This listing breaks an invisible barrier: even the most iconic Indigenous Australian cultural sites, such as Uluru-Kata Tjuta and Kakadu National Parks, were listed for both natural and cultural values.
Could the Budj Bim listing open the door to other Australian Indigenous sites obtaining a World Heritage listing? Here are five that certainly deserve greater attention.
When considering them it’s important to understand how ancestral beings inhabit living Indigenous landscapes, which they created during the era known as the Dreaming.
Today, these beings continue to live in the land. They are seen by Indigenous people as powerful and intelligent, with the capacity to hurt those who don’t act in the right way. They can be in different places at the same time. And they see everything.
The Dampier Archipelago (including the Burrup Peninsula)
The Dampier Archipelago, 1,550 kilometres north of Perth, has one of the most spectacular rock art landscapes in Australia. The richness and diversity of this art is extraordinary, ranging from small shelters to complexes with thousands of engravings. Some images are similar to those found hundreds of kilometres away in Depuch Island, the Calvert Ranges and Port Hedland, revealing ancient social connections spanning vast distances.
The Ngarda-Ngarlie people believe this area of land was created by the ancestral beings Ngkurr, Bardi and Gardi, who left their marks in its physical features. For instance, the blood of creative beings turned into stains that are now the Marntawarrura, or “black hills”.
Baiame’s Ngunnhu (Brewarrina Fishtraps)
The Brewarrina fishtraps, located in the Darling River near Brewarrina in New South Wales, are a clear example of Indigenous science. They offer material evidence of the Ngemba people’s advanced knowledge of dry-stone wall technology, river hydrology and fish ecology.
The Ngemba people believe the ancestral being Baiame revealed the innovative design of the traps by throwing his net over the river. With the help of his two sons, Baiame built the fishtraps in the shape of this net.
Nearly half a kilometre long, the fishtraps’ design and complexity is extraordinary. Dry-stone weirs and ponds were designed to take advantage of the specific configuration of the landscape and seasonal changes in river flows. The pond gates are strategically located to trap fish as they migrate both upstream and downstream. For thousands of years, these distinctive traps have been used to catch fresh water fish.
Ngarrabullgan, a sacred and dangerous place in north Queensland, is an important example of congruence between Aboriginal traditions and archaeologically recorded changes in behaviours. Excavations show that Aboriginal people began living on Ngarrabullgan more than 37,000 years ago. They stopped camping there about 600 years ago.
There is no evidence of climate or environmental change at this time. Nor is there evidence of depopulation, which could have caused changes in site use. However, the Djungan people believe that a spiritual being called Eekoo lives on Ngarrabullgan (also known as Mt Mulligan). He can cause sickness by throwing stones, hooks or pieces of wood into a person’s body. This does not leave a mark.
Djungan people avoid going near the top of Ngarrabullgan where Eekoo lives to avoid disturbing him. They attribute any sickness when on the mountain to Eekoo.
The distinctive feature of Quinkan Country in the Cape York Peninsula in North Queensland is the richness, size and density of its Aboriginal paintings and engravings. This country is best known for its depictions of Quinkan spirit beings, tall, slender Timaras and fat-bodied Imjims (or Anurra).
The rock art of Quinkan Country provides insights into Aboriginal occupation of the north-east region of Australia. The cultural traditions, laws, and stories told there were developed over at least 37,000 years.
Western Tasmania Aboriginal Cultural Landscape
The Western Tasmania Aboriginal Cultural Landscape provides evidence of a specialised and more sedentary way of life based on seals, shellfish and land mammals. This unusual Aboriginal way of life began around 2,000 years ago. It continued until the 1830s.
Shell middens in this landscape do not contain the remains of bony fish. However, they do contain “hut depressions”. Sometimes, these are formed into the shape of villages. Circular pits in cobble beaches are near some of these depressions. It is likely that they are hides that were used when hunting seals.
These places already appear on our national heritage list. There is a plethora of other important ones, both on and off the list, including Mutawintji National Park, Gundabooka National Park and State Conservation area, and Koonalda Cave, on the Nullarbor Plain.
But Aboriginal owners and custodians must be the decision-makers when it comes to proposing a World Heritage listing. They have an inherited right to benefit from a listing – and they hold cultural responsibility for the consequences of it.
Protecting these living landscapes is their responsibility. Increased tourist activity could be a new source of income for them but it could also place cultural landscapes at risk.
This research had a simple but ambitious aim: to develop new ways to save at-risk predators such as lizards and quolls from the devastating impacts of invasive cane toads.
All across tropical Australia, the arrival of these gigantic alien toads has caused massive die-offs among meat-eating animals such as yellow-spotted monitors (large lizards in the varanid group) and quolls (meat-eating marsupials). Mistaking the new arrivals for edible frogs, animals that try to eat them are fatally poisoned by the toad’s powerful toxins.
Steep population declines in these predators ripple out through entire ecosystems.
But we can change that outcome. We expose predators to a small cane toad, big enough to make them ill but not to kill them. The predators learn fast, and ignore the larger (deadly) toads that arrive in their habitats a few weeks or months later. As a result, our trained predators survive, whereas their untrained siblings die.
So as we cruised across the floodplain on quad bikes looking for goannas, each team consisted of a scientist (university-educated, and experienced in wildlife research) and a Balanggarra Indigenous ranger.
Although our study species is huge – a male yellow-spotted monitor can grow to more than 1.7 metres in length and weigh more than 6kg – the animals are well-camouflaged and difficult to find.
Over an 18-month study, we caught and radio-tracked more than 80 monitors, taught some of them not to eat toads, and then watched with trepidation as the cane toad invasion arrived.
Excitingly, the training worked. Half of our trained lizards were still alive by the end of the study, whereas all of the untrained lizards died soon after toads arrived.
That positive result has encouraged a consortium of scientists, government authorities, conservation groups, landowners and local businesses to implement aversion training on a massive scale (see www.canetoadcoalition.com), with support from the Australian Research Council.
But there’s a twist to the tale, a vindication of our decision to make the project truly collaborative.
When we looked in detail at our data, we realised that the monitor lizards found by Indigenous rangers were different to those found by western scientists. The rangers found shyer lizards, often further away from us when sighted, motionless, and in heavy cover where they were very difficult to see.
We don’t know how much the extraordinary ability of the rangers to spot those well-concealed lizards was due to genetics or experience – but there’s no doubt they were superb at finding lizards that the scientists simply didn’t notice.
And reflecting the distinctive “personalities” of those ranger-located lizards, they were the ones that benefited the most from aversion training. Taking a cautious approach to life, a nasty illness after eating a small toad was enough to make them swear off toads thereafter.
In contrast, most of the lizards found by scientists were bold creatures. They learned quickly, but when a potential meal hopped across the floodplain a few months later, the goanna seized it before recalling its previous experience. And even holding a toad briefly in the mouth can be fatal.
As a result of the intersection between indigenous abilities and lizard personalities, the overall success of our project increased as a result of our multicultural team.
If we had just used the conventional model – university researchers doing all of the work, indigenous people asked for permission but playing only a minor role – our project could have failed, and the major conservation initiative currently underway may have died an early death.
So our study, now published in Conservation Letters, provides an unusual insight – backed up by evidence.
Moving beyond lip service, and genuinely involving Indigenous Traditional Owners in conservation research, can make all the difference in the world.
This research was published in collaboration with James “Birdy” Birch and his team of Balanggarra rangers in the eastern Kimberley.
The Murray-Darling crisis has led to drinking water shortages, drying rivers, and fish kills in the Darling, Macintyre and Murrumbidgee Rivers. This has been the catalyst for recommendations for a Royal Commission and creation of two independent scientific expert panels.
The federal Labor party has sought advice from an independent panel through the Australian Academy of Science, while the Coalition government has asked former Bureau of Meteorology chief Rob Vertessy to convene a second panel. Crucially, the first panel contains no Indigenous representatives, and there is little indication that the second panel will either.
Water for Aboriginal people is an important part of survival in the driest inhabited landscape on Earth. Protecting water is both a cultural obligation and a necessary practice in the sustainability of everyday life.
The Aboriginal peoples’ worldview sees water as inseparably connected to the land and sky, bound by traditional lore and customs in a system of sustainable management that ensures healthy water for future generations.
Without ongoing connection between these aspects, there is no culture or survival. For a people in a dry landscape, traditional knowledge of finding, re-finding and protecting water sites was integral to survival. Today this knowledge may well serve a broader vision of sustainability for all Australia.
While different Aboriginal Nations describe this in local ways and language, the underlying message is fundamentally the same: look after the water and the water will look after you.
In the current crisis in the Darling River and Menindee Lakes, the focus should be on the Barkandji people of western New South Wales. In 2015, the native title rights for 128,000 square kilometres of Barkandji land were recognised after an 18-year legal case. This legal recognition represented a significant outcome for the Barkandji People because water – and specifically the Darling River or Barka – is central to their existence.
The modern history of Aboriginal peoples’ water is a litany of “unfinished business”, in the words of a 2017 Productivity Commission report.
In 2010 the First Peoples Water Engagement Council was established to advise the National Water Commission, but was abolished prior to the National Water Commission’s legislative sunset in 2014.
The NSW Aboriginal Water Initiative, tasked with re-engaging NSW Aboriginal people in water management and planning, ran from 2012 until the Department of Industry water disbanded the unit in early 2017. In a 2018 progress report the Murray-Darling Basin Authority described NSW as “well behind” on water sharing plans.
In May 2018 the federal Labor party agreed to a federal government policy package of amendments to the Basin Plan, including a cut of 70 billion litres to the water recovery target in the northern basin, and further bipartisan agreement for better water outcomes for Indigenous people of the basin.
While the measures also included A$40 million for Aboriginal communities to invest in water entitlements, a A$20 million economic development fund to benefit Aboriginal groups most affected by the basin plan, and A$1.5 million to support Aboriginal waterway assessments, how worthwhile are they in a river with no water?
The recent crisis emphasises the perpetual sidelining of Aboriginal voices in water management in NSW and beyond. Indigenous voices need to be heard at all levels, with mechanisms that empower that involvement. Indigenous communities continue to fight for rights to water and for the protection of its spirit.
Journalist Stan Grant once compared our Indigenous cultural heritage to the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Ironically, though Grant pointed to the Lake Mungo site in the Willandra Lakes as an example, Aboriginal people are poorly represented by Australia’s World Heritage sites. Torres Strait Islanders are not represented at all.
Of 19 World Heritage sites across the country, including such wonders as the Great Barrier Reef and the Sydney Opera House, only two, Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta, recognise the values of “living” Aboriginal culture, alongside the breathtaking natural features in those areas. These are what UNESCO calls “mixed” sites, bringing nature and culture together.
Australia’s two other such sites – the Tasmanian Wilderness, and the Willandra lakes – recognise archaeological records of Aboriginal people, along with natural values, but not contemporary Indigenous rights and associations.
None of Australia’s three sites inscribed purely for cultural values recognises Aboriginal people. They are the Sydney Opera House, the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne, and a multi-component listing of convict sites across the country including Port Arthur in Tasmania.
Aboriginal people rightly remain concerned, and often angry, that they were excluded from the original nominations of all of Australia’s World Heritage sites, natural, cultural and mixed. Yet they also remain deeply sceptical about the benefits of such listing.
There has been some progress. Australia received enormous international credit for modifying, in 1994, the original Uluru-Kata Tjuta nomination to recognise living Aboriginal culture. But the real turnaround has been when Aboriginal people have directed these processes themselves.
After years of work, Gunditjmara people succeeded in having the site of Budj Bim on Aboriginal land in southwest Victoria, placed on Australia’s Tentative World Heritage List. The site includes a remarkable system of eel traps around Lake Condah. Elements of these traps date back over 6,500 years. This is the first step in the long process of gaining World Heritage recognition.
Recently the World Heritage Committee established a forum for Indigenous peoples – in the making since the early 2000s. With the issue now so firmly on the international agenda, Australia will come under intense scrutiny to lift its game regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander World Heritage. How might that be done?
Indigenous heritage now
World Heritage sites are assessed against ten criteria across natural and cultural values. Originally highly Eurocentric, these criteria have gradually widened to become more inclusive, especially of Indigenous people.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta has long been held up as the paragon of this shift. It was originally listed as World Heritage in 1987, solely for its environmental characteristics. It was relisted in 1994 to include Aboriginal values, recognising the importance of Uluru and Kata Tjuta to the Traditional Owners, the Anangu people. Today, the area is recognised for being one of the most ancient human landscapes in the world, including its spiritual dimensions.
Unlike Uluru-Kata Tjuta, and, later, Kakadu, the Tasmanian Wilderness and Willandra are recognised for their archaeological and rock-art sites, rather than for their living heritage. Willandra, for instance, celebrates archaeological evidence that demonstrates an Aboriginal presence more than 40,000 years ago, in what was then a lush environment quite unlike the present semi-arid conditions.
Such archaeological and rock-art sites are unquestionably important for the extraordinary history they contain, and Aboriginal people have a particular attachment to them as evidence of their ancient and continuing connection with their land. They are actively involved in management of these places for that very reason.
Yet the cultural value of these sites remains defined by non-Aboriginal archaeologists, rather than Aboriginal belief systems or political aspirations.
The Tasmanian Wilderness is recognised for being one of the last expanses of temperate rainforest in the world. It also includes evidence in limestone caves of Aboriginal occupation up to 35,000 years ago. Yet the listing fails to identify or formally recognise the relationship between that area – particularly the hand-stencil, rock-art sites – and Tasmanian Aboriginal people today.
We are investigating what World Heritage might better deliver to Indigenous people. One of our major cases is the popular tourist destination of K’Gari (Fraser Island), given a World Heritage listing for its natural heritage in 1992. Some members of the local Butchulla community want Aboriginal heritage included in the listing.
Many archaeological and Butchulla story sites at K’gari are unquestionably unique to the Butchulla people and have great significance for the community today. Takky Wooroo (Indian Head), the rocky headland that anchors the vast sand island in place, is one well-known example.
However the Butchulla face hurdles in having this heritage recognised. The first is proving that their heritage is “better” than examples of Aboriginal heritage elsewhere. The second is demonstrating a continuous connection to it.
Both of these criteria are central to the World Heritage process, but are legacies of an outdated approach to Aboriginal culture. The process lumps diverse Aboriginal people into one group, when we know that Australia was home to hundreds of different peoples.
While the connection of the Butchulla to their heritage has already been recognised under Native Title, we would never assume that European cultures must remain unchanged since 1700 to be recognised as heritage.
How to do better
Our research is consistently finding that Aboriginal people are deeply sceptical about the benefits of World Heritage listing, despite efforts by State and Commonwealth governments to ensure Aboriginal input.
One concern is that World Heritage is seen as universal, something for all people. But some Aboriginal people see this as diminishing their very particular attachment to places, such as the remains of Mungo Man at the Willandra Lakes, an ancestor of deep personal and community significance.
What can we do better? It is simple. All future heritage sites should canvass Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement early in the nomination process, even those where there is no obvious Aboriginal link to the site. This process is already retrospectively underway for Australia’s natural sites
and in 2012, it meant the Indigenous heritage values of Queensland’s Wet Tropics were recognised at a national level, which is vital to having them recognised internationally.
We should also support Indigenous people to make their own nominations. This is what’s happening at Budj Bim. While non-Indigenous archaeologists are helping with the nomination, it is being driven by local Aboriginal people. They have linked the archaeological value to both ancestral stories, and to the Gunditjmara’s continuing efforts to maintain and protect their heritage today.
There are a great range of other amazing sites that we know are “out there”. Take the famed “Dreaming tracks” and “songlines” that criss-cross the continent, for instance. Tracing the travels of ancestral beings, they encode the locations of living places and sacred spaces, mapping the disposition of resources across the landscape and through seasonal cycles.
They encompass some of the nation’s most dramatic natural features as well as camping places, sources of water, food and other resources, art sites and Indigenous sacred places, thus combining natural and cultural, tangible and intangible, and ancestral as well as living heritage.
With suitable protection of secret-sacred information, as well as the routes themselves and the specific sites they incorporate, Aboriginal songlines and the routes of ancestor-heroes in Torres Strait could be a future World Heritage nomination. A number are already on various state government heritage lists.
Similar nominations are appearing in other parts of the world, such as the recently-listed mixed site of Pimachiowin Aki, co-developed by the Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) peoples “in the heart of Canada’s boreal forest” – not least because of precedents set by Australia over the years.
This essay is republished with permission from First Things First, the 60th edition of Griffith Review.
Five years ago, I was invited to participate in a global project on climate change. The aim was to engage 15-year-old students with the challenges posed by climate change and the increase of extreme weather events. The students would be asked to respond to the challenge through creativity, initially through an introduction to the science underpinning climate change. In the following 18 months, I visited schools in Ireland, England, Germany and Poland, and also worked with a group of students at Footscray City College in Melbourne. The project would culminate in an environmental youth summit at the International Literature Festival Berlin.
I consider myself an innovative and engaging teacher, and looked forward to the project. It took me only the one class to realise the challenge would be a difficult one. What I discovered in speaking to students was that while they were in no way “anti-science”, headline-grabbing climate change scepticism had impacted on their faith in their own ability to understand science, highlighting what I’ve always believed to be the motivation of sceptics: the undermining of our own confidence to think and grasp ideas.
It also took me little time to realise that, in general, the students felt badly let down by some adults: politicians, sections of the media and, to an extent, their own parents, who they felt had neglected an issue that would soon impact negatively on their adult lives. There were moments when I felt that the project was about to fail, until I was walking along the banks of the Maribyrnong River in Melbourne’s western suburbs and came up with an idea. I began that morning’s class with a simple prompt: “Tell me about your river.”
During the following months of travel across Australia and Europe, I learnt about a girl’s love for a pony paddock at the end of a street on a so-called “depressed” public housing estate on the outskirts of Dublin, a community hammered by the global financial crisis of the early 2000s. Teenagers living in the town of Hel, a decommissioned Cold War military base on the edge of the Baltic Sea, wrote and spoke of their anger about the deaths of seals along the beachfront near their homes due to contaminated sea water. And in London, I met kids from across the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe who took photographs of the sky above street corners and demanded it be freed from poisons.
We also discussed the relationship between climate change and the havoc created by “natural” disasters, including hurricanes, floods and ferocious bushfires such as the Black Saturday fires that devastated my home state of Victoria in 2009 and killed 173 people. I talked about country in the sense that Indigenous communities in Australia understand and experience it. We talked about a future, shared or not shared – the latter of which leads to our further disconnection from each other and place. Finally, I asked each student a question: “What are we seeking when we speak of climate justice?” The universal response was not restricted to justice for humans alone. My students had come to believe that if we fail to care for country, it cannot care for us.
At the conclusion of the project, a group of young global citizens, many of them labelled “disadvantaged”, many of them previously silent or ignored, shared a common belief, one as simple and yet complex as the difficulties we face in dealing with one of the great challenges of our time. The students agreed that we must listen to those who have lived with country for thousands of years without killing it, and in order to live with a healthy planet we need to tell stories of our experience with it, and our love for it. Stories that speak of a love of place encourage us to act ethically towards it. We must share our stories, and we must grant equal voice to the stories of others.
I turned 13 in 1970. My large family was living in a crumbling terrace in a lost triangle of Collingwood, an inner suburb of Melbourne. We were hemmed in by the Collingwood Football Ground, a railway line and goods yards, and a row of derelict 19th-century textile mills. Behind the vacant factories lay a place of hidden treasures: the Birrarung (Yarra River), Dights Falls and another site of dereliction, the Deep Rock Basin, a swimming club built on a bank of the river 60 years earlier, which had become a ruin. This section of the river would occupy my teenage years, and would provide the source of my 2015 novel, Ghost River.
A dominant theme of both the novel and my teenage memory of that time is the terrible level of neglect and vandalism the river suffered. For more than a hundred years, the Birrarung had been treated as little more than an open sewer for the noxious industries built along its western bank. The river was also the dumping ground for the unwanted: stolen cars, animal carcasses, and those who occasionally suicided by jumping from one of the many bridges spanning the river, their suit pockets weighed down with stones. As Melbourne competed with Sydney for the title of “gangland capital of Australia” throughout the 20th century, the river was sometimes the last resting place of members of Melbourne’s criminal underground.
In 1971, the Victorian state government came up with the idea to build a new freeway, beginning outside my front gate, stretching into the leafy eastern suburbs. It was a plan that would destroy country. The freeway, planned to abut my river, would consist of five lanes in each direction, a utopian solution that would put an end to one of Melbourne’s most congested traffic locations. Or so claimed the glossy brochures dropped in the letterboxes of homes that would be demolished to turn a dream into reality. It would be only a short time after the opening of the Eastern Freeway that the state’s most recent super artery, opened to allow the city to breathe, would clog the city’s veins yet again. Over the following 40 years, many more freeways and extensions have been built, crisscrossing and extending the infamous Melbourne sprawl – a city that has undergone more than one quadruple bypass which is yet to save the patient.
The building of the Eastern Freeway required the obliteration of a vital section of the river at its confluence with the Merri Creek, a once majestic waterway winding its way into the north across Wurundjeri land. The Merri, as equally neglected as the Birrarung, faces a daily battle against urbanisation in the form of household rubbish, chemical waste and weed infestation. If our river and creek valleys are “the lungs of the city”, historically we have forced them to breathe toxins.
To visit the confluence today is to engage in a fiction. An interpretive sign where the two waterways meet instructs visitors that it was this very site where the first “Aboriginal school” was erected to educate local Indigenous children who had become the subjects of the colonial project. It may seem a harmless story to tell. And yet it reflects the omissions of both narrative and landscape histories underpinning the colonisation. Firstly, as with many ventures that set out to “civilise the native”, the Merri Creek school was a failure. Attendance was fleeting, if it happened at all, and Aboriginal communities of the area and its surrounds quickly lost faith in the empty promises of colonial authorities that their customary way of life would be retained and protected.
The “site” of the school’s location is not the site of the school at all. It cannot be so, as when the freeway was being built a section of the river was destroyed by bulldozers and explosives. (The regular blasts would rattle my nearby bedroom window.) The original meeting of river and creek was around a hundred metres north, and the location that people visit today is an ornamental construction with an ecological and human history less than 50 years old.
Such fibbing may not seem major when measured against the “big lies” of colonial history, such as the widespread murder of Indigenous people across Australia and the ecological destruction of country. After all, what is a mere hundred metres of lost or fictionalised country? Well, it’s everything. It’s the basis of another form of denialism within Australia and Western colonial societies across the globe: the denial of colonial violence, of attempted dispossession; the disregard shown for the rights and autonomy of country; and, of course, the denial of climate change and the urgent need to work for climate justice. When we tell stories of place, fiction can play a key role. But we must identify it as such, rather than use it as a convenient mask.
When I was around 14, a friend and I stole a bicycle from the Victoria Park Railway Station. We spent the next hour or so rattling around the cobblestoned back streets of Collingwood, me being dinked on the handlebars. We eventually became bored. (I also had a sore arse.) We bought a meat pie each for lunch, rode the bike down to the river and sat above Dights Falls eating the pies and smoking cigarettes. It was then that my friend told me he’d once walked upriver for a day with one of his uncles, who made his living from breeding ferrets and catching rabbits.
During the walk, they visited water holes and ponds, none of which ran into the river itself or appeared on any map. He also told me there were eucalypt trees in the water holes that “old blackfellas” had used to make bark canoes – scar trees. Without another word between us we hopped on the bike, my friend pedalling furiously along a narrow track. We rode for miles in the rain, past a massive paper mill spewing smoke from chimneys, past the towers of a 19th-century “lunatic” asylum, occasionally getting bogged in near-swamp conditions. I would have to jump off the handlebars and walk on until we came to firmer ground.
Just as I was losing faith in the truth of my friend’s story, he turned off the track. We parked the bike against a tree and I followed my friend through the thickest stand of trees that a boy who had rarely travelled two miles out of the centre of the city had seen. I trailed him through the bush, my thin running shoes buried in mud. The trees above us thickened and it became dark. I could hear the call of many birds, a foreign but comforting sound. Further on, the landscape gradually thinned and I could see the sky above me. The trail ended suddenly and I was surprised to find myself standing before a still stretch of water, stained with what I now know to be the tannins of bark and fallen eucalypt leaves.
We sat on the bank and smoked more cigarettes. Except for the birdsong there was no sound in the air, a sensation I had never experienced before. I watched a water bird gracefully glide across the surface of the water, also without making a sound. When I think back to that first visit to the billabong what I remember most clearly was that, although I had no words for how I felt, no poetry with which to express myself, it was the first time in the life of an Aboriginal “slum kid” that country had spoken to me. Although I wasn’t looking forward to the long and bumpy ride home in the rain, it was not the reason for me wanting to stay by the water. Without understanding why, I had never felt so at ease with myself.
That night, we arrived at my back gate after dark. I knew I would be in trouble from my dad, but I didn’t care. Before leaving him, I wanted to say something about the day’s adventure to my friend. I do remember that I thanked him for showing me his secret place, but also knew it wasn’t enough. Lying in bed that night and thinking about the billabong, I realised that I wanted to say to my friend that it was a beautiful place, but couldn’t do it. Which one of us would have been more embarrassed by the word, I couldn’t say. After all, at the time, we thought of ourselves the budding kings of a concrete jungle, and taking aside the romance of a life of thuggery, we lived in a world where violence was rarely threatened but often practiced. If I forgot about the billabong for a time, I now believe that amnesia came from having been denied the language to speak of it, to know it.
Return to the billabong
I live in Carlton, about a hundred metres away from the house I was born into 60 years ago. People who know me well also know that distance-running has guided my life for almost 40 years now. It saved me from alcoholism at a young age, swore me away from cigarettes and provided my mind with the clean slate I needed to discover a love of writing. I have run by many rivers in Australia; in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and, of course, my home town of Narrm (Melbourne). I have also run in cities around the world, including Wellington, Tokyo, Berlin, London, San Francisco, Gdańsk and Banff. Most lifelong runners have a favourite run, a special route, where they feel “at home” with themselves. I have such a run, one that returns me to the billabong.
I prepare for my run with a public transport “swipe card” in the pocket of my running shorts and some coins for the telephone in case I do myself an injury, break down and need to call my wife. (This has never happened, but I have learnt in life to prepare for all manner of potential disasters. And no, I have never had a mobile phone, which means I do not fully adhere to the notion of preparing for all disasters.) I leave home and catch the nearby train, get out at Heidelberg Station and begin the 12-kilometre run home, most of the distance being along a trail skirting the Birrarung.
Most runners are also pedants, each possessing a minimum of at least one inexplicable idiosyncrasy. I have several, one of which used to be the cardinal rule, never stop: not for an injury, a pedestrian, road train or traffic light. In older age, I have gradually weaned myself off this suicidal commandment. The need to stop can actually beat chronic injury or death, I have decided. I didn’t realise until I began my first river run from Heidelberg several years ago that I would be more than happy to stop during a run and contemplatively be with country. It was on that first run that I became eerily familiar with surroundings that I thought I had not visited before. It was on that first run that as I was jogging by a stand of mighty eucalypts that I realised I had returned to the billabong.
It sits around the halfway point of my run, and is now surrounded by the imposition of “civilisation”, non-existent when I first visited the water. I approach the billabong from a hilltop. If it is a sunny morning, its surface reflection will wink at me. If the wind is blowing from the south, I will pick up the scent of silted tea-stained water. The Eastern Freeway runs along the southern fringe of the billabong, and the flow of traffic is so constant that sitting by the water and listening, it is difficult to discern the sounds of an individual car or truck engine. The guttural hum is singular and unbroken. Remarkably, the bird call remains clear. I’m not sure if it has something to do with a variance in pitch, but the birds seem to have little trouble singing above the traffic.
It is not possible to know where I sat on the afternoon I first visited the billabong over 45 years ago. Memory is always suspect, and the landscape surrounding the billabong has changed dramatically over the years. The long section of riverbank running parallel to the freeway has been “beautified”, and the lush and private golf courses each side of the billabong compete with it for water. Most days when I visit, I sit and watch the passing joggers, dog walkers, cyclists and kite-flyers. I’m happy they enjoy the river, and I hope they also care for it. But occasionally I wish I could have it to myself. I wish I could enjoy the billabong in the way I did the day of our bike ride, knowing and not knowing how fortunate I was.
Selfishness is no virtue. What I wish for the billabong most of all, and my relationship to it, is that it continues to survive all it has been confronted by. Before the outsiders arrived in Wurundjeri country the billabong enjoyed a vital ecological connection with other waterways on country. Many of them have since been suffocated by occupation and development. The vast network of wetlands surrounding the Birrarung, from its birth in the mountains to its mouth at what we now call Port Phillip Bay, previously acted as both a repository of life and a sponge, absorbing and distributing water across large tracts of land. These days the river is governed, held in place, against its will. The same could be said for the billabong. And yet, its beauty and tenacity remain a force.
Love for places
I have recently worked with a group of Aboriginal Elders at a community centre in the far western suburbs of my city. Most of these wonderful people do not live on their own country. Some of them, members of the stolen generations, have never lived on country. Their place is the community centre where they meet four days a week to make art, to cook and tell each other stories – and, not surprisingly, many of those stories are stories of loss.
They, like the students I taught with five years ago, know little about the hard science of climate change. But they are people who take the care of others, the right to justice for others, very seriously. They are a humble group. If they feel bitter about the injustices that they have been subject to throughout their lives; they choose not to speak about it, to me at least, and they never write about it.
What they do is write and paint stories of the love of the places they live in, outer suburban streets, lounge rooms and backyards. They also write about a profound attachment to, and love for places they have never seen, not in this life, as one of the Elders explained to me. They make stories of the places, the country they were stolen from. In a material sense, the group is as marginalised as it gets. To an outsider they may appear powerless, perhaps inarticulate. They are neither. They have a story to tell, a story that they happily share. To love country and to be loved by it is the basis of their survival, and ours.
On Wangkumarra land, in the corner-country near the borders of Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, stands an ancient stone arrangement. It has been placed to the side of a huge complex, rivalling Stonehenge, featuring megaliths polished, carved and placed to balance precariously on each other.
They should fall, but they don’t, as this is a place where time runs differently. In contrast to the Western “arrow of time”, the small rock formation pictured shows the non-linear, infinitely interconnected cycle of time followed by the First People who built the site and used it over millennia. It is a stone calendar, aligned within a fraction of a millimetre to the points of the compass.
The key to understanding this temporal reality is the shape of the stone calendar. It is round, not a continuum. There is no beginning or end, and as such, there is no “New Year”. Seasons do not serve as a basis for linear metaphors of new life in spring to death in winter.
Instead, both seasons and humans are viewed as components of cycles. Around Australia, Indigenous languages vary in both the number of season words in their lexicon and their precise meaning. This is at least partly due to the very different kinds of weather experienced around the year in different parts of the country.
A tour of the seasons
In the Tiwi islands just to the north of Darwin there are three major seasons named in the Tiwi language: Kumunupunari (the dry season of fire and smoke); Tiyari (the season of hot, humid weather); and Jamutakari (the wet season of daily rain and full rivers). These three seasons subsume 13 overlapping, more precisely defined seasons.
For example, in the Mumpikari season (which overlaps with the start of the Jamutakari “wet season”) the first rains after the dry time make the ground soft and muddy enough to retain the footprints left by possums returning to their trees, which makes the possums easier to track when hunting.
Understanding the meaning of a word like Mumpikari “season of muddy possum tracks” entails knowledge of the type of weather experienced at that time (first rains following a long dry spell), consequent changes in the local ecology (muddy ground), as well as changes in human behaviour and potential sources of food (it’s a good time to hunt and eat possums).
The changes in weather, ecology and potential food sources over the course of the year are dramatic, but vary significantly across a continent as large as Australia. The season experienced in tropical Cape York in January is very different to January in Tasmania. Likewise, the middle of the year brings radically different weather patterns to the tropical north, temperate south and central desert regions respectively.
The definitions of seasonal terms tell us a lot about the ecology that a language is spoken within and how speakers interact with it. In the Warlpiri language of the Tanami Desert, for example, several seasonal terms (such as karapurda) make reference to the prominent westerly winds that blow at the onset of the hot season.
Common food sources also feature prominently in the definitions of season terms, such as mangkajingi, “season of year when goannas are easily found in shallow burrows”. In the Bardi language of the Dampier Peninsula (WA), the build up to the wet season is named Lalin and colloquially referred to as “married turtle season”, because the mating turtles are a prized food source at this time.
In Gulumoerrgin (Larrakia) language group, spoken around Darwin, the year is divided into seven named seasons. Each of these seasons is associated with distinctive patterns of weather, but also changes in flora, fauna, and human activity. The Gurrulwa season, or “big wind time”, is heralded by the flowering of wattles, which in turn indicates that the local stingrays are plentiful and good to eat. The flowering of the Yellow Kapok at this time in turn indicates that it is the time for important traditional ceremonies to be held.
These connections between species are often cemented in language by using a single word. In the Dalabon language of Arnhem land, the word yawok has two meanings: (1) a species of yam (Dioscorea bulbifera); and (2) a species of grasshopper (Caedicia spp.). To the untrained observer, the yam and grasshopper might appear to have little in common.
But for Dalabon speakers, this naming practice is a useful mnemonic that helps them remember that the yam is ripe for harvest precisely at that time of year when the grasshopper’s mating call can be heard. Similar principles have been found to underpin the naming of plant and animal species in languages such as Bininj Gun-Wok and Ndjébbana.
The words of any language tell us a lot about the history of its speakers; who they’ve been in contact with, where and how they have lived. This is certainly true of the English calendar months. It is also seen in the number and nature of the seasons named by different Indigenous communities, from the tropical north of Australia to the chillier climates down south.
With around 370 languages and many hundreds more dialects originally spoken in Australia, it is impossible to do justice to the wealth and variety of traditional systems of tracking time and seasons. But a recurrent theme is the interconnectedness of human activities and the cycle of changes in flora and fauna that attend the tilting of the earth’s axis.