Special Report

How Australia Put Evolution on Darwin’s Mind

The famous naturalist’s revolutionary theory first took shape not in the Galápagos but in the primeval Blue Mountains

“You could say that saving species is in my blood,” says Chris Darwin, a conservationist who lives in the mountains explored by his great-great-grandfather. (Adam Hollingworth / Hired Gun)
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Meetinthe great-great-grandson of the great, great naturalist Charles Darwin demands total immersion in Australian nature. The first step is locating Chris Darwin’s abode, hidden in the foothills of a vast, rugged labyrinth of gorges and valleys called the Blue Mountains. From the sleepy hamlet of Glenbrook, a narrow paved road descends into lush eucalyptus forest, where, alone apart from the birds, I spotted a tiny mailbox. I slowly edged my rented vehicle down a sloped driveway flanked by raw sandstone outcroppings, wondering how I would ever manage to reverse back out if this turned out to be the wrong address. The driveway finally ended, much to my relief, at a brick house almost engulfed in foliage. Beyond this point lay a string of nature reserves and national parks—2.5 million acres of pristine bush, just 40 miles west of Sydney.

Darwin bounded out of his doorway to greet me with a hearty handshake along with two curly-haired boys. The lanky, 53-year-old Chris is far more the eccentric Englishman than his sober ancestor Charles. Completely barefoot, he sported a crimson tie with a bird pattern, and britches held up by red suspenders—a Tolkien character in mufti, as if the forest-dwelling wizard Radagast the Brown had gone to Oxford.

“Shall we go into the rainforest?” Darwin asked in his cultivated accent, as his sons hung off his arms in the kitchen. “I think we must really talk about Charles Darwin there. He loved rainforest. He said it left him intoxicated with wonder.

“Let’s go to the vines!” 9-year-old Erasmus cried out.

“No, the waterhole!” chirped Monty, age 7.

Before we could set off, Darwin insisted we pack hot tea and Christmas cake as sustenance. Soon I was stumbling down a steep dirt track, balancing a steaming cup in one hand and a plate in the other, as the brilliant Australian light flickered though the trees. Shafts illuminated the rainforest floor, a succulent carpet of native ferns and fungi. Climbing vines with evocative names like “wonga wonga” and “wombat berry” snaked upward around the trunks.

“Watch out for that jumping jack nest!” Darwin laughed, nodding to a swarming mound of ants. “They give a hell of a sting.” After a slow and (to me) precarious descent, we arrived at a natural pool like a black mirror in the ground. We perched on mossy rocks and attempted morning tea, while the boys roared like wild things, throwing boulders into the water to splash us, Chris all the while smiling indulgently.

An hour’s drive south, Wentworth Falls offers views Darwin described as “most magnificent, astounding and unique.” (Joe Wigdahl )
At the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, in Mount Tomah, you can see the rare Wollemi pines (Joe Wigdahl )
A medicine man from Katoomba, aboriginal legend has it, turned the Three Sisters to stone to protect them from a forbidden marriage and tribal fighting. (Joe Wigdahl )
In choosing the young Charles Darwin, around age 30 here, the Beagle’s captain sought a naturalist and a sociable chap. (Graphicaartis / Corbis)
It’s a short walk from Katoomba to this lookout over the famed Three Sisters rock formation. A stairway descends some 1,000 feet into Jamison Valley. (Joe Wigdahl )
The Blue Mountains formed as wind and rivers cut into a plateau whose bedrock was deposited by the sea some 250 million years ago. Darwin thought the hills were carved by ocean currents. (Joe Wigdahl )
More than 40 walking trails snake through the Blue Mountains National Park. In the gullies of the Jamison Valley, ferns and moss-covered trees and rocks are a common sight. (Joe Wigdahl )
Wentworth Falls was named for William Charles Wentworth, who helped lead the first expedition across the Blue Mountains. The country, he wrote, could “only have been produced by some Mighty convulsion in Nature.” (Joe Wigdahl )
Above Wentworth Falls, a walkway hugs the side of a sheer cliff face. If you can handle the heights, you’re rewarded with stunning views across the valley below. (Joe Wigdahl )
From the top of Wentworth Falls, Darwin looked out over the Jamison Valley at what he described as “the most stupendous cliffs I have ever seen.” (Joe Wigdahl )
The first governor of New South Wales named the mountains near Sydney the Carmarthen and Lansdowne hills. The name that stuck, though, was Blue Mountains. (Joe Wigdahl )
On January 19, 1836, Darwin took a day trip into the Wolgan Valley, where he collected rock samples and spotted the kangaroo rat and native birds. (Joe Wigdahl )
These hand prints and stencils, at Red Hands Cave in the Blue Mountains, were made by aboriginals between 500 and 1,600 years ago. (Joe Wigdahl )
Water rushing over Wentworth Falls plummets down three vertical tiers, for a total drop of 614 feet. (Joe Wigdahl )

There is a satisfying historical logic to the fact that one of the most vigorously nature-worshiping of Charles Darwin’s 250-odd direct descendants—a man who gave up a successful career in advertising in London to be a climbing guide and environmental activist, not to mention an expert on his ancestor’s storied life—ended up living in this particular pocket of the Antipodes. “Charles Darwin thought the Blue Mountains the most beautiful part of Australia,” Chris said, gazing at the exotic greenery, thick with coachwoods, sassafras and the glossy green leaves of the lilly pilly. “And of course, so do I.” 

Few non-Australians are even aware that the 26-year-old Charles visited the continent in early 1836 on his round-the-world voyage in the HMS Beagle. The fresh-faced Cambridge grad had been invited on the Beagle because of his passion for natural history, and when he arrived in Australia, after traveling around Cape Horn and up South America’s Pacific coast, his radical ideas were as yet unformed. In fact, young Charles had been groomed for a career in the clergy. As had been his custom, he collected specimens in Australia to take back to London for further study over the coming decades. 

Most important, it was Darwin’s 11-day adventure in the Blue Mountains that kick-started his thinking on evolution, as historians have shown from his diary, letters and field notes. The visit would prove as influential for his path to On the Origin of Species, published 23 years later, as his canonical studies of the Galápagos Islands.

“When I was a child, my father taught me all about Charles Darwin’s visit here,” Chris said. “Our family always viewed him as a very romantic figure, and Australia was one of the wonderful exotic places he went to. We liked to imagine him on horseback, riding through the summer heat wave, discovering marvelous things.” 

On that 1836 excursion, Darwin was puzzled by Australia’s strange wildlife, including the duck-billed platypus—the furry, semi-aquatic mammal whose appearance is so freakish that British biologists thought the first specimens sent to London were a hoax, fabricated from different animals. Darwin was able to observe it in its natural setting, which upset his religious assumptions. “We were told from a very young age about the ‘platypus moment,’ which was a real epiphany for Darwin,” Chris said. Although his conclusions took two decades to reach, the seeds of his revolutionary theories on natural selection were sown only a few miles from where Chris now lived.

“It was here that Charles Darwin questioned Creationism for the first time,” Chris said suddenly, between sips of tea. “He came out of the closet, basically.”

***

When the ten-gun sailing vessel HMS Beagle hove into Sydney’s glittering harbor on January 12, 1836, before a light morning air, according to his journals, Darwin was in a fragile mood. The voyage had already lasted four years, twice as long as expected, and he had been seasick all across the Pacific. He was homesick and lovelorn, too, having recently learned that his teenage sweetheart, Fanny Owen, had married another. Still, he was keen to explore the new British outpost, founded as a prison colony only 48 years earlier: “We all on board are looking forward to Sydney, as to a little England,” he wrote.

His optimism was shaken by his first glimpse of the Australian landscape, which was suffering from a protracted drought. Despite impressive sandstone cliffs, he found the bush around Sydney Harbor made up of “thin scrubby trees (that) bespoke sterility.” Worse, no letters awaited the Beagle’s crew. “None of you at home, can imagine what a grief this is,” he wrote pitiably to his sister Susan. “I feel much inclined to sit down & have a good cry.” Darwin cheered up a little while strolling around Sydney, which boasted a population of 23,000, now mostly free settlers. “My first feeling was to congratulate myself that I was born an Englishman,” he wrote in his diary, marveling at the stores full of fashionable goods, the carriages with liveried servants and the splendid mansions (although there were rather too many pubs for his liking). The apparent industry made a pleasing contrast to the decay of Spain’s much older South American colonies. Over the next few days, the colony’s democratic character unsettled him. As a scion of England’s ruling class, he was disturbed to note that ex-convicts, once they had served their prison term, were now prospering in business and openly “reveling in Wealth.”

To plunge into his nature studies, Darwin decided to travel into the nearby Blue Mountains, where mysterious species (many already renowned among the British scientific community) thrived in a geologically unique setting. He hired a guide (whose name is lost) and two horses. A highway had been carved across the rugged landscape two decades earlier, but it was still difficult going. He passed convict chain gangs under redcoat guard, and a party of aboriginals, who for a shilling threw their spears “for my amusement.” Having met the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego as well as the New Zealand Maoris earlier on the voyage, he condescended to find the aboriginals “good-humored & pleasant (and) far from the degraded beings as usually represented.” He predicted that aboriginal contact with convicts and rough settlers from British slums, who exposed them to alcohol and diseases, boded ill for their future.

As for the Blue Mountains, Darwin had expected “a bold chain crossing the country,” but instead found the scenery “exceedingly monotonous.” (The name originates from the bluish tinge, when seen from a distance, created by tiny droplets of evaporated eucalyptus oil in the air.) His opinion improved at Wentworth Falls, where above the roaring cascade he was astonished by sweeping views of the Jamison Valley. Here were the “most stupendous cliffs I have ever seen,” he raved, each precipice topped with ancient forests, framing a “grand amphitheatrical depression” dense with untold numbers of eucalyptus trees, whose “class of view was to me quite novel.” He speculated that the valleys were carved by ocean currents. In fact, the Blue Mountains are what remains of a dissected plateau, whose bedrock, deposited by the sea some 250 million years ago, has been eroded by wind and rivers over the eons.

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