A WINDSWEPT craggy outcrop of cliffs and dunes in Warrnambool has been declared one of the most important Aboriginal sites in Australia after the area was approved for the highest level of state protection.
Strict new rules will be enforced to conserve the site at Point Ritchie, next to Warrnambool’s Hopkins River mouth, with penalties reaching as high as $1.4 million for damaging archaeological remains.
Local Aboriginal leaders, Premier Denis Napthine and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jeanette Powell braved yesterday’s rain and gales to announce the measures for the site that dates back more than 15,000 years.
“It’s absolutely vital that this area is protected,” Dr Napthine said.
“There’s clear evidence of one of the most significant cultural heritage sites anywhere in Australasia.”
Point Ritchie will stay open to the public but warning signs and penalties will restrict people from treading on significant areas.
The river mouth — also known as Moyjil in the Gunditjmara language — was a meeting place and fishing area but more importantly a physical boundary between different Aboriginal groups.
“Those types of places are always very significant to Aboriginal people. It’s always going to mark a boundary of some type for people who are responsible for the area,” Gunditj Mirring heritage officer Keicha Day said.
She said the site had been listed in the 1970s for protection but was pulled from the list, putting it at risk.
“Our significant sites aren’t just hidden away, they’re quite prominent in our urban areas and people need to be able to recognise a site,” she said. “A pile of stones is actually near a lot of shells, and amongst the shells are a lot of animal bones and in that is a lot of charcoal. Suddenly the site opens up.”
Researchers and archaeologists will likely move into Point Ritchie over the coming months and years to examine historical evidence.
Aboriginal groups are seeking similar protections for Deen Maar near Yambuk and Lake Condah in the far south-west.
Ms Powell said penalties for offences committed in the 1.4-hectare zone ranged from $1400 to $1.4 million.
“It won’t mean locals can’t go on to the site — what it will mean is there’s certain areas and pathways people will be able to look at,” Ms Powell said.
“It is a significant cultural heritage place, Aboriginal people know that. It is their place but what we want to do is document it so the rest of Victoria know how important it is.”