17 March, 2011

Barra Warre N Yallok

The Barwon River has been of vital importance to the district of Geelong and surrounds from its earliest days when Captain Foster Fyans built the breakwater to ensure a clean water supply for the growing township. Today, the majority of Geelong's water still comes from the river, being held in the West Barwon Dam in the Otways.
But what was the significance of the river to the region before the arrival of white settlers in 1836, specifically to the Aboriginal inhabitants who had lived in the region for more than 40,000 years before European settlement? The Barwon River was just as important to these original inhabitants as it was to the whites. In fact, the word "Barwon" comes from the local Wathaurong phrase "Barra Warre N Yallok" which, somewhat grandly, means "the great river which flows from the uplands (aka the Otways) to the sea".
Known collectively as the Wada Warrung or Wathaurong, meaning "People of the Water", twenty five separate clans occupied land which extended across the Bellarine Peninsula and as far east as the Werribee River to areas north of Ballarat. In the west, their territories included the Otways and the headwaters of the Barwon. The Wathaurong people were one of five tribes which formed what was known as the Kulin Federation. It is probable that those who lived closest to what is now Geelong were the Wada Warrung balug Clan which was located near the Barrabool Hills. It was estimated that they numbered around 300 people in 1837, but with the arrival of white settlers in the district and with them sheep and cattle, food supplies were significantly reduced as their hard hooves killed off many native plants. This, along with an influenza outbreak in 1839 decimated the indigenous population around Geelong, leaving only 17 clan members by 1853. The last tribal member of the clan - known as King Billy or Waurn Bunyip (Baa Nip) - died in 1885.
William Buckley meets John Batman's party, 1835
It was the balug clan which is thought to have adopted the escaped convict William Buckley (after whom Buckley's Falls are named) in 1803 following his escape from the convict settlement of Sullivan's Bay (later Sorrento) where he had been sent on the Calcutta under the command of Captain Collins. The Wathaurong who believed that whites were the re-incarnation of their dead warriors, accepted him as the returned tribal leader "Murrangurk". Buckley learnt their customs and language and is thought to have lived in a hut near Bream Creek and also near Buckley's Falls, travelling widely within tribal lands until 1835 when he gave himself up to a visiting party of whites at Indented Head. He was pardoned by the government and acted as an interpreter between the two peoples for a few years before becoming disillusioned and moving to Tasmania where he lived out the remainder of his life, dying in 1856. 
The various clans of the Wathaurong controlled the region through a series of marriages, trade agreements and cultural interests. Resources were controlled in a sustainable manner that saw the use of food supplies such as fish, regulated by the local responsible clan. 
Prior to this, the Barwon Valley provided many important food sources for the local indiginous population who moved along the river following seasonal routes. Almost all parts of the river were utilised.
Water Ribbon near Breakwater

Bulrushes on Belmont Common
During winter, meat was obtained from possums, koala, wombats and grubs. Kangaroos and possums were also hunted along the banks of the river for their skins. At this time of year the people sought protection from the weather on higher ground, then as the weather began to warm in spring, they moved down again, hunting a range of fowl such as ducks, and collecting birds' eggs. A variety of vegetables such as Yam Daises (Murnong/Myrniong), Water Ribbons, Small-leafed Clematis,  Blushing Bindweed and the pretty flowering "Milk Maids" were eaten as root vegetables, along with a range of orchids and lilies. The tubers could in some cases either be eaten raw or cooked. They came into season during spring and into summer and formed a large part of the local diet as was noted by William Buckley in his writings. Other local plants such as Spiny-headed Mat Rush (Karawun), Warrigal Cabbage and the new shoots of the bulrush (Balliang)  were eaten as salads. Bulrush roots were also cooked and the insides chewed. The fibrous remnants of the roots were then used to make string and fishing line.
Kangaroo Apple fruit near
Bindweed at Fyansford
 A range of fruits, nuts and seeds was available in season, including the Native Raspberry, Kangaroo Apples and the fruit from Pigface. Care had to be taken when harvesting Kangaroo Apples as the fruit could be poisonous if not ripe enough to be falling from the bush.
The river estuary was a particularly important supply of fish, eels and shellfish as well as waterbirds which also occur in abundance throughout the lake complex a little further upriver. During the summer months when ephemeral water supplies dried up, particular reliance was placed on fish. Eels would move downriver and could be caught during the autumn months, probably at places like the Bunyip Pool at Buckley's Falls which would provide a convenient place to trap them. The local name for the falls was Yarram Mordong (Yarram meaning waterfall or rapid and Mordong meaning eels). There are accounts of William Buckley and his clan exchanging their tubers for eels with another group in the marshy lands surrounding the headwaters of the Barwon River.
 Plants were also used for medicinal purposes, to treat a range of ailments. Old Man Weed was used to treat hair loss and skin irritations whilst the leaves of the Hop Goodenia plant were given to infants to suck to pacify them, especially during travel.
Wathaurong man in bark canoe on the Barwon at Geelong
In addition to food and medicine, many plants were used to make tools - reeds and tea-trees for the shafts of spears, with shells sharpened to make blades and knives. Wattles and Red Gums were used to make boomerangs (wanguim), bark, large burls cut from trees and animal skins to make water-holding vessels - even canoes, shelters or string. Fibrous plants were used to make string too, or to weave baskets. The string was then used to make nets, fishing line, eel traps and had a variety of other uses. Tree sap was chewed or heated to make glue.
 The remains of a tree (now dead) which had part of the bark removed to make a canoe can be seen at Queen's Park.
Remains of a heritage-listed
Canoe Tree at Queen's Park
Golf Course
Another important aspect of indigenous culture is the corroborree and there were various places along the Barwon and in what is now Geelong, where these took place. The present site of the old Junior Technical College at the corner of Maud and Moorabool Streets was used to host corroborrees as was the then vacant land between what is now Fyans and Balliang Streets, the latter being only a hundred metres from the river.
The river also played a significant role in Wathaurong mythology. It seems logical that something so integral to the daily life of the people as the Barwon would naturally feature prominently in their story-telling.
A report in the Advertiser from 1845 mentions a bone from a large animal which it was claimed was a bunyip bone. The bunyip (or yowie) was described in a wide variety of ways, sometimes as being like a giraffe, an elephant, as having scales, flippers or feathers, as part-human or as having the face of a dog and in the case of the above claim, the creature was sketched as looking somewhat like an erect crocodile with sharp claws and a head similar to an emu.
There were several other reported bunyip-sightings along the Barwon over the years, with one man claiming a bunyip had taken his mother at the "Barwon Lakes" (presumably Lake Connewarre and surrounds) and in another case, the death of a woman at a barge-crossing point in South Geelong was blamed on a bunyip attack as were several deep scratches inflicted upon another man. Even William Buckley claimed to have seen bunyips, both at Modewarre and several times on the Barwon. He described a feathered back, greyish in colour, but never got a clear look
at the creature.
Indeed, King Billy (Waurn Baa Nip) is said to have been named for a bunyip which his father had sighted on the banks of the Waurn Ponds Creek (a tributary of the Barwon) on the day he was born.


  1. A great blog Jo , but do you realise how offensive it is to Aboriginal people to be labelled 'full-blood', half caste etc? Terms from the 1930's especially, when racism against Aboriginal people was at it's peak.
    So King Billy was perhaps 'the last surviving Wathaurong man..'?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. There are still Wathaurong people alive today. King Billy was the last Wathaurong man to live on country before the permanent arrival of Europeans.

  2. the dead tree in the left image located at Waun Ponds does not appear by the photo to be a canoe tree. the fact the callus line that forms the parrimeter of the scar extends over an old branch failure indicates that the wound is the result the failed limb. the callus growth is the same age and would date back to the time of the failed limb. when limbs fail they often tear bark of the trunk in the process.

    1. Yeah, it was heritage listed because of some woke pc fool who just decided on a whim to do so. No possibility that this wasn't properly researched prior to listing. Yes, deep sarcasm. Just because you don't want to recognise indigenous history doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Always was. Always will be.