Wagonga Inlet History

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. IMG_9497

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. IMG_9499

Local aboriginal people built canoes from tree bark, and kept a small fire alight in the canoe, for warmth, cooking and insect protection.

IMG_9539Seagrass 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.

fish cleaning tables

fish cleaning tables

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.


IMG_9524This 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.

looking north along the coast

looking north along the coast

opening of the inlet, often the scene of boats surfing in on unexpected waves

opening of the inlet, often the scene of boats surfing in on unexpected waves

calm waters inside Wagonga Inlet

calm waters inside Wagonga Inlet

This post has been rather sombre, so you might enjoy the colourful murals on the public toilet block, painted by Narooma High School students.

IMG_9520 IMG_9521

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. IMG_9541 IMG_9542

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!

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19 thoughts on “Wagonga Inlet History

  1. So dreadful that the salmon are lost to Wagonga inlet, it makes me think about Africa where indigenous tribes hunted many species for millenia without upsetting nature’s balance and then along comes the ignorant foreigner and before we know it . . .

    • yes, as Meredith said, just change the place and the story is the same … so sad and yet we have to grab every opportunity to restore balance … but this week the Hunter’s and Fishers Party (in coalition with the Liberal P state government) has begun to overturn the Marine Parks that have recently been established, and announced they will allow hunting in National Parks!!! hard not to wring our hands … but all we can do is protest! out with the placards!!!

  2. I love your blog. I learn so much. Human greed destroying the salmon … typical. How tragic about the egg fest! Thanks for taking the time to put together this tour. 🙂

  3. Such a fascinating post Christine. Sadly, so many cultures were destroyed by disease as the Europeans travelled the globe in their newly built vessels. Effectively, they overtook the spread of natural immunity that had protected all humans by travelling at the same speed as the disease. There was, initially, no intent other than exploration – but the effect was still devastating. Of course it later became a ‘commercial opportunity’ and the indigenous peoples paid a heavy price. It is interesting to note that my mother-in-law’s people in Zimbabwe refer to AIDS as ‘the disease which came from abroad’. I suspect that flies in the face of informed medical opinion but perhaps it illustrates the point?

    The same issue continues today but as a threat to all humanity – a disease is carried far faster than our immune systems can adapt. And so, the natural balance of things is disrupted.

  4. This is so interesting and connects to one of my favorite thoughts about American history. Of course our whole country isn’t all that old–but California is even younger! Yet it isn’t! If we only begin to count time as beginning with American statehood perhaps, but of course, that’s ridiculous! Several thousand years of Native peoples preceded Americans. 🙂 I really enjoyed a bit of introduction to the Waponga. The murals are great, too. Studying local history is fascinating, isn’t it?

  5. A beautiful place, and I like there are information boards and murals for visitors to gain a little local knowledge and flavour. The fishmonger and oysterman sound like wounderful. I also frustrated to hear that the NSW Government has announced that it will lift the ban on recreational fishing in the state’s marine parks.

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