Views from Hassans Walls Lookout | David Hill
Burning Bush - A Fire History of Australia
In his brilliant book
, the American scholar Stephen J. Pyne writes that nowhere else on earth is a continental forest system dominated in the same way the forests of Australia are dominated by eucalypts. The Australian bush, Pyne says, owes its peculiarity more than anything else to this strangely fire-loving species of tree that burns "readily, greedily, gratefully". "Eucalyptus," he opines, " is not only the Universal Australian, it is the ideal Australian - versatile, tough, sardonic, contrary, self-mocking, with a deceptive complexity amid the appearance of massive homogeneity; an occupier of disturbed environments; a fire creature."
Nowhere does this description seem more apt than in the Blue Mountains, gifted World Heritage status in 2000 in part because this landscape boasts an astonishing variety of eucalypts - about 100 - and is a natural laboratory for studying their evolution. (It is also the droplets of eucalyptus oil these trees put into the atmosphere that make the Blue Mountains look so blue.) A Botanic Gardens Trust scientific paper notes: "In the Mountains' diverse plant communities, you can trace the changing nature of the Australian environment - from geological shifts and climate variations through to the impact of Aboriginal settlement and European colonisation."
This variety and evolutionary journey exists because, for millions of years, much of the bush of the Blue Mountains has burned with regularity as the climate evolved and it has adapted to this burning. And for people who live in the Blue Mountains - about 80,000 these days - fires have been a part of their life, the dates of major conflagrations embedded in their psyches - 1936, 1944, 1957, 1968, 1977, 1994, 2001, 2013 and now this summer.
The great Australian writer Henry Lawson, who briefly lived in the Blue Mountains back in the 1880s, realised that those eucalypts and the fires they fostered meant the Australian bush was a place like no other that shaped the unique character of Australia’s people - especially mateship. In his short story The Bush Undertaker, Lawson wrote: “And the sun sank again on the grand Australian bush - the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird, and of much that is different from things in other lands.”
Man-made climate change means the bushfires the Blue Mountains have just experienced were unprecedented in their scale and ferocity, but once again they did not burn everything. There is also great beauty in a burnt bushland that is regenerating, as it inevitably does. And the fires once again brought out the best in the Australian character. In the Wollemi section of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, a heroic firefighting effort saved the canyon that is the only wild home of the famous Wollemi pine - a "dinosaur tree" that is a relic from ancient Gondwana.
In the Valley of the Waters near Wentworth Falls, a Blue Mountains Adventure Company guide can still take you through a fragrant eucalypt forest spared by the fires to experience the magic thrill of Empress Falls Canyon. Its cool, deep pools, its sculpted rock walls, its rainforest vegetation, its water jumps and its waterfall abseil are unchanged.
On the honey-coloured sandstone cliffs that tower above the Megalong Valley, Blue Mountains Adventure Company can still take you on a stunning Boars Head abseiling and climbing adventure. To the east, in the Jamison Valley, Blue Mountains Adventure Company can still take you on iconic bushwalks that include stunning clifftop vistas, babbling creeks and cascades, glades of magestic silver-trunked Blue Mountains ash and cool, green rainforest of sassafras, coachwood and tree ferns. You can still stand where the great naturalist Charles Darwin stood in 1836 when he visited the Blue Mountains - “on the brink of a vast precipice” - and like him declare the view “quite novel and extremely magnificent”.
Rains have returned, the fires have been controlled, the air has cleared, areas of the Blue Mountains National Park have reopened and even the fire fighting authorities are urging people to once again visit the Blue Mountains to help a tourism-dependant region hit hard by a lack of visitors.
People can now safely return to many natural areas that were not burnt. And in areas that were burnt, green shoots of regeneration are already starting to show. These areas will slowly reopen to the public as well when it is safe and environmentally responsible to do so.
Blue Mountains artist Jenny Kee had her Blackheath home saved by firefighters but her beloved bushland garden - the artistic muse for her famous fashion designs - was blackened. She told The Sun-Herald newspaper that despite the devastation caused by the fire, the regeneration of the bush is already bringing her great joy as she watches noisy cockatoos and kookaburras return and scorched tree ferns send out fresh green shoots. Kee believes every Australian needs to see the “magic" of this regeneration for themselves. “As much as we love the green and the beauty of the bush before disaster, it’s also important to look at it after the fire just to see what happens,” she said. “It shows us what is possible. Every time I see those shoots - that green - and you see how tough, how hardy the earth is, you also see how tough we are as people … I just still feel so optimistic for this country."
The blue in Blue Mountains will once again be about colour, not spirit.
Come on an adventure with Blue Mountains Adventure Company and see for yourself!
Written by Dan Lewis - BMAC guide since 2014