THERE’S an imposing bushranger statue catching the eye of visitors passing through Blackheath, on the Great Western Highway in the Blue Mountains.
People normally associate it with a rebel called Govett, of nearby Govetts Leap Lookout fame. Besides the panoramic views, there’s a waterfall, a well-known local landmark.
Folklore has it that back in colonial times this outlaw named William Romaine Govett escaped from troopers by boldly leaping his horse across a stream at the cliff top leading to the waterfall drop.
It’s a nice story, but really it’s all a lot of twaddle.
According to Blue Mountains history author Andy Macqueen, the very use of the word ‘leap’ seems suspicious.
While it’s sometimes said the word ‘leap’ is a Celtic term for a waterfall, Macqueen says he’s not aware of anywhere else in Australia where the term has been applied.
So, just maybe, Macqueen speculates, the name may have been originally applied mischievously by Govett’s boss, the irascible NSW surveyor general major Thomas Mitchell.
Perhaps it’s a private joke as far as Mitchell was concerned, slyly referring to Govett’s likely leaps of fancy in his map-making endeavours.
For make no mistake, Govett (1807-1848) was a real person, except he was not an imaginary bushranger, but instead an assistant surveyor helping to make maps of the then still mostly-unexplored NSW.
Probably driven to the end of his patience by hard taskmaster Mitchell, the young Govett was initially “wholly unqualified” in surveying and had to be trained on the job.
He then made errors, but didn’t correct them, so it soon must have seemed safer to dig himself in deeper so he would not be found out.
Despite another surveyor realising the mistakes, Govett’s “mass of fakery” went into Mitchell’s formal map of how creeks drained the Newnes Plateau, north-east of Lithgow.
Govett got away with it for a century until the new technology of aerial photographs revealed the truth.
Govett died young of a heart attack at 40.
He’d returned to England but his attempts to again find employment in the surveying field came to nothing.
Macqueen devotes a whole chapter to him, labelled Drunken and Disgraceful in his highly unusual, entertaining and informative read, Wayfaring in Wollemi, a 352-page hardcover book which is part history and part personal memoir with 140 images and maps.
Sub-titled Stories of People in Wilderness, it’s not a guidebook.
Instead, Macqueen lifts the lid on the mysteries and allure of what’s been described as a tough, terrible wilderness of secret gorges, or paradoxically, a place of stunning beauty.
He achieves this through 28 revealing stories of people ranging from early explorers, to cattlemen, adventurers, modern bush walkers and conservationists.
For many may not realise this “unknown” Wollemi, stretching from the northern Blue Mountains deep into the Hunter Valley near Sandy Hollow, measures about 4,250 square kilometres, making it NSW’s second largest national park.
It became the state’s largest declared wilderness area in 1999.
To get a proper feel of Macqueen’s book, I settled down on a porch with a coffee against the distant hum of traffic, turned off any music and with a background of birdsong and the summer hum of cicadas ringing in my ears, I soon immersed myself in another world.
I was in good hands. Macqueen has physically explored the mysteries of the tortuous Wollemi, mostly in the last 25 years.
Undertaking about 200 trips, he’s pursued colonial histories by retracing early routes and surveying Aboriginal sites in the rugged terrain.
One of the most interesting yarns for me was learning more about Benjamin Singleton, the pioneer who gave the Upper Hunter township its name.
Forced to explore while playing second fiddle to a ticket-of-leave convict, Singleton comes across as energetic and ambitious, even devious.
Did he, for example, sabotage explorer Thomas William Parr’s 1817 party so he could claim later glory?
Then there’s the intriguing yarn about Singleton’s terrifying night on May 5, 1818 surrounded by 200-plus potentially hostile natives.
It’s the only documented account of any contact with the traditional custodians in the whole Wollemi wilderness.
Had Singleton stumbled across a mountain of spiritual significance, possibly the intersection of the country of the Darkinjung, the Wanaruah and the Wiradjuri peoples?
Even more startling are Macqueen’s tales of the Australian Army later trashing a lot of these remote regions, even reportedly using a ceremonial mountain for target practice during the Vietnam War years.
At one stage in 1963 some 7000 troops invaded the area.
One purpose may have been to consume large stocks of outdated ammunition, some dating back to World War II.
The legacy of these army intrusions remain today in these isolated, supposedly pristine, areas.
It includes bush walkers finding bulldozed roads and relics of barbed wire, discarded used batteries, ration-packs, even a rocket launcher!
The colourful cavalcade of figures who step through the book’s pages include Matthew Everingham, who almost crossed the Blue Mountains barrier in 1795 with William Reid, the likely accidental European discoverer of our Lake Macquarie.
And there’s another familiar name as well in Heneage Finch, whose main claim to fame today lies in him being a surveyor for the Great North Road between Sydney’s Castle Hill and Wollombi, which he surveyed from 1825 until 1831.
And if Macqueen’s name rings a bell, it’s because this is his fifth book.
I particularly remember his fine research into the life and times of forgotten early Hunter explorer Francis Barrallier in a book now sadly out of print.
Macqueen also strongly disagrees with a famous description that the bush could represent an asylum for lost souls.
“My fellow travellers in the bush might seem eccentric … but the city is a place of true loneliness and delusion. Souls disconnected from each other and nature,” he writes.
“In contrast, wilderness is a place of sanity, of self-discovery, of connection.
“A place of silence, of soul, of spirit, of wonder. Of mystery.
“Call it what you like.”
Being a book full of personal reflections, with Macqueen tracing the footsteps of many original adventurers along the same dry escarpments, sandstone canyons and knife-edge basalt ridges, means you have to be in the right frame of mind to absorb the detail.
If you are, it’s a rewarding read.
Wayfaring in Wollemi may not get into Hunter bookshops, but is available from Blue Mountains bookshops or direct from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org for $40 and post-free. As such, it’s a real bargain.