Australia was only settled (invaded) by the English just over 200 years ago. Buildings over one hundred years old are considered historic; there is a sense that our history is very brief. However there was 40,000 years of history before Captain Cook arrived in Botany Bay, to find a land settled by indigenous people who lived sustainably and peacefully, with complex laws and customs. Tragically Western diseases such as measles and small pox decimated the population very quickly, before the invaders could learn much about the many tribal groups. However survivors of disease and colonialism still have stories to tell us, to help us understand this ancient land.
Mill Bay refers to recent events. White men established a timber mill here, making use of plentiful tall trees, creating lumber for houses and boatbuilding. All access to Narooma was by boat, or from the inland, as the rivers and inlets were too wide to cross by road until better bridge building developed.
Local aboriginal people built canoes from tree bark, and kept a small fire alight in the canoe, for warmth, cooking and insect protection.
Seagrass meadows were a sign of a healthy waterway. The grasses fed small creatures, who in turn attracted fish, food for the local population. The non-indigenous population are only slowly realising the connections nature relies upon to create abundance. They learnt by destroying ecosytems, over-harvesting and spoiling things, some of which may never return.
The fish cleaning tables were deserted yesterday, but no doubt they are often busy. One fish that was plentiful here in season was Australian Salmon. Every year a huge shoal of salmon entered the inlet to feed and breed. Greed led the white men to build a network of channels that would trap the fish, making it easy to catch vast quantities for their new cannery. After some years the whole population of Australian Salmon disappeared, and were never seen again entering Wagonga Inlet. Fortunately for us other schools who frequented different sheltered bays along the coast survived, and continue to do so today.
This notice tells the story of a major tragedy which befell the Wagonga tribe in 1892. I have heard the story told too, it is just as vivid for the descendants of the surviving women and children today as it was when it first happened.
Wagonga egg feast:
‘One fine spring day a large group of about 150 excited adults of the Wagonga tribe
paddled their 80 bark canoes across the glassy sea to Montague Island, four miles
distant, while the women and children watched from the shore. It was the much anticipated day of the annual egg feast picnic. After a successful day of egg gathering, the people headed back to the mainland in their flotilla of canoes, with much laughter and excitement. When the voyagers were barely half a mile from the home shore, a dark cloud from the south suddenly blew up into a violent storm, sweeping everyone into the sea while the terror stricken families looked on. Not one soul landed to tell the fearful tale.’
Fishermen now have more hardy boats, but still lives are lost every so often crossing the Narooma Bar, the most notorious in NSW. Here are some views of the entry to the inlet, the beach to the north, and the channel looking back towards Narooma.
This post has been rather sombre, so you might enjoy the colourful murals on the public toilet block, painted by Narooma High School students.
In a dry land water is precious, when this was painted we were enduring a ten year+ drought, quite unusual for the south coast. Gathering my thoughts as I walked back towards the bridge and the car park I reflected on the rapid and devastating changes experienced here. The end of thousands of years of culture, the imposition of ignorant foreign ways on a delicate land, the ugliness and loss caused by ‘progress’ … perhaps it was the voice of the distant Mother sleeping under her blanket on the horizon. She looks out to sea to her son Barunguba (Montague Island), lost to her when sea level rose about 6,000 years ago. Her other son Najunuga remained at home, and is still sitting at her feet in Tilba.
By the end of the walk I came back the moment: In the car I photographed the bridge while I waited for the stop and go man to let us past (they are doing bridge works), and though of how I would stop on my return journey to buy some freshly caught local yellow fin tuna for dinner. The fish shop is on the wharf beside the fishing trawler, and the oysterman is next door … can’t get more local than that!