Volcanic Islands

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Author: Charles Darwin

Valleys in the Sandstone Platforms.

The grand valleys, by which the Blue Mountains and the other sandstone platforms of this part of Australia are penetrated, and which long offered an insuperable obstacle to the attempts of the most enterprising colonist to reach the interior country, form the most striking feature in the geology of New South Wales. They are of grand dimensions, and are bordered by continuous links of lofty cliffs. It is not easy to conceive a more magnificent spectacle, than is presented to a person walking on the summitplains, when without any notice he arrives at the brink of one of these cliffs, which are so perpendicular, that he can strike with a stone (as I have tried) the trees growing, at the depth of between one thousand and one thousand five hundred feet below him; on both hands he sees headland beyond headland of the receding line of cliff, and on the opposite side of the valley, often at the distance of several miles, he beholds another line rising up to the same height with that on which he stands, and formed of the same horizontal strata of pale sandstone. The bottoms of these valleys are moderately level, and the fall of the rivers flowing in them, according to Sir T. Mitchell, is gentle. The main valleys often send into the platform great baylike arms, which expand at their upper ends; and on the other hand, the platform often sends promontories into the valley, and even leaves in them great, almost insulated, masses. So continuous are the bounding lines of cliff, that to descend into some of these valleys, it is necessary to go round twenty miles; and into others, the surveyors have only lately penetrated, and the colonists have not yet been able to drive in their cattle. But the most remarkable point of structure in these valleys, is, that although several miles wide in their upper parts, they generally contract towards their mouths to such a degree as to become impassable. The Surveyor-General, Sir T. Mitchell, in vain endeavoured, first on foot and then by crawling between the great fallen fragments of sandstone, to ascend through the gorge by which the river Grose joins the Nepean ("Travels in Australia" volume 1 page 154.—I must express my obligation to Sir T. Mitchell for several interesting personal communications on the subject of these great valleys of New South Wales.); yet the valley of the Grose in its upper part, as I saw, forms a magnificent basin some miles in width, and is on all sides surrounded by cliffs, the summits of which are believed to be nowhere less than 3,000 feet above the level of the sea. When cattle are driven into the valley of the Wolgan by a path (which I descended) partly cut by the colonists, they cannot escape; for this valley is in every other part surrounded by perpendicular cliffs, and eight miles lower down, it contracts, from an average width of half a mile, to a mere chasm impassable to man or beast. Sir T. Mitchell states, that the great valley of the Cox river with all its branches contracts, where it unites with the Nepean, into a gorge 2,200 yards wide, and about one thousand feet in depth. (Idem volume 2 page 358.) Other similar cases might have been added.

The first impression, from seeing the correspondence of the horizontal strata, on each side of these valleys and great amphitheatre-like depressions, is that they have been in chief part hollowed out, like other valleys, by aqueous erosion; but when one reflects on the enormous amount of stone, which on this view must have been removed, in most of the above cases through mere gorges or chasms, one is led to ask whether these spaces may not have subsided. But considering the form of the irregularly branching valleys, and of the narrow promontories, projecting into them from the platforms, we are compelled to abandon this notion. To attribute these hollows to alluvial action, would be preposterous; nor does the drainage from the summit-level always fall, as I remarked near the Weatherboard, into the head of these valleys, but into one side of their bay-like recesses. Some of the inhabitants remarked to me, that they never viewed one of these baylike recesses, with the headlands receding on both hands, without being struck with their resemblance to a bold sea-coast. This is certainly the case; moreover, the numerous fine harbours, with their widely branching arms, on the present coast of New South Wales, which are generally connected with the sea by a narrow mouth, from one mile to a quarter of a mile in width, passing through the sandstone coast-cliffs, present a likeness, though on a miniature scale, to the great valleys of the interior. But then immediately occurs the startling difficulty, why has the sea worn out these great, though circumscribed, depressions on a wide platform, and left mere gorges, through which the whole vast amount of triturated matter must have been carried away? The only light I can throw on this enigma, is by showing that banks appear to be forming in some seas of the most irregular forms, and that the sides of such banks are so steep (as before stated) that a comparatively small amount of subsequent erosion would form them into cliffs: that the waves have power to form high and precipitous cliffs, even in landlocked harbours, I have observed in many parts of South America. In the Red Sea, banks with an extremely irregular outline and composed of sediment, are penetrated by the most singularly shaped creeks with narrow mouths: this is likewise the case, though on a larger scale, with the Bahama Banks. Such banks, I have been led to suppose, have been formed by currents heaping sediment on an irregular bottom. (See the "Appendix" to the Part on Coral-Reefs. The fact of the sea heaping up mud round a submarine nucleus, is worthy of the notice of geologists: for outlyers of the same composition with the coast banks are thus formed; and these, if upheaved and worn into cliffs, would naturally be thought to have been once connected together.) That in some cases, the sea, instead of spreading out sediment in a uniform sheet, heaps it round submarine rocks and islands, it is hardly possible to doubt, after having examined the charts of the West Indies. To apply these ideas to the sandstone platforms of New South Wales, I imagine that the strata might have been heaped on an irregular bottom by the action of strong currents, and of the undulations of an open sea; and that the valley-like spaces thus left unfilled might, during a slow elevation of the land, have had their steeply sloping flanks worn into cliffs; the worn-down sandstone being removed, either at the time when the narrow gorges were cut by the retreating sea, or subsequently by alluvial action.

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Chicago: Charles Darwin, "Valleys in the Sandstone Platforms.," Volcanic Islands, ed. Bryant Conant, James and trans. Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866 in Volcanic Islands Original Sources, accessed October 3, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8FYKVN2DELM2BH.

MLA: Darwin, Charles. "Valleys in the Sandstone Platforms." Volcanic Islands, edited by Bryant Conant, James, and translated by Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866, in Volcanic Islands, Original Sources. 3 Oct. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8FYKVN2DELM2BH.

Harvard: Darwin, C, 'Valleys in the Sandstone Platforms.' in Volcanic Islands, ed. and trans. . cited in , Volcanic Islands. Original Sources, retrieved 3 October 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8FYKVN2DELM2BH.