We’re 25 kilometres from Sydney’s CBD as the crow flies, yet we could be a world away. Sailing on Smiths Creek in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park at midday, there’s no city soundtrack disturbing the peace. Even the birds are reserving their energy and songs for the cooler afternoon. Here, on the land of the Guringai people, the bush flanking this large creek is wild and unspoilt. This could be the closest we get to imagining Sydney before white settlement.
Our guide on this combined land/water tour by new tour company Sydney Out Back is Les McLeod, a Yuin man from the NSW South Coast who has been given permission by the Guringai people to come onto their country and speak on their behalf.
It’s midmorning when our bus pulls up at West Head Lookout on this blue-sky day filled with the sounds of summer. Everything is green and lush after a week of rain, bringing the cicada song to a deafening crescendo. While we take in the glistening water views that stretch from the Hawkesbury River to Pittwater, tour owner Paul Pickering entertains us with facts about the little penguins that live on Lion Island, including their habit of leaving at dawn and returning at dusk in exactly the same pecking order.
In the shade of a magnificent red gum, Les mixes white ochre with water and applies it to his and our faces and hands. If he doesn’t perform this ceremony, he says, he will be punished by the ancestors and spirits for being disrespectful. Right on cue, as if hearing Les mention the spirits, a brush turkey bounds towards him. Above, in a casuarina tree, a glossy black cockatoo preens itself, oblivious to our camera lenses.
Today’s tour is an opportunity to glean insights into a handful of the 1500 registered Aboriginal sites in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, which include women’s areas, birthing sites, elders’ areas, men’s areas, ceremonial sites, burial sites, middens, rock paintings and rock engravings.
At the beginning of the Elvina Track, off West Head Road, we’re greeted by a small goanna (traditional dinner by another name) before Les leads us into the bush along a smaller track to an impressive engraving site. Carbon dating suggests the rock engravings in Sydney are 5000 to 7000 years old, but Les is convinced they’re older, as some depict creation stories and megafauna.
The Elvina Track engravings, which were originally 2.5 to three inches deep, are being restored and preserved by urban Indigenous youths. Their conservation work is counteracting the effects of fungal lichen, which exposes the Sydney sandstone when it dies, and erosion, which occurs at a rate of half a grain per year.
Tracing the outlines of the carvings with water, Les directs us around the site to representations of family shields, a bird in flight, fish such as mullet, bream and flounder, a goanna, a whale and wallabies. The stand-out is the engraving of the creator-hero Daramulan with the Great Emu, which lines up with the Emu in the Sky constellation in the Milky Way every autumn when earthly emus lay their eggs.
Back on the Elvina Track, Les points out the fruit of the persoonia tree, which is rich in vitamin C and has an unexpected oyster-like texture. Picking bark from the tree and adding water to make an antiseptic, he is quick to explain that he has asked the tree’s permission to take the bark.
“This is bush medicine,” he adds. “I could apply the bark to a wound and then secure it with the web of the golden orb spider.”
And would he ask the golden orb for permission?
“Oh, yes, definitely!” he laughs.
Setting out from Akuna Bay Marina, the tour company’s 50-foot catamaran is our ticket to Indigenous sites that are accessible only by water. At Smiths Creek we pull up alongside two rock shelters: one displaying three fish rendered with charcoal and red ochre; and the other showing a red fish – an ancient signpost indicating the large fish-breeding hole below that is 30 metres deep at high tide.
Above the rock art, clinging to the sandstone ledges, the bulging rust-coloured trunks of the angophora trees seem to be melting in the sun. As Les explains, mixing the resin from these trees with red ochre has effectively preserved the 800-year-old red hand stencils we see on another rock shelter – they don’t look a day older than yesterday.
Lunch on the boat is bush tucker with a twist (think lemon myrtle chicken wraps and kangaroo sandwiches) and then the show begins, with Les inviting volunteers to help demonstrate hand stencilling, didgeridoo playing and fire making.
Anticipating our visit (by bus) to a midden on Turimetta Beach, Les runs through the seafood menu that has contributed to forming these deposits of discarded shells and bones, including abalone, sea urchins, oysters, sea snails, scallops, mussels and fish. Not only is abalone flesh delicious, he says, salivating, the empty shell is the perfect shape for filing into a fishing hook.
Savouring the salty aftertaste of freshly picked warrigal greens and crimson pigface fruit, which proliferate along the coastline, we trek down to Turimetta. This unpatrolled beach is possibly one of Sydney’s best-kept secrets. Standing on the sand, we peer up at the sizeable sheltered midden while Les tells us that one cubic metre of the midden system would take up to five years to form in a large gathering place.
Unlike Indigenous peoples living inland, the local Guringai people could gather in larger groups around an abundant coastal food supply, easily harvesting shellfish from the rock platforms at Turimetta and foraging for a range of fruits and greens along the coastal tracks. Today’s tour has given us a taste of those salad days.
See photos from Sydney Out Back’s tour of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in my Gallery.