Thursday, 15 January 2009

Darwin travels to Bathurst

16th January, 1836: After spending a few days in Sydney, Darwin headed west across the Blue Mountains to visit Bathurst, then "a village about one hundred and twenty miles in the interior, and the centre of a great pastoral district".

On his way there, he noted:
The roads were excellent, and made upon the MacAdam principle: whinstone having been brought for the purpose from the distance of several miles. The road appeared much frequented by all sorts of carriages; and I met two stage-coaches. In all these respects there was a close resemblance to England; perhaps the number of alehouses was here in excess.

Roads are no longer quite so well-maintained, thanks to the increase in traffic and the decline in convict labour, and carriages have been replaced by cars and trucks. As for the pubs ... well, nothing has changed there.

The vegetation that Darwin saw on the way is typical of the drier parts of Australia: open eucalypt woodland. Gum trees and grass. When he wrote about it, he compared it to the woodlands of England, which he had last seen in 1831, and the forests of South America.
The extreme uniformity of the vegetation is the most remarkable feature in the landscape of the greater part of New South Wales. Everywhere we have an open woodland; the ground being partially covered with a very thin pasture. The trees nearly all belong to one family; and mostly have the surface of their leaves placed in a vertical, instead of as in Europe, a nearly horizontal position: the foliage is scanty, and of a peculiar, pale green tint, without any gloss. Hence the woods appear light and shadowless: this, although a loss of comfort to the traveller under the scorching rays of summer, is of importance to the farmer, as it allows grass to grow where it otherwise could not. The leaves are not shed periodically: this character appears common to the entire southern hemisphere, namely, South America, Australia, and the Cape of Good Hope. The inhabitants of this hemisphere and of the intertropical regions, thus lose perhaps one of the most glorious, though to our eyes common, spectacles in the world, — the first bursting into full foliage of the leafless tree. They may, however, say that we pay dearly for our spectacle, by having the land covered with mere naked skeletons for so many months. This is too true; but our senses thus acquire a keen relish for the exquisite green of the spring, which the eyes of those living within the tropics, sated during the long year with the gorgeous productions of those glowing climates, can never experience. The greater number of the trees, with the exception of some of the blue gums, do not attain a large size; but they grow tall and tolerably straight, and stand well apart. The bark of some falls annually, or hangs dead in long shreds, which swing about with the wind; and hence the woods appear desolate and untidy. Nowhere is there an appearance of verdure, but rather that of arid sterility. I cannot imagine a more complete contrast in every respect than between the forests of Valdivia, or Chiloe, and the woods of Australia.

He believed the "arid sterility" was a product of low rainfall rather than lack of nutrients.

The agricultural crops, and often those in gardens, are estimated to fail once in three years; and this has even happened on successive years. Hence the colony cannot supply itself with the bread and vegetables, which its inhabitants consume. It is essentially pastoral, and chiefly so for sheep, and not the larger quadrupeds.

He stayed overnight at the Emu Ferry Inn on the Nepean River before heading across the Blue Mountains.


Denis Wilson said...

It is really good that you have traced Darwin's journals and linked them with the dates.
I shall be going to Mudgee this weekend, so, my path will cross his at some stage. Certainly from the Nepean Bridge at Penrith, and then up to the top of the Mountains, before we turn north.
Something to think about - on the trip.

Snail said...

Make sure you've got a rug for the stage coach!