Wurundjeri woman Mandy Nicholson runs walking tours at Pound Bend, Warrandyte and shares the remarkable, and often heart-breaking, Indigenous history of one of the most significant spots along the Yarra.
It’s midday at Pound Bend, a heart-shaped bend in the Yarra river in Warrandyte State Park in Melbourne’s east. The parrots are chattering, the kookaburras are laughing and the magpies are carolling. Cockatoos squawk overhead.
They are the dandan, gurrng-gurrng, the barrawarn and the ngayuk.
Wurundjeri woman Mandy Nicholson stands in a circle of thirty students from Caulfield Grammar. She speaks to us in her language Woi wurrung and then translates: “My name is Mandy. My people are the Wurundjeri wilam, within the Wurundjeri-baluk mob.“
She doesn’t welcome us to country – that is and always has been the job of Elders – but does thank her ancestors: the many Grandmothers, Grandfathers, Aunties and Uncles.
Mandy also thanks us for being on her traditional land today at Pound Bend, which she describes as "It's one of the post important areas along the Yarra."
These 14 seconds of language might not seem complex but as we learn over the next two hours, nothing is as simple as it seems.
There was no dictionary for Mandy’s language, no grammar and no fluent speakers, only a simple wordlist. Every word, every phrase has been painstakingly pieced together, sentences excavated from the past.
Those words reflect the resilience of a people who were banned from speaking their language and practicing their culture; a people so decimated by war, disease and displacement that their very existence came down to just one woman, Mandy’s great, great, great grandmother Annie Boorat.
All of the estimated 3,000 present day Wurundjeri people are descended from Annie.
Connect to country
Before we start out Mandy asks us to stand for a minute in silence and just listen. The kids are immediately, and respectfully silent. We hear the river, the Yarra, Birrarung, river of mists, the guyup-guy up, birds and the murnmut wind.
“It’s important to do stuff on country, to get that feeling to be connected to the surroundings,” Mandy says. “Every time I come here it’s really still. It’s a really peaceful place.”
“It’s not about just looking and feeling the ground beneath our feet but knowing that we are connected to this, through our mind, body and soul, down to mother earth.”
We gather around the first seven interpretative signs that are laid out along the river path, gently guiding visitors through what is sometimes a difficult history.
We are introduced to Bunjil the eagle, the spiritual creator and Waa, his raven helper.
Each child, Mandy explains, is given either Bunjil or Waa at their birth as their spiritual protector.
In the ‘old times’ this curling bend in the river was a place of plenty, rich with food like yabbies, eel and fish. It was a popular site for conducting ceremonies and trade – including match-making, Mandy says.
The totems or moieties helped make sure people didn’t marry relatives. “It was a system that we had for thousands of years, and it worked really well.
“But for me and my daughters, in terms of getting a partner it’s very tricky. Pretty much we are related to all of Victoria,” she says.
The kids immediately start to chatter: an ancient tradition with a modern twist.
We move on and pass a fence full of clematis in flower. Mandy stops. “Crush it up in your hand, it gets rid of your headache.”
And it does.
The great Australian silence
The next sign is tough. It details what Mandy calls “the secret history; the great Australian silence.”
It was a history the working group who developed the signs – which was led by Wurundjeri people with input from Parks Victoria, local historians and Manningham council – wanted to bring out, she says.
“Not many people know about it, but it’s starting to not be silent anymore.”
The sign reads: “European arrival represented a period of mass genocide, new diseases and loss of land.” And then: “By 1828 only ten percent of their population remained.”
For local historian Dr Jim Poulter – whose great-grandfather grew up with the Wurundjeri at Templestowe – these two sentences summarise a devastating and catastrophic time.
Plague had swept through the population even prior to the appearance of white man. Violence – including from the first two settlers near Warrandyte, James Anderson and Charles Newman – was common.
Survivors could no longer access their traditional land. Staple foods like the yam daisy were ripped up for crops and land fenced for sheep.
People starved. Babies stopped being born. “It was a virtual decimation,” he says.
Alarmed at the population decline, it was agreed in 1841 to set aside a section of land for the Wurundjeri people. It took nine years, but in 1850 the Pound Bend Aboriginal Reserve was created, to provide some hope for survival.
Jim estimates about 100 people moved there, including the new headman or Ngurungaeta Simon Wonga; all that remained from a pre-contact population that numbered in the tens of thousands.
“[Then] gold was discovered in Warrandyte. There was a great influx of people, and it became non-viable to have a reserve.” In less than two years, once more the Wurundjeri were moved on.
“But not before they held one last great corroboree of the Kulin nation, a farewell to traditional tribal life,” but not to them as a people.
That was in 1852. And it was here in Pound Bend.
Mandy doesn’t dwell on the painful history of this sign. Instead she draws our attention to the art-work which illustrates it, a painting by the last traditional Ngurungaeta Willam Barak, Annie Boorat’s brother.
It is from paintings like these, she says, that her people can look for clues to help reconstruct traditions and ceremonies.
The men wear their decorated possum skin cloaks while they danced. The women held their digging sticks and pounded them on the ground in unison.
“He painted ceremony and that’s allowed us to understand, to recreate ceremonies, language and dance.”
“It’s my great dream to get the mobs together again for such a celebration,” she says.
“We do performances for the public but we’ve got to do it for our own mobs, big gatherings like that. Just for our mobs, because that creates healthy people.”
Most of Wurundjeri women’s ceremony is shrouded in mystery.
“Women’s ceremony was secret, so a lot of our stuff wasn’t passed on. We’ve had to rejuvenate and regenerate our own ceremonies, our own paint up, our own language and song.”
Mandy has – with the help of senior Elder Aunty Diane Kerr – already resurrected Murrum Turukuruk, a coming of age ceremony for young girls who are no longer children and not yet women.
Twenty girls, including her two daughters went through this. She shows us the possum skins the girls decorated with personal symbols to wear during dance and ceremony. It also is a drum, a traditional instrument of Wurundjeri women.
“It’s the first time we had this ceremony since European arrival.”
These skins are part of a small collection of modern day artefacts, but linked to traditional creation practises, Mandy shows us – like the language, it’s clear how painstaking the process is to revive cultural practice.
There are necklaces made from dhirrara; reeds, dilbanain; emu feather skirts and a big walert-walert; possum skin cloak, which historically would have been heavily decorated with designs.
Mandy lights up when she talks about her Djirri Djirri dance group.
“We’ve had to start from the beginning again, but eventually this will be old and so the generations will learn again,” she says.
“We dance for the animals that are around us, we dance for the rivers that are around our country, we dance for the earth and we dance for our families.”
She shows us the lyrebird dance they have created, adapted from the male version taught to her by Wurundjeri elder Murrundindi.
As Mandy breaks into the dance, she sings in Woi wurrung and her voice rings out across the valley. It’s a poignant moment; once again the valley is ringing with Aboriginal song.
As we continue to follow the signs, upstream of the river, conversation flows. The students are genuinely interested in what Mandy has to say.
There are so many layers to this history: both past and present.
Peppered through her conversation are language words, talk of old practices being renewed, and constant references to a proud and resilient culture.
She reminds as that even Aussie rules can traces its roots back to marngrook, a traditional Aboriginal ball game. It was played right here, where we are walking.
We learn about the leadership of Simon Wonga and William Barak, two of her ancestors, who navigated what must have been a heart-breaking landscape of loss and death to help their people survive.
And Mandy talks about tikilara or the spirit of the place. “This area here has very spiritual connections to the river; all around Warrandyte and Wonga Park.”
She captured this idea in a painting she made to honour William Barak, displayed on one of the signs.
“It explains the connection to earth.
“His hand and the earth have fingerprints over both of them.” And country, like fingerprints, it is something you cannot remove, she says.
“You can take somebody away from country, but you can’t take country out of that person, out of their soul.”
We finish on a quiet note, all of us perhaps a little stunned by the sweep of stories we’ve just walked on this simple yerrin barring or bush path.
But as with Mandy’s apparent greeting at the beginning of the tour, nothing is as simple as it seems – especially not when walking the path of our shared history.