In complete silence, we slowly traipse up the mountain which seems to get steeper with each bend. Looking behind, we catch the occasional glimpse of the ocean just south of Narooma, as it becomes more and more distant.
Sure, I’ve been on many a hike where one of my walking companions asks for the chit-chat to temporarily stop - it’s usually in an attempt to decipher the source of a rustle in the bush, or to identify a bird calling in a nearby tree. However, I’ve never attempted a group walk where no one is allowed to utter a single word from start to finish.
Well, not until today.
“It’s all part of the protocol taught by the Yuin Elders,” explained Dwayne Harrison, our guide, as an hour earlier, from just behind the village of Central Tilba, we started our climb up Gulaga (Mt Dromedary).
With each of our group of 10 also resplendent in bright red headbands, you’d expect we’d attract the attention of several fitter souls, striding past us on their weekend constitutionals up the prominent south coast landmark.
But most who pass us don’t even look twice for they’ve probably seen it all before, for, with nine generations of cultural teachings passed down to him, Harrison has been bringing small groups up Gulaga as part of his Creation Dreaming Tour for many years now. And of those who do look somewhat puzzled at our attire and muted state, a nod in their direction seems to satisfy their curiosity.
I’m especially impressed with my daughters, Emily (7) and Sarah (10), who are usually only this quiet when asleep, or with the promise of copious amounts of chocolate. They’ve also been up since the crack of dawn, when, during a traditional barefoot ceremony to greet Grandfather Sun as he popped his head up out of the ocean just behind Baranguba (Montague Island), they were presented with their headbands.
“Treasure this,” explained Harrison, while tying the red bands around their heads. “This is your connection with Mother Earth.”
It’s just a pity mine isn’t thick enough to soak up my sweat as we continue to trudge up Gulaga. Somewhat ironically, the more you walk in silence, the more you actually hear. Each footstep as it hits the ground combined with the sound of your own breathing creates a mediative rhythm. You are also much more in tune with the environment and notice small changes in your surroundings, whether it be a change of temperature in a wet gully or a breath of wind kissing your cheek.
Much to the relief of my girls (and their puffing dad), after five kilometres the track eventually reaches a small plateau. Most bushwalkers use this as a resting spot before tackling the last steep section to the summit.
But not us.
Incredibly, in almost 200 times walking on Gulaga, Harrison reveals he has “never been to the summit”, adding “I’ve never had any reason to be there.”
“We are going that way,” points Harrison in completely the opposite direction where a non-descript path leads into thick scrub.
“Through there is the sacred part of Gulaga, that’s why we are here,” he announces, almost in a hushed tone.
It’s rare, often taboo, for an indigenous person to share a sacred spot with non-indigenous people so it’s not surprising there was much debate among Yuin elders before Harrison was given permission to take people here on his tours.
“Our motto is ‘give it away to keep it’,” explains Harrison. “By sharing our culture and generational knowledge, we want to show that traditional Aboriginal culture is well and truly alive on the South Coast of Australia.”
So, after one last sip from our water bottles (no drinking or eating allowed in the sacred area) and with a strong sense of privilege, we follow Harrison down the secret track.
Not far along the track, the bush opens up to reveal a ridgeline spectacularly punctuated with a series of prominent tors that form a straight line for several hundred metres.
Wow. The scene is breathtaking. Harrison says “each tor is a different chapter in the creation story for the people of the Yuin Nation”.
We first stop at a creation rock where Harrison reveals,“Daramah, the Great Spirit, created the heavens and the earth and all nature, including two people, first a woman, Ngardi, and a man, Tunku.”
Sure enough, either side of the creation rock are two distinct boulders, one masculine and one of feminine appearance.
According to Yuin elders, “Daramah then gave Ngardi and Tunku two gifts – a rock and a tree which symbolise everything needed for survival”. And yes, just a stone’s throw away is an ancient tree and a distinctive boulder supporting each other.
Every few steps reveals yet another chapter of the Yuin Nation Creation story, each illustrated by more and more rocks resembling the central characters; from pregnant women, children, to totem figures such as a shark, dugong and breaching whale. Poignantly, there’s also a rock resembling a rainbow serpent, a central figure in the creation story for all Aboriginal tribes. “Here it went underground and created all the rivers, coming back up to look at his work,” explains Harrison, pointing in the direction of a serpent-shaped tor.
About half-way along the ridgeline are three different sized rocks stacked on top of the other. According to Harrison, the small one on the bottom represents the past, the top one pointing to the heavens is the future, but the biggest rock is in the middle and represents the present.“Think about it, many of us dwell in the past or worry about the future, here we learn that nothing is more important than living the present,” says Harrison. Sage advice indeed.
This rocky outcrop is also a special spot for Harrison’s grandfather and teacher, Yuin elder Max ‘Dulumunmun’ Harrison or ‘Uncle Max’ as he is widely known. In his book, My Peoples Dreaming: An Aboriginal Elder speaks on life, land, spirit and forgiveness (2013, HarperCollins), Uncle Max states,“These rocks are one of the most valuable things about Gulaga to me. When I am in trouble in my mind, body or spirit, my mind goes straight to these rocks. They show me where I come from, where I am now and where I am going to in the spirit world.”
Near the end of the long line of rocks, we clamber up a boulder big enough for us all to sit on. “That’s exactly where the 14th Dalai Lama sat when Uncle Max brought him here a few years back,” reveals Harrison, pointing exactly to where I am seated. Talk about spiritual enlightenment.
Despite three hours of intense and engaging (the kids never waned once) interpretation, it’s clear that Harrison never tires of bringing people here. He reveres this mountain– and understandably so, for Harrison and his people this is sacred text laid out on a sacred ridge.
While the walk of discovery on Gulaga is the centrepiece of Harrison’s tour, this two-day experience also includes traditional dance, yarning circles, platters of traditional food (you have to try the wallaby tail) and a few surprises, including on our last morning an invitation to participate in a Gurawill (whale) Dreaming Ceremony at nearby Nangudga Inlet.
Harrison first carefully carves the outline of a whale in the sand with his ceremonial spear. He then lights a fire (yes, the kids get to help by rubbing sticks together), and together with his 10-year-old son, Kayen, and adult nephew, Trey, we all summons the whale spirit, to ensure a safe journey migrating along the coast. Wow, what a way to end the tour.
“In our creation stories the whales are elders of the sea that once walked from the land into the ocean,” explains Harrison. “Whale dreaming ceremonies sing the safe passage of the whale migration and ensures this connection and respect continues on.”
For the yowie clan, it’s our second immersive indigenous experience in as many months. Regular readers will recall earlier this year we joined Richard Swain for an overnight paddle down the songlines of the legendary Snowy River. The Gulaga Creation Tour is another unforgettable journey of discovery and one which provides each of us with a much deeper understanding of the creation stories of the traditional custodians of our land.
It’s a common misconception that you need to travel to the outback or to the Top End to truly appreciate traditional indigenous culture, however these two enlightening experiences prove that we don’t have to leave our own region.
Canberra isn’t the only city where bush cubbies are popping up. During a recent trip to Adelaide, Eleanor Kosters, 8, of Theodore enjoyed making a bush cubby with her cousins at the Morialta Nature Play Park.
The play park consists of unique sculptural pieces that are huge works of art, made from natural products, using salvaged and seasoned native Australian timbers.“The main structure of the cubbies are already assembled but there are lots of sticks around so the kids can keep on adding to it,” explains Therese Kosters, Eleanor’s mum.
Canberra could do with a playground or two like this. It’d be much better than the plethora of unimaginative plastic modular equipment which plagues many of our suburbs.
Where in Canberra?
Clue: Precursor to Ned
Degree of difficulty: Medium- Hard
Last week: Congratulations to Alan Eeles of Lyneham, who was the first reader to correctly identify last week’s photo, sent in by Jack Palmer of Watson, as a tree “located on a bend in the fire trail on North Lyneham Ridge”.
According to Eeles, who just beat Linda Carr and Richard Williams of Belconnen to the prize, “children in the North Lyneham area know it as The Faraway Tree,” adding “Some of Enid Blyton’s Folk of the Faraway Tree have been seen there, as has the Cadbury Bunny (on the BMX bike).”
The tree must have a doppelganger, for several readers, including Pamela Collett of Narrabundah (who even supplied photographic evidence to support her claim), thought the tree was in fact in the Callum Brae Nature Reserve, in Symonston.
How to enter: Email your guess, along with your name and address, to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday May 12, 2018, will win a double pass to Dendy.