After the First Fleet arrived in Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) in 1788, the British colonists quickly began to explore their new surroundings. Contact with the established Aboriginal population was devastating. After thousands of years of isolation, the people had little resistance to new diseases like smallpox, influenza and sexually transmitted diseases. Infection and death spread rapidly through the coastal areas and into the Blue Mountains.
The infant colony was at first busy just feeding itself, but Aboriginal contact also led to competition for land and resources, then violence. The combination of impacts caused a dramatic fall in the Aboriginal population and severe disruption of indigenous culture and practices.
Within a few years, inquisitive colonists were probing north, west and south out of Sydney Town. In the second year of the colony, marine William Dawes and two companions became the first to cross the Nepean River and head into the Blue Mountains. Making for Mount Hay on the western horizon, crossing the grain of very rough country, they reached just over halfway.
This was the age of worldwide exploration by European nations, and a fascination for new plants, animals and natural phenomena was often a driving force. Sir Joseph Banks had sailed up the east coast of Australia with James Cook in 1770, and from his base in England he continued to encourage exploration of new country. Some journeys were officially supported by the colonial government, while others were undertaken by freelancers.
Under Banks' remote mentorship, botanist-explorer George Caley, with three convicts and a small dog, traversed the Grose Valley to Mount Banks XE "Mount Banks" in 1804. He discovered many new plants but reported no contact with Aboriginal people.
In contrast, Frenchman Francis Barrallier, who had arrived on the same boat from England as Caley in 1800, had many helpful contacts with Aboriginal people when he journeyed south-west out of the Sydney Basin in 1802. In a remarkable seven weeks, his party crossed the Wollondilly and Kowmung Rivers before turning back from a wild ravine just south of Kanangra Walls.
Ex-convict John Wilson applied the skills he had picked up from living in the bush with Aborigines to exploration. In 1798, with John Price, he got to the Southern Highlands near the present town of Goulburn.
Despite the gloomy predictions of many of these explorers, it wasn't long before a way was found across the Blue Mountains. In 1813, using Aboriginal advice, Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson made an efficient job of traversing the straightforward southern watershed of the Grose catchment. Descending the western sandstone escarpment at Mount York, they travelled on to Mount Blaxland beside the upper Coxs River to be sure they had indeed crossed the mountains barrier.
Just two years later, William Cox had constructed the first road along their route, and onward over the (humble) Great Divide to the fertile plains around Bathurst. The colony had broken out of the Sydney Basin, and inland New South Wales was opened for settlement and dramatic environmental change.
When 19-year-old Archibald Bell 'discovered' the second route west over the mountains in 1823, he was guided by Darug men Cogy and Emery. They followed a timeworn Aboriginal trade route along the Bell Range, the northern watershed of the Grose Valley. A road was surveyed the same year and by 1833 it was in regular use for moving stock.
Although the mouth of the Hunter River (then called Coal River) north of the Blue Mountains had been discovered from the sea in the early days of Sydney, the vast sandstone labyrinth that lay between resisted an overland route. After previous rival attempts, John Howe finally pushed through past Putty to the fertile Hunter Valley in 1819. By 1821, Howe's Track was a stock route.
These three routes - Aboriginal pathways then colonial tracks - are still today the only highways across the Greater Blue Mountains. And skirting the eastern edge of the mountains, the Great North Road was completed about 1831 from the Hawkesbury River through the Wollombi valley to the Hunter.
Together these roads opened up the mountains to settlement, farming and industry. And yet the rushing colonial invasion preferred the more hospitable valleys and tablelands, leaving the wild, resistant heart of the region encircled but largely intact. Small-scale mining, forestry and grazing has left some scars, but much of the wilderness remains today just as the Aboriginal inhabitants knew it two hundred years ago, and for eons before that.