Budj Bim landscape riches near Mt Eccles underpin initiative for World Heritage listing

Budj Bim senior ranger Greg Shelton, with an eel trap in hand, surveys a canal at Kurtonitj Indigenous Protection Area.  Picture: LEANNE PICKETT
Budj Bim senior ranger Greg Shelton, with an eel trap in hand, surveys a canal at Kurtonitj Indigenous Protection Area. Picture: LEANNE PICKETT

With an eel trap slung over his shoulder, Budj Bim senior ranger Greg Shelton takes EVERARD HIMMELREICH on a tour of one of the south-west’s most significant Aboriginal heritage areas.

HAVING a potential World Heritage area in the south-west is probably news to many people in the region.

Ranger Greg Shelton takes people on tours of the Mount Eccles lava flow area from near Macarthur to Tyrendarra and said most of the people he escorted were surprised to hear it had the oldest aquaculture system in the world.

The region is known as the Budj Bim area by local Gunditjmara Aborigines, who used its volcanic features to trap and farm eels for thousands of years.

That history underpins a recent bid by the Heywood-based Gunditj Mirring Aboriginal Corporation to gain World Heritage status for the area.

The bid, which is still to be endorsed by the federal government, seeks not only to protect the landscape but to enhance the fledgling tourism sector in the area.

Budj Bim Tours, operated by the Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation at Heywood, has escorted about 1000 people to Budj Bim sites in the past eight months.

Mr Shelton, a senior Budj Bim ranger, said hundreds of ancient stone eel traps, as well as the foundations of hundreds of ancient Aboriginal stone huts, had been found along the Eumeralla River, Darlots Creek and other tributaries that flow from Lake Condah south to Tyrendarra and the Southern Ocean.

Eels and fish caught in the eel traps gave the Aborigines a permanent protein source and allowed them to settle permanently in the stone huts that dotted the volcanic landscape south from Lake Condah.

The World Heritage bid by the Gunditj Mirring Aboriginal Corporation describes the Budj Bim area as a cultural landscape where there was a close continuous relationship between the land’s features and Gunditjmara culture.

Many of the Gunditjmara dreamtime stories are related to features of the Budj Bim landscape.

Mr Shelton said the Gunditjmara “engineered the landscape”, utilising the rocks from lava flows to make the eel traps and holding ponds.

Studies have found Aborigines were likely to have farmed eels in the area for longer than 6600 years and that there were large-scale modifications to about 30 kilometres of the waterways.

The Gunditjmara people created channels to bring water and young eels from Darlots Creek to low-lying areas, where they built ponds and wetlands linked by more channels containing weirs. 

Woven baskets were placed in weirs to harvest the mature eels.

The area was placed on Australia’s National Heritage list in 2004 but the latest bid says it has outstanding universal values that make it worthy of inclusion on the World Heritage list.

Mr Shelton said Gunditjmara people had always known of the eel traps and remains of stone huts in the area.

He said a fire in the 200-hectare Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) in 2006 uncovered the remnants of about 70 ancient Aboriginal stone huts.

The stone huts, which are found nowhere else in Australia, are horseshoe-shaped and face north-east to provide shelter from wet weather, which mainly comes from the south-west.

Their stone walls supported arched posts to form a domed roof structure covered in wicker and sod for insulation and rain proofing.

The huts were usually compact to accommodate small family units and had a fire out the front and a kangaroo skin or a woven mat on the floor.

They were built on ridges throughout the Budj Bim area, close to wetlands that provided the eels and other food sources.

In one of the huts, a researcher found a handful of metal nails buried, indicating the residents were around at the time of white settlement, Mr Shelton said.

The Gunditjmara people had smoked the eels in tree hollows and liked to burn the leaves of the cherry ballart tree to give the meat more flavour, he said.

They traded surplus eel with surrounding tribes, exchanging it for flint and other items.

The rocky terrain has prevented much of the Budj Bim landscape from undergoing major development and researchers have said the fish trap systems remain in remarkably good condition.

Mr Shelton said the volcanic landscape provided not only food for the Gunditjmara people but for a time had been a refuge from attacks by white settlers during the Eumeralla War that raged in the area in the early 1800s.

The rocky ridges prevented horsemen from hunting down the Gunditjmara, who fought a resistance war against the settlers for decades before they were eventually subdued after suffering heavy mortalities in numerous massacres. 

Contact with disease brought by the settlers killed many more Gunditjmara people.

When the survivors refused to leave their homelands, the Lake Condah Aboriginal mission was set up in 1868 to give them a place to live.

Mr Shelton said the mission was modelled on an English village and at its most populous, only about 170 people lived there.

Mission managers sought to “civilise” the Aboriginal residents, who had little freedom.

It was closed in the 1950s but many residents didn’t leave and the land was vested into Aboriginal ownership in the late 1980s. All of the mission buildings are in ruins but modern cabins have been constructed to give indigenous families the opportunity to spend time “on country” in the area.

Mr Shelton said the early Gunditjmara people had dammed Lake Condah to create headwaters for their aquaculture system, but white settlers removed the weir to drain the land.

The Lake Condah Sustainable Development Project has since restored the lake and a weir was built in 2010 to control water flows and manage habitat.

Mr Shelton said the new weir included a race that allowed eels to swim upstream into Lake Condah during times of high water flow.

More than 100 species of birds had been sighted at the lake since it was restored, he said.

Budj Bim Tours take visitors on guided visits not only to Lake Condah but also to the 350-hectare Kurtonitj IPA near Heywood where the ancient stone eel traps and remnants of stone huts can be seen.

Self-guided tours are permitted to the Tyrendarra IPA, that also has eel traps and stone hut remnants, but having a guide who can provide the historical story about the significance of the features makes the visit a much richer experience.

Winda-Mara chief executive officer Michael Bell said that without the historical story, the Budj Bim landscape’s unique features could look just like piles of stones.

Winda-Mara corporation recognised that need when it opened a new Budj Bim orientation centre in a former Heywood hardware store in March this year.

The centre contains several information boards about the Budj Bim landscape, as well as Aboriginal artefacts from the area.

Mr Bell said the Budj Bim tours were provided on demand but Winda-Mara hoped to eventually hold regular tours if bookings increased.

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