(header photographs by Harry Waite 1912-2011)

The Myth of the Sacred Brumby






Blue Gum Forest:

Hallowed Ground in the Spiritual Heartland of Bushwalking

by Colin Gibson

Below the mighty cliffed flanks of the Grose Valley gorges, where the two major head-waters of the River Grose meet, nestles the Blue Gum Forest - hallowed ground in the spiritual heartland of bushwalking. Where Govetts Creek and the Grose River meet, alluvial flats have developed; of no great area, they are a significant feature in a valley with only a modicum of level land. That there was a tall forest of Deane's bluegum on the alluvial floor had been known to mountain residents and to certain of the more adventurous city-based sightseers, but at the time of the commercialised bushwalking boom of the early 1930s the Blue Gum Forest was still a well kept secret, a state of affairs that could have led to the demise the of the forest.

Years before surveyors and engineers had examined the length of the Grose valley and studied its potential for various: proposals for water supply, a rail link and mining had all been on the drawing board. Agricultural pursuits were never considered seriously for there was simply nothing on offer in the rugged valley. However, at the junction of the two major watercourses the deep alluvial soil and tall timber had been noted, and grazing leases applied for.

No doubt a few had wracked their brains to think of a way to withdraw the timber resource from the depths of valley; trees as tall and as full as their species can grow, some hundreds of years old. But the difficulty of access ensured that there was no hope of profiting from extraction of the timber and for many years there were no threats to the sanctity of the forest.

One of the first parties from the Sydney Bush Walkers to visit the Blue Gum entered the valley from the Mt. Victoria side in April (Easter) 1931, arriving at the forest at a propitious time. The party was led by one of the most accomplished bushwalkers of the day, Alan Pierpoint Rigby, who had joined the Mountain Trails Club in 1923, and been at the forefront of the formation of the Sydney Bush Walkers four years later. He was a commercial artist, enthusiastic and possessed of a volatile wit; like many forward-thinking men and women of the time Rigby was an admirer of nature and the natural, his analytical mind not bound by convention. Myles Dunphy, Mountains Trails Club founder, compared Rigby's poetic sensibilities to those of his great friend the artist Roy Davies, and commended Rigby for his ability to communicate and his gift for description and observation. These were the kind of attributes that Dunphy valued and which contrasted so much with the materialism of the day.

Having arrived at Blue Gum Forest the walkers were struck with the beauty of the place, a graceful and majestic scene in such contrast to the unrelenting ruggedness that surrounded it. As they were admiring its charm they became aware of another force at work in the forest. To their amazement they discovered that the sanctity of the forest was threatened by the axe of the pioneer.

On investigation they found that a Bilpin farmer had a Conditional Purchase Lease on the north-eastern bank of the river. On the leased land grew many of the forest’s finest trees. Charles Hungerford, the lessee, professed to have no plans for the timber other than to ringbark and to burn it; ostensibly it was his intention to graze a few cattle and grow walnuts! Hungerford was a forthright character with a sense for practical matters, sure of his rights; he and his friend, Herbert Pierce, had cut the track (it now bears the latter’s name) down the steep gully to the north-west of Mt Banks, and down this track they intended to bring in their cattle.

Rigby and Hungerford conversed; Rigby was shocked by Hungerford's intentions and voiced his dismay at the next Mountain Trails Club meeting on 17 April 1931. Soon the ball was rolling. Various enquiries were made and in June Dunphy wrote to Hungerford expressing the concern of the bushwalkers.

At a meeting in July, the Sydney Bushwalkers took stock of the situation. There were doubts whether it would be possible to save the forest. Such was the quandary when Joe Turner proposed that a committee be formed to investigate means for acquiring the forest, and thus in July 1931 the Blue Gum Forest Committee came into existence. This may have been the first instance when such an ‘action’ group was formed by the fledgling conservation movement. The initial committee comprised  Rigby, Dunphy, Harold Chardon, Walter Roots, Joe Turner, Harold Buckland, and Harold Perrott. In due course Roy bennett, Noel Griffiths and Dorothy Lawry were also elected.

Hungerford’s response was to the point. For 150 pounds he would stay his hand and transfer the lease to the bushwalkers. The bushwalking movement was then in its infancy; the MTC had a membership of 27 and about 140 people belonged to the SBW. The Depression was biting hard on all concerned (including Hungerford). The sum asked was considered exorbitant. Hungerford wrote to say that he was making a considerable sacrifice. He may have thought that to sell would save him much labour, and he was undoubtedly impressed by the bushwalkers’ level of interest. Bargaining from strength, he intended to make a profitable deal. He wanted a 50 pound deposit by the end of November. The bushwalkers knew they had little chance of raising this sum.

Dunphy contacted Hungerford and a meeting on site was arranged for 15 November 1931. On the way to the forest Dunphy decided to look for Dockers Ladder, said to be in the vicinity of Perrys Lookdown. The Dockers Ladder route had been pioneered by Ernest Docker, a photographer and a great admirer of the Grose valley scenery, during his participation in the expedition led by Eccleston Du Faur in 1875. Du Faur had shown Dockers ladder on his 1878 map. Joe Turner, Albert Barnard and Maurie Berry were there. At the Lookdown they split up and spent some time searching and probing around the cliffs. Turner yelled out: they had found the rotting remains of the old rope ladder. The men jumped the slight drop which was ‘pie for wallabies’. The steep buttress was then followed into the valley; to Dunphy "the descent was a remarkable adventure, almost unbelievable, the situation spectacular, and the steepness of the route incredible.’ The descent took three-and-a-quarter hours and was considered very difficult; the route did not win Dunphy's endorsement as a recommended route into the valley, yet today Dockers Buttress is probably the most frequently used access to the forest.

Another group had met Hungerford at the top of ‘Pierce's Pass’ and was guided in. Hungerford had pegged a claim on the oil-shale outcrop along the base of the tall cliffs. Dunphy believed that this pass was the original access for horses and cattle into the valley. In this party were Roy Bennett (Wild Life Preservation Society), JG Lockley (the journalist 'Redgum' of the Sydney Morning Herald), and bushwalkers Dorothy Lawry, Harold Chardon and Win Lewis. Lockley then was a man of nearly 70 and not a hardened bushwalker; the walk was extremely beautiful and the party took its time. Meanwhile Alan Rigby, Harold Perrott, Roy Bennett and Noel Griffiths had walked in by way of Govetts Leap.

The parties converged on the forest and convened the meeting on Hungerford's lease under Mt Banks (then known as Mt King George). Dunphy regarded the lessee with some disdain believing that Hungerford had deliberately felled a tree along the river to emphasise his position to the committee. This may or may not have been the case. It is certain that Dunphy, like Rigby, was simply aghast at the whole prospect and depressed to think that methodical destruction of outstanding scenic areas was so much a matter of course, and that the Lands Department itself was ignorant of the special qualities of the place and its suitability for any purpose other than a grazing lease.

A thunderstorm had been brewing all day and it was as though the gods themselves had decide to attend this critical meeting. The thunder pealed and an inch of rain fell in twenty minutes. The protagonists had gathered around a fire in their capes and wide brimmed hats. Dorothy Lawry recorded:

The members of the conference just donned their waterproof capes, squatted in a circle under the trees, and conferred. All round them rose the straight blue trunks of the gums which were inspiration, with here and there a recently planted young walnut if one knew where to look for it, and not even the deluge could dampen their ardour.

Lawry and Lockley retreated to the shelter of a hollow log and stood watching. The final terms were 25 pounds deposit, the balance of 105 pounds to be paid by the end of the year. The meeting dispersed.

No time was lost in the ensuing months. The hat went the rounds and donations were called for, social activities were organised for the benefit of Blue Gum and there was a Blue Gum Ball. Lockley publicised the cause in the Sydney Morning Herald, a pamphlet was designed and widely distributed. Private enterprise made its contribution with Hartland and Hyde, John Sands and BJ Ball Ltd paying for the pamphlet.

During the year of the so-called ‘hiking craze’, 1932, there were many spectacular events. In one of these (said to have been attended by 8,000 people) the actor Bert Bailey (who portrayed ‘Dad’ in the film On our Selection) addressed the throng at lunch-time and added an appeal for the Blue Gum Forest Fund.

The Wild Life Preservation Society, on the recommendation of Roy Bennett donated 25 pounds, which became the deposit, and the MTC and SBW raised 18 pounds between them. His eye on the prize, Hungerford wrote to the committee suggesting ‘means of raising the money by broadcasting and through the press’. With a sense of urgency the committee looked into the possibility of raising a loan. One name came quickly came to mind, that of a business executive who had also been Chief Commissioner for Railways, an was an outdoors enthusiast - WJ Cleary. He agreed to provide an anonymous loan of 80 pounds, interest free, for two years and so by February 1932 Hungerford had been paid; fund-raising to cover the loans would continue for the next two years. Smaller contributions came from a variety of sources, among them the Melbourne Walking and Touring Club, the Australian Forest League and Edward Hordern.

Jim Cleary's contribution had saved the day. Hungerford now had full payment and the Department of Lands revoked the Conditional Purchase Lease, eventually reserving the block for public recreation. The campaign to save the Blue Gum had specifically been concerned with that part of the forest under Mt Banks. The forest on the side of the river under Perrys Lookdown was on a freehold portion owned by Edward Hordern of the wealthy Sydney business family. This allotment, originally granted to Benjamin Carver in September 1875, had been in the possession of the Hordern family since 1884. For a time Carver had a small house and stockyards on the flat. The Horderns had later planted tungs and introduced grasses to improve the potential for pasture. To the bushwalkers’ great relief they learned that the Hordern family, though somewhat unamused by all the fuss, had a more benign regard towards their part of the forest, and had no intention of felling any of the trees.

The bushwalkers handed title of the former Hungerford portion back to the crown as a matter of course. The Blue Gum Forest Reserve for public recreation (40 acres) was proclaimed in the New South Wales Government Gazette on 2 September 1932. The original trustees were Bennett, Lawry, Turner and Rigby. Maurie Berry replaced Rigby in 1935, and in that year Jim Cleary was appointed a fifth trustee. In 1961 the land was absorbed into the newly created Blue Mountains National Park.

The Blue Gum Forest campaign had galvanised the bushwalkers into action and given them a public profile for the first time. They had become more aware of what could happen, and, indeed, what was happening to some of the country’s scenic treasures. Efforts on other campaigns increased with the newly formed Federation of Bushwalking Clubs of New South Wales and the National Parks and Primitive Areas Council spearheading the work. There is no doubt that the Blue Gum campaign provided the impetus which led to the establishment of these two bodies and enabled the organised bushwalking movement to lobby on its own behalf with the aim of preserving bushland and bushwalking country.

The Blue Gum Committee continued its fund-raising activities and on 1 December 1933 was able to return the loan in full. It presented to Jim Cleary a book of photographs of the forest compiled in his honour, with a hand painted frontispiece by Alan Rigby.

In October 1936 Jim Cleary paid an emotional first visit to Blue Gum Forest. More than 100 campers had come to Blue Gum and after tea on Sunday evening, they converged on Cleary's camp with flashing torches. A short, sincere ceremony, some words of thanks from Ern Austen of SBW, and a surprised Mr Cleary was honoured with a chorus of ‘for he's a jolly good fellow’ and an ensuing camp fire concert. Bill Holesgrove, who was present, later wrote a pertinent comment: ‘It would be a good thing if more of our public men had the same love of the simple life and could gain the wider vision which comes with life in the bush and find the sense of comradeship and mutual understanding which is inseparable from the camp-fire.’

Coast and Mountain Walker, Jim Hyman, remembered the beauty of the forest that night:

The act of going to bed always gives a normal person a feeling of intense satisfaction and nowhere more so than beside a campfire. And nowhere, in my opinion, more so than in the Blue Gum Forest. As you lie on your back, the campfire casts a flickering light on the ghostly trees, while high above, stars wink down at you through the canopy of leaves. This might easily be an enchanted forest like you read about in mediaeval fairy tales, as you gradually sink under its spell and sleep.

It was the bushwalkers’ prompt action which secured the Blue Gum Forest and helped lay the foundation for ongoing decades of conservation work. The magnificent trees, which have stood the passing of centuries, stand as a reminder of this.

Information in this feature was sourced from articles written by Lawry (1932, 1934); Holesgrove (1936); Hyman (1937); Turner (1962) and Dunphy (1965) and Macqueen (1997), with additional information from The Hiker and Bushwalker (1932); The Bushwalker (1937, 1940) and the Myles Dunphy papers, Mitchell Library, Sydney.

This article was published in Wild No. 67, January – March 1998.