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.

Walking the Other Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon Walk in the Blue Mountains of NSW is certainly less grand than its famous name sake, but the hike is a rewarding walk through beautiful bush land which ends with a stunning view.

The walk snakes its way along the base of the canyon after descending from either of the two starting points near the mountain town of Blackheath.

Beautiful native vegetation, ancient trees, waterfalls and the river are on display throughout the walk, and native wildlife is slowly returning after the destruction of the most recent bush fires. Lush green plants juxtapose with sandstone cliffs. Slim, pale eucalyptus trees are dotted along the trail and the cliff tops and water falls dance in the sunlight.

Walkers can start from Evans Lookout and complete the walk at the Neates Glen car park, or walk in the opposite direction. Starting at Neates Glen car park rewards hikers with the stunning vista from Evans Lookout at the end of the hike – a great spot for a drink and a well-earned snack.

Whichever direction hikers take, they will start the hike with a staired descent and finish with a hike up some stairs. The steep stairs which bookend the hike explain the advisory on the official NPWS website which recommends 3 – 4 hours to complete the journey. Hikers with a reasonable level of fitness can finish the walk in about 1 hour at a steady pace, even after stopping to take photos and admire the scenery.

Photographers are rewarded on this trail and its worth taking a snack and stopping at the bottom of the trail in one of the rest areas to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife, as well as the peace and quiet on a weekday.

Early in the morning or late afternoon are the best times to enjoy the Grand Canyon. Early mornings in winter can be very cold, but can treat the hiker to mountain mist or sharp, blue skies. Mornings and late afternoons are also the best times to watch the sun bounce off the stunning yellow sandstone cliffs for which the Blue Mountains are famous.

At present, the hike is restricted to the Grand Canyon walk. The cliff top walk from Evans Lookout to Govett’s Leap Lookout is unfortunately closed due to bush fires, as are the longer and more challenging hikes which branch off the main track. Most long hikes in the region will apparently be closed for the rest of 2020.

The Grand Canyon walk is reachable by train. From Blackheath station it is about a one hour walk to the trail head, either walking back along the highway and turning left at the big brown sign to Evans Lookout, or by walking though suburban streets to Braeside fire trail, then towards the starting point.

Cycling the Narrow Neck Trail.

Narrow Neck Trail is a scenic and challenging cycling trail in the Blue Mountains National Park near Katoomba which offers off-road cyclists a solid workout with some spectacular views.

The trail itself is a shared hiking and cycling fire trail which snakes its way along the Narrow Neck ridge for about 10 kilometres in either direction, and finishes at a lookout point which promises views of the national park, farm land to the west and even to Sydney on a clear day.

Cyclists weave their way in and out of bush land and exposed sections with beautiful views, and share the bush with birds and other native animals, which are slowly returning after the severe 2019/2020 bush fires which ripped through the Blue Mountains.

Evidence of the fires follows riders along the trails and the charred remains of trees contrast starkly with the bright blue sky and the striking green shoots of new growth.

Narrow Neck presents a solid workout. Short sharp climbs are scattered throughout the trail, and flat sections are interspersed with long, slow climbs. The halfway point features a few very steep climbs whose ‘whoa boys’, (water drainage humps), add an extra challenge to an ascent. They’re guaranteed to burn the legs – but they’re great fun on the way down.

Furthermore, Narrow Neck trail lies at about 1000 metres altitude. On some of the tougher climbs you can definitely feel the difference in the lungs.

Winter can be cold in the mountains – very cold. Its not uncommon to start the ride with the temperature hovering around 0, and the exposed sections get very chilly on a windy day. Don’t be surprised if you ride through patches of ice early in the morning.

An advantage of riding the trail in winter is the chance to see the valley covered in mist and to ride through clouds.

The trail head sits about 2 kilometres along the access road, which begins in the suburbs of Katoomba. It’s possible to drive right to the trail head, and the advantage of driving is that it cuts out a steep hill just before the trail head – a hill so steep it has been concreted to avoid erosion. This steep and nasty hill is quite a warm up.

For those who are not afraid of a little climbing, it’s possible to reach the trail from Katoomba town centre and from the train station. It lies a few kilometres from the station and can be easily found. Just head to Cliff Drive then keep an eye out for the sign to Narrow Neck trail and the dirt road.

A cycling trail also exists between Katoomba and Leura, and Katoomba and Blackheath and is a mixture of dirt, bitumen and suburban streets. At Blackheath, riders are rewarded with some genuine single trail.

Cycling to and from the trail also forces riders to climb back out to Katoomba, along the dirt access road. After a hilly 20km ride at 1000m, you’ll feel like a sprinter in a Tour de France mountain stage – just tap out a tempo.

Most cyclists tackle the trail on a mountain bike, but it would be achievable with a gravel bike and some decent bike handling skills.

Most importantly, the trail lies close enough to Katoomba for cyclists to finish their ride with a coffee.

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 

Who’s Protecting Our National Parks?

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Australia’s National Parks are under threat, and the culprits are not those you might imagine.

I enjoyed a morning walk on the Grand Canyon trail near Blackheath, NSW, recently and finished the hike at Evans Lookout. As I gazed upon the spectacular view and weaved my way between tourists taking photos, I noticed something very out of place. A woman was walking her pet dog at the lookout point.

Evans Lookout lies within the boundary of the Blue Mountains National Park and is therefore strictly off limits to pet dogs. Lookout points, picnic areas, trails and any other spaces within National Parks are all off limits to pet dogs, because pet dogs damage the ecology and threaten the wildlife that is protected within these parks. Despite this, the woman was happily walking the dog, on a lead, as she admired the view from the lookout.

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I then looked for a ranger or a National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS)  employee, someone who would remind the woman to take her dog out of the park. I didn’t see one. Despite being a busy, sunny Sunday just weeks after Sydney HAD lifted its coronavirus restrictions, there was not a single park ranger patrolling the lookout or the trails.

I wanted to know why.

I therefore emailed NPWS to ask how a woman could freely walk her dog inside park boundaries.

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I was informed, via an official response from the NPWS service, that:

“We are aware that some people use various tracks in the National park to walk their animals.”

On the one hand, it was encouraging to learn that the regulating authority knows what is happening within its parks, but it was also distressing to realise that they were not able to prevent it from happening. Then I was told why:

“We do not have enough resources to patrol and regulate all these areas.”

“If you report it at the time, it would likely take our Area Ranger at least 30 minutes but likely 2 – 3 hours to investigate, depending on where he needs to travel from.”

In government speak, ‘resources’ means money. Thus, there is not enough money to protect the plants and animals in our National Parks, even though National Parks were established to protect plants and animals.

I was then advised to record a rego number, car make and model and the time and date of the incident and make a formal statement which could then be followed up by the relevant authorities.

Should I?

The email from NPWS advised me that:

“Community pressure directly at the time can be an effective deterrent. You can advise them that the scent of a dog drives native animals away…”

Should I go to the trouble of reporting the person? Would anything actually happen? Would the person actually be punished? If I chose to report the person and make a statement, would I need to provide photographic or irrefutable evidence that the person took a pet dog into a National Park? If I took a photo of a person without their permission then passed on that photo to the authorities would I be charged with illegally disseminating an image? If that were the case, I would be punished far more severely than the person who was actually in the wrong.

Should I?

Would it make any difference? Dog owners throughout Australia flaunt rules on a daily basis to ensure that their dogs are happy and content. They take their dogs into off limit areas and are never punished.

Should I?

Should I ruin my Sunday bush walk, through a beautiful patch of bushland to engage in an argument with a dog owner. The owner has no compulsion to listen to me. I have no authority, I’m not a ranger, I’m just another visitor. Plus, do I want to invite this stress into my morning hike? Anyone who takes their pet dog into a National Park is selfish, arrogant, ignorant or illiterate, or all of the above. Do I want to engage in a futile conversation with someone like this when I am undertaking an activity for fun and relaxation?

Why does it matter if a person takes a dog into a National Park?

Pet dogs harm native wildlife.

“Some ground birds and mammals will leave their young (children) to die at just the smell of the dog. Lots of people just do not know.”

A more detailed explanation is provided on the parks website and even on tourism and council websites. It’s true that some people don’t know why they can’t take their pet dogs into National Parks. It’s clear that many just don’t care. For that reason, relying on the good sense of dog owners will not protect native wildlife. National Parks need extra resources, as is evidenced by the response to my email.

When will National Parks be adequately funded?

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