Words by Dorian Mode. Photography Lydia Thorpe
Driving north on the M1 is dull. Like the Hume, there are no pretty towns along the way to grab a coffee or have a stickybeak in a shop or two. But the endless tarmac-grey of the M1 dissolves when we arrive at the aptly named OceanScape Luxury Beachfront Villas at Scott’s Head. Atop the stairs (dodgy hipped seniors note), we drop our bags, open-jawed. Our accommodation overlooks the picturesque headland, with its yellow lip of beach and pretty topography. From the well-appointed kitchen, we enjoy the ozone scent of the sea and hear the waves cascading below.
That arvo/evening we venture into town. Here we poke around the riparian shopfront and discover two killer antique shops. Here I buy a vintage typewriter (I collect them) for $18. Mrs Pictures finds a vintage fan. We then amble over to enjoy a hearty meal at the newly refurbished Macksville Hotel. This heritage hotel is over 100 years old and known locally as ‘Bonsers’. But I feel it should be dubbed The Tim Tam – after owners Tim and Tammy Smith. It’s the beating heart of this small river community and is full of country smiles. We liked the teal-coloured 1960s lounge vibe of the front bar and the meals must be some sort of magic trick. They are ginormous and at 1980s prices. We split an entree (home-smoked brie), two mains (barramundi and home-smoked pork belly) all for under $50. We leave sated and thinking, is there a hidden camera in here?
The following morning we snatch a bacon and egg roll and coffee at Tasty Bites Bakery & Café to wander down to the beach at Scott’s Head and listen to the long whisper of the surf.
Post bacon, we point the car to Yalla Beach to meet Aboriginal elder Uncle Micklo. We are primarily in Nambucca to learn about the local Gumbaynggirr culture. (Gumbaynggirr lands stretch from the Nambucca River in the south to the Clarence River in the north and the Great Dividing Range in the west. Most indigenous folk from Grafton (Jadalmany), Coffs Harbour (Garlambirla) and Nambucca (Nyambaga) and surrounds, identify as Gumbaynggirr.) And in the bright sunshine, Yalla Beach is a veritable Renoir canvas for our exploration of Gumbaynggirr culture.
Uncle Micklo is a Gumbaynggirr man born and bred in Nambucca Heads and can trace his family back almost two centuries, to when white pastoralists first came to the area. ‘The family name is Buchanan,’ he says. ‘Because my great grandfather worked for the Buchanans,’ he adds, looking around for bush tucker as if in the fresh food aisle of Aldi.
He is speaking Gumbaynggirr language almost as soon as we arrive. This is indeed his specialty subject. I’m fascinated by the musicality of indigenous languages. (NSW is made up of around 70 different Aboriginal nations, each with their own language or language group.) As he indicates (and snacks on) various flora in language, I notice some words are the same in Wiradjuri.
‘Yes! That’s right,’ he says, enthusiastically.
Limping from the carpark to the beach, I thought Uncle Micklo must have a bad hip but he suffered from polio as a kid. (Remember that last great pandemic?) So I help him down a couple of steps to the talc-white sand of Yalla Beach – seniors take note: this is a very accessible tour as Uncle Mick has to do it along with you!
We sit on the sand as Mick gently paints our faces with local clay. Scrounging gum leaves, he then begins a smoking ceremony. ‘I invite the intelligence around me to be the intelligence within me,’ he says mysteriously, before singing in language. His brogue is so mellifluous, I imagine this ceremony taking place 300 years ago. It’s mystical and leaves you with a deep feeling of ancient magic. He then scrounges for bush tucker, underscoring the daily needs of indigenous folk for millennia. I’ve never met an aboriginal tour guide so enthusiastic about bush tucker. He could have been eating canapés at a Masterchef launch.
‘Try this!’ he suddenly says, thrusting some leaves at me. ‘Tastes great, doesn’t it?’ he nods.
‘Delicious,’ I lie. It tastes exactly what I imagine weeds taste like from my compost bin but am too polite to say to this lovely man.
‘Try this one. It tastes like sarsaparilla, they reckon.’
‘Yes, it does.’ If indeed sarsaparilla tasted like grass-clippings for my lawnmower, I think.
Looking for bush tucker and freshwater trees and bush turkey eggs for breakfast (metaphorically – we don’t eat them), we chat. Mick grew up on Bellwood Reserve, indeed this is where he spent the majority of his adult life, too. Language was taboo on the reserve. So elders didn’t speak the verboten Gumbaynggirr language to the children, only certain words. So traditional language was dead to him for most of Mick’s life until in 1997 he attended Gumbaynggirr language classes at Muurrbay Language Centre. Ultimately, Mick enrolled in a Masters in Indigenous Languages degree at university and explored the linguistics, phonology, syntax, grammar, and semantics of Gumbaynggirr. It’s here he fell in love with the language – the language of his ancestors and indeed became a leading expert.
As we chat Uncle Micklo continually looks out to sea. Over the white noise of the surf, he suddenly turns to me. ‘You have to understand, when we were here 6000 years ago, the coast was 120 kilometres east of here. Right out there. Our people lived in sacred places that are now under the sea.’ I’d never thought about the last Ice Age changing the landscape. And indeed, I won’t go out to sea again without thinking about the lost worlds of the original coastal people. This is what I like to take away from these experiences: how it completely resets your thinking about the country.
He then talks about the two Goanna Sisters, who made the ocean that ‘girts’ Australia, with their chanting and digging sticks. All the time he’s speaking, Mick’s hands make shapes like balancing two imaginary spheres. ‘Every part of the earth is sacred country. It’s a whole living being living within the culture.’
He suddenly looks up and we move on to the stars and other sisters who escaped the unwanted advances of a ‘cheeky man’ and created the sand and the oceans of the Mid North Coast before resting in the sky where the ‘Seven Sisters’ or Pleiades constellation is today. These precious Gumbaynggirr yarns connect these people to their land. Indeed, the Star Dreaming story of the Seven Sisters is one of the most fundamental ancient stories amongst Aboriginal Australia. The songline for this story covers more than half the width of the continent and travels through numerous different language groups and different sections of the narrative are recognised in different parts of the country. Again, it’s hard not to ever look at the stars without seeing the sisters. Mick’s tour is highly recommended.
The following day we visit the historic town of Bowraville (a relaxing 25mins undulating drive from Macksville). This hinterland town in the Nambucca Valley, with its ‘verandah post’ aesthetic and historic high street, is charming. There are some choice attractions such as a folk museum, a war museum, historic theatre, and other historic buildings with overhanging verandas. Bowraville also has art galleries and a miscellany of aboriginal art and culture, framed by attractive farmland and Jurassic rainforests.
We pay the $5 entry fee to trawl the Bowraville Folk Museum. I love country museums as you learn about the town and its pioneers. But this one’s a little tired and needs a revamp wethinks. One display case had a ripped Cleo Magazine from the 70s. Why? There was no card explaining its significance to the town. But it had some fun pieces and has potential.
The Frank Partridge VC Military Museum (free entry) is housed in the historic former council chambers. In contrast, the curation is excellent, with an impressive collection of military memorabilia covering all the major conflicts, excluding my parents’ divorce in the 1960s. The museum is open Mon–Fri 10am–3pm, Sat 10am–12 noon or by appointment. Ph. 6564 7056.
The Bowra Hotel is a magnificent hotel (built 1912) being restored to its former glory and a nice place to sink a frothy beer. And the Mad Hatters Tea Garden & Bowra Post & Collectables – is worth a visit.
Topping up the tank for the long drive back down the M1, I ask the tattoo-sleeved checkout jockey if there’s another coastal road home to the south that’s a little more scenic.
‘Nup,’ is the reply for the cashier.
FAST FACTS – 1
The First Nations cultures of Australia – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – speak over 250 distinct languages and stretch back for over 65,000 years. This makes the First Australians the oldest astronomers and the oldest continuing cultures in the world. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people developed several practical ways to observe the Sun, Moon and stars to inform navigation, calendars, and predict the weather. Australia’s First Nations people assign meaning and agency to astronomical phenomena, which informs Law and social structure. It also serves as the foundation for narratives that are passed down the generations through song, dance, and oral tradition over tens of thousands of years.
“Indigenous astronomy” is the first astronomy – the astronomy that existed long before the Babylonians, Greeks, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. This website explores the many aspects of Indigenous Astronomy in Australia. Learn how Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities perceive various types of astronomical phenomena, how elders read the stars or watch videos of animations, dances, and songs related to the stars. You can find educational curricula, information about degree programs, and learn about the generation of Aboriginal students studying astrophysics who are quickly becoming the new faces and voices of this work.
FAST FACTS – 2
Gumbaynggirr Dreamtime Tours
Contact Uncle Micklo direct at JarrettMichael@hotmail.com
OceanScape Luxury Beachfront Villas
2 Seabreeze Place, Scotts Head, NSW 2447
T: 0448 772 525