Healing, sharing and reconciling

Affinity Tours Australia, took a small group of people, including two Curtin Journalism students, on the company’s first cultural immersion tour at a property called Nowanup, 150 km north-east of Albany. Greeted by the vibrant orange rock from the breakaways––crumbling cliffs exposing signs of erosion–– we had the opportunity to experience Noongar perspectives first hand while camping in tents ‘on country’. Noongar Elders Eugene Eades, Annette Eades and Eliza Woods welcomed us and getting to speak with them provided an insight into Noongar culture and their stories they were very willing to share. The Elders hope more camps will be possible in the future as they aim to move forward from the past and closer to reconciliation. 

The stunning breakaways at the entrance welcome us to Noongar boodja (country). Photo: Kellie Balaam.

Nowanup: The place of the Malleefowl

Nowanup is a 750-hectare property located within the Shire of Jerramungup and is situated in the Fitzgerald Biosphere––Australia’s only globally renowned biodiversity hotspot. Nowanup was first set up as a cultural knowledge camp in 2007 under the supervision of Noongar Elder Eugene Eades. The camp serves as an alternative to detention for young Indigenous people to help them connect with their country and culture. Nowanup provides social significance for the Noongar moort (people). With a meeting place designed and constructed by the Nowanup Rangers, the Noongar people have a place ‘on country’. 

The meeting place. Photo: Kellie Balaam.

After leaving Perth and returning to his mother country in 1985, Eugene Eades has moved around south-west Western Australia over the years. Resettling in Gnowangerup, he later became the caretaker for Carrolup, a government run settlement for the stolen generations located near Katanning. The mission operated from 1915 to when it closed in 1922 before opening again from 1938. In 1952, it was known as Marribank mission until 1970 when it was handed to the Baptist Church. Eugene finally came to Nowanup in 2005 where he realised the potential to establish a cultural experience on this country and bring people back together. “I got the feeling of really wanting to reconnect to country and I could see some goodness that could come out of [the project] in the long term,” he says. “We could really do something that fits the Noongar criteria of reconnecting culture, heritage and homeland and be on the way to develop the landscape into a classroom.”

This idea of developing a classroom creates the concept of a ‘bush university’ which allows for Noongar learning and teaching perspectives to be delivered in a bush setting. By bringing in Whadjela (white) visitors to Nowanup it means stories and history can be shared and Eugene hopes this will help break the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. “Noongar Elders would like to establish Nowanup to become a facility that will enable people to come together and have this cultural experience,” Eugene says. “By introducing the Noongar perspective of plant and animal life, the food chain and medicinal ways, we want to work in a way that will present hope for visitors.”

This learning opportunity of being immersed in the wilderness is also there for young Aboriginal people and their families. Nowanup runs Aboriginal family camps every five to six weeks and can accommodate groups of up to 50 people. There are many facilities on the property including a large shed with a communal kitchen, hot showers and toilets and a fire pit to mingle around under the shimmering stars.

On the first night of this trip everyone sat around the blazing fire, the flickering flames occasionally lighting up Eugene’s face as he sung an original song about his brother’s death. With all the torches turned off, sitting in the pitch black of the night was haunting but peaceful. In this moment, it was easy to see how nature is so healing and why Indigenous Australians feel such a deep connection with their land and its past.

Noongar Elder Eugene Eades picking melaleuca leaves. Photo: Kellie Balaam.

Gondwana Link Project

The Nowanup property was bought by environmental organisation Greening Australia in 2004 as a part of the Gondwana Link Project. This project is reconnecting country across 1000 km of WA’s south-west region by planting native vegetation in hope of restoring species’ habitat on cleared farming land, as well as protecting the remaining bushland. The project starts in the tall Karri forests and wetlands from the south-west and stretches to the dry woodlands and Mallee region near the Nullarbor. When Eugene Eades was living in Albany, he met up with the Gondwana Link chief executive officer and staff where he took up the position of the Noongar cultural facilitator and began to get an understanding about the project. “This was the first time I learnt about Gondwana Link’s vision of creating a corridor of landscape from Margaret River across to Norsemen, a project putting native vegetation back into the landscape and having the potential to create habitats and ecosystems for endangered species of birds and animals,” he says. 

Eugene says Gondwana Link was looking for Noongar input to bring cultural knowledge into the project, as well as wanting to create a partnership. “After doing Noongar cultural workshops and getting the staff to understand what was connected to Noongar way of life and ways of caring for country, Nowanup just grew from there to where it is today.”

According to Eugene, Gondwana Link started planting the vegetation in a westernised, plantation style. “It was like they wanted the trees to stand up like soldiers,” he says. From a Noongar perspective planting the trees in a line wasn’t true to natural bushland so, when the Nowanup Rangers got to do the cultural restoration they were permitted to plant the trees naturally. “We planted them in a structure we thought was suitable to the boodja, we wanted it to look as natural as possible so it could bring back memories of yester year when our old people sat out here––you could maybe hear, but not see them.”

Waking up in this vast landscape to sunlight trickling through the sturdy canvas of the tent placed among the low-lying vegetation was a refreshing way to start the day. The Gondwana Link is a project committed to regenerating the land and its flora and fauna. Eugene says the project is doing its job because emus are passing through with their chicks and blue-tailed wallabies are cruising the outskirts of the property. Over the weekend, hearing birds chirping dusk till dawn and never catching a glimpse of the camouflaged kangaroos (only their droppings), it’s evident nature is saying thank you.   

Native trees and bushes planted as a part of the Gondwana Link. Photo: Kellie Balaam.

Storytelling connects people through the sharing of knowledge

An important part of Indigenous Australian culture is telling stories, passing on knowledge orally by singing, dancing or creating art. According to the Australian Storytelling website, Dreamtime stories are the oral textbooks of Aboriginal knowledge, spirituality and wisdom accumulated over a long history and many generations. Among this cultural history are the songlines; an ancient memory code used to help pass on information about the landscape, plants and animals. An article published on the ABC website, Songlines: the Indigenous memory code, says the songlines are known as navigational tracks in which the Elders would sing about the landscape, encoding the knowledge in the songs as they moved through the country. The songs were easier to remember rather than a list of facts and allowed younger children to learn and understand. 

Eliza Woods is a Noongar Elder from the Great Southern with a connection to the Minang and Koreng families and tribes. Eliza says lots of things she learnt as a young girl were taught sitting around the campfire after dinner. “I was fortunate enough to grow up around my grandparents on both sides of my family and to observe the way they shared their culture. There was a lot about love and respect and the stories have always [been passed down] through oral history,” she says. 

Left to right: Eliza Woods, Eugene Eades and Annette Eades at the Nowanup campsite. Photo: Kellie Balaam.

However, Eliza says things are very different today to how they were more than 60 years ago. Eliza was raised in a tent and her family’s lifestyle was still partly nomadic. The Noongar community was based on a reserve which Eliza describes as, “government land set aside for native people; what they described us as back then,” and it was much easier for people to engage with their parents, grandparents and other relatives because everyone was together. “Wherever you went there was someone yarning at a campfire…you’d still hear the same message been shared about the way we conduct ourselves as women, the way we dressed, sat, and spoke.” Eliza smiles as she recalls the tales of her past and now as an Elder at the age of 70, she feels she is responsible to ensure the stories and traditions are continued to be passed on to younger generations, so integral Noongar knowledge isn’t forgotten. 

Many yarns were shared around the campfire on our visit to Nowanup and Eugene brought out his guitar to sing songs about his past as well as a few gospel songs. On the last night, Eugene and his friend Bruce who is a teacher from Albany, treated us to a live concert. With Bruce on the saxophone as Eugene strummed his guitar, the duo sung the night away and stirred many emotions in Eliza and Annette, as the lyrics triggered happy and sad memories from their past. Music is very important for storytelling and Eliza says her earliest memory is of the piano accordion played during the old Noongar bush dances. “Music does play a part [in storytelling] because it’s a healing thing, a way to release a lot of grief and I think it’s really good for the soul. Whether you can sing or not, music penetrates inside you and I think it takes you back to places,” she says. Holding back tears while their infectious smiles never faltered, the Aunties were extremely kind to let us into their lives and pass on this information. A song sung many times over the weekend by Eugene and Bruce was a catchy tune with an important message:

“Nidja Noongar Boodja Noonook nyininy,

Nidja Noongar Boodja Noonook nyininy,

Nidja Noongar Boodja Noonook nyininy,

Nidja Boodja Ngalak Naank.”

English translation:

“This is Noongar Country we are sitting,

This is Noongar Country we are sitting,

This is Noongar Country we are sitting,

This is our Mother Land.”

“40 thousand years of living on this land,

40 thousand, 40 thousand more.”

While music helps keep Noongar stories and knowledge alive, Eliza says there is a risk they could be lost if younger generations don’t continue the story telling cycle. “There is a risk if we don’t start pulling our young people back [to country], everybody has to work together,” she says. “It’s about reconnecting families, getting them together and having more hope of sharing the knowledge and passing it on.” Eliza’s three daughters and Annette’s daughter were all raised as bush kids and were taught well, especially on how to make a good damper. Their family used to live in Jerramungup and they knew the bush “by the back of our hand”. Eliza says on the weekends they would head out to Bremer. “We used to go hunting in a big mob, so our kids know how to get a kangaroo and shoot it. We only killed kangaroo for food, it was not for game,” she says. “We got only what we needed and our kids were taught how to skin the roo like Annette and I were taught.” Eliza became nostalgic as she wondered if this is something she’ll witness again, but the most important thing to her is making sure their young people are proud of who they are, where they come from and the people they are connected to.

Eugene Eades with his guitar at the Welcome to Country and smoking ceremony. Photo: Kellie Balaam.

Mentoring youth and bringing families back to their culture on Nowanup

Eliza and Annette are living in Albany so they come to Nowanup for visits. During the family camps the Aunties are role models to the children. “Whilst we out here, the Elders become the mentors and role models for our families, we give them support and encourage families we know are struggling,” Eliza says. The Elders want to give people an insight to how family life used to be during their own childhood and get the families engaged with participating in traditional Noongar activities away from the city life. Eliza hopes by bringing the families out to Nowanup and back to the bush it will help “break the vicious cycle of welfare dependency” and change people’s outlook on life from just “living pay day to pay day”.  The Aunties’ aim is to strengthen family bonds and help whoever might be struggling with family life or are dealing with relatives who have got themselves in unfavourable circumstances such as alcohol or drug addictions. “Sometimes, if people hit rock bottom, that’s when they need us most and they need to know that people care. We hope we will work harder in our communities to try and make people feel they are worthy and valued.”

Surrounded by the green landscape of the south-west, right in the heart of nature, it was a very different atmosphere compared to Perth and suburbia. The air was fresh and was so peaceful; these elements definitely factor in to why Nowanup is the perfect backdrop to help families reconnect and heal. “Life has to be more than just waking up and going through a routine, it has to be something where you wake up and enjoy the sunrise and fresh air,” Eliza says. 

A collection of rocks, nuts and other Indigenous objects on display in the family area. Photo: Kellie Balaam.

This trip to Nowanup was an inspiring, eye-opening and educational journey. Eliza Woods says having the support from visitors who come to Nowanup is the way to make change, share information and progress closer to reconciliation. “We need to make the change out there because we all live on this planet together and should be working towards making a really happy place,” she says. “We can’t change the world but we can do our little part and do the best we can.”

Curtin student journalist Kellie Balaam travelled to Nowanup courtesy of Affinity Tours Australia. Video: Kellie Balaam.