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The whale sized mysteries of Ku-ring-gai

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Wild About Whales
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National parks
Welcome to Guringai Land

“Welcome to Guringai Land”, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.

Located in Sydney's north, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, Australia’s second-oldest national park, combines intriguing history with breathtaking scenery, making it a recreational hotspot for locals and visitors alike. With winding creeks and stretches of ocean backed by eucalypt rainforests, rocky cliffs and mangroves, the heritage-listed park will have you feeling at one with nature, without leaving the Sydney metro area.

For thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers, the area from Newcastle down to Sydney, including the national park, was inhabited by a group of Aboriginal people who spoke a common language. That language is known as ‘Kuringgai’ (sometimes spelt Guringai) and is derived from the name which Aboriginal people in south eastern Australia still use to describe themselves – ‘kuri’ (koori). The second half of the word – ‘nggai’ identifies the possessive form of the word, which is probably the element that led to the hyphenated form Ku-ring-gai, used since about the 1880s. Kuringgai can be loosely translated as ‘belonging to the Aborigines’.

Ku-ring-gai Chase National ParkKu-ring-gai Chase National Park.

To learn more about the rich Aboriginal history of the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and how whales played an important role and had significant influence on the lives of the traditional owners of the land, we had a chat with Laurie Bimson and Les McLeod of Guringai Aboriginal Tours. The pair, descendants of the local clans, have been running the tour for 8 years and their vast knowledge goes without saying.

Guringai Aboriginal Tours take you to visit ancient art sites and learn how their traditional styles of art were created over thousands of years.  For non-Aboriginal people it is easy to view rock art as an individual piece of art. We admire the beauty and intricacy of it, then walk on to the next piece, just like in a museum. However, most Aboriginal art sites were not intended to be viewed that way. Each piece of art forms an interconnected grid of sites, or places, which are all part of an overall story which is more than its parts. Significant sites can be found throughout the lands belonging to the Guringai people that depict whales. These whale carvings portray the mammals’ significance in the Dreaming and creation stories, as well as inform passersby’s what food is available in the area and how to perform various rituals and ceremonies.

Rock carvings in Ku-ring-gai Chase National ParkRock carvings in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.

Laurie and Les take you to various Aboriginal sites where they share with you their stories of their ancestors. Many of their stories feature whales and you will gain a sense of Guringai’s connection and interaction with the whale. Whales and their migration patterns, played a big part in the lives of the Guringai people – this is evident by the various stories, historic rock engravings and rituals that exist within the clan. The giant, majestic whales were seen as the “law makers” or wise man of the sea, so it is of no surprise to see them depicted throughout Aboriginal sites on the coast of NSW.

Further to the whales’ part in the Guringai peoples' lives, it wasn’t surprising to have a whale bestowed upon you as a totem. A totem is a natural object, plant or animal that is inherited by members of a clan or family or individual as their spiritual emblem. Totems define roles and responsibilities within the tribe, and their relationships with each other and creation. For those that were associated with the whale totem, it was their responsibility for the stewardship of the giant creatures. The duty of care taken up by these individuals was a highly spiritual and humbling affair. In fact, parties would often sing to the migrating whales to ensure a safe journey.

Breaching humpback whaleBreaching humpback whale. Photo: Jodie Lowe.

After your Guringai Aboriginal Tour, the nearby West Head lookout is a must visit. Arguably one of Sydney’s best lookouts, prepare yourself for fantastic views of Pittwater, Barrenjoey Head and the Central Coast that need to be seen t be believed. You can also enjoy amazing vistas across the Hawkesbury River to Lion Island Nature Reserve and the beaches of the Central Coast, including Patonga and Umina Beach.

West Head lookout, Ku-ring-gai Chase National ParkWest Head lookout Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.

For a great experience that highlights the best of the Aboriginal art in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, step out on the Aboriginal Heritage walk. Combining Resolute and West Head walking tracks, you’ll encounter the various historic rock engravings and art of the Guringai people. The West Head walking track will lead you straight to the lookout, an amazing view to spot the migrating whales.

Tragically, the Aboriginal people of West Head were virtually decimated by an outbreak of smallpox within a year of the arrival of the First Fleet and as such, a lot of stories and traditions of the area have been lost through time. Once at the top of the lookout, it’s important to pause for a moment in this beautiful bushland, to reflect and pay your respects.

Les McLeod and Laurie Bimson of Guringai Aboriginal ToursLes McLeod and Laurie Bimson, Guringai Aboriginal Tours.

To this day, Ku-ring-gai is a culturally diverse society that still retains much of its unique natural and built heritage. With its immensely rich history and untouched natural beauty, a visit to Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park will leave you with a new sense of awe and appreciation for our amazing coastline.

To learn more about Guringai Aboriginal Tours or to book a tour, visit their website here!

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