Journey through Pandoras Pass 1825

Journey through Pandoras Pass and over into the Liverpool Plains 1825

A land of sweeping plains

The words of Dorothea Mackellar’s famous poem My Country, “A land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains, define the countryside Allan Cunningham experienced as he walked through Pandoras Pass with his assigned convicts and pack horses in 1825.

Two years previous to this journey, Allan had named the gap in the ranges, Pandoras Pass.

The Explorer and his men walked through the Pass into the sparsely peopled, open, boggy Liverpool Plains. Several days later he climbed Mullaley Mountain and cast his eyes upon a pasturalists dream and an aboriginal nightmare.

Michael O’Rourke has researched Allan Cunningham’s 1825 journey as part of his article “Passages to the North-West Plains: The Colonial Discovery and Occupation of East-Central New South Wales 1817-26” published by SCRIBD and has generously given permission for the following extract to be shared with The Allan Cunningham Project.


Allan Cunningham’s 1825 Journey by Michael O’Rourke

Extract from a longer article published online (2009) at: SCRIBD
Incorporating an extended discussion of the armed conflict between Aborigines, settlers and police in the Hunter Valley, 1825-26

This extract begins as follows:

Cunningham’s party pushed on past present-day Merriwa and Cassilis, and … rested at Lawson’s outstation “Talabraga” [modern spelling Talbragar].[1] They then crossed through Pandoras Pass and entered the Liverpool Plains. Their first camp on the plains was ‘about seven miles’ [11 km] out from Pandoras Pass, near present-day Bundella.

On 4 May 1825 the expedition encountered Oxley’s ‘Bowen’s Rivulet’, the modern Coxs Creek, which ‘meandered along the western edge of the plain’ in the direction present-day Premer.

As we know from later records, this stretch of Coxs Creek and Bundella Creek, from Bundella past Premer almost to Tambar Springs, was one great expanse of naturally treeless plain (but with thick woodland to the west of Premer). In 1825 the recent heavy rain had rendered many parts boggy, and their progress slow. There was no smoke from any Aboriginal fires to be seen, but the foot-tracks of the blackfellows (‘feet impressions of natives in the plains’) indicated that a band had passed westwards ‘many days’ previously.[2]

Cunningham set a course NNW in the direction of Premer and Tambar Springs on 5 May, evidently following generally the course of the left bank of Coxs Creek. Heavy rain began to fall again and for two days they made little progress, being further delayed by the injuries borne by some of the men from earlier accidents. Having passed Premer (as it now is), they camped somewhere near Tambar Springs on 8 May.[3]

Cunningham was surprised at the ‘totally unpeopled state of the tract we have hitherto traversed’. This must not be read too literally; he meant only that no smoke or Aboriginal tracks had been seen since about Bundella:

We have seen no natives, altho’ we have observed their marks, some of recent date, on the trees – but no smokes have been noticed until this morning (8 May 1825).[4]

This fact of a very thinly populated country is probably to be explained by considering the — [illegible] results to the Aborigines of last year’s scouring of the country by the settlers and soldiers between Mudgee and these parts, the effects of which have probably been — [?removed] far — [illegible] around, and it is vet likely any few natives that exist in these regions have seen us and our horses from the hills [? perhaps today’s Weaners Retreat, east of Tambar Springs on the right side of Coxs Creek] and have studiously avoided us altogether.[5]

Travelling forward on 9 May, the botanist and his party soon saw the ‘striking feature’ of Mullaley Mountain (590 metres) lying ahead (a ‘detached round mountain’) and they set their direction towards it. The area north of Tambar Springs is described as ‘alluvial wooded land’. As we know from later records, the woodland extended as far as the halfway point between Tambar Springs and Mullaley, where it again opened onto treeless plain. Some of the trees had been barked, either for huts or canoes, about three months earlier. He reports eight distinct grasses, among which Danthonia gigantea (giant oatgrass, resembling wheat in the ear) was the most striking.

Mount Mullaly - Photographer: Neil Mansfield
Photographer: Neil Mansfield

The lesser creeks running into Coxs Creek were flooded and the main watercourse was too deep and rapid to be forded so they continued along its left or western bank until at length they entered Oxley’s ‘Lushington Valley’, which is our Garrawilla Valley. A further detached rocky hill was seen, probably the modern Mt Baloola (270 metres), as they approached Mullaley Mountain (‘all alone on the plains’) on 11 May. Far to the WSW, which is to say: looking back broadly along the line of the present-day Oxley Highway from Gunnedah to Coonabarabran, they could see Oxley’s ‘Arbuthnot Ranges’ (the Warrumbungles) about 80 km distant.[6]

Having reached and climbed Mullaley Mountain, Cunningham proceeded into what he called ‘Camden Valley’, the basin of Oxley’s ‘Yorke Rivulet’, which is our Coxs Creek below its junction with Garrawilla Creek. He remarked, not knowing he was about to find a village-like group of huts, that the region was apparently wholly uninhabited or perhaps rarely visited. This meant only that no tracks or Aboriginal fires had been seen, perhaps because the local people had not yet returned to the floodplains from higher ground after the recent great flood.

The present-day Kerringle State Forest, on the western side of Coxs Creek and west from Emerald Hill, lies about midway between Mullaley and Boggabri. There was open woodland along the left or western side of Coxs Creek, while on the eastern side there was a treeless plain. In the woodland on Kerringle’s eastern outskirts, somewhere near the present ‘Ghoolendaadi’ station, and no doubt within walking distance of the Creek,

“many trees had been barked by the Aborigines to construct their huts, which were strewed thro’ the forest [woodland] to the number of 14 in no [?] order or [?]village-like disposition”.

This statement, partly illegible, seems to suggest that the 14 huts (‘these conical habitations’) were not grouped together but widely distributed. If not literally a village, then the settlement was certainly semi-permanent, for some of the huts were large enough to accommodate a family of six, as Cunningham supposed, no doubt constructed as shelter against the rain.

As it appears, the larger huts had a square bark-floor base (‘irregular square form’) with ‘forked stakes’ supporting a conical bark roof. Originally built four to six months before, in high summer, they had been abandoned for some time, perhaps several weeks, as new grass had already grown up through the bark floors from the soil beneath. Signs of wading could be seen in the deep mire surrounding the huts, perhaps implying that the Aborigines had left the area only when forced out by the rising floodwaters. Some blackfellows were still in the area, or were perhaps ready to return to the low-lying land, for a thick column of smoke was seen rising from a ridge some 20 km ahead, probably from the hills near modern Boggabri.[7]

As the expedition approached Boggabri on 15 May, they entered a swampy plain approximately west of a landmark Cunningham dubbed ‘Dunlop’s Table Hill’, our Mt Binalong, 521 metres. This was afterwards the north-east boundary of the 220 square mile [570 sq km: 24 x 24 km] station ‘Ghoolendaadi’.

The horses were thin and weak so Cunningham decided to rest for a day while he examined the botany and geology. He rode across to Mt Binalong, leaving his men to go hunting. Unknown to them an Aboriginal band was foraging nearby, the nearest of the group being a number of women and children (‘a native family including children’). Several of the children, attracted by the distant sound of the hunting guns, came up to the expedition’s camp. Amazed and then alarmed when they saw the tents, they fled back to their mothers, and all ran off presumably to where their menfolk were.

Mount Binalong – Photographer: Andrew Cox
New South Wales, Australia
Photographer: Andrew Cox

Cunningham regarded Aborigines as generally harmless, or rather, without hostile intentions, but nevertheless ordered his men to prime their pistols as a precaution. There was no further sign of the Aborigines, however, except for fires later in the day some 30 km off (i.e., probably at modern Gunnedah).[8]

The expedition proceeded further on, reaching perhaps as close as five kilometres from the Coxs Creek-Namoi junction at Boggabri. Here again they found a number of dwellings. They were evidently of temporary design, for Cunningham called them ‘gunyas’ rather than ‘huts’.

The dwellings belonged presumably to the Aboriginal band just now encountered:

The natives had been, in the last rains [four or five months earlier], housed under their bark gunyas near the spot – now perfectly dry and hard – on which we erected our tents, it appearing evident from the remains of their fire, and the effects of the heavy rain had left around it, that the season was exceedingly wet when these savages — [illegible: ?decamped] from this ground.[9]

Cunningham now decided to turn back. He imagined the whole region was made up of marshes (“a perfect quagmire”), not realising that this was just a very wet year, and not knowing that a major watercourse lay close ahead.

On 18 May, before crossing to the right or eastern bank of Coxs Creek, they found trees with hatchet marks (—whether carvings, toe-holds or bark excisions Cunningham did not say) executed with iron tomahawks, imported no doubt from the Hunter Valley. All previous hatchet work at various points along Coxs Creek had been done with the stone ‘mogo’ (mugu, ‘hatchet’, a pidgin word borrowed from the language of Sydney). This suggests that trade in the Whiteman’s goods was less advanced from the direction of Mudgee.[10]

It will be recalled that Cunningham’s method was to walk, accompanied by pack horses. The outward journey from Pandoras Pass across the boggy country had taken two weeks (3-17 May 1825). The return trip, however, undertaken over ground now hardening, was achieved in just one week (18-24 May). The distance is about 110 km, so they had done some eight km per day (or a little more) in the water-logged conditions versus about 16 km per day over the drying or dried mud. (This is approximate: there was some down-time on the outward leg, when one of the convicts fell ill.)

To all appearances, then, the western Liverpool Plains, the basin of Coxs Creek, remained hardly less sparsely populated than when John Oxley crossed from west to east in 1818 (…).

‘It is curious’, wrote Cunningham, ‘that I should have met only one small group of native women and children and seven males [ = evidently a reference to the encounter of 15 May] who were prowling about in quest of the scanty subsistence in grubs and kangaroos and opossums afforded by the surrounding country, and from the boundary heights [Pandoras Pass] only perceived two distinct smokes of the Aborigines’.

. . . he guessed that the ‘scouring of the country by the settlers and soldiers’ during the ‘Bathurst war’ of 1824 explained the near absence of blackfellows from the Liverpool Plains and around Mudgee. It is possible however that they had withdrawn from the valley of Coxs Creek and the plains between Coxs Creek and the Mooki River on account of the flood; presumably most could have remained in the hills pending the dissipation of the residual floodwaters, which Cunningham found were still up to 30 centimetres [one foot] deep beyond Mullaley.[11]

Map of Allan Cunninghams Journey to the Liverpool Plains 1825
Note: This image has been captured using Google Earth’s amazing technology.
The geographic points are based on a map published in Ida Lee’s book Early Explorers in Australia.
The pin-points are estimates only and are not meant to give precise geographic references.

Author’s Note: Allan Cunningham imagined (I think wrongly) that all or part of the reason for a sparse population was the Bathurst-Mudgee pogroms of 1824-25. He supposed (see above) that the posses of soldiers and settlers scouring the region would have gone north over (through) the Liverpool Range. But there is no direct evidence for this hypothesis. Indeed, such evidence as we do have counts against it.

The “sweeps” around Mudgee in 1824 were carried by four distinct parties of armed white men accompanied by Aboriginal guides. The party that went north in the direction of the Liverpool Plains on 17 September 1824 was led by Major James Morisset. It consisted of an army officer (Morisset), two or three mounted civilians, one or two Aboriginal guides and (marching on foot:) about 10 infantrymen (“Red Coats”) from the 40th Regiment. (Morisset himself rode of course.) They travelled for ten days, i.e. five days out and five days back. Now trained foot-soldiers can march for about around 20 km a day. Thus if they travelled in a straight line, without any ‘sideways’ sweeps, they could gone for some 100 km. That would have taken them barely as far as Pandora’s Pass. The only reasonable conclusion is that they scoured only on the Mudgee side and did not go into the Liverpool Plains. None of the four parties killed any Aborigines and indeed only one party even saw an Aborigine. (It was the perceived uselessness of infantry that led the colonial authorities to give the soldiers horses: this was the origin of the Mounted Police of NSW.)[12]


Footnote 1: Journal, State Records of NSW, Reel 6035; SZ22 pp.28-35.

Footnote 2: Cunningham, Journal, 3-4 May 1825 (AO Reel 6035, SZ17). Cited hereafter simply by the date of the journal entry (AC = Allan Cunningham). Brief summary in McMinn 1970: 67. Treeless: Lang 2008.

Footnote 3: AC made two estimates of the latitude: 31° 22′ 03″ S (= south-east of Tambar Springs: perhaps where the upper tributaries of Coxs Creek – the Bomera, Coxs and Bundella Creeks – converge) and 31° 21′ 40″ S (= very near Tambar Springs itself).

Footnote 4: The smoke rose at a distance of “about 40” miles [65 km] to the north-east, i.e. from approximately the area of modern Gunnedah [actually 55 km away].

Footnote 5: AC, Journal, 8 May. ‘Scouring’ = the Bathurst-Mudgee ‘War’ of 1824.

Footnote 6: 9-11 May.

Footnote 7: 14 May. Latitude 30o 49′ 54″ = about 18 kilometres from Mullaley and 10 kilometres from Boggabri.

Footnote 8: 15 May.

Footnote 9: 17 May. Also very short summary in Ida Lee’s book.

Footnote 10:18 May.

Footnote 11: Cunningham, Letters to Col Sec 8-28 May 1825 (AO Reel 6035, SZ17, 84-85), and quoted in Lansdowne Press 1971, ii: 523.

Footnote 12: Morisset’s party: Connor 2002: 59. Marching rates: 12-15 miles [19-24 km] per day for British infantry, Palestine and Western Front, in WW1: D Winter, Death’s Men, London 1978: 70-74; also army manual for Palestine: Lt Col Gunter, The Officer’s Field Note and Sketch Book, London 1915.


John CONNOR, 2002: The Australian Frontier Wars 1788-1838. Sydney: University of NSW Press. (Not a general account, but rather a series of episodic chapters focussed on the limited role played by regular troops and police.)

Allan CUNNINGHAM: Papers, 1814-1839: microform M692. National Library of Australia.

Allan CUNNINGHAM: Journal, State Records of NSW, microform Reel 6035; SZ22 pp.28-35

Allan CUNNINGHAM: Letters to Colonial Secretary 8-28 May 1825: State Records of NSW, microform Reel 6035, SZ17, 84-85),

R D LANG, 2008: ‘Defining the original extent and floristic sequence of the naturally treeless grasslands of the Liverpool Plains’, Cunninghamia, 10 (3) 407-421. PDF File

Ida LEE, 1925: Early Explorers in Australia. London: Methuen.

W G McMINN, 1970: Allan Cunningham, Botanist and Explorer. Melbourne University Press.

About the Author

Michael O’Rourke was born in 1951 and grew up near Tambar Springs NSW,
between Gunnedah and Coonabarabran. His parents were farmers and graziers. His father’s parents likewise were ‘on the land’. His paternal great-grand-parents before that ran one of the two pubs that graced the village of Tambar Springs in the 19th century.

Mr O’Rourke was schooled at Tambar Springs Primary School; De La Salle College, Armidale; and the Universities of Sydney, New South Wales, and Cambridge UK; but of course he received his true education in the
shadow of those fine institutions.

From 1990 to 2003 he worked for the Department of the Prime Minister and
Cabinet in Canberra, and for a period was Secretary to the Federal Executive Council and Keeper of the Great Seal of Australia. He now works for the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination in the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs.

Other Publications

Raw Possum and Salted Pork: Major Mitchell and the Kamilaroi Aborigines. Kambah, ACT: Published 1995 (Describes Surveyor-General Mitchell’s dealings with the Aborigines on his two northern journeys.)

The Kamilaroi Lands: North-Central NSW in the Early 19th Century. Griffith, ACT, Published 1997: (A full account of the traditional way of life, with an extended discussion of place-names and totem-names, etc, etc.)

Sung for Generations: Tales of Red Kangaroo, War Leader of Gunnedah: Old Joe Bungaree’s tales about Red Kangaroo, an 18th Century Gamilaraay Big-Man of the central Namoi River NSW : the Red Chief of Ion Idriess… / documents transcribed, with commentary. Braddon, ACT. PUblished 2005. Also published online at SCRIBD

Related Links

Cunningham’s Campsite and Pandoras Pass information provided by Tourism New South Wales.