The Tilba district is renowned for a rich cul­tural his­tory, her­itage dairy in­dus­try and charm­ing vil­lages.

Australian Geographic - - Snapshot - STORY AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY JUSTIN GIL­LI­GAN

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).

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