Gold Coast: History at the heart of a proud culture

By Louise Richardson

Louise Richardson gets an energetic history lesson from custodians of the land.

Performers at the Jellurgal Cultural Centre in Queensland offer an inspiring trip through Aboriginal history.
Performers at the Jellurgal Cultural Centre in Queensland offer an inspiring trip through Aboriginal history.

The days of rigid, ordered museums with static displays attempting to convey aspects of history as being interesting, (with mixed success), have long since disappeared. These days, stories of our pasts are often conveyed as living reminders, in song, dance, art and even in a simple yet significant walk along the side of an arid, dusty mountain.

At Jellurgal Aboriginal Cultural Centre, situated beside the idyllic Tallebudgera Estuary at Burleigh Heads on Queensland's Gold Coast, the learning experience is energetic and engaging. It takes you to the heart of a proud culture, that of the Yugambeh Aboriginal people, who were custodians of the beautiful, sun-filled region, with its towering waves, many thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers.

I am privileged to have my friendly, welcoming guide Chantal to myself for a relaxed walk and a talk in the brilliant sunshine on Jellurgal, "The Dreaming Mountain".

She proudly conveys the story of her people, of the birds and animals who lived here with them - and often still do - and of the healing and nutritional properties of the various plants and leaves and, of course, their use in domestic life - weaving baskets from pandanas.

"Our people could read the seasons and hear the land," she explains. "They lived in harmony with our earth mother and this shaped our morals, philosophies and values."

"In the Yugambeh region there were eight main tribes, each unique, yet with many common denominators, and three times a year they would meet at the same spot. This is where they would share their skills, training dingoes to hunt kangaroos and wallabies, and dolphins to help harvest fish."

She points out the tall middens, where thousands of years' worth of fish shells still remain on the earth when those who devoured their bounty have long since moved on. "The shells and bones are still part of the earth and the soil," she says.

Chantal is well aware that in recent years many of her fellow Aboriginal people have been depicted as socially compromised, but she points out firmly that this isn't always the case and nor should it be.

"I'm very family oriented and we tend to avoid those illicit things because we know we have a stereotype to crush. There are ways we can help those of us who are less fortunate. We just need to be able to help direct Government support to where we know it's needed and in ways we know it will work."

This is serious yet necessary talk, but before long Chantal lightens the mood again, returning to the dreamtime stories she learned as a youngster, at her much-loved pop's knee.

"Jellurgul means 'place of honey'," she explains. "In ancient times, the giant Jibreen went walking in the Hinterlands and came upon some honey ants. After a super-bad honey feast, he got tired. He went for a swim to get clean, then fell asleep and the mountain consumed him. There's a rock formation up there that we believe is his fingers. And the honey went all over the mountain."

She also explains that the eggs from the bush turkeys on the mountain were offered to Aboriginal elders to eat - because they had no teeth and couldn't manage meat.

Pointing out the top of the mountain, Chantal explains that's where women traditionally went to give birth.

"Perhaps I should have climbed up there when my son was born," she laughs. "It might have taken my mind off the pain."

While she and I have concentrated on the mountain today, there is much more to the full five-hour tour.

It begins with an overview video in the "Dreaming Amphitheatre" and features amazing music, composed by Chantal's uncle. A bus trip then takes visitors to David Fleay Wildlife Park. Here, the relationship between Aboriginal people and the kangaroos, koalas and crocodiles is explained.

Back at the centre, an authentic corroboree provides the perfect atmosphere for a fire-starting demonstration. There's also a smoking ceremony and ochre anointment on the beach. A talented team of singers and dancers from the Yugambeh tribe help the various aspects of the experience flow perfectly, and there's always plenty of time for asking questions as the day progresses.

The venture has been a huge success so far, according to Chantal. She says that visitors from overseas and elsewhere in Australia love it but the thing which gives her most pleasure is when school groups and even groups of elderly arrive, with Aboriginal people among them.

"I always say that there's no such thing as a silly question but we do get some funny ones sometimes.

"This is often one of the first times they've really got up close with their own people and culture, and that's always a real thrill for them - and for us."

Louise Richardson visited Queensland with assistance from:

Tourism Australia
Tourism and Events Queensland
Air New Zealand

- Herald on Sunday

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