i had just completed a gruelling run over a rocky, ragged bush trail in the ferocious australian sun at mulligans flat, a vast nature preserve on the northern outskirts of canberra. i was spent. gasping for breath (i gasp easily) and drenched in sweat, i found a shady spot to recover, when i was approached by a young woman.
“are you here for the aboriginal tour?” she asked politely. My first thought was, do i look like a tourist? but instead i asked what the tour was about. and as quick as that, i was off on a journey into the deep history of australia’s (presumably) first peoples, the continent’s traditional custodians.
mulligans flat has become one of our go-to destinations as we settle in to the ACT (the australian capital territory, which encompasses canberra). it’s ideal for pernille’s bird-watching exploits because of its woodlands and wetlands, which count among its inhabitants all manner of avian species, from the rare australian spotted crake to the more common eurasian coots and cuckoos. (mostly old coots and cuckoos, it seems)
the flat, which is not flat at all, also offers a challenging jog along craggy paths that by one reckoning date back to the early 19th century, when the irish ex-convict edward mulligan received a land grant in the area after serving his sentence. or maybe it was another mulligan, cornelius. it’s disputed. research, as they say, is “ongoing”.*
what’s not in dispute is that the true pioneers of mulligans flat were probably the ngunnawal (pron: NUN-a-wall) people, who inhabited the land thousands of years before mulligan or any other europeans set foot on the australian continent. the ngunnawal were hunter-gatherers who settled in this area around the end of the last great ice age, perhaps 12,000 years ago. other tribes are believed to have roamed the continent as long as 65,000 years ago.
now, full disclosure. i didn’t know any of this until about 15 minutes ago. i was just out for a sunday morning run and, and… well, things happen.
the tour i have been enticed to join has been organized in conjunction with the annual celebration of NAIDOC week, which was postponed this year from its usual time in july to give us time to arrive in australia for the observance. (ok, it was because of COVID, but sometimes things just….happen). call it serendipity.
NAIDOC originally stood for ‘national aborigines and islanders day observance committee’, which was once responsible for organizing national activities to recognize the culture and traditions of the continent’s first residents. over time, the acronym stuck, becoming a recognized word in the aussie language, even though the term “aborigine” is now almost a pejorative, and the “day” has evolved into an eight-day week (sunday to sunday).
and so it came to pass that the first three representatives of australia’s indigenous community we encounter turn out to be some of the region’s most knowledgeable purveyors of inter-cultural harmony, dedicated to preserving the much maligned and almost forgotten traditions and history of their ancestors while healing the wounds still festering after centuries of ignorance and insensitivity.
richie allan, our chief guide, showed up to our meeting with a fistful of eucalyptus bark. he is a legend in the field of cultural preservation and understanding, and is grooming his son, richie the third, to walk in his footsteps. they have a company called TOAC, or “traditional owners aboriginal corporation“, which has as its goal “to inspire and enable all australians to contribute to the reconciliation of the nation.” they’ve added a “k” to make it TOACK. the “k” stands for kinship, a reference to the holistic approach first peoples have historically taken in their relationship with mother earth, viewing land, water and culture as one, rather than as separate entities.
“our god is the earth,” explains the third member of the guide team, aaron chatfield. “we have to look out for it, so it will look out for us.”
chatfield, who wears his hair in dredlocks, (though it’s not an ancient tribal custom,) runs “dreamtime connections“, which works with local schools and community groups to preserve and promote the understanding of indigenous cuisine and agriculture. he’s renowned for his “bush tucker” gardens, where he teaches young australians about how the first peoples used the plants and trees around them to provide a tasty, healthy diet, and so much more. he seems particularly fond of wottle-seeds.
before eating, however, it’s washing up time, and aaron and richie give us a demonstration of aboriginal hygiene. from a nearby blackwood wottle tree, (acacia melanoxylon) they pull down a handful of leaves, aaron tears off a few and begins rubbing them between his palms.
richie pours water on as aaron rubs his hands together, creating soapy-suds that make an excellent hand sanitizer.
richie then demonstrates the many uses of the versatile eucalyptus bark. among many others, it’s a tasty tea, a healing medicine; it can be woven into a rope or torn into shreds to use as tinder for fires.
richie then points to some otherwise unremarkable trees and shows us what they can see but we can’t. the trunks and branches have been expertly trimmed and shaped in specific ways to provide directions for ancient nomadic travelers, literally an old school GPS system.
and the seeds from the wottle bush? aaron has made wottle-seed cookies for a snack, washed down with a eucalyptus tea.
everything these first people needed, mother earth provided. spears for hunting and fishing came from trees, as did the aerodynamically genius, not to mention lethal, boomerangs cut from the joints between trunk and branch.
richie the younger has brought along a boomerang to give us a lesson in the deadly art.
boomerangs hold a special place in aboriginal lore, known as The Dreaming, or Dreamtime.
according to the dreaming legend, a sacred ancestral being in the form of a rainbow serpent sent bats to earth for people to eat during a drought. but the bats flew high in the sky and the humans couldn’t catch them. so the snake removed one of his curved ribs and gave it to the people so they could knock the bats out of the sky for food.
richie the younger gave us all a chance to practice our boomerang fling. pernille got the knack right away. fortunately nobody died.
our introduction to the dreamtime boomerang story was an epiphany moment, peeling back another layer in the remarkable history of australia’s first peoples, who lived for eons taking from mother nature as they needed and giving back as they could, ingeniously maintaining the delicate balance that existed until captain james cook appeared along the east coast of the country in april, 1770, ironically exactly 250 years ago, to claim the land for england.
it was eighteen years later that the europeans returned to sydney harbor to establish the first colony of convicts and ruffians that became white australia. in their defense, the 232 years since they arrived has seen the country rise to become a great and prosperous nation that is striving mightily to atone for the great sin that stains its history.
but the wounds are still fresh. the scar tissue still tender. it has been little more than 50 years since the passage of a referendum that recognized the existence of indigenous people. “until 1967, we were considered to be just flora and fauna,” aaron chatfield observes ruefully.
and it is 12 years since prime minister kevin rudd offered a public apology in parliament for the “stolen generations”, and lawmakers passed a resolution “that all australian parliaments officially acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for the laws, policies and practices of forcible removal.”
nevertheless, aaron and the allans are out in mulligans flat for NAIDOC week, healing, teaching, preserving for their children and ours, and for generations to come, the beliefs of their ancestors as told in the dreaming…
…that aboriginal people have been in australia since the beginning.
at the end of our tour, the allans invite us to break bread with them. not just any bread, mind you, but fresh home-made traditional bread of the ngunnawal people.
and what to dip it in? wottle-seed sauce. such a treat!
so what do we tourists owe? the tour is free, part of NAIDOC week observances.
but we owe it to the country’s traditional owners to honor the memory of the lost generations, and to foster the spirit of inter-cultural respect that will, in the fullness of time, heal the gory gash inflicted on the soul of a great and beautiful country of many peoples.
oh, and about that mystery of mulligans flat. solved. richie allan explains that mulligan is the ngunnawal word for platypus, the sweet creatures that are a common sight on nearby lakes and waterways. so much for the controversy of edward vs. cornelius.
all in all, not a bad way to start off a sunday morning.
Fascinating story Peter and has some parallels in India. We have our own tribals living off forest produce and resisting attempts to ‘civilise’ them! In the Andaman Islands I came across the gentle Omges, friendly and sociable. There are also the Jarawas, fiercely hostile to outsiders and quick to attack with poisoned arrows. Their is out of bounds to all except a select few like volunteer doctors and tribal research people..
I not aware of much success in preserving their culture or weaning them away from their bush or jungles.
Sadly disease and infection are likely to make them extinct in due course.
thanks, harpreet. interesting observations. think of you often and the great times
we had together. warm wishes.
I ndigenous people in USA and Canada are also side lined and not really integrated after so many generations of progress around them. Pathfinder Red Indians in the US Army did a remarkable job in fighting the Japanese in the Pacific in WW2