A little later, at its peak, the holding would cover 12,000 acres (4,856 ha: 7 x 7 km).
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52. Bernard Greaves, ‘James Blackman’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, online (2009) at http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/
53. Lee 1925: 500 ff; Jervis 1954; extracts from Lawson’s journal for January 1822 have been published in Cameron & Job’s book (1993: 56). Crossed paths: McMinn 1970: 55.
Coolah: Lawson's of course was the second party to enter the Liverpool Plains, the first being that of John Oxley and George Evans, from the west, in 1818.
54. Lee 1925; McMinn 1970: 57 Treeless: Breton 1833 and Lang 2008: 410. Also this: State Records of NSW [archives]: 2 May 1823, Cunningham’s meeting with Aborigine who had encountered Lawson on previous expedition (Journal Reel 6035; SZ15 p.17).
Breton 1833: 101 descended onto the plains, coming down from Mt Oxley. His party rode the last 10 miles (15 km) to Blaxland’s station ‘Kickerbell’ (Gircobill) on the Mooki (“Mochi”) across a flat (Yarramanba plain) that had neither tree nor shrub. The grass was two feet high and there were many “buttercups”, probably Yam Daisies.
55. McMinn 1970: 50, with map. In Greek myth, Pandora was the first woman. She opened a jar (pithos), in modern accounts referred to as "Pandora's box", releasing all the evils of mankind, leaving only Hope inside once she had closed it again. After Oxley [1818: published 1820], Cunningham in 1823 was one of the first to record how the Aborigines’ of the interior buried their dead: see his unpublished journal entry, 9 May 1823, noting a “burial mound of Aborigines” (SRNSW: Reel 6035; SZ15 pp 34, 122).
56. Cameron and Job p.57.
57. Nancy Gray, ‘Dangar’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, online (2009) at http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/
58. An account supplied by Dangar was published in The Australian, 23.12.1824. Detailed discussion in Carter 1974; briefly mentioned by Rolls 1981: 61 and Milliss 1992: 76.