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Bell’s Line of Road

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Bell’s Line of Road

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Access to the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, is possible by two roads. The Great Western Highway was explored in 1813 and is still the main arterial road. An alternative route, the Bell’s Line of Road, takes you through pristine wilderness, with an equally wild history.

A raid by the Gundungurra mountain tribes on the Booreberongal band at Nth Richmond in 1823, netted 6 gins (female aborigines) taken back to the mountains via Springwood. To the astonishment of the white settlers, one returned 6 days later via Kurrajong Heights, following an ancient tribal path. Many axe grinding sites are still visible on the rocky outcrops.

At 19 years old, Archibald Bell’s inquisitiveness, and use of aborigines as guides, resulted in the opening of a stock route via Bilpin and Mt Tomah (Fern Tree Hill) to Hartley Vale, the original Bell’s Line of Road. His first attempt during 1-5 August, reached the top of Mt Tomah, followed by a second successful attempt in September 1823. During October, the road was surveyed by Robert Hoddle with Bell, 5 whites and 2 native guides, passing through Bell, along the Darling Causeway and down Hartley Vale Rd to Collitt’s Inn.

The new track saw occasional use by drovers over the next 20 years, primarily by families with landholdings in the Hunter and Hawkesbury moving stock to their western holdings at Bathurst. The introduction of a road toll at Mt Victoria in 1849 saw an increase in traffic, which then multiplied with the goldrush of 1851. Accommodation was sparse, with caves being popular retreats, such as the Cave Hotel near Mt Bell. The western descent of Mt Tomah, known as Jacob’s Ladder, was to be a major hurdle to heavy traffic. The first “wheeled” descent was not even made until 1870, with the first car not until 1940. During WWII, American engineers upgraded the road, making it suitable for regular traffic.

It now remains as an excellent route for tourists to enter the Blue Mountains.

While the urban sprawl, with obligatory traffic lights, fast food outlets and once proudly individual towns melding together, has marched along the Great Western Highway, the Bell’s Line of Road continues to wind through picturesque orchards, quaint localities that have not yet developed into towns and on through the pristine World Heritage Area.

As you pass over the Nepean River at North Richmond, you leave suburbia behind, so stock up on your supplies here. The road is now flanked by grassy rolling hills dotted with small rural properties. It ascends the eastern escarpment, up Bell Bird Hill (known for the tinkling of these tiny birds) to Kurrajong Heights and spectacular views over the Sydney area. As you proceed westwards, you enter the Bilpin and Berambing districts, famous for apple and stone fruit orchards. Fresh fruit is available direct from the grower’s roadside stalls.

Mt Tomah rises abruptly and is capped with ancient basalt, rainforest and is home to Australia’s cool climate Botanic Gardens. Call in and see the prehistoric Wollemi Pine, a relic of the forests that covered this area 150 million years ago.

Aboriginal axe grinding grooves
Aboriginal axe grinding grooves.

The Cave Hotel ~ T. Shearwood circa 1870.
West of Mt Tomah, the road enters the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, following a narrow ridge along the edge of the rugged gorges of the Grose Valley. There are numerous sites to stop and view the surrounding beauty. The historic villages of Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine are on a side road, well worth a detour for garden lovers.

At Bell you can turn to Mt Victoria and the major towns of Blackheath and Katoomba or continue on towards Lithgow and visit the Zig Zag Railway, an engineering marvel in 1870, now operating as a tourist steam railway.

Lithgow is the birthplace of the Australian steel industry and is still a major coal mining and power generating area.

As discovered by the early explorers, the western plains now stretch out in front of you, with easy access to Bathurst, Mudgee and beyond.

Wollangambe Wilderness
Wollangambe Wilderness.
Accommodation is today provided by quality B&B establishments in the small villages; motels in the towns or you can still enjoy the seclusion of a fully equipped, private cave at Hatters Hideout.

Ref: “Bilpin, a local history” Meredyth Hungerford Bilpin 1995 ISBN 0 646 22726
“The Carmarthen Hills and Thereabouts..” Alan E J Andrews Journal RAHS Vol 69 Pt1 June 1983
© Mark O’Carrigan ~ Hatters Hideout 2002

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