Thanks to Peter Cai for all photos
January is a hot month for walking. In Sydney on Friday the 18th 2013, the mercury had hit 45.8 *C, the hottest day on record. The following day, much cooler, I met up with a group of walkers at a coffee shop in Lithgow. We were going to walk in the interface between the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, and state forests, coal mines, power stations, and national parks including one named the “Gardens of Stone”. Yuri Bolotin was our guide for a day’s off-track walking in the Ben Bullen State Forest.
Underneath the ‘stony gardens’ in which we were going to walk, is a vast coal seam. Long, long ago, great forests of ancient trees grew, fell over, and rotted in swamps. They were buried beneath layers of sediment and then compacted. As they were heated by the oven of the earth they slowly changed over millions of years into coal. Long ago, above this, ancient rivers flowed to the coast and carried gravel, sand, silt and clay which formed a vast alluvial plain. Compaction then formed this into a sandstone and claystone layer. Another aeon went by; they were uplifted and warped to form a high plateau. The soft grainy stone eroded as streams and rivers sliced through it. Canyons formed, which is what the Blue Mountains really are, but Blue Canyons does not have such a ring to it! On the Newnes Plateau north of Lithgow, the eroding actions of rain and wind have formed a fantastical array of pagodas, ridges, cliffs, keyholes, and slot canyons. It is a wonderful place to see pagoda daisies, which root in the shallow basins around pagodas, and waratahs blooming bright red in spring.
We were a mixed bunch, partaking of coffee and cake. I chatted to a young American woman who told me how Hurricane Sandy impacted on New Yorkers in December 2012. After three days, she said, they all became quite fretful, without the electricity on which life there is so dependent. The coffee was gorgeous, organic - but eventually we dragged ourselves away. We drove up to the starting place in the forest, and when we’d gathered together, Yuri said, “I’m going to show you what could be lost.“
He led us off the fire-trail out to a bare sandstone lookout. It faced west, and we viewed the dramatic cliffs, the three valleys which we were going to bush-bash through, farmland further out, and the snug town of Portland. Yuri pointed out a small coal mine on the edge of the bushland. It was a naked scar with a blotch of dark green next to it. Rows and rows of the same acacia species had been planted on the slag to rehabilitate the mine. This contrasted with the colour and variety of the old growth in the forest below us. “There is another small mine quite a long way to the north of this one, owned by the same company, Coalpac,” said Yuri. “Their plan is to mine everything between the two - in their application they call this consolidation.”
Having absorbed an eagle’s eye view of the landscape, we dropped down the side of the lookout. He lead us around the flutings of the headland where grasses with seedheads grew in the cavities. We made our way underneath the rockline to a cave. It had been an occupation cave of the local tribal group, he said. This area, right on the Great Dividing Range, is significant to the Wiradgeri, the Gundungurra, and the Darkinjing peoples. Perhaps it was one of those ‘negotiated’ areas that are found in the borders between tribes. I have seen many shelters in my quest to understand who lived in the Blue Mountains before my (Caucasian) people, and this one was magnificent. It was the size of a ballroom with a flat floor.
Yuri and a local Aboriginal man had done some investigations of the cave and found stone tools, and art at another site nearby. I scoured the sandy floor for stone flakes but could find nothing except old charcoal remains. I could imagine the daily life of children running about, cooking, food and tool preparation, people sleeping with a fire’s warmth reflected from the curved stone walls.
Yuri then led us on, through bushes, over fallen logs, and along unstable slopes covered in litter. Something flitted above the bushes ahead.
A swordgrass butterfly
of a coalmine lease
Tisiphone abeona lays its eggs in swordgrass, Gahnia sieberiana. The Gahnia species of grasses were useful as both medicine and food to Aboriginal people.
Yuri led us to a narrow entrance between giant slabs. Here was a bit of fun and a challenge! Most of us took it up: to squeeze between the cool damp rocks, and then climb up a narrow slot. The group was made up of bushwalkers from walking clubs around Sydney, so there was plenty of experience of the sandpaper grip going up.
After morning tea we continued walking along under the cliff-line and around into the next valley. I found a lyrebird feather and offered it to the New Yorker, explaining what a fabulous mimic this bird is. She thought I’d said “ liarbird” –and that’s true, in a sense. All the way along we were crunching through masses of dead and dried bark, twigs, and leaf litter. Hearing giants coming, a wallaby dashed off into the distance.
Not many things were flowering, other than geebung, Persoonia linearis, with its yellow flowers. This plant is useful. Aboriginal people used the bark, which is quite flaky and can be peeled off easily, as an antiseptic bandaid on cuts and abrasions.
Yuri took us to up a magnificent rock outlook for lunch. We were in a narrow valley, surrounded by cliff faces. High on a cliff were splotches of white, like toothpaste dribbled down a ledge - eagles had been nesting there, well away from any danger.
By now we’d figured out that the group was from many nations on the planet - and that only five of the party had been born in Australia. We were rather impressed with the young New Yorker, who had never been in the Australian bush before. She got scratched, wobbled, confronted by scary spiders, bumped, knocked and perhaps bruised, though not burnt, thankfully.
After lunch came my scary moment. We had a choice : either clamber around a steep rockface, or drop down and bash through a valley with ferns. I felt confident given my slot endeavours , so began to carefully make my way around a ledge with quite a drop-off. As it narrowed my concentration increased. When the foothold disappeared and I had to climb across a gap, I knew that I had to keep going, for otherwise fear would marshall its forces and create an abominable abyss into which I would surely plunge! I well remember the terror of the eight-year old I once was. In my childhood in New Zealand we climbed trees a lot, but one afternoon I got stuck. I couldn’t move forward or backward – and then it began to rain, and I began to cry! My friend’s mother had to coax me down. So I asked David, from China, to wait and put out his hand for me, to steady me as I stepped across thin air.
Further on, we gathered around an imposing slot. Some of the group pondered, could you shimmy up there? It began to rain. My skin felt as though it came alive - a few drops fell on the back of my neck. In the quiet of afternoon a bird somewhere called with its clear repetitive bell.
in the overburden
sings of trees
“It’s interesting and weird,” said Yuri, “that in the miners’ terminology, they call everything above the ground ‘overburden’. ”
Coalpac’s method of mining is open-cut: they would scrape all the living things and their habitats into a big heap and dig for coal.
“It will never be possible to recreate this”, said Yuri.
There is a legacy of mining which future generations must deal with. Already, Australia has 50,000 ‘legacy’ mines - holes in the ground, or collapsed tunnels, perhaps with a monoculture of some rehabilitating tree growing on the slag heap.
I live in the overburden. You live in the overburden. The overburden is like the cream on the black forest cake. Lyrebirds which love to nest in pagodas, belong to the overburden. So do snakes, turtles, the Wollemi pine, the Callitrus which we saw on our way out, streams, coffee shops, cakes, art – eagles may soar above it, but their prey lives there, they raise eaglets there. I think these things are blessings on the planet, not burdens. Maybe another day Yuri will lead a walk into what is underneath, canyons with their cool waters. This water - very clean, sieved by sandstone – flows over and indeed under the ‘overburden’.
If you’d like to know more about the approval process for Coalpac, go to:
*a haibun is a mixture of haiku ( short poems) and prose