Cut to the chase
A new indigenous tour explores the waterways of Sydney’s Ku-ring-gai region
“THERE, see it? Just beneath the overhanging rock.” Our indigenous guide Les McLeod, Aboriginal discovery co-ordinator at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, points towards the red and ochre sandstone rock face lining the riverbank.
We look up from our bush tucker-themed lunch, which includes kangaroo burgers and lemon myrtle chicken wraps, to gaze in the direction of his pointed arm. “You see it?” he calls out. Our eyes scan the sandstone until we can make out the markings of a fish, then another and, farther along, handprints.
We’re cruising through Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park’s waterways north of Sydney on a 50ft catamaran to see Aboriginal rock art and heritage sites, many of which are accessible only by water.
Our vessel cuts a swath like a rainbow serpent through untouched national park wilderness, the intense dark blue of the water contrasting with the green haze of eucalypts. The only sounds are the occasional calls of birds.
Our starting point, after a quick stop at West Head to see where five waterways meet, was earlier that morning at Akuna Bay where our water transport awaited. This tour, Wilderness Explorer, was introduced in December last year and covers Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, including the Hawkesbury River, Akuna Bay and Coal and Candle Creek.
The tour is novel in two ways. First, it offers an insight into an area often overlooked in favour of more highprofile waterways such as Sydney Harbour and the Parramatta River. Second, it’s led by the personable McLeod, who’s a great source of knowledge on the local indigenous history, flora and fauna, and who has stories galore.
McLeod also conducts kayaking tours of the Hawkesbury and Pittwater for the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service but his focus is his inner-city youth project that brings young indigenous people to the Ku-ring-gai area, where they are responsible for helping record and catalogue data and preserving the engraving sites. “It’s something,” he says, eyes dampening, “that gives them an immense sense of pride and self-esteem. They love it out here on the river … they learn about who they are.”
As we float silently upstream, McLeod asks for volunteers so he can demonstrate how rock art is made. He takes some dark pinkish-red bark from his pocket, puts it in his mouth and starts to chew. His mouth turns betelnut red. He beckons us to extend our hands on to pieces of paper, then he spits out the red saliva. When we remove our hands, we see a red stencil-like imprint. It’s splatter art, all done without flicking a brush.
Ku-ring-gai is Australia’s second oldest national park but if you’re not from Sydney’s northernmost suburbs chances are you’ve never been there. It has about 800 recorded sites of indigenous habitation, up to the 1960s, comprising a mix of ancient grinding grooves, rock engravings, middens and ceremonial and burial sites, some of which can be seen only from the water.
Many sites, particularly those on rocks and sandstone cliffs, have been desecrated and vandalised, says McLeod, including by a certain “Rose” in the early 20s who had a penchant for scrawling gems such as: “Rose was here, 1921”.
McLeod has a thoroughly modern take on all of this, his humour at once self-deprecating and with a dig at white culture. He recounts how his son, an art teacher, visited the Louvre in Paris and later told his father: “With all its alarms, barriers, security guards, glass shields and everything, I couldn’t see the artworks, and they’re only 400 years old. Ours are thousands of years old and they’re totally unprotected.”
Aside from the beauty and serenity of floating past such majestic landscapes, the tour is a life lesson. More than an exploration of Aboriginal culture and how it’s being preserved, Wilderness Explorer provides real food for thought.
Karen Halabi was a guest of Sydney Outback.
Indigenous guide Les McLeod shows how rock art is made