Inland exploration began almost as soon as the settlement at Sydney Cove was established. Several attempts were made to cross the Blue Mountains between 1800 and 1810.
Coastal and Inland Exploration
As far as is known, Zachary Hick[e]s, the First Lieutenant on Captain James Cook’s barque Endeavour, was in 1770, the first European to sight the coast of NSW. There is, however, some very flimsy evidence that Portuguese and Dutch navigators may have explored and landed on the coast, perhaps even have entered Port Jackson. It is certain, though, that even after Cook’s voyage European knowledge of the coast remained very sketchy. Botany Bay was an important exception, as Cook’s party sailed into the Bay, named it, and stayed for just over a week. In fact, he first named the inlet Stingray Bay, but changed the name to honour the large amount of ground-breaking botanical work carried out by Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander and Sydney Parkinson. Once at sea again, Cook also sighted, and in many cases named, Lake Illawarra, Broken Bay, Port Stephens, Nobby’s (Newcastle), The Brothers (near Port Macquarie), Cape Byron and Byron Bay, and Point Danger and Mount Warning in the far north of the State.
Inland exploration began almost as soon as the settlement at Sydney Cove was established and named after Viscount Sydney, the British Home-Secretary. The First Fleet had anchored firstly in Botany Bay, but within days had moved to Port Jackson, almost at the same time as La Pérouse arrived in Botany Bay for a short, amicable stay Governor Arthur Phillip and parties explored much of the Cumberland Plain within the first year or two of settlement (1788-89). Five weeks after his arrival at Sydney, Governor Phillip set out in a longboat to explore Broken Bay, Brisbane Water and Pitt Water, noting the mouth of the Hawkesbury. The Hawkesbury River was explored upstream from Broken Bay to Richmond Hill in June 1789, and the upper reaches, even today still known as the Nepean River, by Watkin Tench in the same month. It was Tench and William Dawes who in May 1791 confirmed that the Nepean and the Hawkesbury are one and the same river. Botany Bay, and the land between there and Sydney Town, was more fully explored and charted in that year, too. Further afield, Phillip visited the Gosford area in 1790; the Georges River was explored by George Bass, Matthew Flinders and William Martin in 1795; and the Picton district was explored by John Wilson in 1798.
Exploration was slow due to the rugged country surrounding Sydney, the Blue Mountains in particular presenting a seemingly impenetrable barrier. Tench reached the foothills in 1789, and attempts at crossing the Mountains were made by Dawes (1789), William Paterson (1793), Henry Hacking (1794), Bass (1796) and Wilson (1798). Wilson and Hacking, with a party of convicts, reached and climbed Mount Towrang, 9.5 km east of modern Goulburn. They concluded that ahead lay ‘scrubby, hilly country’, and returned towards Sydney, missing the extensive Goulburn Plains. By 1800, all of the Cumberland Plain and the area south-west to Goulburn were known following exploration by Governor Phillip and such men as Tench, Dawes and Wilson. Bass explored Botany Bay and the Georges River in 1795, and in September 1797 travelled from Menangle to the coast. Coastal exploration by Bass and by Matthew Flinders in the late 1790s meant that the entire coastline was also known in broad outline by 1800.
Francis Barrallier attempted a route to the west across the Blue Mountains further south in 1802, travelling south from Parramatta and turning west to a point south of Jenolan Caves. George Caley also explored the rugged ranges in 1802, and succeeded in travelling part way through the barrier in 1804, reaching a point above the Grose River opposite Blackheath. The barrier to inland movement was finally passed by Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Wentworth in May 1813, by following the ridges rather than the valleys. Previous explorers had followed the rivers, only to find themselves confronted by typical Blue Mountains escarpments that blocked all further progress. Towards the end of that year, surveyor George Evans, who had earlier explored the Jervis Bay area in 1812, was instructed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie to find and survey a route westward across the Blue Mountains. Once reaching the furthest point west reached by Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, Evans was dismayed to find another range of mountains, the main dividing range, still ahead of him. However, by early December he had reached the Macquarie River at what became Bathurst, naming the river and the extensive Macquarie Plains after his patron.
A carriage road was built over the Blue Mountains by William Cox and his group of workers at the beginning of 1815 by following Evans’ route to the site of modern Bathurst, which became an important base for further exploration after the town’s site was officially chosen in May 1815. Later that month and into June, Evans extended the known area further westward again to the Eugowra district and the Lachlan River, passing through much ‘handsome and fine country’ near modern Blayney and Cowra, and travelling almost as far west as modern Forbes.
The Surveyor-General, John Oxley, continued the tradition of exploration by government surveyors when, beginning in March 1817, he explored the Lachlan River and surrounding districts southwest almost to the river’s junction with the Murrumbidgee, using portable boats where possible, but also relying on horses following the river banks. In early May, Oxley and some of his party climbed the Jemalong Range, but were unimpressed by the country they saw. A few days later, Oxley was prevented from continuing by marshes: the Lachlan here became ‘separated into branches, and lost among the immense marshes of this desolate and barren country’. He returned by a more northerly route, reaching Bathurst that August after discovering the Bogan, Little and Bell Rivers. In May 1818, his exploration of the Macquarie River was similarly halted by the Macquarie Marshes; he again thought that they were perhaps the start of an inland sea. This time Oxley turned eastward to traverse unknown territory around the Warrumbungle Range, then crossed the Great Dividing Range near present-day Walcha. He then followed the Hastings River to the coast, reaching the site of modern Port Macquarie and turning south to Newcastle, eventually reaching Sydney in late November. He had, on this expedition, discovered the fertile Liverpool Plains, some recompense for disappointments further inland, and for the extremely difficult time the party later had travelling through the forest and gorge country of the ranges between the Peel River and the coast.
By 1822, the country south to the site of Canberra and to Moruya on the coast was known reasonably well, by which stage land grants had been taken up in the Bargo district and at the mouth of the Shoalhaven, for example. In 1828, an official expedition surveyed the Upper Shoalhaven and the coast south to the Moruya River. Charles Throsby, who had settled near modern Moss Vale in 1819, explored to the site of Canberra in 1820-21, and established connections between the Tablelands and the South Coast. Much further exploration occurred in this general area, both as part of pastoral expansion into the Southern Tablelands in the 1820s and early 1830s, and again later, following gold discoveries.
Meanwhile, much exploration was also undertaken in the Hunter Valley and the district between there and Sydney. Newcastle was established as a penal settlement in 1802, but it was its closure as a penal station and the opening of the valley to free settlers that gave a renewed impetus for exploration. Much exploration in this region, as in the south, was undertaken by shepherds, drovers and their pastoralist employers seeking new grazing land.
Land-seekers also explored the district between the Hunter Valley and the New England tablelands during the 1820s, as well as extending the known area southwards from the Southern Tablelands. Hamilton Hume and William Hovell, though better known than others, were among many seeking new grazing land in the latter region. Hovell had established a grant at Narellan and had explored locally, discovering the Burragorang Valley in 1823, while Hume had a property at Gunning, near Yass. In late 1824 they set out south from the latter, travelling overland to Corio Bay on the Victorian coast. In the process, they discovered the Murray River at the site of modern Albury, but only after some difficult travel in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range had forced them to seek a more westerly route. They arrived back at Hume’s main station on Lake George three months later.
The two most important ‘official’ explorers of this decade, however, were Allan Cunningham, who explored northwards from Bathurst to the Darling Downs (in modern Queensland) in 1827; and Charles Sturt who explored the Darling River and its tributaries upstream from Bourke in 1828-29 and, beginning late in 1829, followed the Murrumbidgee then the Murray to the ocean.
Cunningham had been a botanical collector for Joseph Banks on Cook’s voyage, had accompanied Oxley down the Lachlan, and sailed with Philip Parker King on his coastal explorations along the northern and western coasts of Australia. He later became the government botanist in NSW. His first exploratory trip was an attempt to find an easier route from Bathurst to the Liverpool Plains in late 1822. He failed very soon as he lost his packhorses on the Cudgegong River. He tried again in April 1823, travelling through country round the Turon River, later to become important goldfields, and east of present-day Mudgee,
reaching the Liverpool Plains and then exploring the upper Hunter, before returning to Bathurst. In June he tried yet again, and found the only relatively easy pass northwards where the Warrumbungle and Liverpool Ranges join, which he named Pandora Pass. Within a year, cattlemen were using the route to stock the New England district. In 1827, Cunningham set out again, this time from the upper Hunter, crossed the Liverpool Range to travel to the eastern fringe of the Nandewar Range, and then to the Macintyre and Dumaresq Rivers, now the Queensland border, and the Darling Downs.
Sturt was intrigued by the possibility of an inland sea westwards from the territory then known to Europeans, a concept reinforced by the marshlands previously found on the Lachlan and Macquarie rivers. On his first trip, begun in 1828 while he was acting as military secretary to Governor Darling, he examined the Macquarie, Bogan and Castlereagh rivers, and discovered the Darling. He traced the Macquarie from Wellington to the Macquarie Marshes, which he skirted to their west, leading his expedition to the lower Bogan and then the Darling, as far as Toorale. They returned to Wellington, only to mount another expedition in 1829 to explore east from the Macquarie to the Castlereagh, near modern Coonamble, and follow it downstream to the Barwon, returning to their starting point at Mount Harris by following the Macquarie upstream. Hume had been involved in assisting Sturt on both of these trips. Sturt wanted to follow the Darling downstream in a follow-up expedition, but was ordered by Governor Darling to explore the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee instead, in an attempt to solve the riddle of all these rivers flowing westward, toward the inland, and perhaps an inland sea. Sturt followed the Murrumbidgee to its junction with the Lachlan, then continued down the former to the Murray, which Hume and Hovell had named the Hume River. When his party reached the junction of the Murray and another major river, Sturt rightly surmised it was the Darling. They continued down the Murray, eventually reaching its mouth in Lake Alexandrina, in South Australia, in February 1830. Much of this trip was in boats on the rivers, and, not surprisingly, rowing against the current on the return voyage was much more arduous, only just avoiding disaster through starvation and exhaustion.
Thomas Mitchell became Surveyor-General in 1829 after Oxley’s death, and undertook four expeditions. Beginning in 1831-32, he explored northern NSW almost as far as Queensland, particularly in the Namoi River valley and the Moree district. He followed the Gwydir River, already discovered further upstream by Cunningham in 1827, downstream to its junction with the Barwon, also discovered by Cunningham (but known by him as the Macintyre). He returned to Sydney by an almost identical route. Then in 1835 he followed the Bogan and Darling Rivers downstream to the Menindee Lakes, reaching a point much further southwest than that attained by Sturt. In 1836 he travelled down the Lachlan River and on to the Victorian coast, naming the area ‘Australia Felix’, but he discovered little new country in NSW. On his last expedition, with Edmund Kennedy as second in charge, he explored the area north of the Barwon River and on into Queensland, but was forced back by Aborigines and lack of provisions; again, most of the newly discovered land was outside NSW.
All of the modern State was known in broad outline, if not in detail, by 1860. Sturt explored the upper Murray in 1838, and in 1844-45, travelled up the lower Darling to Lake Cawndilla, near Menindee, before turning northwest to explore north from today’s Broken Hill. The entire Murray-Darling system was thus known and the concept of an inland sea laid to rest, unless
it was even further west than the NSW border. His party explored the Barrier Range and north to what is now known as the Corner Country, thus giving at least superficial knowledge of the extreme northwest of the colony. They continued further northwest into South Australia and then Queensland, considerably further north than present day Birdsville. During this very long and sometimes heroic expedition, lasting from August 1844 until January 1846, the party, and Sturt in particular, underwent extreme hardships to achieve relatively little. They certainly found no country of potential economic importance as understood at the time, but mineral discoveries at Broken Hill would, of course, dramatically change that assessment.
Mitchell had mapped the area of European settlement on his ‘Map of the Nineteen Counties’ in 1834, and later, in 1850, produced a ‘General Map of the South Eastern Portion of Australia’ showing all of modern NSW. The different scope of coverage shows just how much knowledge of the land had been accumulated by the colonists in such a short period. Some of that knowledge was superficial, however, and settlement remained sparse in much of the colony.
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Dr Graeme Aplin, Macquarie University