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’’
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