The Parable of Gospers Mountain, or how aboriginal burning changed the face of Australia

By Vic Jurskis

Lieutenant Watkin Tench arrived at Warrane (Sydney Cove) with the First Fleet in 1788. Tench described a diversity of birds and animals, present in small numbers:

The country, I am of opinion, would abound with birds, did not the natives, by perpetually setting fire to the grass and bushes, destroy the greater part of the nests; a cause which also contributes to render small quadrupeds scarce.

Tench and Judge David Collins observed fire behaviour during drought and extreme weather. Aboriginal fires were, as always, burning in bushland northwest of Parramatta in February 1791. Over three days of extreme temperatures (>430 C) and searing northwesterly gales, flying foxes and lorikeets were dropping dead in what is now Parramatta Park. However, the fires did not affect the European settlement.

Fifth of December 1792 was another extreme day. One house and several fences and gardens were burnt in Sydney. Extensive fires at Par­ramatta were “brought under” by settlers with green branches. However a firebrand from the crown of a tree ignited a thatched roof, destroying a hut, outbuildings, and a stack of wheat at Arndell’s farm near Toongabbie. These fires were controllable because they were in light, discontinuous fuels.

Surveyor General Thomas Mitchell noted that “no vegetable soil is formed” on sandstone in New South Wales because “con­flagrations take place so frequently and exten­sively … as to leave very little vegetable mat­ter to return to earth.” He described the country between Parramatta and the Hawkesbury River: … no objects met the eye except barren sandstone rocks, and stunted trees. With the banksia and xanthorhaea al­ways in sight … The horizon is flat …

When Mitchell surveyed the road to the Hunter Valley, he wrote:

… the whole face of the country is composed of sandstone rock, and but par­tially covered with vegetation. … on many a dark night … I have proceeded on horseback amongst these steep and rocky ranges, my path being guided by two young boys belonging to the tribe who ran cheerfully before my horse, al­ternately tearing off the stringy bark which served for torches, and setting fire to the grass trees (xanthorhaea) to light my way.

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