Trish Barnard

For Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, everything in the landscape has its place of importance according to spiritual beliefs systems, and knowledge of this has been handed down orally from one generation to the next. Through rock art, ceremony, dance and stories, this knowledge has been recorded from well before Europeans began documenting the many different Indigenous cultures within Australia. The location of culturally significant sites associated with ‘the Dreaming’ continues to inform contemporary Indigenous society. The simple stamping on the land to creating dust during ceremonial performances reminds us of the earth that we come from.

Dreaming – story time

Landscapes across Queensland are associated with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ancestral ‘dreaming’ or story time. Across northern Australia, Aboriginal people have traditional stories of how the Rainbow Serpent broke through the earth creating all land forms such as gorges, rivers, mountains and islands. Similar interpretations are written across the land, each group in their own language narrating stories of ancestral totemic spirits who produced the people, all life, lore, language and culture. Song lines or song cycles traverse the country, related to these ancestral spirits. In order to identify the landmarks in the appropriate sequence, songs are sung, depending on the custodial relationship, to heighten their spiritual sensitivity to the dimension of the ‘dreaming’. In doing so, spirits inform singers of the location of each site within the landscape, and the land and ancestral stories are preserved. Song lines are used in ritual ceremony, to navigate vast distances or to find places for freshwater. Many traditional stories or language names have influenced the names given to places recorded by early European surveyors.

Popular tourist destinations such as the Glass House Mountains, Barron Gorge, Laura escarpment or the enigmatic Carnarvon Gorge, visually arresting features in the landscape, are associated with creation or totemic stories passed down for thousands of years. In many cases the cultural information is incorporated into mainstream tourism and activities that enhance visitor experiences and cross cultural understanding. There are also mythological and ceremonial sites of cultural significance distinguished by stone arrangements or bora rings. Such sites continue to be important places for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The ‘dreaming’ concept is fundamental to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For Aboriginal people, signs through the landscape of the Rainbow Serpent’s journey are seen as footprints and natural elements that embody their existence. The Bidjara and Karingbal people understand/see the ancestor’s power in Carnarvon Gorge, where he rose from the earth and carved a spectacular path travelling along the sandstone to create the creeks. For the Umpila people at Lockhart River, there is a footprint on top of a rock at Quintal Beach, evidence of the Rainbow Serpents journey. In the rainforest region, the Rainbow Serpent rose from the sea and pushed through the earth in the form of a carpet snake to create the Barron Gorge on Djabugay country. He returned again with some nautilus shells as gifts to the people and was savagely attacked by greedy bird-men and pieces of him were flung across the country. The Djabugay have said the mouth landed on the coastline called Yilamaga, a place of healing waters which is spoken of in Gunggandji stories at Yarrabah. Yilamagay is one of their most sacred sites and is maintained by an Elder from one generation to the next. Local Yarrabah artist, Cornelius Richards stated,

this area is very sacred to my people because it also tells a story of how Captain Cook from the Endeavour came here for fresh water. Joseph Banks a botanist from the ship came ashore for fresh water and even though he saw smoke from camp fires he could not see anybody there. But my people were there all the time... This medicine water is not crystal clear, it is red and white but you can drink it and bathe in it. For the healing process to work you must have a representative or a tribal elder with you when you go there.

Mount Mulligan on the Atherton Tablelands, a curious tabletop monolith of conglomerate and sandstone surrounded by steep ominous cliffs, is a highly significant cultural site known to the local Djungan people as Ngarrabullgan.  The Djungan people have avoided camping on this mountain because of the spiritual power of Eekoo, the malevolent spirit that resides at Lake Kungarra. Eekoo had played a role in the creation of the mountain and will cause great sickness to those who do not abide by cultural law. Evidence of occupation by Aboriginal people at Ngarrabullgan has been excavated and shows radio carbon dates of 40,000 years ago, making it the oldest occupied site in Queensland.

Paintings on the rock surface at the ancestral site of ‘Mushroom Rock’ shelter in low woodland near Laura show an inverted white spirit. The shelter is believed to have been occupied for over 10,000 years. Known as Quinkan Country and containing many spectacular galleries of well-documented rock paintings, it is highly significant for cultural reasons and also a popular destination for curious tourists. Another site close by is called ‘Early Man’ and contains engravings of motifs and animals. A charcoal deposit dated to over 15,000 years before present provides evidence of the existence and history of a hunting-and-gathering society.

In the southeast corner of Queensland, the Mununjali people have told how Round Mountain near Laravale, tumbled from the sky. This story has been studied by scientists who concluded that the mountain was a ‘great volcanic rock sitting on the alluvium of the Logan’, probably created by the eruption of Wollumbin, Mt Warning, verifying the creation story of this unusual mountain. Nearby Kombumerri people call the creation spirit Jabreen, whose fingers can be seen in the rocky protrusions at the top on eastern side of the headland at Jellurgal, Burleigh Heads. Jarbeen was one of three brothers who created the landforms of this region. Mounds of discarded shells, stones, bones and charcoal remnants called ‘middens’, can still be seen around Jellurgal, and the earthen ceremonial ground of the Jebbribillum Bora ring also exists today at nearby Miami. Middens are evidence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander occupation sites and reveal information on their diet and habits, and can be found both across the landscape and sea floor which had been occupied before the last major rise in sea level more than 15,000 years ago.

The great flood

Throughout the world there are repeated stories about ‘the great flood’ and the causes of ancient floods have been investigated and debated for many years. The Rainbow Serpent rose from the sea near Palm Island and again at Hinchinbrook Island and many other places across the landscape on his journey of creation. But some creation stories articulate narratives about two newly initiated brothers who broke important taboos. Others tell of the consequences of transgressing traditional cultural laws, angering ancestral creation spirits, the carpet snake or rainbow serpent. According to the Djabugay, Gunggandji and Yidinji people of north Queensland, two brothers Damarri and Guyala argued and angered the rainbow serpent who created a storm that raised the sea level over the stretch of land that once connected the mainland to Fitzroy Island. Damarri heated some stones and pushed them into the sea off Yarrabah to stop the flood – these stones can be still seen today. Another time the brothers argued and they made rock and fire come from the ground surrounded by volcanic and metamorphic sediments at the site of the independent peak and distinctive landmark known as Walsh’s Pyramid near Gordonvale.

On the Sunshine Coast tourists and environmentalists learn about the curious volcanic peaks of Mt Tibrogargan, documented by Captain Cook when he saw the protrusions from the Endeavour during his journey up the east coast in 1770, calling them the Glass House Mountains.

Tibrogargan saw the sea waters rising and gathered up his wife Beerwah and children to flee to higher ground in the west. When Tibrogargan asked his eldest son to assist the pregnant Beerwah, Coonowrin cowardly ran by himself. Infuriated, Tibrogargan clubbed Coonowrin dislocating his neck. Today Tibrogargan faces away from Coonowrin whose head hangs shamefully low, and Beerwah the largest mountain, remains heavy with child. Their tears run out to sea in creeks and streams from these mountains. Caboolture to the south of these unusual rock formations is also the place of the ancestral carpet snake. Across the Sunshine Coast, such original Aboriginal names identify places significant to the Kabi traditional owners, imbued with historical, cultural and geological significance.

Totemic sites

Totemic sites across the landscape are protected and respected by the Aboriginal custodians associated with them, both individuals and groups, and stories are told of every mountain, creek and natural formation.

Great powers associated with totemic sites such as Tibrogargan are often considered to be just a superstitious curiosity by non-Aboriginal visitors. According to the Yidinji legend of the ‘Boulders’, a popular swimming hole near Babinda, a young married woman named Oolana became interested in another man named Dyga. Her husband Waroonoo was furious and the lovers fled into the valleys pursued by the Elders and law men. Captured, Oolana broke free and jumped into the still water and pleaded with Dyga to join her. When Dyga hit the water, the land shook in sorrow as she cried and the water turned into a rushing torrent swallowing her beneath the boulders. The spirit of Oolana remains in the ‘Devils pool’ and calls to young men. Tourists are advised to swim in the flowing water with caution - the Devil's Pool has reportedly taken fifteen lives since 1959, mostly young men behaving carelessly.

Some totemic sites document recent historical narratives in the rock art, layered over old traditional paintings. The ‘Giant Horse Gallery’ near Laura displays a curious addition of a large yellow horse that documents the sighting of Edmund Kennedy travelling through Kuku Thypan and Kuku Yalanji country in 1848. This juxtaposition of imagery in the landscape represents the spiritual connection to a totemic site for Aboriginal people and the exploration of the frontier by Europeans who were not yet aware of Aboriginal peoples’ inherent relationship with the land.

Other totemic sites relate to territorial relationships between land and sea creatures, a common theme along the coastal landscape. Land animals such as the sand goanna, Maroon, fought off sea creatures to prevent them coming ashore. After sustaining serious injuries, Maroon died at the base of the Great Dividing Range and turned into rock, Mount Maroon in north Queensland. In southeast Queensland, it was Bingingerra, the turtle who limped back to the lagoons on the Albert River to lay down to die, turning into stone at Mount Biningerra (Mount Witheren) in the shape of a great turtle nest.

Place names

The use of traditional language words for locations mapped across the landscape often reveals curious and interesting histories. During the 1830s and early 1840s, the Surveyor-General of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Mitchell, directed early surveyors to record the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander place names in their field books. Some words refer to the totemic site ­– Kooralbyn (Guralnang) means brown snake for the Yugembah people of southeast Queensland – and some place names were actually taken from groups unrelated to that country, that were travelling with the European adventurers and surveyors. Many place names come from Aboriginal languages from New South Wales, but some from even further away. The name Yatala, for example, is believed to have been applied and taken from yathala, meaning ‘speak’ from an Adelaide group.

Flora and fauna

Many icons within Queensland have taken their name from Aboriginal words. All four species of the Bauple nut, more commonly known as Macadamia nuts, are found in Queensland. Mount Bauple is a place of cultural significance for the Dalungbara people. Bauple, was a frilled lizard who lived at Mt Bauple (Boppil) - a spirit who guarded the sacred place where stone axes were obtained. Mount Bauple National Park is consequently closed to the public and only accessible for scientific research purposes

Another well know nut grown throughout Queensland’s southern rainforest landscape is from the distinctive Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii). It was once only found in bonyi, the Blackall Ranges on Gubbi Gubbi country. The Bunya tree produces large cones which contain about 60 or more flavoursome and nutritious nuts, and was recorded by Andrew Petrie (1798-1872) while exploring for timber for the Government, who named it after the botanist, John Bidwill. Although it fruits annually, it produces an abundant crop every three years. This event attracted Aboriginal groups from throughout the southeastern Queensland region who travelled to the Bunya Mountains to meet and conduct cultural rites, trade, ceremonies and other business. Although the festivals have not taken place since 1902, the Bunya Mountains National Park (Queensland's second national park) remains a place of significance for Aboriginal people.

Native flora in the landscape also serves as signs and indicators for Aboriginal people. When the leaves of young ironwood trees (Erthrophleum chlorostachs) are red, it is time to fish for fat barramundi (normally around September), and the presence of flowers on a Batswing coral tree (Erythrina vespertilio) signifies the best time to eat mud crabs. Flowering Soap trees (Alphitonia excelsa) indicate the end of the wet season, and when the ripened fruits fall, the dry season is approaching and the waterholes will start to dry up.

Perhaps the most famous and first Aboriginal word ever documented is ‘ganguru’ from the Guugu Yimithirr language near Cooktown. Although it originates from an Aboriginal language of northern Queensland, it has become the name for Australia’s iconic fauna. Lieutenant James Cook and his botanist Joseph Banks saw a large grey native animal bouncing across the landscape in 1770,

One of the men saw an animal something less than a grey hound, it was of a Mouse Colour very slender made and swift of foot.

They heard the local people utter the word ‘gangurru’, and wrote ‘kanguru’, now spelt kangaroo.

The pharmaceutical landscape

Traditional knowledge of the landscape and the uses of its resources have evoked curiosity from many interested non-Indigenous people. Documentation of traditional Aboriginal resources by early explorers and settlers, together with recent developments in medicinal uses has contributed to homeopathic and culinary commercial ventures. There has been a trend in restaurants to serve game meats such as crocodile, kangaroo and emu fillets, often accompanied by edible fruits or seasoned with native leaves, desert tomatoes, or ground pepper berries or wattle seeds. More substantially, there has been a major interest in plant-based drugs developed by pharmaceutical companies using Australian flora. Such knowledge of medicinal attributes has been used by Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders for many generations. Many plants were used for domestic purposes such as the milky drinks extracted by straining the crushed Nonda plums (Parinari nonda) with water to wean babies. Others had more significant applications in treating injuries and ailments. A major discovery was the quantity of Hyoscine chemical found naturally in a common rainforest tree, soft corkwood (Duboisia myoporoides), which was to become commercially grown to supply the ophthalmic industry. This natural chemical proved to be useful in eye surgery as a sedative relaxing and dilating the pupil. The plant is also a close relative to pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii) found in the more arid landscape of western Queensland, once used as a valuable trade item for its narcotic properties.

Although the trading of plants and materials is no longer practiced, the knowledge of the landscape and its properties continues to be a major part of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. The curiosity of the landscape will continue to stimulate further research and investigation by non-Indigenous people seeking knowledge from the traditional owners.

References and Further reading (Note)

Timothy Bottoms, Djabugay country: an Aboriginal history of tropical north Queensland, St Leonards, Allen & Unwin, 1999

References and Further reading (Note)

Story place: Indigenous art of Cape York and the rainforest, South Brisbane, Queensland Art Gallery, 2003

References and Further reading (Note)

Bruno David (ed), Ngarrabullgan: geographical investigations in Djungan Country, Cape York Peninsula, Melbourne, Monash University, 1998

References and Further reading (Note)

Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, Sydney, William Collins, 1983 (2004)

References and Further reading (Note)

Ysola Best, ‘Aboriginal and early settler relations on the Logan and Albert Rivers: an Aboriginal view’, Royal Historical Society of Queensland journal, 15/10, February 1995

References and Further reading (Note)

R. O’Connor, ‘The importance of Jellurgal’ in ‘The Kombumerri Aboriginal People of the Gold Coast: ngulli yahnbai gulli bahn bugal bugalehn: we are still here’, unpublished Koombumerri Aboriginal Guide booklet, Burleigh Head National Park, 1997

References and Further reading (Note)

J.G. Steele, Aboriginal pathways in southeast Queensland and the Richmond River, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1984