Gariwerd: summits old in story
by Ros Stirling
“From a high forest-hill about a mile east of our route I first obtained a complete view of a noble range of mountains rising in the south to a stupendous height, and presenting as bold and picturesque an outline as ever painter imagined. The highest and most eastern summit was hid in the clouds although the evening was serene.”
Thomas Mitchell, July 11, 1836
This ‘noble range of mountains’, Mitchell named the Grampians after the not-dissimilar range in Scotland. The people who lived there, the Djab wurrung and the Jardwadjali, knew the place as Gariwerd.
For at least 5000 years, these two groups had shared the mountains, their territories bordering on the spine of the Serra and Mount William Ranges. They were not the first to live there, but the identities of those who came before, whose presence over 20,000 to 30,000 years is known from excavated charcoal hearths and remnants of stone tools, is lost in time before memory. They are known simply as the Old People.
The Grampians are often thought of as the most westerly extent of the Great Divide, but Gariwerd is geologically a distinctive place, quite different to other landforms of eastern Australia.
The dramatic eastward-jutting peaks upon which Mitchell’s gaze rested on that serene evening in 1836 belie the earliest origins of the place, for this was once the bed of a freshwater inland sea. Until around 300 million years ago, Australia was part of the supercontinent of Gondwana, but when it began to drift northwards in its inexorable separation from Africa and Antarctica, a deep inland basin was formed in the area of the Grampians. With time, this filled to form a lake. Over the following aeons, sediments were deposited, becoming sandstones, siltstones and mudstones that were eventually thousands of metres deep. As the continent finally split from Antarctica, movements of the tectonic plate accompanied by earthquakes, faulting and intrusion of granitic magma led to a crumpling of the crust. The layers of sedimentary rock that were once the lake bed were thrust upward, and subsequent erosion by wind and rain over millions of years cut away surface material, revealing the typical ‘cuesta’ landforms that we see today, with exposed rocky escarpments facing east, and the layered sandstone rock face sloping away to the west.
The result of this ancient activity was a sequence of four ranges – the Mount William Range in the east and the highest of the ranges, the Mount Difficult range in the north, the Victoria range to the west, and the jagged Serra Range between and to the south. But the work of geological time was not finished. As the climate warmed around 15 million years ago, the sea rose to flood much of what is now Victoria, and the Grampians effectively became the continent’s eastern coastline, forming a promontory looking out over the ocean. For four or five million years, the Grampians were almost completely surrounded by sea and during this time the plants that lived there evolved to form the distinctive flora that distinguishes the Grampians today.
As sea levels rose and fell with climatic fluctuations, so the coastal plains and lower-lying land was alternately exposed and inundated. By 20,000 – 30,000 years ago, Aboriginal people were living amongst the Grampians and on the surrounding plains.
This was the midst of the last Ice Age, and sea levels were so low that Tasmania was joined to the mainland. The climate would have been cold and dry and the winds biting, the plains arid and treeless. No doubt the rock shelters of the Grampians provided the people with a welcome refuge, as well as vantage points from which to survey the surrounding countryside for game and other bands of people.
Then, between 12,000 and 8,000 years ago, the climate warmed, ice melted and the sea rose again, creating Bass Strait. With the warmth came plentiful rainfall, and the forests once again flourished.
Until around 30,000 years ago, the megafauna - enormous versions of animals that we are familiar with today, as well as some that are quite strange - browsed and hunted among the woodlands and grasslands. The people of Gariwerd used fire to manage the land and as a hunting technique, and it is likely that the disappearance of the megafauna at around this time was at least partially explained by their activity.
It is fairly clear that the people who lived in and around Gariwerd prior to around 5000 years ago were neither Djab wurrung nor Jardwadjali. Linguistic studies suggest that the languages of these two groups, which are closely related, date back around 5000 years, and were probably introduced to the area with new arrivals. Perhaps rising sea levels and changes in the availability of food resources at the end of the ice age caused people to migrate, and the ancestors of the Djab wurrung and Jardwadjali people arrived in the Gariwerd area in search of new hunting grounds.
It is also possible that when they arrived, ‘the Old People’ were still there, and at least some of their cultural traditions were passed down to the Djab wurrung and Jardwadjali. For example, there is a Djab wurrung story that tells of a giant emu, called mihirung paringmal, that could only be killed by the spears of two people attacking it from a tree. Is this story a cultural memory of the giant emu, Genyornis newtoni, which lived in southern Australia around 40,000 years ago?
The dynamism and diversity of Aboriginal culture and technology over time has been shown through carbon dating of charcoal and the variety of stone tools found at different levels of excavation in rock shelters. Even more evocative of their lives is the rock art that has been found at hundreds of sites in the Gariwerd-Grampians ranges and nearby locations, and is still being discovered as fires reveal rock faces long concealed by the forest.
Bunjil's shelter, located on the western slopes of the eastern Black Range, 19 km east of Halls Gap. Bunjil was the ancestral hero who created people and then rose into the sky and became a star.
A reasonable amount is known about the traditional lifestyle of the Djab wurrung and Jardwadjali people, partly from observations recorded by Europeans, partly from archeological evidence and partly from the accounts of old people who passed on their memories.
Enjoying a region of plentiful food and water, the people of Gariwerd were able to spend a good portion of the year in settled communities, living in turf huts that were built to last and keep out the cold. These were described by pioneer James Dawson as “made of strong limbs of trees stuck up in dome-shape, high enough to allow a tall man to stand upright underneath them. Small limbs fill up the intermediate spaces, and these are covered with sheets of bark, thatch, sods and earth till the roof and sides are proof against wind and rain.” Dawson went on to describe the huts as “sufficiently large to accommodate a dozen or more persons; and when the family is grown up the wuurn [hut] is partitioned off into apartments, each facing the fire in the centre…”
Family bands of up to 80 people formed the basic groupings of Djab wurrung and Jardwadjali society, and each group would have important linkages to certain places, visiting them regularly as the seasons went by.
They enjoyed a nutritious and varied diet of kangaroo, emu, fish, reptiles, yabbies, waterbirds, eggs, vegetables and fruit. An elaborate trench system was built at the base of Mount William (Duwul) to channel migrating eels and galaxia fish into traps. Large oven mounds were built around the trenches in which the fish were baked.
The women gathered roots, seeds, berries, fungi, and shellfish, and harvested and cultivated a range of plants including murnong, or yam-daisies, for their nutritious tubers, as Arthur Robinson recorded:
“First they burnt the surrounding grass so as to be able to see the roots of the murnong. Then they loosened the soil with their digging sticks, digging in ash and litter to fertilise it.”
When flocks of sheep arrived, they also ate the yam-daisies, and their hooves compressed the soil and within a year or two the fields of murnong were gone.
Food was cooked in ovens dug into the ground, described by Dawson as “plastered with mud,…keeping a fire in them till quite hot, then withdrawing the embers and lining the holes with wet grass. The flesh, fish or roots are put into baskets, which are placed in the oven and covered with more wet grass, gravel, hot stones, and earth, and kept covered until they are cooked.” Dawson noted that the cooking was done in the evening, “and when cooking is in common – which is generally the case when many families live together – each family comes next morning and removes its basket of food for breakfast.”
To keep warm, the people wore cloaks made of possum skin fixed at the shoulder with kangaroo bone. Old people and pregnant women rubbed emu fat – a precious resource that was forbidden to others - into their skin, and this absorbed heat from their fires to help them keep warm.
From time to time, when food was abundant, great gatherings of as many as 1000 people were held for ceremonial and social purposes on the shores of Lake Bolac on the eastern boundary of Djab wurrung country, and at Lake Lonsdale to the east of the Gariwerd-Grampians ranges.
Epacris impressa, or common heath, is the floral emblem of Victoria and is amongst the many wildflowers that bloom in the Grampians during spring.
As winter approached, the people would leave the plains and take shelter in the higher ground of Gariwerd. Archeologists have found evidence of settled village life in the swampy basin once known as Werdug, now flooded to create the Wartook Reservoir.
Djab wurrung and Jardwadjali cultures were strong and rich when the first encounter with Europeans occurred in 1838. It is estimated there were at least 2000 Djabwurrung and 2200 Jardwadjali at this time. However, as squatters moved across the land, the people were, for the most part, expelled from their traditional hunting grounds, ceremonial places and water resources. Naturally, they resisted the invasion, adopting guerilla warfare tactics to protect their livelihoods.
As European stock moved on to their land, displacing the kangaroos and emus, the Djab wurrung and Jardwadjali felt entitled to take sheep in compensation. Inevitably, conflict followed. Many squatters took the view that their first task having claimed a run was to clear the land of Aborigines by whatever means proved necessary, including indiscriminate slaughter. A Native Police detachment, manned with indigenous people from other parts of the colony, was established in 1842 to help the squatters hunt down sheep stealers.
By 1845, an estimated 70 per cent of the Djab wurrung and 80 per cent of Jardwadjali were dead – killed in violent interactions with settlers and police or by disease, poisoning and starvation. Those who remained were left to survive as best they could, marginalized in their own country, with basic provisions distributed by landholders who were appointed as local guardians. Despite requests by George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector of Aborigines, for reserves to be created in the Grampians region, no land was set aside for this purpose. By 1860, there were only a few hundred people of the two tribal groups left, and in the 1870’s they were relocated to reserves at Framlingham, Lake Condah and Ebenezer, all well removed from their traditional hunting grounds. In these European institutions, controlled and taught by Christian missionaries, it was only a matter of a few years before the language and the customs of the people of Gariwerd were all but stamped out.
Brambuk, the National Park and Cultural Centre at Halls Gap
Today, people of five Aboriginal communities with links to the Gariwerd-Grampians ranges and the surrounding plains have come together to create the Brambuk Aboriginal Cultural Centre which provides a cultural focus for them and for visitors to the Gariwerd-Grampians ranges. Brambuk means ‘belonging to the Bram-bram-bult ’, the two brothers of the creation story. The cultural centre is a unique building designed to reflect cultural aspects of each of the five communities. Its undulating roofline depicts the outlines of the surrounding mountains, and it is laid out in the shape of a white cockatoo in flight, the totemic emblem of the Djab wurrung and Jardwadjali people.
The People of Gariwerd: The Grampians’ Aboriginal Heritage, by Gib Wettenhall, pulished by Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, 1999
Victoria’s Wonderland: A Grampians History, published by Halls Gap and Grampians Historical Society Inc, 2006
Dunkeld & District: a short history, by Elise Clabburn, Iris Field, Betty Gordon & Kath Dickie, published by Dunkeld & District Historical Museum, 1989
The Brambuk Aboriginal Cultural Centre, located 2 km from Halls Gap, offers a multimedia introduction to Aboriginal customs and the Gariwerd creation story. There is a display of photographs and artefacts about Gariwerd’s Koori heritage, and a shop, gallery and cafeteria. A bush trail introduces visitors to Gariwerd’s flora and bush tucker. Boomerang-throwing displays, corroborees and bush tucker meals are held in the ceremonial ground in front of the building.
The Brambuk Aboriginal Cultural Centre is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm, free of charge.
Phone: (03) 5361 4000