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Project Profile


2008 Award of Distinction

National Pass Walking Track

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Project TitleNational Pass

LocationBlue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia

Size3,000 square metres

CostUS$ 1,370,000

Responsible PartyNSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (Ben Correy)

Heritage ArchitectGodden, Mackay Logan P/L, Christo Aitken & Associates

                                  P/L, Jim Smith, Chris Betteridge and David Beaver

ContractorLandlign Environmental Contracting P/L (Colin Delap)

Date of CompletionSeptember 2007


The National Pass Walking Track is located at Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains National Park, part of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area of New South Wales. Walking tracks have a particular significance in the Blue Mountains. The extensive track network in the upper Blue Mountains region covers a total of some 200 kilometres. These tracks comprise an important part of the cultural landscape of the region and were a significant factor in the development of the area’s townships. Many of the tracks in the region follow Aboriginal trade routes, which were later utilized by miners and timber harvesters in the nineteenth century. The National Pass was exceptional, however, in that it was a purpose-built recreational track, constructed to provide a route for visitors to Wentworth Falls and the surrounding area.

Constructed a century ago, the track is a built heritage structure demonstrating a high level of technical achievement. With a combination of relatively level and steep sections, the track has several dramatic features, notably the spectacular “Grand Stairway”, a combined wood and stone structure that ascends a near-vertical, 90-metre cliff face. The 1,261 sandstone steps and over 600 stepping-stones employed in the construction of the track attest to the ingenuity of early twentieth-century building techniques and the skills of the masons of the past. The Grand Stairway and other designed elements rely on the integration of “constructed” and “natural” features, combining these in ways that enhance the aesthetic values of both the track and the surrounding landscape.

The historic trail has long been one of the most popular walking tracks in the national park. Officials record an annual use by as many as 50,000 park visitors. The project focused on a 2.5-kilometre section of the track that had deteriorated and become unsafe due to heavy visitor use and consequent erosion. The success of the project has allowed for the reinstatement of one of the most significant walking tracks in New South Wales and serves as an example for future work within Australia’s national parks.

Building History

From the outset, the Blue Mountains Walking Track was intended to blend sympathetically with the surrounding landscape. Its original builders employed the abundant natural sandstone of the area for steps, stairways and dry-stone retaining walls. They utilized these in ways that would enhance existing natural features and their methods reflected traditional masonry practices of the area. Beginning in 1906, several teams of five workers each constructed the track; installing the original stonework over a period of two years, relying on traditions of dry-stone construction that had a limited life expectancy. Completed in 1908, the track represented a hallmark of ingenuity and construction efficiency.

Unfortunately, in the years following construction many sections of the track suffered from wind and rain erosion and from the cumulative impact of the park’s many visitors. By the end of the twentieth century, sections of the track were badly eroded and some features were no longer safe. The project’s designers intended to return this important section of the track to a condition of safety and utility within the park. They also wanted to honour the site’s significant history and evidence of historic artisanship.

Project History

The restoration and repair project commenced in 2001 and continued until September 2007. Divided into several stages, the project began with a year of research and planning. Initial work included a detailed track survey and the preparation of an environmental and heritage impact assessment, which required an additional year and a half. The erection of a safety fence and the replacement of timber bridges followed in the next phase, which again stretched out over a period of a year and a half. Actual construction work focused on the restoration and reconstruction of track surfaces, including stone staircases, stepping stones, dry-stone walls, timber staircases, cut-stone steps and stone slab bridges — a process absorbing the final three and a half years of the project. Interpretive material was subsequently prepared and installed. 

Project Scope and Framework 

The National Pass Conservation Management Plan (CMP) set out the aims of the project as follows:

• Rebuild the track to an improved standard in order to resist the combined impacts of extreme events and the increasing numbers of visitors and also to improve visitor safety along the length of the track.

• Respect the track fabric and natural setting and to use traditional construction materials and techniques as much as possible.

• Develop an Interpretation Plan and install interactive educational materials that will engage the wide variety of people from a range of different backgrounds.

• Develop a Track Management Plan including a cyclical maintenance schedule to ensure that the work will be maintained and that the remaining heritage fabric can be conserved in-situ for as long as possible.

The project encompassed a 2.5-kilometre section of the National Pass Walking Track, which consists of stone, timber and earthen features. The width of the track measures 1.2 metres on average, with the project work covering a surface area of approximately 3,000 square metres. The project area extends from the Rocket Point intersection above Wentworth Falls to the Vera Falls Track intersection in the Valley of the Waters.

Conservation Methodology and Materials 

The project’s designers were intent on preserving the overall character and visual qualities of the historic walking track. To do this they followed the guiding principles set out in the Burra Charter of “doing as much as necessary but as little as possible”. The method involved identification of heritage significance through researching documentary evidence and recording physical evidence; assessment of significance using the criteria in the NSW Heritage Manual; consideration of relevant issues, opportunities and constraints to enable the formulation of conservation policies and strategies; and the development of the CMP, which includes provision for adoption and review. The entire project was also planned in accordance with the NSW Heritage Act (1977).

Few archival photographs were available to the project planners to show the track’s original condition; other kinds of historic records were also unavailable. The detailed survey of the track undertaken at the start of the project helped to compensate for the overall lack of evidence. This included photographs and extensive notes on existing features and on the construction techniques used in building the track. Project designers were careful to not diminish the future research value of the track. For this purpose, each step of the process included careful documentation. In compliance with State Heritage Office guidelines, the project designers submitted a record of all changes made to the track, to serve as part of a permanent record of the historic site — a requirement also set out in the environmental and heritage impact statement prepared prior to the initiation of the restoration work.

The most significant aspect of the project was its use of traditional materials and techniques to reinstate the integrity of the historic walking track. Workers on the original track utilized sandstone blocks quarried on site. Because there was little sandstone available within the line of the track nowadays, sandstone blocks for the restoration had to be obtained from other sites. Due to the remoteness of the site and difficulty in access, technicians employed helicopters to deliver materials, requiring pilots with an unusual level of skill and expertise. staff Weighing up to 700 kilograms each, the new blocks were sourced from demolished older structures, which had been determined not suitable for restoration. Although compatible in terms of size, colour and surface character, the newer stones were sufficiently different from the original materials to allow for a clear distinction between historic and recent work. Other components were also restored using designs modelled on historical precedents. For instance, all of the brackets were hand forged and square washers were used.

Traditional techniques included dry-stone construction and precision stone-cutting. These were used along with modern tools and techniques which helped to increase efficiency. Scottish stonemasons with extensive experience on heritage walking track restoration were employed to ensure a high standard of artisanship throughout the project and their expertise contributed to the historic character of the results.

Many of the changes to the track and its distinctive elements emphasized the importance of the relationship between new and old. Work on the Grand Stairway required careful attention to the historic character of this well-known feature while at the same time bringing the staircase into compliance with present-day safety requirements. The original staircase had included timber sleepers, supported by a rubble-stone retaining wall. The stairs and wall had deteriorated over time as a result of erosion and cumulative use, leaving only a few supporting elements still in place. In 1987, to make the stairway safe, park maintenance staff had replaced the original stone and wood staircase with a steel structure. This staircase was too narrow to accommodate the many walkers, however, and had a visually intrusive effect on the site. During the restoration effort, the project designers realized that a reconstructed version of the original staircase would not meet present needs; as a result, the new staircase was designed as a self-supporting wood structure similar to a staircase at the west end of the track. Timber for the work came from materials salvaged from a demolished Sydney wharf.

Other refinements for the staircase reflected current building practice. Finials at the bases of the intermediate uprights were added to prevent rot at the base of the posts and are in character with timber joinery of the era when the historic timber stairs were built. The treads of the new staircase are broader than those of the metal one, to reduce congestion. The timber stringers have a low visual impact and the metal handrails — installed as a safety feature and meeting modern code requirements — are painted dark green to further reduce their visual impact. Although different in many aspects of design from the original version, the new staircase represents a conscious attempt to resurrect earlier building elements and to ensure that these are in sympathy with the visual character of the Wentworth Falls area.

Important Issues 

The on-ground works lasted five years and, not unexpectedly, the project had considerable logistical complexities. Ensuring that the appropriate stone blocks arrived at the work site in a timely manner required detailed tracking systems and accurate record keeping.

The project relied on a balanced approach, emphasizing the conservation of historic fabric, wherever possible, and the introduction of new features and materials in ways that enhanced the overall character of the historic track. Some of the significant historic sections were retained as samples for future research and interpretation. All new construction was sympathetic to and compatible with the character of the site but did not attempt to replicate original features in their entirety.

Project Impact 

The National Pass Walking Track project successfully transformed a deteriorating and unsafe historic walking track into a useful and both historically and visually significant reminder of another era. The project has enhanced a place that many have been visiting for generations; numerous local residents cite the National Pass Walking Track as a special place where they had their first “bush-walking” (hiking) experience. The redesigned and refurbished track has improved the accessibility of the site for many park users, allowing for increased visitation to Wentworth Falls and surrounding park areas. The project clearly gives voice to the special character of the place and answers the expectations and aspirations of people familiar with the site and the many others now able to experience the track.

The local community received regular updates on the progress of the project during the implementation period, through regular news releases and information posted on the national park’s website as well as static displays at key visitor locations. The project has also provided training and employment opportunities for many young people from the local community, with some gaining full time positions as park maintenance workers. On a technical level, the project made an important contribution to expanding the level of understanding of the complexity and importance of heritage walking track conservation issues, particularly among natural resource managers and track management staff members

Quote from the Project Team

"The primary goal was to conserve and reopen one of the most significant walking tracks in the region in response to the expectations of the community and local tourism industry. The project has adhered to best practice conservation and management principles and set a new technical benchmark in heritage walking track restoration in Australia."