When the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Harbour over 230 years ago, the crew faced a harsh and unfamiliar environment. Unlike the Indigenous people who had lived here for 1000s of years, they had no idea of how to survive the Australian Bush.
Aboriginal Heritage Tour
On the Aboriginal Heritage tour at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens I’m about to learn more from Todd, an Aboriginal man, about his culture and how his people used the bush to survive.
Following the example set by his Grandfather and Aboriginal people for thousands of years before him, Todd begins by acknowledging the land of the Cadigal people on whose land we stand. Very few Cadigal Elders are alive today and their language has almost disappeared.
We’re standing in Cadi Jam Ora (the First Encounters Garden) which is dedicated to native plants. A 50m timeline of the same name depicts significant events and shares important local stories as it snakes along the path.
Trade and Bush Tucker
Looking up at a tall pine tree, Todd points out a large ‘pineapple-like’ cone. The Bunya Pine tree, native to the Bunya Mountains in Queensland, is clear evidence of trade between Aboriginal nations along the East coast.
The Grass Tree
Todd describes only a few of the 56 different uses of the plant commonly known as the grass tree “otherwise we’ll be here all day”. The flowers on the spike produce a syrupy liquid which provides energy “like Red Bull” and resin from the plant is a very strong adhesive. None of our all-Australian group knows that the grass tree features on our $2 coin.
In-between describing plants and their uses, Todd relates local stories and aspects of Aboriginal Culture. He refers to two significant local Aboriginal sites: a marriage ground and a traditional initiation site close to Mrs Macquarie’s chair.
Initiation often involved a pain element as a sign of bravery. At the end of the initiation ceremony, Cadigal youths would have an incisor knocked out by the ‘spear’ from a grass tree.
The Sand Paper Fig
Taking a leaf from the Sandpaper Fig, I rub my fingers across the rough surface which gives the tree its name. The leaves were used to polish wooden weapons like boomerangs and the women filed their nails with the leaves.
Wasps fertilized the figs which grow on the tree trunk, “so when eating the fig, you may get some extra protein” says Todd.
Describing Dianella, a green strappy bush, as “your best friend” Todd points out how the sharp-edged leaves repel snakes. Blowing on a hollow in the base of the leaf makes a whistle sound. Young children are taught when lost to sit amongst dianella and blow the whistle to stay safe from snakes until they’re found.
Native plants have been a food source for Aboriginal people for 1000s of years. Lomandra seeds and parts of the Cycad are used in breadmaking but like other edible natives, must be prepared correctly to remove toxins.
We taste a native raspberry and exclaim at the strong almost medicinal taste of the native mint leaf. A scrunched-up Lemon Myrtle leaf, Todd’s “favourite tree”, releases a distinctively lemony scent. Paperbark is used to wrap food when cooking, and the golden wattle leaf makes a good soap when rubbed with water and when fishing can be used “to stun the fish”.
Walking past the small-scale “First Farm” of introduced crops, Todd describes the first colonial farm as “a disaster” needing “round the clock” care to survive.
Historic Aboriginal Figures
He tells stories of Pemulwuy, the first Aboriginal resistance leader and Bennelong, considered by some as a traitor for amongst other things sharing his bush tucker knowledge with colonial officers. Bennelong’s wife Barangaroo was a feisty woman. Like other local indigenous women, she had part of the little finger of her right hand removed in infancy to “make it easier to fish with a hand line”.
While it’s pleasant standing in the spring sunshine, the mosquitoes are out and my hands start to itch. The woman next to me asks “Is there a native plant for mozzies? I’m being eaten alive”. Unfortunately, there’s nothing near at hand.
Charles Perkins and Mum Shirl
Todd points out Charles Perkins who in the 60s led the Freedom Ride which drew attention to racism in country New South Wales. He talks about his wife’s grandmother, Mum Shirl. She was an activist who helped to establish the first Aboriginal Legal and Medical Services.
Stingless native bees fly in and out of their hive in a low tree stump. They produce about one litre of honey a year and are good weather forecasters. If they are hiding, it means rain or a drop in temperature.
When introducing Aboriginal artefacts, Todd explains how to tell if a boomerang has been made according to traditional methods. If it hasn’t, it will “split on impact”. He describes how when hunting for emu eggs, people hold the egg up to their face and whistle. If the chick whistles back, they return the egg to the nest and look for a less developed egg.
Todd holds up a Sydney Rock Oyster shell larger than the palm of his hand. He explains that by inspecting the most recent layer of shells in a midden, locals knew which shellfish to leave alone and which they could collect to ensure sustainability.
Unfortunately, these days the Sydney Rock oyster doesn’t get a chance to grow big and fat.
Renewed Respect for Aboriginal Heritage
Todd shares his knowledge in a gentle and humorous manner. I leave him with a greater understanding and new respect for his forefathers who survived for 1000s of years in the harsh Australian bush.
- The Aboriginal Heritage Tour operates from the Garden Shop of the Royal Sydney Botanic Gardens at 10am on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday except public holidays.
- It costs $42 per person
- Click here for more information