A true story
I am Gurnang. I was named by the First People, the Wadawurrung, already old in wisdom at my birth.
Winjeel sent thunder and lightning; the earth shook and sank. Rainwater filled the shallow basin. Thus was my mother, Borrong Gook, born.
Borrong Gook and her sister bulluk suckled the earth with nourishing water. Mighty beal and other trees grew tall around their banks. Tarrak, green and thick, fringed their margins. Turput and buniya flashed silver in the shallow waters and the joyful little folk of the djirrim thronged and croaked.
My mother’s bounty was more than the earth could absorb. So she bore me and my siblings. My siblings were sickly and weak and soon sank into the earth. I, Gurnang, grew strong.
I cut my way through the fruitful crumbling earth to Jillong, the big water where the brolgas and swans meet. It was hard work, and sometimes I tired and paused, but I am persistent. Winjeel sent me strength.
I surveyed my work. Jagged cliffs lined my course, their clay bound by the roots of sturdy beal, slender, singing sheoke, graceful yellow gum, fragrant wattle.
Cautious, armoured barbin and inquisitive rakali hunted yabbies in my sparkling waters. Myriad creatures built their homes in my soft banks, from sturdy, bumbling wombat to the busy blue-banded bee.
Termites built their citadels of clay and the spiny echidna feasted upon them. My friend Beal and the yellow gum gave shelter to the possum, the owl, the black cockatoo, the rosella, the little pardalote.
In the heat of summer, I grew lazy and idled in mud-fringed pools. Some years, fire swept through, fierce, joyful, and cleansing. Then a summer storm would break the drought and renew my life force. Playfully I rearranged my surroundings — undercutting cliffs, making mud pies, and tickling Beal’s feet.
The First People loved me, their yami nullum, their Gurnang. They made their quiet way along my banks to visit my mother, who gifted them rich bounty of waterfowl and eggs, eels, and nourishing bulrush roots. Their children laughed and splashed in my clear pools under the protecting shade of Beal.
Beal gave sheets of his supple bark for canoes, that the First People might ply the sparkling blue waters of Jillong, harvesting fish, sharing their catch with brother Burunnan. Those were good times.
Then the New Folk arrived, pale, sunburnt, and hairy. At first, they seemed harmless, if inquisitive. Soon, however, they revealed their busy, meddling character.
Many of Beal’s siblings fell to their steel axe. Yellow gum grew scarce. Mobs of sheep and cattle wounded the earth with their hard feet, broke down my banks in their thirst, and made my waters filthy. They tore up the tasty wallaby grass and the yam daisy by their roots until they grew no more.
The New Folk had to change everything they saw. All was a resource to be exploited, an opportunity. Hard and greedy, they stripped the earth bare, replaced her sheltering cloak of trees and shrubs with poor, thin garments of their alien pasture grass.
My lifeblood, the waters sent by Winjeel, became unpredictable and violent. Oftentimes too little, until the earth lay parched and cracked, and the cattle grew gaunt and thin. Then too much, that the water ran off the hard ground in sheets, swelled me to overflowing. In expelling the choking excess, I spewed earth, shrubs, and the occasional sodden sheep out into Jillong, smothering the seagrass beds where the little fish grew big and the black swans grazed.
The New Folk settled by Borrong Gook, and built their dwellings of timber, stone, and burnt clay around her. First an isolated shack or two, then tens, then hundreds; lately thousands. They dredged her marshy, bountiful wetlands, scraped up artificial islands, and turned her into an ornamental lake to boat upon on their rare days of leisure.
They ripped dusty rutted tracks, then sealed roads, through the bush. Bush which soon yielded to the axe and the plough. Fences divided the naked land into rectangular paddocks. They brought their horses and carts, then snorting steeds of iron. In great irritable herds they roar west in the morning, down the highway to their city of Geelong, and east in the evening to food, family and bed.
They grew vast swathes of their potato, a nutritious tuber like the murrong, but greedy for water and nutrients. When the foreign pests and diseases attacked their foreign crop, they retaliated with poisons that ran through my veins, annihilated the little things upon which life is built, and still lie dormant in the soil.
They renamed me Griggs Creek after one of their elders. This indignity too I bore.
These days they mostly grow houses. Like busy termites, they gather clay and sticks and pull their mounds out of the earth. Strangely, each vast dwelling only seems to have a few lonely occupants. It’s difficult to see where they can grow their sustenance these days, as all is hard and stony around their dwellings and the soft rain cannot penetrate to feed the hungry earth. They do not even recognise my meagre bounty as food; perhaps that is fortunate.
The New Folk drove off the Wadawurrung into exile and worse, eschewing their wisdom. They can only accept the knowledge of their own tribe — how to remodel the land and the water, fly through the air, send electrons along wires and turn the night into day. Impressive, but of little use. How to live gently upon the land, they know not.
Yet even the New Folk can absorb a little wisdom in time, although it seems that every lesson must be hard learned.
They have dug their own little reed-fringed bulluk along my course, to tame and slow Winjeel’s bounty and cleanse their own toxins from my waters. Alien boxthorn and willow have lately been torn from my banks, replaced with the bountiful wattle, the singing sheoke, and other familiar friends. Djirrim croak in the reedbeds once more. Mighty Beal still stands strong, although bowed and crooked with age.
And I am still Gurnang.
The author acknowledges the custodians of the land upon which this story is set, the Wadawurrung / Wathaurung people of the Kulin nation. He pays his respects to their elders past, present, and emerging. This land was never ceded by treaty.
Glossary of terms in the Wadawurrung language
Barbin — turtle
Beal — river red gum
Borrong Gook — meeting place of the brown quail, Lake Lorne
Bulluk — waterhole
Buniya — eel
Burrunan — dolphin (Boonwurrung, Woiwurrung and Taungurung languages)
Djirrim — frog
Gurnang — little creek, Griggs Creek
Jillong — meeting place of the waterbirds, Corio Bay (alternatively: ‘tongue of land’, i.e. the land, not the water. There is some confusion in the early written sources.)
Murrong — yam daisy
Tarrak — reed
Turput — fish
Winjeel / Bunjil— The Creator Spirit, the Wedge-Tailed Eagle, bringer of storms
Yami nullum — travelling path
I took many of these terms from interpretative signage and pamphlets provided by Geelong City Council, who were advised by representatives of the traditional owners. I have tried to avoid introducing terms from other unrelated Aboriginal languages. My apologies for any errors.
The story is broadly factual and reflects the likely formation process of Borrong Gook and Gurnang in the complex karst geology of the Bellarine Peninsula, as well as the history of this area.
More general information about the Wadda-Wurrung / Wadawurrung / Wathaurung / Wathaurong people, their stories and their language is to be found at djillong.net.au.
The first European inhabitant of the Bellarine Peninsula was William Buckley, an escaped convict who lived with the Wadawurrung for 32 years (1803–35), immediately prior to the British occupation of this part of Australia. His published memoirs allow a fascinating insight into the traditional life of the Wadawurrung people on the eve of massive and irrevocable disruption.
Text and images copyright © 2021 Steve Williams unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.