In 2018, Council received a grant from the NSW Government to review the interpretation of the Pulpit Hill precinct, Katoomba. Historically, interpretation of Pulpit Hill has focused on its European heritage, presenting the ‘Explorers marked tree’ as a prominent symbol of the expansion of the British colony. The refreshed approach, while continuing to recognise its symbolism as a record of British colonial expansion, for the first time recognises the ongoing impact on the Dharug, Gundungurra and Wiradjuri people, and the dispossession and ongoing disadvantage that ensued.
Presenting the material in this way both respects the need of Aboriginal people for their experience of European colonisation to be truthfully told, and responds to the significant appetite in the broader community to acknowledge, heal and move forward into a more inclusive and honest future
In adopting this approach, Council also made a historic resolution that in interpreting heritage in the City going forward, a similar practice will be adopted where appropriate, whereby both an Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal perspective will be provided, as well as other inclusive themes, such as class, gender and ethnicity.
Over time, new material will be introduced to accompany the site to reflect other under-emphasised themes associated with Pulpit Hill.
Nguna Gundungurra-ngu Ngurra-wung
This is Gundungurra Country
For the Gundungurra people, Ngurra (Country) is a complex, interconnected web of the land, all of the living things in it and on it (seen or unseen),
water, sky, stars and planets, the air, spiritual beings, stories, songs and dance.
Since time immemorial, the Gundungurra people have lived in and cared for Ngurra, and have in turn, been cared for and nourished by it. Countless generations of Gundungurra people have lived and thrived in the timeless generosity and care of their Ngurra.
Today, the Gundungurra people retain this deep cultural and spiritual connection with Ngurra and Ngurra continues to care for and nourish them, but the world has changed.
The world of the Gundungurra, inhabited since the creation time, was dramatically and irrevocably changed in 1813, with the arrival of European explorers.
At that time, a party led by the now famous early colonists Gregory Blaxland, William Wentworth and William Lawson, travelled into Gundungurra Ngurra, in their quest
for new lands for the colony.
The Gundungurra, wary of the strangers, were cautious, keeping a safe distance, as two very different worlds slowly began to come together for the first time…
Pathways in Country
By the early 1800s the small British colony at Sydney, in the rich Ngurra of the Dharug people, was rapidly expanding and more land was needed.
The colonisers were tantalised by stories of the rich lands west of what came to be known as the Great Divide and the rumoured existence of ancient pathways through the mountains. The search was on for places with deep, rich soil, good timber, reliable rainfall and standing water, an abundance of game and a temperate climate.
These physical qualities of Ngurra were those also valued by the Dharug, Gundungurra and Wiradjuri.
Competition for good land between the original owners and the colonists, was inevitable.
Gundungurra and Dharug peoples had forever easily traversed what the colonists thought of as ‘the Divide’, using their ancient pathways, seasonally and ceremonially connecting them to important parts of Ngurra, to each other and to their neighbours the Wiradjuri.
It was through these pathways that the party of colonists fatefully found their way in 1813, heralding the European occupation of Central West NSW. It also marked the beginning of the violent dispossession of the original owners of the land, an impact still felt by Aboriginal people to this day.
The party of explorers are said to have carved a tree to mark their crossing and you have probably stopped here today to see that tree. Remember this part of the story when you ponder the tree.
It does mark the beginning of the colonists’ expansion beyond the range, assuring the survival and success of the British colony, but it also marks a starkly different beginning for the Dharug, the Gundungurra, and the Wiradjuri.
By the way, the tree is not quite what it seems, but that’s a different story…
The Tree, a powerful symbol
Following what is commonly believed to be the first successful European crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813, a story emerged of a previously unnoticed tree, near the summit of Pulpit Hill, which adjoined the (by then) heavily used western road.
Over the next few decades, the tale of the tree grew, was told and retold, and the tree assumed monumental status for non-Aboriginal Australians
as a symbol of crossing the Divide and opening up the west.
The period after the crossing was characterised by the almost complete dispossession of the Dharug, Gundungurra and Wiradjuri from their Ngurra, despite a fierce and heroic war of resistance.
Their languages silenced, their rich economy broken, they were forced onto missions or into manual labour on rural properties to survive. Their ancient, rich and vibrant culture was forced underground in the face of the rapidly expanding British colony.
By the 1870s, the colony of NSW wanted to assert its prominence and identity, spurred on by the success of the wool trade and the gold rush. The desire to celebrate these achievements was strong and the existence of a marked tree that, in the minds of the colonisers symbolised the march of progress and prosperity, grew in importance.
It is very likely that there was such a tree, marked in some way by the first colonial explorers. The process of marking, or blazing trees, is mentioned in several historical accounts, believed to be a way to mark a path for others to follow or to retrace steps in the dense bushland. It is likely that there were many marked trees in the area for this purpose.
However over the years, a story developed around this tree, to memorialise the expansion of the British colony into western NSW, with a physical landmark.
A confronting and enduring legacy
In the 1970s and 1980s, debate over the future of the remnant of the tree came into focus, particularly due to the upgrade of the increasingly busy Great Western Highway.
There was also increasing scrutiny about the authenticity of the tree. In turn, this raised questions about the need to protect and conserve the tree, which
by then had largely rotted.
However, regardless of the condition and authenticity of the tree, it is a highly significant artefact and cultural symbol, which tells a powerful story.
It is a story of how the British colony at Sydney survived and thrived, and of the need for a fledging colonial nation to celebrate the beginning of its story.
For the original owners of the land, the Dharug, the Gundungurra, the Wiradjuri and the innumerable other Aboriginal peoples whose Ngurra was taken after the crossing, this tree symbolises something very different.
Though painful for Gundungurra people, the myth of this tree is now part of their story, bonding them to the stories of their Dharug and Wiradjuri neighbours and others beyond them.
It is a story of heroic resistance, loss beyond measure, survival, reawakening and reclaiming, and of unbroken and timeless connection to Ngurra, which has never been ceded nor surrendered.
Today, Australia has grown into a strong, prosperous and mature nation with a growing appetite to embrace its past and to move into the future with honesty and respect. The story and symbolism of the tree can help us do that, to understand the price paid for the prosperity enjoyed today and the real and lasting impacts experienced by Aboriginal peoples, as a result of colonisation.
In recognition of this, in 2014 Blue Mountains City Council entered into an agreement with the Gundungurra people, the Gundungurra Indigenous Land Use Agreement. This recognises the Gundungurra's deep, abiding and unbroken connection to Ngurra and establishes a consultative partnership approach with the Gundungurra to the management of land in the Blue Mountains.