DESTINATION AUSTRALIA Harbour views
Barry Oliver gets an insight into pre-colonial Sydney on an Aboriginal-operated cruise on the city’s famous waters
HERE are several false alarms as I wait for the Tribal Warrior’s approach at Sydney’s Circular Quay, but when it does arrive there’s no mistaking this former pearling lugger. The giveaway is the Aboriginal flag proudly flapping at the front of the boat. I’ve seen other pictures with the flag almost half the length of the boat. On special occasions the jib sail carries the words: It’s a Koori harbour.’’
She’s old but she’s solid,’’ says captain Dallas Clayton, giving the woodwork of the 1899-built lugger a friendly tap. The crew — there are deckhands plus trainees — scurry around securing the boat. Their eagerness earns a word of praise from Clayton, who stands out as the man in charge with his white shirt, gold epaulets, ponytail and snazzy sunglasses.
With a touch of drama — it’s Saturday lunchtime and the water is alive with boats of all shapes and sizes — we head out on our harbour cruise with a difference, a 13/ hour jaunt to Clark Island during which we’ll get a rundown on Sydney’s famous harbour from an Aboriginal perspective.
At least there are no sails to raise : since the route stays within the harbour we are relying on engines. Tribal Warrior is very different to your average cruise ship: it takes just 20 passengers and, to leave you in no doubt this is an Aboriginal vessel, there are carvings in the wood of turtles, fish, snakes, boomerangs plus tribal names and places. These were made by elders during the boat’s historic circumnavigation of our island continent from August 2001 to June 2003, when it visited all main Aboriginal communities on the Australian coast.
Our first stop is Farm Cove, where Clayton suggests a photo opportunity. The tourists on board line up their cameras with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge in the background.
Clayton says the land where Joern Utzon’s creation sits was known as Jubgalle, meaning white mud or clay. There was once a large midden here and he says that for Aborigines the Opera House roof represents cockle shells rather than sails.
I half-expect a lecture on the evils of occupation by early settlers but Clayton doesn’t show the slightest sign of bitterness. The details are given in a matter-of-fact, if resigned, way, with a laugh never far off. The only time there’s a hint of anger is when he talks about the Australian Census, which didn’t include Aborigines until 1963: Before that we were classed as flora and fauna.’’
We are shown Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, the rock ledge where governor Lachlan Macquarie’s wife, Elizabeth, would sit enjoying the panoramic views of the harbour.
She was compassionate to our people,’’ the skipper says. Her husband doesn’t earn the same praise.
Our people’’ and our brothers and sisters’’ are phrases that crop up regularly during the cruise.
Woolloomooloo was known as Waalamool— place of plenty or little black kangaroo — but Clayton’s more excited about that silly Russell Crowe fella’’ who paid $14 million for a penthouse here.
Yachts and water taxis race by as our captain points out Fort Denison, where the Eora people once traded fish and yarns’’. But our target is Clark Island, traditionally an important source of fish for Aborigines and a popular meeting place. It got its name from Ralph Clark of the First Fleet who tried to grow vegetables here, but gave up after they were continually stolen.
Clayton instructs his crew on the perils of the wash from passing boats before leading us on a quick circuit of the 1ha island. We are shown the black wattle, known as the soap bush, whose leaves lather up like soap, and the banksia, apparently good for making killing sticks’’. There are other more complicated stories — I just thought I’d throw that in’’ — and even the surprising news that boomerangs were never intended to come back.
We can see Shark Island, which Clayton says was men-only. It’s now being used by Aborigines after a break of 150 years. Then the conversation darts back to the mainland and Point Piper —‘‘it’s like (the television series) KnotsLanding and James Packer and Nicole Kidman. Hope I’m not boring you,’’ says Clayton, perhaps sensing we are struggling to take in all these unrelated, if fascinating, facts.
Never mind, it’s time for Les Daniels to have a crack’’. Daniels, a north Queenslander in jeans, checked shirt, joggers, kangaroo-skin headband and a splash of face paint, says Les is his English name’’. I don’t catch his Aboriginal title but I do discover he’s a dab hand at playing the didgeridoo, as he demonstrates how different sounds are made. Sadly, there’s no time for a full-blown performance, which would have been memorable on this tiny island.
Quietly spoken Daniels tells us songs are vital to Aboriginal communities: If you don’t know the songs, you don’t know the country.’’ Songs, he says, are like road maps, revealing where the best food is, where to hunt, what to look for, which plants can heal. They are a big part of the education system.’’
Buzzing helicopters interrupt the talk but Daniels ploughs on regardless and moves on to the topic of witchetty grubs: he says a prime specimen is the equivalent of five square meals. We squirm collectively and suspect he’s about to produce one to sample but, thankfully, it’s not on today’s menu.
A passing reference to the concrete jungle’’ behind him gives a clue to how he views the city, but it’s his only negative comment, even when talking about how his ancestors were forced by missionaries to change the way they lived. This part of the cruise can also include dances or boomerang throwing.
Back on the Tribal Warrior, Clayton, who worked his way up from deckhand, tells us he is the 37th person to qualify as skipper. The boat, which can sleep six, is also used as a training vessel for Aboriginal youth by the Tribal Warrior Association, an Aboriginal owned and operated charity.
At Circular Quay, Clayton turns spruiker. Tell your mob about us,’’ he shouts from the bobbing boat. I think the mob would be impressed. Barry Oliver was a guest of the Tribal Warrior Association.
Tribal Warrior’s Aboriginal cultural cruises depart Circular Quay’s eastern pontoon from Tuesday to Saturday; $55 adults, $45 children. More: (02) 9699 3491; www.tribalwarrior.org.
History afloat: Tribal Warrior, owned and operated by an indigenous charity, offers Aboriginal cultural tours on Sydney Harbour
Les Daniels gives an impromptu didgeridoo performance
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