The Katoomba landslide fades into obscurity?

Posted by barbara on July 7, 2013


Dogface wall photographed from the Federal Pass in 2012. © Barbara Cameron-Smith


Most accounts of the 1931 Katoomba Landslide focus on two key issues. Firstly that it was a singular event, and secondly that there were no witnesses to the momentuous collapse. 


The Google Earth image above captures the fire trail along Narrow Neck on the left and the grown over site of the once very obvious Katoomba landslide scar to its right of the ridge in the centre of the image.Credit: Google earth: Image © 2011 Sinclair Knight Merz.


Research into newspaper accounts of the day and examination of historic photos tell a different story altogether. The geological event that decimated the escarpment below Cliff Drive near Narrow Neck was in fact a series of major rockslides over a period of three to four months. 


The image above zooms in on the face created by the landslide and shows the Federal Pass track skirting through giant boulders and the landslide lookout at the top of the main cliff. Credit: Google earth: Image © 2011 Sinclair Knight Merz.


Eighty or so years on, the stark scar left by the 'landslide' and the debris field below have been substantially camouflaged by a combination of regrowth and the discolouration of the sandstone faces by algae and lichen. © Barbara Cameron-Smith


The succession of rockfalls created 'Dogface', a sandstone cliff well known to the rock climbing fraternity in NSW and beyond.


A vivid orange lichen now coats the sandstone boulders that peeled off the cliff in 1931 and came to rest on the break of slope in Jamison Valley. © Barbara Cameron-Smith


The final collapse was a drawn out waiting game. As anticipation built, the landslide site transformed into a must-see tourist attraction, with hundreds of people flocking from up and down the mountain villages and from farther afield, including sightseers from Sydney.

Refreshments stalls were set up, car parks carved out of bushland to accommodate vehicles, marshalls put in place to control the crowds, and spotlights rigged up for night time viewing.


The Katoomba landslide site after the first rockfalls, with the leaning pillar the centre of attention for months © State Library of NSW


Two key vantage points drew the biggest crowds, with the majority or onlookers approaching it on foot along rough bush tracks, many in their 'Sunday best' clothes. Cliff Drive was yet to be constructed in the early 1930s, and it being The Great Depression, getting a ride was out of the question for some. Those who could afford it drove to the scene in their own vehicles, hired charabancs at Katoomba Station or purchased a ticket on an old style tourist bus.


The most adventurous daredevils approached the site of the calving cliff face and peered down the widening chasm from near the vantage point above, close to the present day Landslide Lookout. © Barbara Cameron-Smith


Closest to Katoomba Station, the vantage point that attracted most thrill seekers was directly above a massive sandstone pillar that was undergoing a slow motion separation from the escarpment. By getting so close to the widening crevasse, they risked being caught out by a sudden collapse that could have plummetted them into the valley below.


Dogface from Narrow Neck © Barbara Cameron-Smith


The front on view from lookouts on Narrow Neck gave the best vantages of the leaning rock's pending collapse. Spellbound sightseers, however, had to be content with the cataclysmic sound effects of the pillar parting ways with the cliff and the showers of small rocks clattering down the cliff, accompanied by clouds of dust.

When the final collapse came,  according to one and one only newspaper account, three people apparently witnessed the shedding. As to who they were and what they actually witnessed, namely the collapse of the century, no records have come to light. Did the reporter err in her or his assertion or have some inside knowledge that eluded everyone else. 

To better understand the Katoomba landslide event, I have been compiling an article on the Katoomba landslide that photographically explores the drawn out geological event and the underlying reason for the successive rock slides. 


Weathering and erosion combine in spectacular fashion below the landslide site. © Barbara Cameron-Smith


Lichens continue to colourise the jumble of boulders Mount Solitary in the background© Barbara Cameron-Smith

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