• Tony Bosworth

Mt Tomah and Bilpin communities in union forged by fire

After bushfire tore through Mt Tomah and then wreaked havoc across Bilpin last year, locals were devastated - and the wounds still run deep - but a project to restore the 1970s Pioneer Rock Reststop on Bells Line of Road has brought two communities together.

Locals came out in force to clean, paint, mow, and provide lunch and refreshments

“We needed something to get people together, we’d all been knocked about by the fires and the damage and trauma, and this turned out to be the ideal project,” said Mt Tomah resident and co-founder of the new Mt Tomah Residents Association, Dr Billy Gruner.

In a series of chance encounters and coincidences, the Bilpin community reached out and offered to help the Mt Tomahans.

“A few years ago I started recognising public places in our community that were badly neglected, and were a poor reflection on our community,” Bilpin local Matilda Julian told the Post.

The shabby rest area before locals got to work on it

“All of the Bilpin areas were overgrown, and no maintenance had been done in the last 20 years. I eventually found out that the Mt Tomah rest area was managed by RMS, and contracted out to DM Roads, who had no budget for any maintenance, and only a budget for seven mows per year. They were mowing the area only when I emailed them to advise them of the condition of the area.

“I thought we needed to restore and maintain the area as a community, but as a Bilpin resident, I was not wanting to take over a place that wasn't truly our own.”

Then Ms Julian met Billy Gruner at the Kurrajong Heights Bowling Club, the gathering place for all Mt Tomah residents in good and bad times, and the venue where the Residents Association was born not long after the fires.

Volunteers Peter Milne, Bernard Koch, MP Susan Templeman, Troy Cox, John Chorley

At the same time, Ms Julian was approached by Sydney’s North Shore Avalon resident Billy Bragg who had been fundraising for communities affected by the fires.

“She ([Billy Bragg] was seeking local support for ways in which to spend the money raised, and someone gave her my contact details,” said Ms Julian.

“It seemed that it might be the right time to start the Mt Tomah rest area project, to help with funding, and also with volunteer help.

“My partner Roland, who is a carpenter, helped with the practical considerations of the project, and we went from there!”

Everyone came together over three days to restore and beautify the rest stop in a massive clean-up which Dr Gruner likens to a community building a church.

“It’s been brilliant, the entire community showed up. So many people - residents and locals - came, it felt like hundreds of people turned up,” said Dr Gruner.

Beautiful original artwork by Billy Bragg brings colour and meaning to the reststop

“Within a day the paddocks had been cut right back and were tidy and smooth as a golf course. We took all the muck and stuff off the rest stop and now we have a beautiful returned resthouse. It’s gone back to being what it was in the first place – the gateway into the canyons.

“It’s been a brilliant experience and it’s changed everybody’s mood. We formed the group [Mt Tomah Residents Association] because of the fires and we really discovered ourselves. We had three days of brilliant activity. Truckloads of people came up with tools and help. It was like we were all building a church, it was that big.”

The rest stop had murals right from the start, from the 1970s when it first was put there, but it was overrun with weeds and dirt, it was shabby and uncared for.

“The RFS came and hosed it all off,” said Drr Gruner.

The stunning original hand drawn mural by Graham Davis King

Now there’s a permanent aboriginal work of art by Graham Davis King of the Deerubin Aboriginal Land Council, showing the story of life in the Blue Mountains.

“None of this would have happened without the people in the Hawkesbury,” said Dr Gruner, “and there was a rediscovery in the community, that we all live here together. That’s been the upshot of the fire – it literally lit a fire under residents and it’s made us all pull together and be tolerant of each other.

“It’s now become our own little place. A symbol of being positive in the face of adversity.”

The Reststop area is centred around the Pioneer Explorer’s Rock Monument which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the achievements of Colonial-era explorers Caley, Bell, Hoddle and Cunningham. It was originally unveiled at Mt Tomah on 17 November 1973. The monument is made of Mt Tomah basalt and was erected by the Mt Tomah Society. Festivities at the unveiling included – according to the local newspaper at the time - singing by children from Bilpin Public School.