Our trip to Wolgan Valley was in many ways the highlight of our extended vacation in Australia and I found its history and development to be very interesting, after all Australia is home to one of the oldest living cultures in the world. The first Australians, the Aboriginal people, came long before the pyramids were built or paintings were drawn in the caves at Lascaux. Evidence of their existence dates back some 40,000 years with ancient artefacts and stone tools unearthed in Wolgan Valley.
The Indigenous people of Australia have a very respectful and nurturing attitude to the land, and their relationship with nature is a close one:
We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn to grow, to love……..and then we return home.
Today, the territory is shared by four Aboriginal nations; although it is thought that the Wiradjuri are most likely to have been predominant down the ages. The name Wolgan Valley is derived from the Aboriginal word ‘wolga’ used for the vine commonly known as Old Man’s Beard, found throughout the region.
Just looking around, it’s clear why the area is important in terms of conservation. Staggering natural rock formations and vast Eucalypt forests, huge expanses of grassy plains and deep lush valleys provide a rich variety of habitats for a diverse range of flora and fauna.
Now, let’s head back in time to the landing of the First Fleet in 1788 which was followed by the early development of the nearby Lithgow area. Although the Great Dividing Range was thought to be impassable, the latter part of 18th century saw many attempts to cross it. In 1797 former convict John Wilson made an unsubstantiated claim to have succeeded by way of Cox’s river corridor.
It wasn’t until 1813 that a trio named Blaxland, Leeson and Wentworth made the first official crossing into the region, thus opening up its potential for pastoral development. Governor Macquarie ceded 1,000 acres to each of them. He also commissioned a road in 1814 which lead to Bathurst and, shortly thereafter, another road linking Bathurst to Wallerawang, a growing township to the east. These and others followed to facilitate a new mining industry, as the Blue Mountains are rich in coal and shale. These industries grew throughout 19th century but ultimately they failed with advent of petroleum and its by-products.
Towards the end of the century, rail links were underway to link the Blue Mountains to Sydney via the Great Western Railway. In 1866 pioneering plans for a Great Zig Zag from Clarence to Wallerawang began in earnest to accommodate extreme ascents and descents. Construction included seven stone viaducts, three tunnels and nearly one and a quarter million cubic yards of excavation – that’s a lot of rock!
By the late 1890s, demand exceeded the railway’s capabilities and in 1907 work commenced on 10 tunnel deviations crossing underneath the Zig Zag line. As one might imagine, rail made a huge contribution to the area’s development.
Wolgan Valley’s settlement history can be traced through just two families, both of whom were intrinsically linked to the area; the Walkers and the Webbs. It was William Walker who received the original land grant for farming sheep and built the farmhouse still located on the property today. Named the 1832 Heritage Homestead after the year it was built from materials found on site with the rest of the building completed over the next 30 decades.
In 1836, Charles Darwin visited the Homestead during his trip to Australia while staying as a guest of the Walker family at their nearby Wallerawang Estate. So taken was he by the sheer rock formations and scope of the land, the naturalist’s great-great-grandson, who makes his home in the region, suggests that Darwin’s revolutionary theory first took shape not in the Galapagos but in the primeval Blue Mountains.
The Webbs initially leased the property in 1929 seeking grass for cattle and built a slaughterhouse for their butchery business. But in 1935 they bought the property and members of the family stayed there until 2006.
Life for the settlers must have been hard in the early years and families relied upon hard work and horsepower for the bulk of the work. The nearby river provided clean water and a substantial kitchen garden allowed the family to be self-sufficient.
There was initially no power to the homestead but there were numerous improvements over the years including the addition of a drawing room, veranda and stone chimney breast. When corrugated iron was introduced in 1850 it was laid over the original boxwood shingles. Today old farming equipment dotted around the resort stands as testament to each stage of the varied industrial, agricultural and pastoral history of the old outstation.
When Emirates took over site in 2006 it committed to restoring the homestead to its original state and now the 1832 Homestead highlights the Aboriginal, settler and agricultural history of the Wolgan Valley, giving guests a glimpse into the lives and conditions faced by them.
The Homestead’s accompanying garden was also re‐established in precisely the same location and format as the original. Thriving today and bigger and better, these organic gardens supply the resort’s kitchen with an array of seasonal and organic vegetables, fruits and herbs throughout the year.
The Homestead has been further celebrated with its own gin, which is offered as part of the hotel’s welcome cocktail when you arrive. Neither my beloved or I are gin fans but this was delicious. And every establishment should have a “House Cocktail” – we do!