Wollemi National Park
In 1994, deep in a remote gorge of Wollemi National Park, bushwalker David Noble and three friends stumbled upon the ‘dinosaur tree’ that became the Wollemi Pine - a survivor from a distant time before flowering plants came to rule the Earth.
It turned out to be a whole new genus of a Southern Hemisphere conifer family that includes Chile’s monkey puzzle tree and Australia’s Norfolk Island pine. And it amazed botanists around the world.
But to those who knew Wollemi, it wasn’t so surprising that such a ‘lost’ species should turn up there. This tangle of creeks and ridges extends 130 km from Bells Line of Road to the Hunter Valley and has always been a blank space on the map. Spreading north from what is usually understood as the Blue Mountains, it was a place with no name.
The puzzle of Wollemi confounded colonial surveyors. They were despatched again and again to map the unknown terrain, only to struggle in the impassable ravines, seemingly random cliffs and grasping scrub. Major Clews was one of the last, in the 1930s. He tried to resolve the country west of the Colo River, which he called the ‘bad bit across the river’. But Wollemi was not finally mapped accurately until air photographs became available in the 1960s.
Back then, it was ‘vacant Crown land’, a ‘no man’s land’, touched by a few graziers, loggers and bushwalkers, used for army training, crossed by a few fire trails that were carved after the big fires of 1957.
Despite these localised impacts Wollemi includes the largest wilderness (361,000 hectares) in eastern mainland Australia outside Cape York Peninsula. How could such a wilderness survive, right on the doorstep of Sydney, Australia’s largest city? Mainly because Wollemi has been protected by a combination of rugged terrain and limited agricultural potential. Like most national parks, it was the land no-one else wanted. But in the 1970s this began to change. Wollemi started to attract other possibilities.
First it was a shale quarry on the Culoul Range, above the Colo River gorge. Then it was a plan to dam the iconic Colo River itself, to supply water to a new power station on the Newnes Plateau. These ideas arose at a time when environmental concern was growing rapidly in the community, and conservationists were fighting to protect wilderness across Australia. Coming after successful campaigns against limestone mining and pine plantations in wild lands of the southern Blue Mountains, environment groups rallied to protect Wollemi. Another conflict arose over the future of the coal seams that lie under the whole area. But in 1979, in an unprecedented move which recognised the outstanding conservation values of the area and prevented all mining, the New South Wales Government declared Wollemi National Park to the centre of the Earth.
Wollemi today protects over 500,000 hectares of wild country - the largest reserve in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and one of the largest national parks in New South Wales. It remains a mysterious land of endless wooded ridges, twisting cliff-bound gorges and blue horizons. New discoveries continue to be made, discoveries that prove it was not so mysterious to the First Australians.
In 1995, deep in the Wollemi Wilderness, bushwalkers found a sandstone overhang with a massive display of Aboriginal art. Some years later, archaeologists and Aboriginal people went to investigate the cave and gave it the name of Eagle’s Reach. They discovered many more sites and realised that Wollemi held an enormously rich cultural heritage. Hundreds of sites of varied, complex and beautiful art have now been recorded. The art is even more valuable because it is mostly well preserved away from modern impacts and exists within its original bushland environment. Research and contemporary Aboriginal opinion suggest that Wollemi has long been a very special place, and an area where various groups seem to have come from different directions, especially the Darug, Wiradjuri and Darkinjung.
Wollemi may be rugged and mostly untracked, but it has many places for visitors to easily enjoy. You can camp and canoe at Dunns Swamp, explore industrial ruins in the Wolgan Valley, walk through the Glow Worm Tunnel, camp amongst the blue gums at Wheeny Creek, gaze into the wilderness from lookouts like T3 and Crawfords and walk to the Colo River on Hungerfords Track.