Aboriginal History, Local History, Social Life

Further Along the Castlereagh Highway

Blog 2: Places Along the Castlereagh Highway

And so we come to Capertee. The first thing we note as we come over the gradient is a 50km sign and a (mainly unoccupied) police van staring sternly at us. So we slooooow doooown. Time to absorb the ambience of this self-sufficient mountain village 800 metres above sea level. It seems to me Capertee, population 145 at the last census, punches above its weight. Though some of the services are no longer operating, its public buildings like the police station, courthouse, bush-fire brigade and railway station give a semblance of solidity. The modernist hall memorialises war veterans and holds monthly markets on the third Sunday. The Royal is an eye-catching, two-storey pub. There is a combined garage, café, post office and store, a well-kept school with tennis court, a generous travellers’ and truckies’ rest area with toilets, and the Clarence Pirie Memorial Park for play and picnics. And it’s RV friendly!

That park, I learn on Google, memorialises 40-year-old Senior Constable Clarence Pirie, officer-in-charge of Capertee Police Station, when in 1960, he was shot at Jews Creek with a .22 rifle, by a 14-year-old, one of two escapees from Yasmar children’s detention centre.

Capertee is a village I have always wanted to wander around, if one day I can disrupt my Sydney-Kandos mad-dash. I seem to be turning this blog into a tourist promotion, but I can’t help being impressed when I learn that, as well as being a gateway to the Capertee Valley (the widest though not the deepest enclosed valley in the world), Capertee is also surrounded by five national parks: the Turon, Gardens of Stone, Capertee, Wollemi and Mugii Murrum-ban State Conservation Area (named after Wiradjuri Elder Charley Riley, Mugii meaning Mopoke Owl and Murum-ban meaning eldest son).

In the old days though, around the turn of the century, Capertee was surrounded by mines, mainly for shale oil – at Blackman’s Crown, Airly, Torbane and Excelsior. Capertee apparently derives from ‘Capita’, Sir John Jamison’s early 19thcentury cattle station in the valley. It was also spelt Capata and Cobberty in Colonial Secretaries Letters so I am guessing it is of Indigenous origin. Capertee Camp was the village’s early name, before the railway came through, and that tells us there wasn’t much happening there: a pit stop for refreshments at Shervey’s Inn and store, a stream for watering livestock and a turn-off to the Capertee Valley.

I think I can make a reasonable guess why the next place along the highway is called Round Swamp and the one after it, Running Stream. A map shows Round Swamp as a roundish valley surrounded by hills, with at least four creeks running into it (Gibbons, Round Swamp, Running Stream and Jack Hall’s). When you’re travelling by horseback or foot, and there’s been a lot of rain, you are going to notice the state of the ground. And if you want to give directions to those who come after, say on a hand-written map, you’re going to name it as you see it, Round Swamp. On the other hand, if you come across a stream that’s still got water after a particularly dry spell, you are likely, with some relief, to name it Running Stream. By the way Jack Hall’s Creek was mentioned as early as 1834. I haven’t found anything on Jack Hall although Margaret Piddington (Over Cherry Tree Hill) says he was a hawker and carrier of light goods.

In the early years, the government gave large grants of land to high-ranking British expats, like Sir John Jamison, or those who had made a special contribution to the colony. Many of these grants were around Bathurst, Dabee, Mudgee, Capertee Valley and Bylong. By the 1850s the government attracted ordinary settlers with 30-50-acre country lots. Much of the terrain along the Mudgee Road was colonised in small lots and described as “cultivated” by 1870. Now it is mainly grazing land. The scattered cemeteries capture some of the history of the area and much more is buried under the rotted footings of inns and schools.

I suspect Round Swamp and Running Stream were a bit livelier 150 years ago than they are today, what with settlement increasing along the Mudgee Road, the town of Mudgee growing, gold fever along the Turon River and its tributaries, the building of the railway from Wallerawang to Mudgee over four years, and the road being popular with bushrangers who targeted mail and gold. In 1859 one resourceful bushranger was John Isherwood (alias Little Jack), who, dressed as a woman, held up the mail coach and stole seven mail bags. He was caught at Blayney in 1864. Up the Mudgee Road and west at Round Swamp was a popular route to the gold diggings on the Turon (rather than going by the Bathurst Road).

More than a century ago, a horticulturalist informed readers there were “some very fine specimens” of Exocarpus cupressiformis on Cherry Tree Hill. I had no idea we had a native cherry tree. It resembles the cypress and early settlers used it for furniture, gun stocks and tool handles, and cut off branches for Christmas trees. Aborigines made spear throwers and bullroarers. It has sweet, juicy fruit and sap that is apparently good for snake-bite.

According to one traveller in 1870, coach passengers had to walk up Cherry Tree Hill “and the horses had as much as they could do to drag the empty coach”. Here was another popular spot for hold-ups. There was both an inn and toll bar on Cherry Tree. Tolls were halfpence to twopence an animal, sixpence for most four-wheeled vehicles and threepence for two-wheeled ones.

The name Razorback intrigued me. It’s an alarming, even menacing name. I read that cattle duffers ran their mobs over Razorback and down to the miners on the Turon. I also learnt that Razorback Road was made by the Chinese as a shortcut to Sofala. So when I spotted the road sign at the top of Cherry Tree Hill I knew I had to follow it. The first twelve kilometres or so are quite tame, a plateau-like landscape, the gravel road-surface better than most country roads. Farms are scattered along the way and you can see across to a horizon of undulating hills, country similar to that between Ilford and Sofala.

Then I came to a sign: “One Lane Road Next 5km. Limited Passing.” As I got out to take photos a small truck passed me – the only vehicle I’d seen. I drove a hundred metres or so and suddenly understood, not just “One Lane Road” but Razorback Road. A razor-edge gouged into a mountain with a nerve-gasping drop over the side. It conjured a recurring childhood nightmare – our car full of children and parents toppling over the side of such a mountain.

I faced the stretched-out narrow road and immediately hogged the right hand side. If another truck came towards me, he was going to have to plummet over the side or back up to one of those limited passing spots. It was a long, slow, panicky drive over Razorback Road that day but luckily I didn’t meet a challenger.

So that’s where I’ll stop for now. Once again, thanks Brent Barlow for suggesting the history of local place names – fascinating.

Entry to razorback – a razor-edge gouged into a mountain with a nerve-gasping drop on one side

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