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Connecting to Country in the Jenolan Caves

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A new initiative offering guided Aboriginal culture tours of the bushland surrounding Australia’s spectacular Jenolan Caves tempted us back for a visit – and reminded us of just how incredible a national and cultural asset this area is.

The Jenolan Caves are located just past the Blue Mountains, a two-hour drive from Sydney, and are considered the oldest caves in the world, boasting over 340 million years of history. Australian Indigenous culture has revered the site as sacred for many hundreds of thousands of years, as the crystal waters in the caves and rivers surrounding the base of the limestone mountain are thought to contain healing powers.

The caves are in the traditional homelands of the Burra Burrra people, a clan group of the Gundungarra Language Nation. Our first introduction to the local indigenous culture on the ‘Yangoo Binomea Yadagee’ tour (meaning ‘Today’s Knowledge, Thank You’) was the creation myth of Jenolan Caves that has been passed down through the centuries.

Tour leader and Katoomba-based Aboriginal artist, Tom Brown, shared with us the Gundungurra people’s dreamtime legend. The area was originally flat and inhabited by a giant half lizard/half fish called Gurungatch, who lived in a big billabong. One day he was attacked by another ancestral creator spirit, Mirragan (a giant Tiger Quoll) and during their struggle they created the rivers, mountains and caves. Gurangatch was dealt a severe blow, and escaped deep down into the waters below the caves. According to legend, he’s still down there.

It was a special privilege to walk through the surrounding bush of the caves with Tom and his fellow Aboriginal guide, Sharon. As we walked, they stopped to point out and share traditional knowledge about the caves and the special uses of plants in the area.

We were shown how to recognise the best natural bush tucker (food) for surviving long treks through the mountain scrub, which included using rock moss for hydration, applying bracken fern roots to stings, and gathering lomandra seeds and kangaroo grass to make damper (unleavened bread).

The tour also included an introduction to traditional Aboriginal navigation tools, such as planting trees foreign to the area as ‘markers’ of places of significance. These were placed on hilltops and sides of mountains, so wanderers who knew what to look for could find their way to sacred places of the caves. The tribes also used hieroglyphs such as diamonds carved into trees on the way, creating ‘scar trees’, to help guide the way.

This was a fantastic experience and an opportunity to see the Australian landscape anew through ancient eyes. Often we walk through the bush, not realising that every plant and tree we are passing has some significance. Tom even stopped us along the way to make us aware of totem animals and their messages. A little brown willy wagtail greeted us on the track at the foot of the mountain, which Tom explained might be a sign of small arguments brewing. “It wasn’t really the totem animal I was hoping to see today,” he chuckled.

The Aboriginal Guided Culture Tours at Jenolan Caves are being held on a trial basis, but they’ve been fully booked every weekend since they’ve started. A really great sign that Australians and visitors are keen to share and be a part of the ancient traditions and knowledge of the First Australians.

Further information on the tours can be found here:

http://www.jenolancaves.org.au/the-caves/aboriginal-culture-guided-bush-walk/

AUS_KellyAnneSmith_M

 

MEET THE LOCAL: KELLY-ANNE SMITH

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