Words by Dorian Mode. Photography Lydia Thorpe
Girri Girra is a 100% Aboriginal-owned cultural tourism business, owned and operated by Tim Selwyn, an ex-colleague of mine from NAISDA Aboriginal College, where I had the great privilege to teach indigenous students for four years. Tim’s been running tours on the Central Coast for yonks now and with lockdown, there’s never been a better time to experience culture in our own backyard, before Rio Tinto blows it all up. Tim has all the accreditation and National Parks passes to underscore the validity of his excellent tours. This is important, as you know (a) you are getting the correct cultural information and (b) the tour operator has permission and insurances to access important cultural sites.
We meet at Bulgandry Aboriginal Engraving Site at Kariong. I’m reminded of how few seniors on the Central Coast even know about this remarkable site. My 81-year-old neighbour, for instance, who’s lived on the Central Coast all his life, confessed he’s never been there. And it’s not like you have to machete your way for four hours through scrubland to get there. The car park’s right off Woy Woy Rd, with great senior access and scooter-friendly paths (if needed) along the way.
As Tim steps out of his four-wheel-drive, he takes two long boomerangs and some gum leaves to sing us to country. Before singing he removes his hat. In deference, I remove mine. I would do this upon entering an RSL Club. So I do it for Tim to convey my respect for him and his culture. (We have also asked permission to take photographs in advance.) All of these cultural protocols are a cinch to follow. One tip is to remove your sunglasses. I’ve noticed, indigenous folk place a lot of significance on eye contact. I forget this since my cataract operation. (I’m left being quite sensitive to sunlight and country music.) But it varies from region to region. When I taught kids from the Torres Strait (English was not their first or even second language), some did not wish to make eye contact due to previous strict rules in culture. Not making eye contact is often used to show respect. But in other regions, eye contact is important. And, hey, don’t chew gum, don’t text on your mobile phone, or have loud conversations with fellow tourists while your guide is talking. This is not a tour through the local gardens. Your tour is shrouded in ancient protocols and mysticism, and in expert hands, should leave you with a deep, spiritual connection to the land you live in.
Finally, indigenous people have a cracking sense of humour. But there are times when to make jokes and times when to simply shut up. Especially during cultural storytelling. But indigenous people are highly intuitive people. They know when you are being respectful and when you simply being an ass. Just try to be in tune with the situation. They get it.
Anyway, circling and singing an ancient melody, Tim brushes us with gum leaves. He then speaks of skin groups and moieties (see fact box above). Most indigenous cultures are based in oral traditions passed on by elders so Tim is a skilled storyteller – he’s been guiding tourists since he was 14. Indeed, his tours are rather bespoke, with yarns for different tour groups and guests. He’s never on autopilot, he says.
Walking to the ancient site, we notice a springtime dusting of native wildflowers amongst the charred ‘burn-off’ of trees. Tim indicates various bush tucker and medicines along the way. I ask him why is it that aboriginal guides never taste the bush tucker themselves? He says because it “mostly tastes like shit”. We all laugh. That is, I think my wife is laughing. Her lips are numb from some berry she’s eaten. We then spot some aptly named scribbly gums scared with tedious graffiti. Why do people do this? Tim shakes his head in despair.
After a lazy stroll from the carpark we arrive. These breathtaking carvings are 12,000 years old. So ancient it makes Stone Henge look like it was assembled at Ikea. Tim says National Parks have done an excellent job maintaining the site but frets about vandalism. He points to the graffitied genitals carved into the site by some idiot. And trail-bike tracks across the ancient carvings and handfuls of rice where some thoughtless tourist has decided to have their lunch. What’s the solution? Tim feels the answer is education. This is why a lot of his tours are for local pre-schoolers. ‘Respect for culture and country starts right at the beginning,’ he says. I mention to him that at school we never learned anything about aboriginal history. I knew more about the Crimean War. He admits it was the same for him – and he’s aboriginal. We agree it’s good to see things changing.
Over the next 40 mins, Tim unpacks the hidden meaning of the petroglyphs, like a tour guide describing Van Gogh’s processes in a museum in Amsterdam. He’s engaging and all the time challenging you to think. I like this. And while National Parks have peppered the site with excellent signage, Tim brings the petroglyphs to life. Being in my backyard, I’ve visited the site several times. But Tim takes us down a secret path to a carving that I’d not seen before: a giant whale – the totem of the Darkinjung. It’s rather moving and seems the perfect denouement for the tour. We leave the site with a deeper meaning of the ancient culture of the peoples of our region and a deep feeling of mindfulness, and one with mother earth.
We finish our tour at Staples Lookout on Woy Woy Road. As we gaze across the expanse of Brisbane Water, Tim brings the region to life. He regales us with yarns of the indigenous people of the Central Coast, who lived through two Ice Ages, pointing to sacred places and topographical features of significance across the landscape. He then jumps to the ‘present’, explaining that in 1789, around 80 to 90% of the local people were wiped out by disease brought to the region by the First Fleet. This is why there’s so little known about these mysterious people, he adds. Indeed, Bungaree, (or Boongaree) who sailed with Flinders on his remarkable voyages, was an Aboriginal from the Central Coast, which I didn’t know.
As Tim is unpacking the Creation Story of the people of the area, a really important yarn for the tour, three Grey Nomads in polyester pastels, squeeze beside us, speaking at the top of their voices. Suddenly one of them thrusts an iPhone into Tim’s hand as Tim is mid-sentence, asking him to take a photo of them all.
Tim happily obliges.
As they leave, I shrug a mute apology.
‘That happens a lot,’ he smiles.
The first level of kinship: Moiety
A person’s moieties can alternate between each generation (people of alternate generations are grouped together), a person’s moiety is generally dictated by their mother’s side (matrilineal) or their father’s side (patrilineal). In Moiety, everything, including people and fauna and flora, are split into halves (Indeed, Moiety sounds like an aboriginal word but is the Latin word for ‘half’). To understand the whole universe these two halves must become whole, with each half an exact mirror of the other. Interestingly, Native Americans also use moieties.
People who share the same moiety are forbidden to marry. They are considered siblings, meaning they have a reciprocal responsibility to support each other. An example might be the white cockatoo is Yirritja, while the black cockatoo is Dhuwa, These two moieties complement and balance each other in ceremonies, marriage, and daily life.
The second level of kinship: Totems
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are identified by their totems, which can be, for example, birds, reptiles, sharks, crocodiles or fish. These are significant in song, dance and music and are an important part of cultural identity. Nation, clan and family totems are preordained, whereas personal totems recognise an individual’s strengths and weaknesses.
Totems often connect an indigenous person to the to land, air, sea, river or lake and other important geographical features. People don’t ‘own’ their totems but are rather accountable for them. And each indigenous person has a responsibility to pass their totem on to the next generation.
Totems are split between moieties to live in harmony with the environment. For example, one moiety might protect and conserve an animal, while another moiety may eat and use that animal’s skins. It’s all about creating a balance within the group and the environment around the group.
The third level of kinship: Skin Names
A Skin Name is similar to a surname since a skin name indicates a person’s bloodline. It also conveys vital information about how these generations are linked and how they interact.
Unlike surnames, children don’t share their parents’ name. Moreover, husbands and wives don’t share the same skin name. Skin names are based on the preceding name (the mother’s name in a matrilineal system or the father’s name in a patrilineal system) and its level in the naming cycle in general. It’s also deeply entrenched in culture. For example, in Warlpiri culture, the Nangala and Jangala skin group have rights to and share images of Emu Dreaming.
Some names sound like skin names but are simply surnames. For example, Ernie Dingo’s traditional Aboriginal name is Oondamooroo. The surname ‘Dingo’ originates from his grandfather, a dingo trapper who was called ‘Dingo Jim’ by non-Indigenous people.
TIMS OTHER TOURS www.girrigirra.com.au
Yengo National Park Aboriginal Tour
Time: 4 hours Distance: 2km Difficulty: Easy
Following your guide, drive to stunning Finchley Trig Lookout to start your tour with an Acknowledgement of Country. You will have a 360-degree view overlooking Mt Yengo, which is as significant to local people as Uluru is to its people. Your guide will show you ancient engravings and share knowledge. You will hear language through story, song, and dance.
Departs 9:30am from Slacks Park, Paynes Crossing Rd & Yango Creek Rd, Wollombi
Price $110 adults, $60 pensioners, $45 teenager 13–17 yrs, $25 children 5–12yrs.
Bouddi National Park Aboriginal Tour
Time: 3.5 hours Distance: 2.5km Difficulty: Easy
Rich in significant Aboriginal culture, Bouddi National Park offers stunning landscapes and ocean views. Your tour begins with an Acknowledgement of Country. From there you’ll be guided through the National Park to significant Indigenous sites. View rock carvings, hear ancient stories. With each step, you will gain a progressive understanding of Aboriginal society and culture.
Departs 9:30 am from United, 306 Empire Bay Dr, Empire Bay
Price: $90 adults, $55 pensioner, $45 teenagers 13–17 yrs, $25 children 5–12yrs
Group rates available on request for both tours (minimum 10 people). Children under 5 years are free when accompanied by a paying adult (one child per paying adult).