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Aboriginal people, Botany Bay and the whales

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Tim Ella, Kadoo Tours. Credit: Kadoo Tours.

Tim Ella, Kadoo Tours

13km south of the Sydney CBD lies Botany Bay, arguably one of the most historically significant locations in Australia. For thousands of years the lands that would become Botany Bay were occupied by the First Australians, the Yuin Nation. The Yuin Nation inhabited a vast section of the east coast from Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) to Merimbula, some 355 kilometres to the south, all the way to the Great Dividing Range in the west. The Yuin Nation, being nomadic in nature, traded and intermarried amongst the tribes that incorporated it and followed the migrations of game, fish and whales. In fact, the impact of these migration patterns were so significant, that the area known as La Perouse today was once called Guriwal, or “Whale” in the tongue of the land’s traditional owners.

Humpback Whale. Photo: Rita Kluge.

Humpback whale. Credit: Rita Kluge via Kadoo Tours.

With our curiosities now piqued, we caught up with Tim and Grant from Kadoo Tours to learn more about the ties between Aboriginal culture, Botany Bay and the migrating whales. Tim, a member of the Yuin Nation and Grant, a local author and historian, have tasked themselves with sharing insights into the oldest culture on Earth and taking keen explorers on “walkabout” around the La Perouse area. There’s so much to be discovered and understood about how the Aboriginal peoples were and still are, part of this land. Tim is a true Aboriginal story-teller, all too happy to share a ‘yarn’ about where his ancestors built their camps, hunted their food and created their tools and works of art.

Tim Ella (right) and Grant Hyde (left), Kadoo Tours

Tim Ella (right) and Grant Hyde (left). Credit: Kadoo Tours.

The pair explained that, to this day, Aboriginal peoples still express their connection to Country and The Spirits through songs, dances, storytelling, paintings and engravings.

Their intrinsic connection to the land is recognised through their totemic life. Totems are a part of identity and are a demonstration of each individual’s connection to both the ‘Real World’ and the ‘Spirit World’. For the Guriwal people, the whale is the major totem. The whale symbolises the relationship the clan members have to each other, to their ancestors, to their past, and to particular sites or places. Playing an important part in everyday life, totems explain what can be hunted or eaten, how to perform ceremonies and even acts as a guide to support people in hard times or when in danger through spiritual strength and comfort.

Etchings of Natives of Botany Bay, R. Cleverly, published June 4, 1789 by J. Stockdale.

Etchings of Natives of Botany Bay, R. Cleverly, published June 4, 1789 by J. Stockdale. Credit: Kadoo Tours.

So imbedded is the whale in Guriwal culture, that various art pieces depicting the creatures can be found throughout the Botany area. Being such a sacred animal, the clan have taken upon themselves the cultural responsibility to protect and oversee the species. For thousands of years, pods of humpback whales have been migrating along the eastern coastline of Australia, and for just as long, have been watched and studied by these ancient investigators. Acting as a second pair of eyes for mother nature, the group would track migration patterns and numbers in the aim of ensuring whale sustainability.

Bare Island overlooking Cape Solander, Kamay Botany Bay National Park

Bare Island, Kamay Botany Bay National Park. Credit: Kadoo Tours.

Unlike other Aboriginal clans, it was culturally unacceptable to hunt these mystical creatures. However, If a whale beached itself on shore, it was seen as a gift from the spirits and the Guriwal people would gather to feast on the rich blubber. Cape Solander, where the Continental Shelf comes close to the shoreline, is the best spot to view large pods of whales swim past. As it stands, the record sightings in one day is 113 whales as recorded on July 13 of this year!

Jibbon Aboriginal rock engravings in Royal National Park, south of Botany Bay. Photo: David Finnegan

Jibbon Aboriginal rock engravings in Royal National Park. Credit: Kadoo Tours.

Thanks to William Campbell, a Government Surveyor between 1886 and 1894, engravings that he encountered around Sydney during his surveying work, were recorded, and although faint, still exist today. Without Campbell’s work and curiosity, we would possess a far more limited understanding of the complexity and importance of these engraving sites. During his travels, Campbell discovered an engraving of a whale in Botany Bay on “a high part of the low rocky point at La Perouse,” close to Bare Island. When he questioned the local Aboriginal people at the La Perouse camp, he was told the engraving represented a “Boora” whale, which is heavily associated with initiation ceremonies.

There’s so much to be discovered in the Botany Bay Area, bursting at the seems with intricate stories, ancient tradition, and enchanting heritage just waiting to be uncovered.

Spoiler alert once you have toured with Kadoo you will come to look at the Australian bush and our coastline in a very different way.

To Learn more about Kadoo Tours or to book a tour, visit their website Kadoo Tours website!

Disclosure: all cultural content contained in this article was shared with NPWS by Tim Ella.

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