Jida Murray Gulpilil bathes himself in the thick, fragrant smoke from a pile of burning gum leaves beside a creek in the backwoods of northern Victoria. For him this is the smell of home. The past, but also the future.
"Come," he says. "Get in the smoke. Cleanse our spirits, let the ancestors know we are here. Maybe they will guide us and show us things we have never seen before. I am going to take you into the Aboriginal world, and this is where we start."
The creek is the Kinypanial. It runs low and slow out of the Loddon River and into Lake Boort, three hours north-west of Melbourne. The creek is the colour of strong tea from all the submerged gum leaves. Dragonflies pop across the surface on a humid summer day. Redfin and yellowbellies jump.
This is sacred and ancient Aboriginal ground. Few know about the 500 scarred trees here; trees with bark peeled hundreds of years ago for Indigenous canoes, sculptures, head-dresses, vessels and pegboards to stretch possum skins on. Within the creek is the site of an old meeting place, denoted by three tall trees. "A place for ceremony, lore, knowledge, language," said Gulpilil.
The trees are in the two Boort lakes and in the creek which runs between them. Some have fallen, some are partly submerged, when there is water. Most are around 200-300 years old. Some a lot older. Boort also has a remarkable and unpreserved collection of Aboriginal cooking mounds and ovens, about 50 in total, and about six per kilometre in certain stretches near the bigger lake.
Material from here – clay and tools – have been carbon dated (by Gulpilil, independently) at 4600 years old. Yet it all just sits out in the open, unheralded and, for the most part, unprotected. It is also unsurveyed.
We are just a few minutes from the town of Boort, near Kerang. It is Dja Dja Warrung country. Waterskiers, jetskiers and summer campers populate the smaller of the two lakes. The trees and the entire archive are so close, but also so far.
According to Gulpilil – and he's not alone – the sites are crucial Indigenous cultural history. "This is equal to the cultural and environmental values that Kakadu and Lake Mungo contain. We have to know this story."
His father is the famed actor and dancer David Gulpilil, from Arnhem Land, but his mother's people come from here. How long? "Fair to say 2000 generations. It's fair for us to say that."
Boort historian and Vietnam veteran Paul Haw – a white 70-year-old - was bestowed the honour of being named an 'honorary caretaker' of country by a Dja Dja Warrung elder in the 90s. Haw has mapped the trees and the mounds fastidiously and keeps an archive of artefacts – tools, sharpening and cutting stones, greenstone axes – in his garage.
The black-box and redgum trees can live 1000 years, he said. "A tree that has lived most of its life without white fellas." Many of the scarred trees further north along the Murray River were lost, cut down to fuel steamboats. Boort's remain but they also remain a secret.
The story is set to emerge from the old swamplands, finally. Just last month the state government quietly signed a 'recognition and settlement agreement' with the Dja Dja Warrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation (DDWCAC) – covering a large area bordered by Boort, Donald, Rochester and Woodend. It was the first such agreement in Victoria and gave rights for Dja Dja Warrung people to hunt and fish on their own land without a licence but without affecting existing users.
The deal also includes a land use agreement which the government says is to "end the uncertainty and complexity" of native title law "by providing more straightforward and clearly defined procedural rights for traditional owners over public land".
Six national parks have been handed back to the Dja Dja Warrung for joint management. "This is about cultural and ecological knowledge," said the chief executive officer of the clans corporation, Rodney Carter. "It is an extremely significant partnership between the traditional owners and the state."
Now there is a big push underway to get the scarred trees and the cooking mounds preserved, recognised and promoted. The Loddon Shire Council has already given initial money towards a scheme which they hope might see eventually boardwalks and trails, and guides such as Gulpilil, getting eco-tourists around the sites.
New chief executive Phil Pinyon is not long out of a shire job in the Northern Territory. "What we have at Boort is not dissimilar to rock art in the Kakadu," he says. "There is a risk people will not respect the trees and remove or deface them. Indigenous tourism has taken off in other parts of Australia, and we are striking distance from Melbourne and Bendigo."
The British Museum has an elaborate emu head-dress made from the bark of a Boort scarred trees, and they have three actual trees, but there is nothing closer than London, let alone Loddon.
It's curious that such a remarkable Indigenous fulcrum sits unnoticed like this. There are weathered, peeling old signs from the 1960s with paintings of fish and yabbies and Aboriginal men with beards and spears on the craggy shores of the lake. Locals Aboriginals hate them; they are kitsch and colonial. And there's an older sign on a dirt road heading toward Kinypanial Creek which trumpets white history but white history only: "This is the site of the first settlement in the District, 1875 – 1883. Church built 1880," it says.
White people from Boort generally know something of the trees and are respectful and proud of them. The Dja Dja Warrung and more particularly the hyper-local clans (Gulpilil is with the Yung Balug) are in awe of them. Their totems are Bunjil, an eaglehawk or wedge-tailed eagle, and Waa, a crow. Near Boort and visible from it on a good day is Mount Buckrabanyule, the home for the traditional owners of Mindii, the Rainbow Serpent. There's a rock formation on top that looks like a snake's head. It is a landscape deep with tradition, where massacres and the ravages of smallpox cut down swathes of Indigenous families.
The problem in Boort seems to have been that there was never an advocate to propel the area into the state's and country's gaze. Now there is a coterie of advocates, including the state government, local government and local authorities. Cultural heritage consultant Andrew Long, an expert in scarred trees who has advised Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, learned about the trees in 1993 doing archeological work. When the lake dried up in 1998 he saw the "very, very large number in a small area".
He explains the trees were in effect "fossilised" when the lake was dammed in 1850, "freezing them in time" by not allowing for new bark to grow over the scar. This spared them from "the ravages of agriculture" to follow, which is why there are so many and the scarred, cut bark is so well preserved. He uses the photographic analogy of a "negative image" to describe them: "a clear record of daily activity."
Canoeing up the creek with Gulpilil and Haw, it's easy to sense the times when people moved amongst the trees and camped on the banks. The large cooking mounds, the middens, are clearly visible. The people cooked with fire and clayballs. It's impossible to not sense generations of life here.
Clayballs, explains Gulpilil, were the heatbeads of these old times. Made from river clay, water and grass, rolled into balls, dried and set in fires. You literally walk through them, white balls the size of tennis or golf balls on the ground, everywhere, rock hard and very old.
Gulpilil rolls them through his fingers, breathing slowly in the heat. "Sometimes," he says, "we can see their fingerprints in them." Trees rise up around him, touched also by the industry of his ancestors.
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