Barry Oliver gets an in­sight into pre-colo­nial Syd­ney on an Abo­rig­i­nal-op­er­ated cruise on the city’s fa­mous wa­ters

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News -

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.trib­al­war­


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

Pic­tures: Linda Bergmann

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