There’s a lot more to a patch of native bushland than meets the eye, as you’ll discover on Djiriba Waagura’s Aboriginal cultural experience tour at Huskisson, NSW.
Raymond Timbery stands right in front of me, deliberately directing his smoke towards me, and for the first time in my non-smoking life I’m not the slightest bit annoyed. Burning bush in hand, he paints the air around me with streaks of blue-grey haze.
It’s a smoking ceremony to get Djiriba Waagura’s Aboriginal cultural experience and walking tour at Huskisson, on the south coast of New South Wales, off to the best possible start.
The ceremony, Raymond explains to the dozen-odd visitors gathered outside the Jervis Bay Maritime Museum, is a way to acknowledge the ancestors and pay respects to the land. It’s also a cleansing experience, a warding off of bad spirits.
As he speaks, the world is still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, Australia had been battling horrendous bush fires, and even huge swathes of the Amazon rainforest were ablaze. Political conflicts have been escalating, and the number of refugees worldwide has swollen to more than 26 million. Our world, it seems, has been overrun with bad spirits.
So even though I’m not really into spirituality and symbolic rituals, as Raymond comes near I inhale as much of the fragrant smoke as I can, shut my eyes and try to release any internal and external negative energy.
I open my eyes. It’s a sunny winter day; I’m in a peaceful, beautiful setting. The world has many beautiful spots, be they inland or by the sea. Places that soothe and lift our spirits. It feels good to be alive and to be here.
Walking the country
Next up is the walking tour. I’m a bit puzzled by this. Our itinerary says it will be on a patch of bushland behind the maritime museum. The suburban fringe. What could possibly be of interest in it? First impressions aren’t encouraging: gum trees and a messy array of shrubs and long grass around them. Nothing much to see, really.
The walk will be short, Raymond says, and shaped like a horseshoe – “about 100 metres that way, then 50 metres or so across, then back again – but within that small space there are three different countries.”
What? No! I look round. There can’t be!
“I don’t mean our natural borders, I mean tree countries,” he explains. He pats an impressive specimen beside him. “I named my youngest daughter after this tree,” he says proudly. “This one is what we call Dharraani – Dharraani is spotted gum [in the local Dhurga language]. Where we are right now is spotted gum country. The majority of trees all around us are spotted gum. They’re all connected, every single spotted gum tree here is related, is family. We [Indigenous people] understand that, as in our traditional ways, we know relations.”
Modern scientists can tell us how the trees are related, he continues: they will dig up the soil and take samples and connect them, “but where there is science, I take out the science and say there is spirituality”. This is the Aboriginal belief system: “We believe that trees and plants are related, it’s what our old people [ancestors] told us, we don’t query it … we acknowledge that their teachings were right. And that pure belief is so important…
“But as we travel country,” Raymond says, indicating we should get going, “we’re going to see a change in it. The Dharraani will start to weed out and we will end up in stringybark or maybe mixed gum country, and they all serve a different purpose.”
And in this way, Raymond brings the forest to life for me. He points out the subtle changes in the landscape, and not only how the trees are related but the plants and environment around them too; those that thrive on their shade, those that prosper from their mulch. Each depends on the other. Each has a purpose.
Living by the land, for the land
As Raymond relates how the different Aboriginal groups travelled country, and the etiquette involved in ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremonies (Jervis Bay is in Yuin Country, and Raymond is a member of the Dharawal and Bidjigal clans), it dawns on me that Australia is so much more than what we see on the modern map. It’s not a land of eight vast states and territories whose boundaries are mostly neat, straight lines. It’s thousands and thousands of interweaving tree countries, and hundreds of tribal countries, each with their own language and fascinating stories (Djiriba Waagura means “two crows” in the Dhurga Language of the Yuin Nation, and you’ll hear the story when you do the tour).
I also come to appreciate how sophisticated Aboriginal culture is, and how much we could have learned from it – and still could, if we tried. In essence, it’s all about living in total harmony with the land and with all its creatures.
“Our old fellas used to walk country,” says Raymond, “and the way that the settlers thought of it was that they were nomadic, because they didn’t have a home, a designated home. The mentality of what a home was had two different meanings. A home to the settlers was you needed to have a house, you needed to have a fence, you needed to have a garden, your own pets, your own children where you raise them, and you live happily … But when you talk to them old people and what we consider as home, it’s this.” He gesticulates at all the surroundings … “This is home. It’s the land. Everywhere you are on land is your home, yeah?
“You didn’t have to fence nothing off because you fencing that off stops the animals from travelling. No animal wants to be caged in, no animal wants to be stopped from its natural trails or tracks, so that’s why we lived off the land, we lived by the land and for the land. So every decision that was ever made, the land’s purpose or reason to live was the first thing that was ever thought about: is that right for country? If it’s not, then don’t do it.”
Bush tucker to the rescue
At the start of the walk I looked at the bush around us, imagining that if I was lost, by myself, hungry and thirsty, would there be anything here that could sustain me? No, there was nothing. I’d probably perish.
How wrong I was! Raymond plucks a dozen blades from a Lomandra bush – Lomandras are common on the side of many a road these days. Its blades are long and sharp, you can easily cut your fingers on them. If you’re out in the country on a long walk and feel a thirst coming on, “suck on the base, the white bit,” Raymond says. “It’s good for a dry mouth, for maintaining your saliva.”
Tentatively at first, then with more confidence (the taste is pleasant) we suck our Lomandra lollipops – extracting as much of mother nature’s superfood for inadequate salivas as we can. “Don’t go to green bit because the green bit’s a laxative,” Raymond warns. Ohhh! The more startled among us suddenly desist. “Nah, just kidding,” he chuckles.
Further down the track we come across a Smilax plant (Smilax glyciphylla, sometimes called ‘the sweet sarsaparilla’). Some berries are ripe enough to sample, and Raymond gets us to chew on the leaves, which are well known in the local culture for their medicinal properties. Taking their cue from the Indigenous people, the first settlers used them to ward off scurvy. “It’s like a Fisherman’s Friend throat lozenge,” one woman in the tour group says, “it’s got a licorice, aniseed flavour.” Another says it tastes much better than commercial sarsaparilla drinks. Delighted with this discovery (I love aniseed) I make a mental note to buy smilax leaves for tasty teas at home.
Behold, the boardwalk!
Now there’s a surprise in store: Raymond takes us to the start of the Mangrove Boardwalk, a 1.4km trail that takes us from the Maritime Museum through beautiful mangrove country to an outlook over Currambene Creek. In previous visits to Jervis Bay I’d wondered what was the best way to explore the creek, which separates Huskisson from Callala Beach. Now, finally, I had the answer. The scenery along the boardwalk is stunning: shimmering light reflecting off the water, and the curvaceous mangroves reaching out to wrap their long, gnarly fingers around you as you pass. It’s a walk I’ll do every time I come to Jervis Bay.
Throughout history, Raymond says at the platform overlooking the creek, the Aborigines’ management of the water was run on the same principles as that on land. “Being saltwater coastal people, you were the caretakers of the ocean and the animals that lived there, and you were also the caretakers of the land and the animals that lived there.” Looking after where the salt water meets the fresh water was “a massive role”. Using shells, they had a sophisticated communications system, signalling which times of the year you could fish and when you should not. It was important not do it before seasonal spawning cycles, for example; this way you could let nature replenish its stock.
“Life is all about balance,” Raymond says. “If you take too much, there’s going to be nothing left. If you give too much, you’ll have nothing left.” Wise words, wise old ways. I wonder if modern commercial fishing fleets take these issues into account.
At the end of the walk, we’re treated to a performance in the museum gardens by the Djiriba Waagura dancers and their children. “Our dances are the oldest way of story-telling,” says Djiriba Waagura co-founder Matt Simms, “and it’s a really good way for the little ones to remember that story through dance. You’ll see these young ones, when they’re dancing, they become them animals that they interpret through the dance.”
Djiriba Waagura’s goal is to revitalise and strengthen Aboriginal culture on the NSW South Coast. “We’re really lucky now that we can practise our culture freely,” Matt says. “For a long time our time people couldn’t practise our culture and we had to sneak away to do it. But today as Aboriginal people we’re in a really, really good position where we can practise this stuff freely and share it with everyone, and that’s what our culture is all about and has been since the beginning – it’s about sharing and caring for country, and having people see it, especially visitors. When you come on to this country, you need to know the story of this country.
“We’re really happy to have you here,” Simms adds. “This is my grandmother’s country, Wandi Wandian country, we’re all family here as well,” he says, waving in reference to his fellow dancers. “And now that you guys are here, you are our family as well, so welcome to my grandmother’s country.”
The show begins. The kangaroo is the easiest animal to spot, but there are birds too, including Djiriba Waagura’s two crows. One of most interesting dances tells a story dating back to the creation time and the volcanic eruption of ‘fire mountain’ – now Mount Cambewarra – in the northern part of the Shoalhaven. A white cockatoo from a mountain range to the west flew down the Shoalhaven river and when he flew through the smoke of the volcano, he caught fire, and the smoke turned him black. As he was flying on fire over the river he could see his reflection, so he sung out for water, for rain, he sung out Nura! Nura! That’s how Nowra the city and the black cockatoo got its name.
“That’s a really important creation story for the people on the South Coast,” Matt says.
A land to cherish
Back home, inspired by Raymond Timbery’s tour and Djiriba Waagura’s dances, I yearn for more. I want to hear a lot more Indigenous stories, and read a complete history of Australia (recommendations, anyone?), starting from some 65,000 years ago. I call up a map of the country. Not the map that typically pops up first on Google, but the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia. This is the Australia that we should cherish, the one we should really get to know. TTW
Photographs: Zora Regulic, Bernard O’Shea and Andy Zakeli. Bernard O’Shea travelled a guest of Shoalhaven Tourism, in conjunction with Djiriba Waagura. To participate in events and learn more about NIADOC Week (July 4-11, 2021), visit naidoc.org.au.