This is that other story, a story of 16′ skiffs, haunted homes and secret coves…
Frenchmans Bay is beyond the bay from Yarra and just a stretch from La Perouse. It is one of the earliest points of contact between Indigenous Australians and Europeans, a tale of cultural consternation and beetle-red coats. For thousands of years Aboriginal people camped in this place – known as Kurewol – a small site on the northern peninsula, bursting with bush tucker, and rich in spoils from the sea. The crumbly remains of a million molluscs stand still, as the midden which makes up much of the point between the two bays.
The stepping ashore of Arthur Phillip and La Perouse, who arrived within six days of each other in January 1788, heralded the first crack of the fissure that tore through the evolution of the Kameygal nation. White feet in dusty damp boots strode across the sands; deals were made, allegiances founded and colonial control brokered. But while the prickly-pear inducing redcoats prevailed, here, above a curl of sand, a little of the old lore endures…
In 1883, long beyond courteous “hello!”s, a camp was established at Yarra, under the Aborigines Protection Board – with its slogan To Remove and Protect – a police department established to manage reserves and the ‘welfare’ of Aboriginal people living in New South Wales in the 1880s.
The Board developed isolationist and protectionist legislation that restricted the capacity of Indigenous communities to choose where they lived, receive education at the same standard as the European population, set their own employment contracts, drink alcohol or receive family endowment in cash. The laws were callous, contentious and objectively cruel, an apartheid in every way but name. The land this community has such indelible links to, became their prison, a reserve of physical borders and stricture.
The country that surrounds the La Perouse Aboriginal Mission has a raw beauty, space unbound by humanity as it stretches to the horizon. It is a simple contradiction to the vehement history Yarra has borne witness to and a gentle foil to enduring sense of inequality and cultural marginalisation in Australia. Sasparilla, pig face and fivies abound, coastal wattles, ti tree and Port Jackson figs crowd in, and the waters that lap the two bays boil with life.
Federation-period Yarra Bay House was built in 1903 as an addition to the Cable Station at La Perouse. Originally built to house workers, the old girl went on to prop up various government departments, and was run as a New South Wales Government institution for state children from 1917 until the early 1980s. According to the Dictionary of Sydney, “like many other homes run by the NSW Child Welfare Department, it is a site where the histories of Forgotten Australians and the Stolen Generations coalesce”.
As we approach from the sea, there is a sense that we are being watched, wary eyes through shuttered windows rutted with recrimination. This house has bled with warfare – social, political, cultural, systemic and institutional – and it is draped in angst. Yet today there is a sense of calm introspection, as if its gaze has finally turned in, to a navel that safely cradles the belly of the community it once imprisoned.
The Guriwal Aboriginal Corporation has a shiny bus parked up out the front, and the house rattles delightedly with the mob chattering and laughing in the big room. The Tin Lid runs helter skelter into a pirate, complete with eye patch, who strides through the front door. The little fella is quick to recover:
Where’s your sword?
Me what little mate?
Your sword… all pirates have swords.
I got a big stick for catching crabs, but I ain’t got no sword.
Well, that makes me the winner then – huzzah!
I remonstrate with the overly contentious five year old and introduce myself to the crab hunter. His name is Uncle Trev and he is not a pirate, he has an eye infection. He’s here for a cup of tea and a Rich Tea apparently, and to see the mob.
Guriwal – an inflection of Kurewol – has a strong tradition; a bush tucker track was established in 2008 to collect knowledge and information about local plants used for bush tucker, medicines and crafts, and the group is proactively promoting Yarra as an Indigenous eco-tourism spot, as well as a place of learning. Here, the young mob are invited to come and learn the old ways:
My mother’s side of the family were all fishermen, and used to fish at Frenchmans Bay, Congwong Bay and Yarra Beach. They used to net the fish. My uncle, Henry Cooley, was a good sailor. I’ve been out to sea with him a lot. There was no compass and he used to tell by the stars. The weather and the stars was the Aboriginal’s main way of dealing with life. I’ve done a lot of travel with traditional Aboriginals and they can tell you what was going to grow next according to the weather.
The bush has a hardware, butcher, sweets, chemist, bakery and fruit shop… The hardware shop would have the Ti Tree in it – when it was green it was used for indoor brooms and when it was dry it was used as a yard broom…. When it was in flower it would tell you when the fish were running.
In our chemist you’d find the inkweed which you’d use instead of Conti’s Crystals. You can only work with the inkweed when the berries are purple. My mother would put it in the bath tub if you had scabies, ringworm or any itches.
If you had gout you’d boil it up and put your feet in it. You would never drink or eat it though. Other medicines included Sarsaparilla, which a lot of Kooris use for cancer treatment and cleansing the stomach. Bracken fern was used for stings.
The bush also provided a sweet-shop. If you were down the beach and hungry you’d go to the hill and have a feed of Pigface… and the bakery would have bread made from the wattle seeds. The yellow Lomandra pods were used for damper and Johnny cakes. You also made bread from the Burrawang but it is highly toxic. You’d have to leech it in water to get the poison out. The old people used to know exactly how long you’d need to rinse it for before you’d be able to use it for a feed.’
According to the Dictionary of Sydney, “La Perouse is a place that marks a significant beginning. It is a different sort of beginning, not a triumphant story of the coming of civilisation, but the beginning of the invasion, of dispossession and degradation. Yet La Perouse is the only Sydney suburb where Aboriginal people have kept their territory from settlement until today, and its history is a story of the survival of culture in the face of European invasion.”
In 1984, this powerful place acquired even more significance for the Indigenous population here: land title was awarded to the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, in what can only be described as an imperfect arc. This place – once taken away, renamed and redesigned as a holding cell – has returned to its traditional owners.
With a lick of paint on the old girl, and a metaphorical spit and polish to remove the cultural grime, Yarra Bay House is now the administrative headquarters of the Land Council and a base for community organisation, services and activism. And it’s where Uncle Trev comes for a cuppa…
In the depression of a Depression-era nook, where once whole mobs lived and laughed in shanties on the water’s edge, the Tin Lid, his bottom-waggling mate and red-wellied mother, the Kelpie, her stick and stick-thrower come to watch.
We watch the elements as they fold around time; we spy the skiffs on the crests of tiny waves; we wait for ghosts to sigh and still; and we learn that if you sit still enough history will unfurl on the breeze, another story carried on tides of time, honour and patience.