In 1836, in the early days of colonial settlement, Charles Darwin’s ship, the Beagle, reached Sydney Town. When Captain Robert Fitzroy (an impressive explorer in his own right) docked it for a couple of weeks, Darwin hired two men and some horses for an adventure. His impressions of the early colony are incisive.
The Colony had far too many alehouses for his liking. He met a group of the First Peoples to the west of Sydney. When he arrived at this point, at the top of Wentworth Falls, the tone of his Journal changed. Although the waterfall was not at full strength, he was briefly left grasping for words. Darwin recorded that day’s journey to Wentworth Falls (called Weatherboard Falls until 1879) as follows:
“In the middle of the day we baited our horses at a little Inn, called the Weatherboard. The country here is elevated 2800 feet above the sea. About a mile & a half from this place there is a view exceedingly well worth visiting; following down a little valley & its tiny rill of water, an immense gulf is suddenly & without any preparation seen through the trees which border the pathway at the depth of perhaps 1500 ft. Walking a few yards farther, one stands on the brink of a vast precipice, & below is the grand bay or gulf, for I know not what other name to give it, thickly covered with forest. The point of view is situated as it were at the head of the bay, for the line of cliff diverges away on each side, showing headland behind headland, as on a bold Sea coast. These cliffs are composed of horizontal strata of whitish Sandstone; & so absolutely vertical are they, that in many places a person standing on the edge & throwing a stone can see it strike the trees in the abyss below: so unbroken is the line, that it is said to be necessary to go round a distance of sixteen miles in order to reach the foot of the waterfall made by this little stream. — In front & about five miles distant another line of cliff extends, thus having the appearance of completely encircling the valley; hence the name of Bay is justified as applied to this grand amphitheatrical depression. — If we imagine that a winding harbor with its deep water surrounded by bold cliff shores was laid dry, & that a forest sprung up on the sandy bottom, we should then have the appearance & structure which is here exhibited. The class of view was to me quite novel & extremely magnificent.” (Darwin, Journal)
Three decades later, in 1868 His Royal Highness Prince Alfred docked the warship Imperial warship Galatea and accompanied a select few by train up to the waterfalls. After a marquee luncheon, the Prince visited the waterfalls and looked down into the same green labyrinth as Darwin had thirty years earlier. On this occasion, rains had swollen the waterfall, and the Prince expressed his admiration for the fall of waters. The elite of Sydney was surprised by the Prince’s reaction, and for decades after retraced his steps, trying to work out what was interesting about the place. The Prince returned to Sydney early that evening. He avoided the dangers of the inns on the mountains, only to be shot a month later in an assassination attempt at a Grand Picnic on Sydney Harbor.
Looking down from the top of the escarpment, it is clear that this is an incredibly old place. But, for all we know about the Settlers, we know little about the immense number of lives lived here at this place. To our shame, we do not even know for certain the original name of the waterfall (although local First Peoples called waterfalls ‘Wolway’ or ‘Walway’).
I first came to Wentworth Falls as a young child. Travelling from the outback deserts to the Sydney beaches, my parent’s car would pause at the falls (or perhaps, more accurately, the radiator would run out of water after the hard climb up the mountains and my father would stop to fill it up).
My sisters and I would be let loose to wade through the cascades at the top of the falls, blissfully ignorant of the risks.
On one occasion my Great Aunt Victoria Catherine Edmonstone, a determined and experienced adventurer, also accompanied the car and was quite shocked. She pursed her lips, put her hands on her hips and exclaimed, “Well I never!” which resulted in us being removed from the water. She marched us to the edge of the cliff and gave us a terse lecture on the dangers of waterfalls, concluding with the remark that “...even Prince Charming or Charles Darwin would not have dared swim in the top of these waterfalls!”.
Victoria Catherine Edmonstone’s lecture was wasted on us. We were desert kids and knew nothing about water, hills, or history. We were too busy standing with mouths wide open watching the water fall down an impossibly steep cliff.