Who are the Black Heathens?

Residents of the mountain town of Blackheath are known as Blackheathans, but who were the Black Heathens?

Black Heathens are the original inhabitants of what is now called Blackheath. They are black, and they were heathens, and belonged to two main language groups; the Gundungurra and the Darug (Dharug, Daruk)

The small town lies in the Upper Blue Mountains about two hours west of Sydney, Australia, and is surrounded by bushland and national parks. It is famous for its annual Rhododendron festival and as a base for hikers, rock climbers, mountain bikers and nature lovers.

The original inhabitants are black and they were heathens because they did not follow Christianity or another major religion. Most Aboriginal Australians became Christians because the church was complicit in the colonisation of the country.

Historical research reveals very little information about the original inhabitants, and this is due to historical bias and climate.

Australian history is extremely biased. Indigenous Australians have been ignored or stigmatised in official accounts since the 1700s, and stories of Blackheath are no different. Mountains of information detail the actions of explorers, governors, engineers and landowners and their role in establishing the town that exists today. In contrast, descriptions of the Gundungurra and Darug are very limited.

We discover that a site now known as Walls Cave is of significance to Aboriginal people. Researchers found a buried fireplace in the cave and dated it at about a thousand years old, and uncovered a buried hearth which is said to be approximately ten thousand years old.

The site is divided into areas for men and women. The area along the ridge is apparently a special zone for men, while women were responsible for the area closer to the water. At both sites, traditional knowledge was passed from one generation to the next.

Aboriginal people occupied the site because of its reliable water supply, abundance of food and plants and effective shelter. It is also a comparatively easy access point to what is now referred to as the Grose Valley to the east, and the Kanimbla and Megalong valleys to the west.

At the time of writing, the walking track to Walls Cave was closed due to flood damage.

Apart from the aforementioned references, Aboriginal people are only acknowledged to as a threat to explorers and workers on the roads and train lines that were built during the 1800s.

The climate is another reason for the scarcity of knowledge of the original inhabitants.

Blackheath sits at just over 1000m altitude and is famed for its relatively extreme weather. Numerous visitors who ventured west from Sydney referred to it as wind swept, icy, bleak, dismal and cold, and it is known colloquially as Bleakheath. For this reason, it is thought that the Darug and Gundungurra people spent more time in the valleys which lie below the escarpment and offer a more temperate climate.

The Gundungurra and the Darug are the Black Heathens and the original Blackheathans.

Save Centennial Glen

Centennial Glen is under threat. The parcel of natural bush land to the west of Blackheath in NSW could be turned into a scenic highway if authorities choose this option for the expansion of the Great Western Highway through the Blue Mountains.

The construction of the highway would destroy the local ecology and rid the residents of a popular local hiking trail, as well as adversely affecting many other groups such as rock climbers, school students and teachers, and local businesses.

Part of a whole

The proposed highway expansion is part of a larger project to expand the Great Western Highway all the way from Katoomba to Lithgow. Many residents between Katoomba and Lithgow are not in agreement with the project, as they believe it will be destructive in so many ways. They are also not convinced by a project which the government itself says will save only 10 minutes on the journey from Katoomba to Lithgow. 

Economic mistake

The official document from the NSW government claims the entire Great Western Highway Upgrade;

“Supports regional economic growth”

I would argue that the proposed scenic highway could harm the economy of Blackheath.

The proposed scenic highway could reduce the amount of money injected into the local community. The scenic highway would essentially act like a bypass of Blackheath. According to Transport NSW, which is responsible for the highway project, the scenic highway option would require the building of an outer bypass with bridges crossing over Shipley Road, Centennial Pass, Porters Pass Track, and over the rail line at the north.

Shipley Road is a suburban road at the southern end of Blackheath, before the main shopping area. Centennial Pass is a section of the bush land that includes part of the popular hiking trail, and Porters Pass is another section the hiking trail that winds its way through the bush.

Motorists would not pass through Blackheath. They would enter the scenic road before the town centre, and they would exit after the town centre. The road itself may become an attraction for some visitors looking to enjoy the view, but it won’t bring more money into the local economy.

Common sense tells us that motorists will not drive past the entry to the scenic road and into Blackheath for a coffee and cake, before backtracking out of Blackheath to join the proposed road. They will also not backtrack into town after exiting the scenic road. There is even less incentive to enter Blackheath, and spend money in its businesses, when perfectly acceptable coffee and cake is offered at many other towns in the Blue Mountains, including at the famous Hydro Majestic in Medlow Bath, which is just a few minutes drive away.

This is a region that has already suffered from the drop in tourists numbers due to the bush fires and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rock Climbing

Walls Ledge and nearby rock faces are enormously popular with rock climbers, from near and far. The new highway would ruin one of the most popular rock climbing sites in Australia. Rock climbers not only climb in Blackheath, they also eat, drink and relax in Blackheath, and this income would be lost to the community if they went elsewhere to climb.

School

Mountains Christian College sits atop the ridge of Centennial Glen, with fantastic views and an amazing playground. The scenic highway proposal would be built very close to the school’s facilities and the construction work, and the highway itself, would cause endless noise disruption for students and teachers.

Why build a scenic highway?

Official justification for the scenic highway is that even though “…. There are likely impacts on the existing environment through the valley…” There is “…the potential to create a scenic route for locals and visitors.”

The scenic route already exists, in the form of a hiking trail. If locals and visitors want to enjoy the beautiful views over bush land and farms, they can do so on foot. You don’t need a highway or a car to admire the scenery of Centennial Glen, just a pair of sturdy walking shoes.

The hike to the viewpoints is not even particularly long or hard. From various entry points, visitors can walk along relatively flat paths across the top of the ridge, and within a few minutes enjoy the views. A longer and more strenuous hike exists down below the cliffs, and this does require walking up and down steep and slippery steps, crossing over some boulders and trudging through mud, but the famous views are accessible on top of the ridge, just a few minutes from Blackheath.

The paradox

Who spends money in Blackheath?

Who would use the scenic road?

Probably the same people.

Tourists spend a lot of money in Blackheath and throughout the Blue Mountains, but tourists are most likely to drive on the scenic road. Locals would probably drive it once or twice out of curiosity, but why would they if they’ve already seen the view on foot?

Thus, the scenic road, which is supposed to attract more visitors to the region, would prevent those same people from visiting Blackheath.

Truck drivers won’t use the scenic road. They have a set schedule and need to arrive at their destination on time in order to keep their job and their income.

Locals won’t use the scenic road. If they use the highway regularly they do so to go to work, school the shops or an appointment, and they want to arrive at that destination on time. The scenic road would only add time to their journey.

How is it possible?

Centennial Glen is a possible site for highway expansion because it is not national park. The land is council land, managed by Blue Mountains City Council. The other side of the existing highway is part of the Blue Mountains National Park, including sites such as Govett’s Leap, and this area can not be built on.

Short-term thinking

Like many government-endorsed infrastructure projects, three of the four options for the highway expansion will deliver only short-term benefit. The project is apparently designed to cater for:

“Increased transport capacity to meet future growth.”

This means more traffic. The government boasts that the highway expansion will reduce congestion and traffic jams. It will in the short term, but experts tell us that building or expanding roads does not reduce congestion in the long term. Eventually, new roads fill up with cars and traffic jams return.

Alternative transport

Like many government-endorsed infrastructure projects, it could be replaced, or at least supported, by alternative transport.

Improvements to the train service between Central (Sydney) and Lithgow (then to Bathurst) could take many cars off the road. New trains running on a modern timetable could encourage people, especially weekend tourists from Sydney, to take the train instead of driving. New trains which allow for passengers to bring luggage (for a weekend away) strollers, bicycles or other large items would cater for the large number of people who would prefer not to drive to and through the mountains, but are put off by Sydney’s outdated and insufficient public transport network.

Once on the train at Central, the trip is not that much slower than driving from Central Station/CBD to Blackheath. The train trip to Katoomba is even quicker if passengers can get the express train which continues to Bathurst.

Locals are continually advocating to save Centennial Glen. They are following accepted channels and communicating with local and state government to try to save this beautiful section of bush land. Their efforts, and updates, can be see at http://www.savecentennialglen.org