Deserted, damaged and neglected: Explorers Tree's controversial history

Deserted, damaged, neglected, the decaying stump of the once-proud Explorers Tree struggles beside the Great Western Highway, Katoomba.

Rev William Woolls first mentioned a marked tree in 1867: "...the blackbut on which the late Mr W. Lawson cut his initials with a tomahawk in 1813, still presents the letters as legible as ever." (Sydney Morning Herald, August 26, 1867).

Eccleston Du Faur claimed that, around 1871-2, William Piddington told him of "an old tree marked with an L". Shortly thereafter, du Faur "found the L tree", (SMH September 2, 1905) and reported it to the Occupation of Lands department.

In 1884, to protect the 100-foot-high tree, William Piddington, Sir Henry Parkes and J S Farnell organised Mr George Donald of Lithgow to build a wall around it. An ungrammatical, historically incorrect plaque was affixed.

Newspaper discussions then revolved around both the errors on the plaque and the authenticity of the marks on the tree; the plaque was replaced by 1908.

In 1903, Katoomba Council, concerned for road safety, sawed off the tree's top half, leaving it beside the road. Rescued by Mark Foy in 1904, it stood in the grounds of his Hydro Majestic hotel, near the Belgravia wing. Hotel patrons pinned their calling cards on it. Both tree and the Belgravia were destroyed in the 1922 fire.

The marked tree remained the focus of Katoomba's celebrations. There the townspeople met the Cooee Marchers in 1915, escorting them into Katoomba for the night, returning with them to the tree the next day to celebrate with speeches and a feast. Most local businesses closed between 11am and 1pm.

On Arbor Day, 1936, Katoomba Intermediate High School pupils assisted in planting a grove of trees nearby.

The crossing was re-enacted during the 1951 Jubilee of Federation Celebrations. Twentieth century explorers focused on the marked tree, marking a substitute tree. The original marked tree also featured in the 1963 sesquicentenary celebration of the crossing.

Prior to Australia Day, 1988, an Aboriginal Flag was painted on the tree's stump.

Killed by its protective wall and fence, the tree continued to deteriorate. Each action to preserve it hastened its demise. Termites prevented its removal to Katoomba Town Hall in 1926. A protective glass covering was rejected. It has been filled with cement, banded by steel, topped with a concrete cap and covered with a roof. In 1948 it was painted with Dekol Colourless and its base treated with creosote. Finally, in 2012, a motor vehicle attacked it.

What is to become of it? Of debatable origin, it is still part of our Blue Mountains' heritage and a symbolic link with our European past.