17 May, 2016

Songlines of the Barwon Catchment

During the recent Mountain to Mouth 2016 extreme arts walk held across the City of Greater Geelong and the Borough of Queenscliffe, one of the catchphrases used was "walk this land". Participants were encouraged to consider those who have walked the land before us. Part of our route took us along the Barwon River, with the event ultimately concluding on the banks of the river at Barwon Heads.
With this in mind, I thought I would have a look at the lands of the wider Barwon catchment and the people who have walked them. The way we cross the land today is perhaps best represented by maps. For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans however, the indigenous tribes of Australia walked the land, following ancient tracks and pathways known to their ancestors, without the benefit of modern cartographic techniques.
For 25,000 years prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Barwon catchment was home to three indigenous tribes. The lands surrounding the lower Barwon - downriver from Winchelsea - as well as the catchments of the Moorabool and Leigh/Yarrowee Rivers were occupied by the Wathaurong (Wadawurrung) people. The lands of the Gulidjan Tribe lay along the upper reaches of the Barwon, also incorporating the area around Lake Colac. The Barwon itself formed the boundary between the Gulidjan people and their southern neighbours - the Gadubanud Tribe - who lived on the land between the river and the coast, stretching westwards past Cape Otway.
Adaption of the map "Catchments of the Barwon River and inland Basins", created
by the Victorian State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, 1950 (original
image held by the State Library of Victoria). Clan territories estimated from
Clark, 1995, "Scars in the Landscape"
Rather than physical maps such as the one above, indigenous maps were shared through dance, song, painting and story. They talked about the features of the land itself; the rivers and creeks which showed them the way from one place to another, the hills, the trees, the rocks, the waterholes passed along the way. Even the sky played a role. Following these "songlines", it was possible to walk for hundreds of kilometres. In this way, people could move between tribes, establish trade routes, make marriages, manage natural resources; walking - it was believed - in the footsteps of the creator spirit.
And it isn't too much of a stretch to see how songlines could work. The name of the Barwon itself is a directional description. Barre Warre N Yallock - the big river which flows from the mountains to the sea. Follow this river and you will reach the sea. Kooly bar ghurk (Coolebarghurk): man's track by the creek. Another descriptive name. Which track? The one by the creek. The one made by people, not the many animal tracks which no doubt criss-crossed the land.
"Man's track by the creek". For thousands of years, the Wathaurong walked the
banks of Coolebarghurk Creek
Wormbete: which lake? The "lake with the black fellow's mound". Where? Bukar Bulac; the place between two rivers. This was the Wathaurong name for the confluence of the Moorabool and Barwon Rivers.
Creation stories told how the eagle Bundjil looked down upon the world from the sky where his fire (the planet Jupiter) could be seen from Earth. Bundjil it was said, made his earthly home at Woringganninyoke - Lal Lal Falls. Whilst the meaning of the first name is unknown, "Lal Lal" is said to mean "dashing water in a crevice". Another literal description which could contribute to a songline.
Lal Lal Falls, April, 2012
Many other sites were named for prominent features which could also be used as part of a songline. Someone wanting to journey north west from Jillong (Geelong), the "place of native companions" or the place "where the seabirds fly over white cliffs", could perhaps travel to Durdidwarrah where either a "shelter of bark" or "dead water" could be found after which they would reach Bungeeltap (meaning either "spirit water" or "eagle's nest"). From there, they could see [Mount] Warrengeep (Warrenheip) where the ferns of the side of the mount resembled "emu feathers" before passing Bonan Yowing (Buninyong), the mountain shaped like a "man lying on his back with his knee raised." Once there, it wasn't too far to Balla arat (Ballarat), the "reclining on the elbow" "place" or resting place.
Bonan Yowing: Mt Buninyong, visible across the surrounding countryside
for many kilometres
Like today's Google Maps, the songlines of the indigenous peoples not only described which route to follow, but gave tips about where to stay and what food could be found along the journey: Yarram Mordong (the Wathaurong name for Buckley Falls), waterfall [of] eels; Porrong Goop (Borrongoop), the place of quails; Koo N Warre (Lake Connewarre), mud oyster water.
Koo N Warre: Lake Connewarre
In this way, the Wathaurong, Gulidjan and Gadubanud Tribes of the Barwon catchment "mapped" out the land, preserving their knowledge over thousands of years for future generations. Until European settlers arrived...


  1. fascinating - thanks for sharing!

  2. Trevor Hodson25 May, 2021 13:27

    Jill, I am just wondering where you found the translation of Jillong as "the place of native companions". The term "native companions" usually refers to Brolgas. I would be interested to know more about the source of this meaning.