This site hosts a national relic. It marks of one of the most famous events in the history of the nation. Now, it is nothing more than an empty space beside a highway bordered by construction mesh.
This small site just outside of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains of NSW hosts the Explorers Tree – or it used to. The Explorers Tree is a famous landmark etched with the markings of famous explorers Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, who were credited with opening up the region and creating a path from Sydney through the mountains to the flat lands to the west. The three explorers are commemorated in the suburbs Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth Falls in the mountains, and feature in the Australian school history curriculum.
Of course, like most conventional historical accounts in Australia, this story ignores the fact that the Indigenous people of the mountains already knew how to travel between Sydney and the western plains; they’d been doing it for years. The Dharug and Gundungurra people have been living in the Katoomba region, and the Megalong Valley below, for thousands of years. Some accounts even go so far as to say that the explorers such as Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson ‘discovered’ the region. Aboriginal people knew it was there, they’d been living on the land for at least 50,000 years.
Where is the tree now?
According to Blue Mountains City Council, the remnants of the tree were taken to a Transport for New South Wales depot in Lawson. At least it lies in a suburb with some connection to the people who made it famous. The tree was removed in late February this year for fears that it would slide away in heavy rain and land on the highway. The tree, the degraded base and the fence were removed. All that’s left now is an interpretive display further off the highway. According to TfNSW, the tree may feature in a cultural interpretation strategy for the planned upgrade of that stretch of the Great Western Highway.
Why is it significant?
Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson are said to have marked the tree during the first crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813. History tells us that a tree was marked by someone, at some point, somewhere near a site called Pulpit Hill, some time in the 1800s, when the region was being explored by Europeans. Pulpit Hill is just a short distance from the current site of the tree. No one can say for certain that the tree which stood proudly beside the highway for so many years, and the tree which was removed just a few weeks ago, is actually that tree. Nevertheless, that particular tree was set aside as a site of national significance, and the platform and fence were built around it, while a plaque was laid nearby detailing its importance.
That said, the tree wasn’t very spectacular before it was removed. Like any living organism, it started to age, and the Explorers Tree was looking more like an explorers stump. Most motorists flew by the landmark on their way to Medlow Bath and beyond without a second thought, and for a long time the site had been bordered by flimsy orange construction tape – it was a rather forlorn view. What’s more, the tree was mostly concrete. Many years ago, the rotting trunk had been filled with concrete in an effort to protect it, and metal rings circled its base and top.
A sign next to the site also indicates that Blue Mountains City Council had planned to take action as far back as 2012. It’s now 2021. Perhaps the councillors just put the numbers in the wrong order.
The Explorers Tree tells us a lot about Australian history. It tells us how that history is recorded, prioritised and sustained.
Generations of Australians accepted that the tree on the platform had been marked by famous explorers, despite no empirical evidence to prove this. I remember stopping to view it as a child during a family trip through the mountains. I don’t remember every detail, but I do remember that it was actually a tree, not a sad looking stump.
The tree demonstrates the prioritising of certain historical events. The preservation of the tree exalted the exploits three Caucasian males who did something Aboriginal people had been doing for thousands of years before them – crossed the Blue Mountains. The Explorers Tree demonstrates how the efforts of male colonisers were mythologised and recognised far more than the actions of other Australians.
Now, long-accepted truths are being questioned. Historians and other Australians are staring to challenge the traditional narrative of colonial history, and to ask questions such as:
Were the explorers’ achievements as impressive as we were led to believe?
If they wanted to know how to cross the mountains, why didn’t they just ask the Aboriginal people?
Why aren’t there more stories about Australians who are not white males?
Should we spend taxpayers’ money to preserve a tree that probably isn’t real?
Only time will tell what happens to the site currently sitting empty beside the highway just outside of Katoomba.