Learn as you go

A new in­dige­nous her­itage tour il­lu­mi­nates Syd­ney’s most his­toric quar­ter Bot­tle brush nec­tar (‘‘a late-night snack’’ for ring­tail pos­sums), dunked in water, makes a sug­ary ‘‘cor­dial’’

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia - JU­DITH ELEN

I AM on the south­ern fore­shore of buzzing Syd­ney har­bour, a minute from the stylish Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, with the Opera House in full view.

Sur­rounded by mod­ern totems in one of the city’s old­est colo­nial neigh­bour­hoods, I’m look­ing be­yond both. I’m learn­ing to read older signs in the har­bour­side plants and rocks.

Wil­liam Stevens is my guide. A young Abo­rig­i­nal man of the Mu­ruwari peo­ple of Light­ning Ridge in north­ern NSW, Stevens grew up in New­cas­tle, where he’s been work­ing at Blackbutt Re­serve, renowned for its in­ter­pre­tive wildlife ex­hibits.

The Rocks Dream­ing Abo­rig­i­nal Her­itage Tour, devel­oped by Dunghutti-Jer­rin­jah el­der Mar­gret Camp­bell, has been avail­able ex­clu­sively to school groups as part of the Syd­ney Har­bour Fore­shore Author­ity’s Learn­ing Ad­ven­tures pro­gram. Now it’s open to all.

The Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple com­mu­ni­cated vis­ually through a lan­guage of signs. Tra­di­tion­ally, ‘‘we don’t do writ­ten lan­guage’’, Stevens says.

Hand­prints in cave paint­ings are ‘‘sig­na­tures’’. A ‘‘lon­garm’’ hand­print was made by an el­der, some­one wise in lo­cal knowl­edge.

Atraveller pass­ing through would not know the plants, water and other things cru­cial to sur­vival in that place, and would need to seek ad­vice.

On this tour, I’m set to learn some signs. In the court­yard at Cad­man’s Cot­tage, Stevens marks my left hand (right for a man) with white ochre to keep bad spir­its away. I learn that the Har­bour Bridge stands on lay­ers of ochre rock.

Later, at nearby Ar­gyle Cut, we see the pig­ment streak­ing the rock, ready to be rubbed off, ground and mixed with water.

Be­fore we leave the small re­serve near Cad­man’s Cot­tage, I’ve learnt enough to sur­vive if I were stranded here. I could tie a branch of bracken fern (an in­tro­duced plant, but soon put to use by the lo­cal peo­ple) to the back of my neck as pro­tec­tion from heat, flies and mos­qui­toes. I could eat the fern’s rhi­zome.

Grevillea or bot­tle brush nec­tar (‘‘a late-night snack’’ for ring­tail pos­sums), dunked in water, makes a sug­ary ‘‘cor­dial’’ and other plants, such as lo­man­dra, hold valu­able water in their roots (the bases of lo­man­dra’s young, yel­low flower spikes are like shal­lots).

They also pro­vide seeds, which can be stripped, ground and mixed with water in a coola­mon, like wat­tle seed, to make damper.

Plants, grasses, leaves and flow­ers, Stevens demon­strates, have mul­ti­ple uses de­pend­ing on the sea­son or the plant’s age. Fi­brous stalks, soaked in water and hung to dry, be­come 10 times stronger and can be folded and twisted to make ropes, fish­ing nets and rods. He shows how the nat­u­ral ‘‘weave’’ of palm trees teaches us how to plait.

We ex­am­ine many such arte­facts at the Rocks Dis­cov­ery Mu­seum. There are in­tri­cately wo­ven dilli bags (lo­man­dra string), a string-bark ca­noe (soaked, hard­ened over fire and se­cured with na­tive glue), river stones hard­ened with water and ground into shapes and spears, ei­ther carved and dec­o­rated for cor­ro­borees or plain, heavy, sharp and lethal for hunt­ing.

As for na­tive an­i­mals, koalas eat very spe­cific leaves, Stevens tells me, just 30 of the 800 eu­ca­lyp­tus species. (Know what those trees are and you’re well on the way to find­ing the koalas.)

Mid­dens (the Opera House stands on one of th­ese mounds) com­mu­ni­cated what foods had re­cently been hunted or gath­ered there. Abo­rig­ines never ate the same food on suc­ces­sive days; that would even­tu­ally cause it to die out. So if kan­ga­roo had just been eaten, the ar­riv­ing peo­ple might choose oys­ters in­stead. Sus­tain­abil­ity is an­other les­son we could learn. Ju­dith Elen was a guest of the Syd­ney Har­bour Fore­shore Author­ity and The Rocks Dream­ing Abo­rig­i­nal Her­itage Tour.

left Read­ing the signs on a Rocks Dream­ing Abo­rig­i­nal Her­itage Tour

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.