IN GULAGA’S SHADOW
The Tilba district is renowned for a rich cultural history, heritage dairy industry and charming villages.
AT 800M HIGH, THE GRANITE landmark commands a vast domain of undulating pastures, coastal lakes and almost deserted beaches. Known to the Yuin (pronounced ba-ju-in) people as Mother Mountain, she is a reliable harbinger of local weather – proud and def iant if the day bodes well but often dark and brooding. When her forested foothills are swathed in low cloud, she’s said to wear a cloak of possum fur.
“Gulaga is my anchor to home,” says Yuin elder Iris White, who grew up in the small, close-knit community of Wallaga Lake, which lies just to the south and is where creeks and rivers born on the Mother Mountain drain into a low-lying tidal expanse. “It was a small and discreet community, and the hills between Gulaga and Wallaga Lake became our playground. We would leave home of a morning and the rule was that we had to be home by dark. When we weren’t at school, we would spend our days swimming in the lake or at the beach. We had very full childhoods.”
Like previous generations of her people, who stretch back some 20,000 years, Iris has lived her life in the shadow of Gulaga. “We grew up knowing that we have a spiritual connection to Gulaga and that Gulaga is signif icant as Mother Mountain,” she says. “This place is not just my physical home, it’s also my spiritual home.”
This rich cultural relationship was formally recognised in May 2006, when Gulaga National Park was handed back to traditional owners. As chair of the park’s board of management, Iris now plays a vital role in its governance, which is a partnership between the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Aboriginal owners and the local Aboriginal land council.
“The thought that one day I would have the honour and responsibility of working with a whole range of people to care for this special place would never have crossed my mind as a child,” Iris says. “A lot of old people in our community led the charge to have the land handed back. It was a very emotional time, and not just for Aboriginal people. There were many non-Aboriginal people who played a part, and it was well supported by the broader community, who joined in our celebration. I think that something really important happened that day. It brought everyone together.
“But most of all, I am pleased that many of our elders got to see the mountain handed back to Aboriginal people. We were encouraged to step up and work together to look out for Gulaga in the same way that she has looked out for us. She still looks out for her children, and ensures they come home safe.”
IT’S IMPOSSIBLE to imagine what the Yuin people made of the fully rigged sailing ship that skirted the picturesque south coast on 21 April 1770. But Gulaga’s distinctive shape made an impression on the commander of the British Royal Navy vessel Endeavour, who named it Mt Dromedary, a title still commonly used today. Although he didn’t stop here on his northward passage, Lieutenant James Cook was to forever change the lives of the Yuin.
Rising from lush farmland and moist stands of messmate, mountain grey gum and yellow stringybark, Mt Gulaga is a sentinel guarding the far south coast of New South Wales.
More than half a century lapsed between that sighting and the beginnings of European settlement in the Tilba district, during the 1830s. The rich volcanic soils and good rainfall proved well suited to farming, and smallholdings were progressively taken up to produce milk and butter and to raise pigs. Access to the narrow corridor of fertile land, bound by rugged mountains to the west and a spectacular coastline to the east, was limited to rough tracks, but small vessels plying the coast provided a transport link with Sydney, some 300km to the north.
Life proceeded quietly in the farming communities that grew around dairying at Gulaga’s base (Tilba Tilba) and 2km northwards up a twisted road at Central Tilba, until alluvial gold was found on the mountain in 1852. Some 400 people were soon working its slopes and the gold rush robbed the Mother Mountain of vast swathes of vegetation. Although dairying continued, inspiring what’s thought to be the state’s first cheese cooperative – ABC Cheese Cooperative – it was the need for miners’ accommodation that saw Central Tilba sprout, mostly from locally milled eucalypts, in 1895. At its peak, the village boasted a courthouse, police station, post off ice, general store, hotel, library, school of arts, two butchers, doctor and blacksmith.
Gulaga’s challenging terrain, however, eventually frustrated the mining boom. Its heavily timbered slopes were diff icult to access, and the gold-bearing veins narrow and obstructed by large granite boulders. Working the f ields demanded capital and teamwork, not to mention ingenuity and dynamite. Lucrative returns were rare, but the veins collectively produced at least 603kg of gold. When the rush ended, many people opted for the more consistent pursuit of milk production and about 25 dairy farms were soon sprinkled throughout the district.
Retired dairy farmer and local historian Mal Dibden traces his heritage back to his grandfather’s dairy, established south of Tilba Tilba in the 1920s. “I’d been visiting here since I was born and my parents brought us here to live in the 1940s,” recalls the 87-year-old. “My uncles kept the farm going until we arrived, milking 60 cows by hand twice a day. They would then take the milk to the cheese factory by horse and cart seven days a week.
“In the 1930s, most dairy farmers went into Central Tilba every morning with their milk and would see neighbours and friends and everyone that worked in the village – the baker, the butcher and the storekeeper, as well as the staff of the post off ice and pub. They had to do everything while they were in town because it was a long trip, but this resulted in a very tight community that worked well.”
The gold rush robbed the Mother Mountain of vast swathes of vegetation.
Mal’s family – including his son Nic and daughter-in-law Erica, who run the ABC Cheese Factory in Central Tilba – are now the largest landowners in the area. “What started on a marginal farm on the mountain 70 years ago turned into eight kids raised in the scrub,” he says of his brood.
A local icon, Mal was awarded the Eurobodalla Senior Citizen of the Year award in 2015. It recognised his collaboration with the local Aboriginal community to have Gulaga designated first a f lora reserve (and included on the Register of the National Estate), and then protected by a national park. He has also served on the Wallaga Lake Management Committee and NSW Forestry Commission Flora Reserve Committee for more than 20 years, and continues to serve on the Gulaga National Park Board of Management.
He has watched dairying in the district contract in recent decades. “It has always been hard work, 365 days a year,” Mal says. “There are always supply ups and downs, and you’ve got to be some sort of a fool to do it. At one point, I was the last person dairying in the whole district. A lot of the farms were steep and surrounded by bush and kangaroos, wallabies and rabbits. The bush was always trying to get its own back. We’ve been fortunate and also determined – determined to make it through the hard times.”
Hard times certainly came to the Tilba district in the 1960s and ’70s, when many dairy farmers – still the heart and soul of the Tilba communities – were calling it quits. As a member of the Tilba Progress Association, Mal fought for Central Tilba to receive National Trust listing. The quaint collection of mainly timber cottages and buildings continued to tell the region’s rich history – from the corner store built in the 1880s to service hopeful goldminers to the original cheese factory. “I knew we had something very special,” Mal recalls. “But the town was in real danger of collapsing.”
Both villages were classif ied in 1974 and Central Tilba has since been named one of the top 20 heritage sites in Australia. Tourism and hospitality sustain the local economy these days. Former miners’ cottages have been handsomely restored to house artists, craftspeople and purveyors of gourmet delicacies. Roadside stalls sell home-grown produce, gardens are proudly tended, and visitors can buy everything from leather and lollies to silverware and soap. The permanent populations of Central Tilba (80) and Tilba Tilba ( just 30) swell on weekends and during the holiday season when people from Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne and all points in between come to admire the timeless character of the close-knit towns.
Hard times certainly came to the Tilba district in the 1960s and ’70s.
AS IT WAS more than a century ago, the ABC Cheese Factory is today a vibrant part of the district, annually producing 800,000L of Tilba Real Milk and 60 tonnes of cheese. Erica and Nic Dibden bought the factory in 2000 and their Tilba Real Dairy, one of just two dairies left in the region, supplies all its milk. The couple is determined to continue employing local staff to produce quality local products, which are sold in Canberra and throughout the NSW south coast.
“We have 22 staff, which is a lot for any business on the coast, and especially for a business in Tilba,” Erica says. “I feel like we’re heading in the right direction, and if we continue to grow it will be in a measured way because we want to remain a boutique business and help keep the district prosperous.”
Erica’s cheesemaking passion began in her home kitchen between milkings and caring for three children. A 2006 scholarship enabled her to learn from cheesemakers in Europe as well as Australia and the factory’s renaissance began. It produces a range of hand-made cheeses and yoghurts but is best known for its milk, which accounts for about 70 per cent of turnover. It’s full cream and bottled within hours of milking. “Because we own our farm and control what goes on the paddocks, we control what the cows are eating, so we have great control over the cleanliness, and ultimately the taste of our products,” Erica says.
They don’t yet consider themselves locals – “we’ve only been living in Tilba for 18 years” – but the couple can’t imagine living anywhere else. “I love that during the day Tilba is bustling with people coming to see this quaint village that looks the same as it did 100 years ago, but I also love that when the doors close at night, it becomes a community,” Erica says.
Antique dealers Peita and Greg Wall arrived from Sydney in 2002 in search of a more peaceful life in a beautiful place. They say they’ve found just that in Central Tilba. “We love the history of the place,” Peita says. “We have now met everyone or a relative of everyone who has lived in our house, including the grandson of the original owner, a goldminer. They come in fairly regularly and tell us what room they lived in.”
But the community spirit extends well past closing time of their vintage wares shop, Mockingbird Lane. “At the end of the day, we go home two doors away and chat to the neighbours along the way,” Peita says. “The community is always having fundraising concerts, trivia nights and theatre nights, and we’ve recently started staging an annual ball, like they did in the early days of the 20th century. But we have quite a few young families moving into town, too. There is a lovely little school and the kindergarten is bursting at the seams. It’s a magical area, with beautiful beaches and amazing wildlife.”
While the villages are different from those Mal Dibden remembers from his youth, he says one thing hasn’t changed. “There is still a community interest in maintaining their identity, and I think people feel pretty good about it because the place is so unique,” he says. “It’s a place that makes you love it even through the hard times, and that’s the most important thing. If you love where you live, then you can put up with tough times.”
Mt Gulaga, seen here faintly on the horizon (right), motivates traditional Yuin dancers led by Michael Carriage to retain close ties to their culture. The Tilba landscape holds many reminders of early European settlement, such as this historic cottage (lower right) framed by red cedars.
Committed to the past,
Mal Dibden straddles one of the 22 horsedrawn carts he keeps on his property that once serviced the Tilba district.
Factory manager Troy Charnock examines his latest creations at Tilba Real Dairy, which stands on the historic ABC Cheese Factory site and continues to produce specialty soft and hard cheeses.
Draped in a coat of rare albino possum fur, as a Dreamtime story recalls, the Mother Mountain – Mt Gulaga – looks east over the Tilba’s dairy farms towards her two sons, Little Dromedary (Jungagita) and Montague Island (Barunguba).