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Australia: Walkabout in Dreamtime

Sitting down seems a strange way to begin a bush walk in the Blue Mountains, that rugged stretch of Australia’s Great Dividing Range, 65km inland from Sydney.

But Evan Yanna Muru wants us to fully appreciate the Darug land of his Aboriginal heritage. And first, as the father of trout fishing, Izaak Walton, wrote, we must “study to be quiet”.

To understand the misty mountains that European settlers penetrated less than 200 years ago but where Aboriginal people have lived for 50,000 years, we must use all our senses. So we sit with eyes closed, listening, tuning our ears to pick up the rustle of a leaf, the hum of an insect, the call of a bird.

Next we must fine-tune our sense of touch so that we can feel the many subtle variations between smooth and rough. Each plant has a distinctive smell, even the different varieties of eucalyptus whose hovering mist of fine oil give the ranges the blue haze that led to their naming, while taste may discern the difference between food and poison.
And, perhaps, most important of all in a hunter-gatherer society, we must hone our sight, for we usually fail to really see all that we see.

“Concentrate on something you can see, such as a leaf, the bark of a tree, a stone,” Yanna Muru says.

“Focus on it and look at everything there is to it – the subtlety of colour, the texture, perhaps the way it is moving in the breeze or the way the sun glints on it.”

We do so and the tiny wildflower I focus on soon becomes more than a small, white flower on the side of the trail. It is shaped like a five-pointed star. The tiny petals are not simply white but vary in colour and have a texture that is like closely cropped velvet. The longer I look the more I can see of this tiny wildflower.

With our senses a little keener, we follow Yanna Muru along a bush trail that may well have been trod for many thousands of years.

This is the homeland of the Darug people – the yam eaters – one of more than 200 Aboriginal language groups and whose territory extended from the Blue Mountains to the coast at Botany Bay.

It was the Darug who greeted the First Fleet at Port Jackson – with disastrous consequences from introduced disease – and although it took 25 years before European colonists managed to penetrate the clan’s mountain fastness, the last of the full-blood Darug people had died by the late 1800s.

Yanna Muru, whose skin name means “walk your pathway,” traces his Darug ancestry through his father, Angel Guru Dyarralang. He was born and bred in the Blue Mountains and has studied his ancestral culture since he was a child.

He has worked as an Aboriginal Discovery Ranger for Blue Mountains National Park and Wildlife Service and is now an Aboriginal site officer and member of the Darug Custodian Aboriginal Clan, a group formed to bring the Darug culture back to life by “moo-tang ngalaringi namgami dyarralang” – living our dreaming.

This is the inspiration for his Blue Mountains Walkabout, a company that devotes 25 per cent of its profits to promoting traditional indigenous communities as proud custodians of their land and culture through training and employment.

This may sound like a bushwalk through politically correct anthropology and history – and that’s exactly what it is. Yanna Muru makes no apology for that. His aim is to share an understanding of Darug culture, to show the benefits of a sustainable relationship with nature and thus preserve cultural sites. You could merely follow him through the eucalypt forest and dank fern gullies of these ranges but you and your experience would be hugely the poorer for it.

The trail, says Yanna Muru, is a small section of a traditional Songline, a trail that was first trod in the Dreaming, the Aboriginal creation mythology, when the ancestors sang the Earth and all its creatures into life.

On this modern walkabout you can enter Darug culture at any level you choose to, from the stories of the Rainbow Serpent who created the landforms to more everyday lore on bush tucker, what berries and seeds are edible and how to find honey and bush grubs.

As we take a break on a large, grey slab of rock, Yanna Muru says he believes the trail was once part of an initiation route, a holistic journey that young people had to make to gain an understanding of their land, their culture and respect for other clans.

An Aboriginal OE, if you like.

With that he moves to a small trickle of water nearby and, after filling a plastic bag, pours the water onto the rock – a carving of a kangaroo and other figures chiselled into the rock come to life.

It is interpreted as a cautionary tale about the dangers of young people running off alone or ignoring their elders, a warning sign far more permanent than any road sign signifying danger.

We stop beside a crystal-clear billabong that is fed by a rainbow waterfall and surrounded by a sandy beach. It takes little imagination to believe that people have camped beside this pool for thousands of years and we sit in a circle on the sand, just like the elders used to, as Yanna Muru explains how totem symbols of clan and family were once painted on a person’s body in ochre and charcoal to show their relationship with the land, plants and animals

and all their relatives and ancestors who look after them.

He sketches some traditional patterns in the sand to indicate the way different totems were represented and then we mix natural dyes and make the connection between ourselves and the past.

Later, we pause beneath a rock shelter where there is clear evidence of campfire smoke on the roof and, on top of a spur, he shows us the evidence in stone that this relatively clear site was once a ceremonial area used for meetings and ritual dancing – the corroboree.

As we walk through the bush we begin to appreciate it in a new light.

Tramping through this land is not just an experience of nature in the raw, away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Follow Yanna Muru and it becomes an experience into life itself.

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