Cut to the chase

A new in­dige­nous tour ex­plores the wa­ter­ways of Syd­ney’s Ku-ring-gai re­gion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - KAREN HAL­ABI

“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

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