George Caley’s 1804 Expedition

A man for ‘the road less travelled’

What few talents I am possessed of are not to be known by seeing me upon a carpet, under the roof of a conservatory, nor upon a fine gravel walk in a garden. Let me be tried upon the lofty mountain, the dark and intricate wood, the wide-extended plain, the marsh and peaty bog.

George Caley, 1798

George Caley (1770-1829) was an ambitious man from humble origins who with skill and determination became an expert in Australian plants and animals. He lived in Australia between 1800 and 1810, working as a collector for the ‘father of Australian botany’, Sir Joseph Banks.

One of Caley’s first jobs was to try and obtain a platypus to prove such a bizarre creature actually existed. A drawing of a specimen found on the Hawkesbury River in 1797 had been sent back to England, where people demanded to know if it was a hoax!

Caley undertook many successful collecting trips to the north, south and west of Sydney, but his journey into the Blue Mountains was to be his most challenging, and would impact the rest of his life.

From the plains of western Sydney, settlers saw the Carmarthen Hills forming a bumpy line of high tops on the far western horizon. Caley aimed for the most distant of these (now Mount Banks) and, in the absence of Aboriginal advice, took a characteristically direct line across the gorges that flow south into the Grose River (through the country to the south of the current Bell’s Line of Road).

Botany was not Caley’s primary object but ‘an enthusiastic pride of going farther than any person has yet been’ (he meant white person, but in the perception of the day, Caley overlooked local Aboriginal knowledge). With three unknown men, possibly convicts (described as three of the strongest men in the colony), and a small dog he crossed the Hawkesbury River on 3 November 1804 and headed west.

Quite rightly spurning horses as incapable of handling the steep sandstone terrain, the men carried all their provisions and equipment. Carrying loads of about 25 kg, they walked into the complete unknown for three weeks: no guide, no maps, no tent, no sleeping bag, no communication and no hope of salvation if anything went wrong.

They shot a little game, found water where they could and lay down at night in the sweat-soaked clothes they were wearing. They built shelters out of branches or, if they were lucky, found a sandstone overhang (which Caley referred to as a ‘rock house’) when it rained.

By the third day Caley was ‘thunder struck with the roughness of the country’. Much of the landscape they traversed remains unchanged today, protected in the Grose Wilderness of Blue Mountains National Park.

Standing today on the cliff-top above the wild junction of the Grose River and Wilderness Brook, on the same rock where Caley stood after five days’ arduous travel, makes it easy to understand his fears and to be impressed by his determination. ‘For some time I was at a loss to know how to cross this deep valley, which seemed to bid defiance to man.’ Undaunted, he forced a difficult pass through the cliffs to the bottom of the valley.

Lowering the luggage

At length I found a place where water fell down in heavy rains, which by the help of the bushes, and the small shrub like trees, I descended. Afterwards I proceeded along the edges of the rocks, which in some places was by far worse, than descending by the bushes. Finding that this was the only place, where any likelihoods appeared of getting down, I returned, persuading the men that they might easily get down by lowering the luggage. We set to work in making a cord out of twine, by which we lowered it down, but in doing this, we were obliged to have different stations. When we had got it down the perpendicular part, we were under the necessity of handing it from one another, along the edges of the rocks in places .

George Caley’s journal, on descending into the Devil’s Wilderness

Caley and his men climbed out the other side of the valley without delay. In keeping with some of his other gloomy names, like Dark Valley and Dismal Dingle, Caley called the great valley The Devil’s Wilderness. After a hard, hot and thirsty day, Caley only just managed to find enough water to camp (in a place he called Luminous Valley, after the glow-worms). His men were dispirited but Caley revived them with a ‘short harangue’.

A short harangue

Finding that fatigue had not hurt the men so much, as the thought of the dangerous road we had come, urged me to chear up their spirits, by telling them I was of the opinion, though the route had been a rough one, we had hit upon a range of hills which was likely to lead us to the Carmarthen Mountains, and that the deep vallies which appeared in various directions, and which seemed inaccessible, we should avoid; but further informed them at the same time, that I was determined to go on, let the case be what it would, as long as a possibility remained. And that for to give up the idea of reaching the hills I had pointed out to them, as long as we were labouring under no disadvantage, excepting the ruggedness of the country, would brand us with ridicule……I also jocosely told them, that when they returned they would know the difference between walking on a good road and the Blue Mountains; and that it would be easier for to look at them, than to go to them a second time; and that pleasure was unknown to those who had never felt pain. This short harangue, I soon perceived had the desired effect, and this stimulated them to think of proceeding with eagerness.

George Caley’s journal, after crossing The Devil’s Wilderness

Caley eventually found the main ridgeline and reached Fern Tree Hill (now Mount Tomah) on 10 November, where he described lush rainforest: ‘We came into ground destitute of underwood, but thickly set with trees, and was very dark. Saw 4 pheasants’ (ie. lyre-birds).

Delayed by rain, fog and inaccessible ravines (that now delight the modern canyoner), they gained the summit of Mount Banks on 14 November. Here Caley was confronted with the stupendous cliff-bound gorge of the upper Grose, and concluded that the mountains ‘must forever remain an unsurmountable barrier to the extension of the settlement’. He later wrote to Banks that ...’the roughness of the country I found beyond description. I cannot give you a more expressive idea than travelling over the tops of houses in a town.’

The return walk was just as tough. Caley tried to follow his outward route but mistook his course in several places. On 23 November and short of food, they made their final dash of more than 42 km, from western side of the Hawkesbury River all the way back to Parramatta.