It’s a landmark that divides a city, but the Yarra River also plays an important role in Melbourne’s daily life. In the early morning rowers stroke its straight foothills. The city has grown on both sides of it. The adjacent green areas are a place of connection and relaxation. For the Woiwurrung and Boonwurrung, however, Birrarung, as they call the river, has played a crucial role in their culture for 60,000 years.
“Not many people are aware that the Birrarung once made its way through the [Royal Botanic] Gardens, ”says Christopher Jakobi, Aboriginal program facilitator at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. “This was before the river was straightened and widened to prevent natural seasonal flooding in the early 20th century. This whole area was the place where thousands of people gathered for ceremonies, trading, partying and doing international business. “
Across the Yarra is the Koorie Heritage Trust in Federation Square, where Rob Hyatt is the Education and Visitor Experience Manager. Through his work he became aware that most of the people are unfamiliar with the cultural offerings of the Aborigines in the city.
“It is an appreciation to suddenly understand that Melbourne has an Aboriginal history,” he said of those taking the centre’s tours. “But also that the culture in the Melbourne area is still alive, be it through Aborigines telling their stories on our tours or in other places like the Botanical Garden in Bunjilaka [Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum] and places like that. “
The Trust acts as a cultural center and gallery and runs a series of walking tours along the Yarra River. But it is also “a repository that preserves Victoria’s unique Aboriginal heritage,” said Hyatt.
The Koorie Heritage Trust isn’t the only place in Fed Square with a First Nations focus. There’s also NGV Australia, with its impressive collection of indigenous art and artifacts, and Big Esso, a new restaurant by Nornie Bero. Hailing from Mer Island on Torres Strait, the waterway between Australia and Papua New Guinea, Bero serves up flavors that represent their heritage. The menu features namas, a dish made from coconut-smoked kingfish with lemon myrtle, as well as ingredients like yams, saltbush, wattleseed, Davidson plum, and local fish and shellfish.
However, to get the full depth of the history of Australia’s First People, you need to venture further, if not as far as you can imagine. An accessible option is to drive along the spectacular Great Ocean Road, which is part of the Great Southern Touring Route. Not only can the road visit landmarks like the 12 Apostles, the stunning rainforest in the Otway Ranges, and coastal towns like Apollo Bay, but it also reaches Warrnambool, 160 miles from Melbourne. People travel here in the winter (June to September) to watch the southern right whales calve off Logan’s Beach.
Nearby, on the site of a long-dormant volcano, Worn Gundidj on Tower Hill offers travelers a chance to learn how native plants are still used – guides refer to the landscape as a “living supermarket” – for food, fiber and medicines . There is also wildlife, including kangaroos, emus, and koalas, and learn to throw a boomerang. In the evening, visitors experience the bush at dusk and the nocturnal activity of Australian animals.
Tower Hill is on the Gunditjmara land, as is the Budj Bim cultural landscape. Beyond the crater lake, the lava rock formations and the lush bush landscape is one of the oldest aquaculture sites in the world, which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2019.
The landscape is part of the Victorian Volcanic Plains, which stretches from Melbourne to the state’s western border and is of importance to various Aborigines. Here, at Lake Condah, an eel trap system is mentioned, the carbon of which is dated to 6,600 years. However, according to Budj Bim Visitor Ranger Braydon Saunders, it was more of a sustainable farming practice than a trap.
“It was about manipulating the movement of water,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that the eels and fish only lived in one area of a waterhole and then moved them when the weather was right. It was a real breeding of eels and fish and keeping them where we wanted them. “
It also ensures that the short-finned eels that swim in the tropical waters around New Guinea and Vanuatu to spawn can continue their natural life cycle.
Near the site, there is evidence that the Gunditjmarra lived in villages (there is a long-held but now refuted colonial belief that all Aboriginal people were nomadic hunters and gatherers). Not only is the landscape around the Fallen littered with scorched, hollowed trees that have been scientifically proven to have been used to smoke excess eels, but carbon dating has shown that water-loving plant species were introduced into the environment about 8,000 years ago. There are also the remains of hundreds of stone huts.
“These are foundations we found in the ground,” Saunders said. “Basically, the stone is set up in a horseshoe shape and we would burn blackwood branches to make them pliable to create a dome shape. The stone in the ground would serve as an anchor for each end of the branches. Then we would interweave other branches to build a nice big hut. “
About a hundred miles north of Warrnambool is Halls Gap, the central parish for exploring the Grampians. This region is very popular with outdoor adventurers, especially hikers, for its rugged natural beauty, tumbling waterfalls, and spring flowers. The full hundred mile, 13-day Grampians Peaks Trail is slated to open in November 2021, but there are plenty of hikes of all distances in Grampians National Park. It is also a significant site for Aboriginal heritage. In fact, Gariwerd, its traditional name, has the largest number of rock art and paintings in South Australia with five significant sites open to the public. Bunjil Shelter near Stawell protects the only known rock carving of Bunjil, the Creator. Another, Billimina Shelter, houses around 2,500 small paintings made of red ocher.
After the Grampians, head towards Melbourne via Ballarat, 145 km southeast. Here you can explore the region’s gold rush history – Ballarat’s floodplain fields were considered the richest in the world between 1852 and 1853 – and enjoy a thriving arts and food scene. Stroll down Police Lane to see Diana Nikkelson’s play Goanna soil, a tribute by the Gunditjmara artist to the local Wadawarrung people, engraved in the pavement.
For more information on the Aboriginal tourism experiences in Victoria, see the Visit Victoria Website.