On a mission: Uncovering the past of Victoria's Gunditjmara country

"On one hand, I totally hate what this mission represents, because it took away our language, it took away our culture, our dance, our song. On the other hand, where would the other Gunditjmara families be today if it wasn't for this place, would we have any other Gunditjmara families?"

I am standing on the Lake Condah Mission near Heywood in western Victoria with Gunditjmara elder Eileen Alberts, her daughter Jody and granddaughter Lara.

We arrive at the mission mid-afternoon, the sun bathing the crumbling buildings in a forgiving light, far more forgiving than life on the mission when Aboriginal men were rented out as farm labourers, the profits going into the pockets of the mission manager. 

There is an overgrown garden of wild garlic growing in the centre of the mission and a simple cross where the church once stood, the church in which Eileen was baptised. The original structure was blown up using 13 sticks of dynamite to declare an end to the mission days and Indigenous people and whites stood together to watch the building fall.

"I bring Lara and my other grandchildren out here because I think there is a lesson to be learnt, learn the lesson, move on from it and make sure it never happens in the future," Eileen says.

The mission forms part of a day out with Budj Bim Tours, an Indigenous-run company that offers interpretive tours of what is widely expected to be Australia's next UNESCO World Heritage-listed site.

Gunditjmara country is full of seasonal swamps, scattered lumps of porous volcanic rock and clear streams full of waving reeds, blackfish and short-finned eels. 

The story of how the Gunditjmara people managed to farm these eels, or kooyang, nearly 7000 years ago – pre-dating the engineering feats of both the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge – is the foundation of the World Heritage bid. It has also changed the perception of Indigenous Australians as nomads.

The Gunditjmara people dug a series of channels, weirs and ponds in the wetlands. They also placed woven eels baskets in gaps in the weirs to catch the eels; other baskets were used to divert the eels downstream once the ponds were full. The eels were then captured, placed on sticks and smoked inside hollow trees.

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This year-round supply of food meant the Gunditjmara gave up their nomadic life, building stone huts alongside their eel farms and within sight of the revered and now-dormant Budj Bim volcano in western Victoria.

We spend the morning walking through the wetlands and swamps where Eileen grew up and was taught to locate the eels with her bare feet. We are shown the deep furrows of the eel channels, the stone huts with rudimentary wooden roofs and the wooden weirs. 

The tour takes us from the ancient lava flow at Tyrendarra to a more modern artwork called Fresh and Salty. The house-sized artwork sitting in a farm field depicts the life cycle of the short-finned eel that travels from the fresh water streams to the ocean to spawn.

"The [Fresh and Salty] structure is in the shape of one of our round houses, and the spiral with an opening means that everyone is welcome here to come out on country," Eileen tells us.

At lunch in Kurtonitj Indigenous Protected Area we finally get to taste the eel, smoked in the traditional way, and it is delicious. Our spread also includes kangaroo meatballs and a warrigal green dip.

The tour winds up in the Budj Bim National Park. Gunditjmara believe that more than 30,000 years ago, the creation spirit Budj Bim revealed himself in the landscape by forming a huge volcano that we now know as Mt Eccles. Budj Bim then shared his blood and his teeth with this people in the form of a lava flow that formed the wetlands that the Gunditjmara made their home.

We drive to the top of the crater and discover the aptly named Lake Surprise. What appears to be just a very steep hill suddenly turns into a crater lake, rimmed by pale white stones and full of water birds carving V-shapes in the still water. Budj Bim means "High Head", and the brow – the highest point of the volcano – is off limits to all except Gunditjmara men who wear the emu-feather shoes. These men in the emu-feather shoes – which allow them to walk quietly and without leaving tracks – used to walk to the highest point of the Budj Bim crater and, from this point, they could observe burial rites that took place on Deen Maar Island just off the coast. 

As the sun goes down, our Gunditjmara guides leave us to take the hour-long walk around the crater rim. We wander the rim, seeing koalas stretching in the branches of eucalypts and dark brown wallabies peering at us from the underbrush. Budj Bim is little known within our own country, but World Heritage listing or not, the word needs to get out.

TRIP NOTES

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budjbimtours.com

DRIVE

Budj Bim (Mt Eccles) National Park is 322 kilometres (3 hours 40 minutes) from Melbourne. Portland is your best base, which is a little over four hours from Melbourne.

STAY

Quest Apartments Hotels in Portland is well positioned as a base for exploring Budj Bim. The apartments are walking distance to the restaurants and waterfront of Portland and just a half-hour drive to Heywood where you start your Budj Bim tour. Doubles from $155.

66 Julia Street, Portland; questapartments.com.au

TOUR

All tours leave from the Budj Bim Orientation Centre in Heywood, where you receive a welcome from your guide and an introductory video and interpretive talk. Then you jump on the tour bus and head out in the Budj Bim Landscape. For more information, budjbimtours.com.

Paul Chai was a guest of Budj Bim Tours

FIVE MORE THINGS

CAPE NELSON LIGHTHOUSE

The Cape Nelson lighthouse offers tours, whale watching (in season) or the opportunity to grab a meal at Isabella's Café. The hardy can take on the Great Southwest Walk that starts here and covers 250 kilometres of coastal track. The lighthouse also offers accommodation in the old lighthouse keeper's cottages.

119 Cape Nelson Lighthouse Road, Portland West; capenelsonlighthouse.com.au

CAPE BRIDGEWATER

A 15-minute drive outside of Portland is the Cape Bridgewater blowholes and the petrified forest. The black basalt blowholes spray seawater skyward during rough seas but it is the spooky faux tree stumps of the petrified forest that are the highlight. Once thought to be trees that had turned to stone over thousands of years, the "forest" was later discovered to be formed by limestone tubes. 

PORTLAND CABLE TRAM DEPOT & MUSEUM

These historic trams date back to the 1800s and operate on a cable pulley system. Take a ride on the trams or visit the tram museum, an eclectic collection of model trains and trams coupled with a huge collection of gemstones and petrified wood, including one tree limb that dates back to the Jurassic period, 150 million years ago.

2a Bentinck Street, Portland; portlandcabletrams.com.au

COFFIN SALLY

Time your trip to have dinner in Port Fairy at this petite pizzeria with a bar out back decorated in animal skulls and bones, candles and natural wood. The pizzas are thin, crisp and have great quality ingredients on top, and they wash down well with a local ale or two.

33 Sackville St, Port Fairy

COBB'S BAKERY

If you arrive at Port Fairy at lunchtime, head straight to Cobb's Bakery for a wide range of pies. Top tips are the curry prawn and curried scallop pies. There is also a wide range of sweet options: go for the doorstop-sized lemon slices and you'll have some left over for the car trip.

25 Bank St, Port Fairy

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