No Country for old gods

The Librarian has a gentle disposition and an exquisite mind, questioning, answering, considering and sharing the stories that depict our world. It’s her idea to escape the molten confines of the inner city and leave the mirage-like heat behind for a few hours. Good for the soul, she said, packing a cooked chook and salad, a peace offering for the lizards.

Unconvinced anywhere west of New Zealand would be cooler than the city, the Tin Lid and I are swayed by mobile air-con, something we have never known and, it turns out, quite like.

But The Librarian, in her wisdom, is correct. When we emerge from the van with low-grade frostbite, the pathway that leads into the bush behind Heathcote train station is shaded and inviting, a siren in sparkles belting out a show tune.

An ancient track that leads deep into Dharawal Country, our feet carry us into the dappled cool of a eucalypt forest littered with cabbage tree palms and fronded ferns, breath easier in our lungs, solace found in the earthy peace that settles on tight shoulders and calms rabid thoughts.

The Tin Lid leads, The Librarian follows and I keep getting distracted by the light. It is mesmerising, guttering softly through the leaves as if caught on a breeze. The pathway is striped in shade, delicate geometries of shape that coalesce and disperse around us, and although the sun beats down on a 36º-day, it is cool and dank and shrouded.

Damp footprints suggest the track runs along an ephemeral creek line, recent rains drafting the water table close. It is welcome respite from the heat-fractured pavements of the city, where even weeds wilt beneath the fierce solar glare.

Lured in by the promise of deeper water at Karloo Pool a few kays in, we pick up the pace, skittering over wet rocks and boggy puddles, mud at our heels. The sound of trickling water in Kangaroo Creek, which feeds into the pool, brings on raw excitement and the Tin Lid is out of the blocks, honed in on the emerald waters of this 30-metre long sandstone waterhole. He’s submerged before The Librarian can get a cultured word in, an almighty splash soaking her story.

An amphitheatre of natural architecture, the pool appears carved from the rock in a natural scoop, buttery edges stepping into the cool depths of a running creek. There are bodies slick with water in every direction, paddling, floating, duck diving and holler-jumping, each as carefree as the next, old, young, sleek, rumpled. From hiking-booted Christians to eshay’s in full sleeve tatts and tiny tots clad in pink inflatables shrieking in delight – it’s a diverse mob.

Word is, this pristine and achingly beautiful place is home to a grandfather yabby, some 40cm in length. The Tin Lid recoils slightly at the thought, having come off worse with a particularly nippy crayfish named Miss Maude some years ago. There are eels and water dragons, ballsy cockatoos laughing derisively, and sparrows that flit around your heels.

But the star of the show is the light, glinting on the silken sheen of water as it ripples through the pool, piercing the surface and refracting below so that as you swim back up, you are bathed in golden rays.

There is the sense of a cult movie at play, sun-kissed limbs snaking beneath the surface of the water, tinted with tannin and indolence, a suspension of expected norms, adolescence played out through every generation. It is indulgent, luscious even; its fluidity a respite from the ties that bind.

And the Tin Lid is embracing every part of it:

This is Dharawal Country, rich in story and lore, ochre handprints, shell middens, rock shelters, stone engravings and grinding grooves, stretching south of Botany Bay and the Georges River, west to Appin, and down to Wreck Bay near Nowra. The Dharawal Welcome to Country causes raw emotion to bubble up from the depths:

Bereewagal, naa niya. Yura ngura dyi ngurang gurugal.

People who come from afar, I see all of you. Aboriginal people camped here, at this place, long ago.

Ngoon dyalgala niya, ngoon bamaraadbanga ni.

We embrace all of you; we open the door to all of you.

Ngoon – mari ngurang – niya mudang yura ngurra.

We lend this place to all of you to live while we sleep.

Dyi nga ni nura.

Here I see my country.

Dharawal welcome to country: The story of the Dharawal speaking people of Southern Sydney

The Dharawal People ‘lend this place’ to us. Think about that. As part of the oldest living civilisation on earth, and proud survivors of colonial genocide, there is such poignancy and pride in this powerful acceptance of shared space despite a past littered with pain, marginalisation and dispossession.

It is truly humbling.

Dharawal is said to mean ‘cabbage tree palm’, which is fitting in this canopied world. It is believed that Dharawal women were some of the first to fish with hand lines, too, weaving taut strings from plaited hair or twine from the palms.

The ‘guru’ – deep water – here is a great source of food: frogs, yabbies, tortoises and eels (‘burra’), which the men would catch by placing hollow logs into the water and then pulling out the log once the eel had hidden inside. To keep the little ones safe, they were told the story of the bunyip that haunted waterholes to capture children and stash them in an underground lair… an effective deterrent by any measure, though not for the Tin Lid, who has now considering a swan dive.

As we eat Famous Five food (hard boiled eggs, salad, ginger beer) on warm rocks, our toes in the water (a curious lizard picking up crumbs of yolk while steadfastly refusing the lettuce) it is easy to understand what this place gives back. There is a serene calm that comes with being cradled by the natural world, and the memories of mobs of people fishing, swimming, living and loving are etched on the air, an invisible tattoo of the past.

A quick round of Pooh Sticks, adapted today into a gum leaf race, and we head back to the track, the long scramble uphill bearable with the scent of cool water still on our skin.

While the shadows are longer, shaded tree boughs still have gilded crowns, and the expanse of the Royal National Park is awing. How many other sacred waterholes exist in this leafy nirvana? How many eons of time have passed unperturbed by modern life save from whooping joy and the flash of a neon floaty?

Some say The Shire is ‘God’s own country’, but there is no ‘god’ here. There is reverence and respect, and a deep sense of place that fosters an ancient worship, the recognition of Country, of spirits, the earth, the water, the sky. But no god.

And that is exactly how it should be.

My thanks to Les Bursill, Mary Jacobs, artist Deborah Lennis, Dharawal Elder Aunty Beryl Timbery-Beller and Dharawal spokesperson Merv Ryan and their insight in DHARAWAL The story of the Dharawal speaking people of Southern Sydney.