It was noticed by the aborigines that the leaf of a waratah has a long petiole, and the leaves of many other plants have a petiole that is very short. For instance, the waxy green leaves of the Diploglottis with its bunch of yellow berries, the Prostanthera lasianthos, the Chorizema, the Lilly-pilly (Eugenia Smithi) have but short petioles; while many of the eucalypts, the Honey flower (Lambertia formosa) as well as very many others have petioles like that of the waratah. None however is so long.
No one must imagine that such a thing of the bush could have escaped the notice of the aborigines. Many are the indications that our autocthonous predecessors saw a very great deal of the intimate habits of the flora and the fauna and the avifauna, and spoke freely of them, and attributed in their legendary many of these habitsmuch of the particular form and colour, and even habitat, to the influences of supernatural beings and occurrences.
Of the petiole of the waratah they said it is long because of a happening of seismic nature.
There was a camp one time on a volcanic field (presumably that of which Mount Wilson is the highest point) that was a scene of a weird and awesome happening. The tribe had been housed there for a long time, for the blacks of the Hunter River Valley had grown very strong, and were not afraid to penetrate into the territories of the Hawkesbury River people and the people of the flat of Hartley.
But the way to the Mount Wilson region was a difficult way. The Hawkesbury tribe and the Hartley tribe had joined forces and established the camp on the heights. The story, mentioning a fire from underground, is one of the few that show that the aborigines had a knowledge of time when Australia suffered from volcanic upheavals and earthquakes of volcanic origin.
There was game in plenty. Red rock wallabies were in millions, and many were the rugs made of their skins, and had they been trimmed with the red crests of the gang-gang cockatoo they would no doubt have equalled that wonderful cloak of the original Krubi.
Scouts had sighted blacks of the Hunter River tribe penetrating the gullies that led into the Grose, and of the Grose itself. Several corroborees were held to initiate the young men into the mysteries and methods of warfare. Every one was on the "qui vive" and tenterhooks. Watch was being kept both by day and by night. One young man, full of prowess, and eager to show his skill and resource to the maiden of his eye, had enwrapped himself in the skin of the wombat, and crouching on all fours had penetrated down, travelling only at night, to within a few yards of the outposts of the enemy. During the day he curled himself in a log or a hollow place between rocks, and many times he had been peered at and not been recognised. Then slowly creeping back he had brought tidings of the encroachments and strength of the marauders. But many weeks went by, and still no really hostile move was made by either party. The only wrong was the trespass.
At last the Mount Wilson people decided to drive the others away. They thought that by taking the initiative they would be the gainers because talkative men and women had twitted the rest, especially the young warriors, with idleness and cowardice. Down in a gully that had a flat area beside the creek a clearing was made, and stones were placed in position for the great and last corroboree before the engagement.
The day had been very hot and a dark mist had gathered toward evening. The whole mountain region seemed prepared for, or expectant of, something.
The blacks took no great interest in the coming corroboree. Only those who were over eager to fight seemed ready for the school. Yet the whole adult tribe repaired to the chosen spot.
When darkness fell the women seated themselves in the usual circle and were ready with their waddies to beat the earth in time and tune.
Then the world shook. The rumbling of an earthquake sped upon them and rolled beneath them and the hillside tumbled. The country rolled first one way and then another. The trees leaned with the rolling and righted when the earth righted.
There was nowhere to run. All eyes were turned towards the camping places, for there were the young people who could not attend a corroboree. But between them and the top of the hill an opening came and tongues of flame shot out. A few hot stones rolled down into the clearing, though no one was hurt. Then smoke arose and fire flared and the camp was seen to be ablaze. Cries and lamentations filled the air. Then a youth named Camoola cried out for the man who had crept far in the wombat skin and knew everything. He must know, he said, where the fire came from, and how to put it out!
Now the blacks had for ages used the stem of the waratah to enwrap any hot thing they wished to handle. They said that it entirely prevented burns. In the earliest days of white occupancy of Australia they brought these stems to blacksmiths and told them that they could never be injured by fire from the anvils, which they took to be supernatural fire such as that seen in the heavens when there is a meteor travelling there, if they used them, and to please the natives the blacksmiths did use them and paid in those showy trifles that the natives valued, for them.
Seizing a couple of waratah stems, leaves and all, this young man sped out into the night. The rocking of the earth had ceased, but the fire burned on and the tongues of flame still leapt along the whole length of the great crack that came in the mountain-side.
Then Camoola, too, dashed off. He had plucked many waratah stems for he knew they would be needed. His wonderful hearing told him where Wombat-skin had gone. He reached him just as he was dropping down into a cave. The heavy dark mist had cleared all away. The stars now shone clearly. The camp was wiped out, and many injured people were writhing and wailing and could not be succored.
Holding the waratah stems out in front of them both Camoola and Wombat-skin dropped down into the cave. They cautiously went forward. They came to a bend, and rounding this they came in sight of the fire. It seemed to be coming up from a depth below, and it swept along the crack that passed here through the cave. If they could prevent it from coming up then the rest of their people could cross the crack at their point and reach the place where the camp had been.
Camoola ran back to the entrance where he had seen many waratahs. The bush was now afire at the entrance to the cave, and the waratahs could be plainly seen in its light. But Camoola could not climb out. He had dropped down without trouble, but there was no foothold whereby he might get out. He strained every muscle. He leapt high, but not by several inches could he reach another waratah. He went back to Wombat-skin. This brave young man was carefully wrapping himself up in his wombat skin, and sticking about it all the waratah stalks that he and the other had brought, for his intention was to lie across the hole and thus prevent the fire from coming out. Only could Camoola stop him by catching his arms, and, being the stronger, he held him too tightly.
Camoola urged him to return to the mouth of the cave and to see if more waratah stems could be got before he essayed the dangerous task of lying across the fires. So they went back. Neither of them, nor the two together, could reach them. Then Camoola thought of the magic clay and he looked for it, and to his delight he found it. Hastily making the markings he had seen often enough on the priests, he invoked the aid of the spirits. He had yet to attend the school at which those were taught who were to be magicians, and therefore he did not fully understand the rites. He quite well knew that if he succeeded in obtaining aid he, being really uninitiated, would suffer for it.
Wombat-skin tried to jump again, but though the mystic signs were used he failed. It was now believed that an evil spirit stood near. Both men yelled to exorcise the evil of it. Both had heard the yell at the corroboree that they were not permitted to see, and knew what it meant and what it would do.
They jumped again and again. They grew strangely weak. They could jump no higher. Then the little stalk that joined the leaf to the stem grew. It became long quickly. The men could grasp them quite easily. They gathered a bunch. They covered themselves and one of them lay across the hole. The flames were stopped. The charm of the waratahs acted. They were not burned.
Outside the members of the tribe who would have joined in the corroboree shrieked with delight. They saw the flames cease. They too twined some stems of the waratah around themselves, and especially about their feet, so that the hot stones would not injure them, and they set out for the camp on the hill. They were weary before they reached it and saw how their folk were stricken.
Wombat-skin stayed with Camoola. He lay still in death. It is said that he touched a waratah stem while it was still being influenced by the hand of the spirit, and he, being uninitiated, could not bear the contact and he paid for it with his life. The waratah he touched was arrested in its growth, and the happening is perpetuated in those that are imperfect. They should be serrated and are smooth-edged. They should have the usual long petiole, but they have not.
Camoola was left in the cave, and many years afterwards-many centuries-his bones were found by the botanist Cayley.
Cayley penetrated the Blue Mountains to a spot where a great rock wall prevented his further exploration. Here he erected a cairn of stones, and the place is called now Cayley's Repulse.
Mount Wilson shows all the signs of volcanic eruption.
The trespassing blacks saw the fire and felt the quake, and they made all haste back to the Hunter Valley. The tribes that had amalgamated separated again and each buried their dead. No one dared to touch Camoola.
The clearing that was made for the corroboree is still to be seen at Mount Wilson. The great volcanic crack may also be seen at its foot and all agree that in the ages ago the happening described took place.
Mount Wilson and its neighbour, Mount Tomah, may be seen from any eminence of Sydney, and some say that the petioles of the waratah are longer there than anywhere else.