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George Caley was a botanist in the employ of Sir Joseph Banks. He had a difficult personality, and one might suspect that by sending him to Australia, Banks sought to make use of his professional abilities from a more comfortable 12,000 miles away!
In November 1804, Caley and party set off for the Carmarthen Hills (Mt Tomah and Mt Banks), with the intention of then continuing west or to "the most promising part of the country". His companions were "ticket of leave men", minimum security convicts. After travelling overland from Parramatta, possibly carrying their boat, they travelled up-river from Windsor to near the junction of the Grose River. From there, they climbed 500 metres, in the hot sticky weather, to Tabaraga Ridge near Kurrajong Heights.
Bilpin Ridge: Missed it by That Much
Caley would no doubt have noticed the Bilpin Ridge, along which Bell's Line of Road would later be built, had he reached Tabaraga Ridge one or two kilometres further north. But Caley, who had publicly made light of the difficulties encountered by other explorers, was now thunderstruck by the ruggedness of the terrain in front of him.
The next day, Sunday, Caley set a compass course for Mt Tomah, and determined to stick to it as far as the terrain would allow. They covered five kilometres that day, descending to Burralow Swamp. Whilst Caley climbed the next ridge to get his bearings, the men stayed put and learned a sobering lesson: camp fires can easily become bushfires. That night they watched nervously as "the fire extended to the tops of the high hills; the sight looked both awful and grand".
They covered a further five kilometres (in a straight line) on Monday. The march took them over Patersons Ridge, through three ravines, then into a particularly steep sided valley which Caley named Dark Valley. Remember that they were unknowingly travelling parallel to, and a few kilometres from, the Bilpin Ridge.
The terrain got worse. Tuesday saw them climb Wilderness Ridge then descend into an even deeper ravine to Wilderness Brook. Reaching a point near the Grose River, Caley named the area the Devil's Wilderness. The group were now only 100 metres higher than where they had left their boat -- near the Grose River. They then made the perilous climb onto Caley Ridge, reclaiming the lost 400 metres and more in the November heat and humidity. Following the ridge was relatively easy, but they needed to camp by water and so descended to Broula Creek. By now, the men had had a gutful, and told Caley flatly that they wanted to go home.
Caley delivered a leader's pep talk. The convicts, no doubt concerned for their reputation, agreed to continue on. Fortunately for Caley, Thursday's march was relatively easy going, as they followed Caley's Ridge to the west.
Friday saw the group separated from Mt Tomah by three kilometres; and a maze of deep ravines. At last, Caley decided to abandon his compass course and seek a ridge to follow. That night they camped near Berambing, on the Bilpin Ridge, 300 metres below and three kilometres north of Mt Tomah. Had they found and followed Bilpin Ridge from Kurrajong Heights, they should have reached this point on Monday night.
Whilst it is easy to knock Caley, it must be remembered that even today, with accurate topographic maps, bushwalkers still become lost in this wild terrain. Caley was never lost, he just missed finding the easy route.
Mt Tomah: Rainforest and Rain
For the botanist Caley, Mt Tomah was a delight. Whilst the Blue Mountains are predominately sandstone with poor soil, Mt Tomah is Wianamatta shale with a cap of volcanic basalt. The soil is a rich chocolate brown and supports lush vegetation, including patches of sub-tropical rainforest. It is 1000 metres (3300 feet) above sea level, and now the site of the cool-climate annexe of the Royal Botanic Gardens.
The next three days saw them confined by rain and fog, but by late Tuesday morning they were under way. Mt Tomah and Mt Banks, the latter named by Caley after his patron, are separated by Thunder Gorge, and unless you are a keen canyoner, you don't want to try to climb through it. They didn't try. After covering 2 kilometres, they camped at a place they named Dismal Dingle.
By Wednesday, the three assistants were heartily sick of the seemingly futile expedition, but they had a relatively easy march along the ridge to the foot of Mt Banks where they camped in a cave whilst thunderstorms swept around them. The next day, Caley recorded, was "in a manner a rest day". Most likely they told him exactly what he could do with his mountain, for he ascended it alone.
Mt Banks: Goal Attained.....and an Awe-Inspiring View
Caley had now achieved his primary goal. The awe-inspiring view of sheer cliffs flanking the Grose River gorge gave no clue to the fact that he was only a days march from the western escarpment, and the open country beyond. With provisions running low and the men rebellious, he decided to head for home.
It had taken them ten days to reach Mt Banks; they returned to Parramatta, by the same route, in eight.
In a subsequent letter to Banks, Governor King said, ".....I cannot help thinking that persevering in crossing these mountains, which are a confused and barren assemblage of mountains with impossible chasms between, would be as chimerical as useless."
King later revised his opinion, endorsing Caley's view that the mountains would only be crossed as settlement extended into them.
Photos of the Grose Valley may be found here.
The main source of information for this work is Chris Cunningham's "The Blue Mountains Rediscovered", 1996, Kangaroo Press. We recommend the book to anyone interested in pursuing this topic. See our Shopping Arcade for booksellers.
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Blue Mountains, Greater Western Sydney, NSW, Australia