Following in the footsteps of our First People



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Viewing Tasmanian Aboriginal rock carvings/petroglyphs at Sundown Point on Tasmania’s West Coast

We’re on a route that takes you directly to one of the rich Aboriginal sites on the wild West Coast. This sea country fills you with awe. The track itself is an adrenaline-rush: deep, rocky ruts and soft sand make it 4WD only.

You have to know where you’re going. Or go with someone who knows. And shoulder a rucksack of respect because the Arthur-Pieman Conservation area is one of the world’s great archaeological regions. A 2km wide coastal strip from Marrawah in the north to Granville Harbour in the south sits on the National Heritage List.

At Arthur River’s Gardiner Point, more commonly known as ‘the Edge of the World’, you stand on rocks further south than the southernmost point of Africa. Waves breaking onshore here arrive all the way from Argentina, uninterrupted by land. Scientists at the Australian Maritime College who study and measure oceans acknowledge these are the world’s most powerful.

Some of Tasmania’s rare Aboriginal engraving sites are located on this coastline, just metres from where we pull up in the 4WD. At Sundown Point, 8kms south of the mouth of the Arthur River, we clamber over and contemplate 40 separate rock slabs of laminated mudstone, many with clearly defined circles, grooves, lines, crosses and pits scored thousands of generations ago. Middens and hut depressions, too, are evident along the coastline where Aboriginal people survived in large numbers for thousands of years, and were forcibly removed in the 1800s.

If you were here without a guide you’d be hard-pressed to find or see the rock art. Drifts of sand cover many of the motifs. Our lack of education and ignorance form a double crust. Like many, I was taught that Aboriginal people did not survive what Tom Lawson in his book The Last Man calls “A British Genocide in Tasmania”. We learnt about how the First People died, not how they lived, or their descendants survived.

I find myself on this path, now, with Aboriginal friends, trying to fill the chasm of unconsciousness, and honour a culture that goes deeper then we ever knew.

I think of these flat rocks at our feet on drifting sands as are our Stonehenge, our Macchu Picchu, our Leaning Tower of Pisa.

For non-Aboriginals the journey of discovery is neither obvious nor easy. Access to these coastal sites has been won, it seems, without a robust framework for deep appreciation. We are still learning how best to protect and manage Aboriginal living heritage. A Liberal election promise advocated the upgrading and re-opening of a number of 4WD tracks in the Arthur-Pieman. But, the Federal Court ordered an interim injunction to close them, ruling heritage must come first.

There were signs of a change of heart when, this Australia Day, Will Hodgman spoke boldly of his government’s intention to overhaul eligibility for Tasmanians identifying as Aboriginal. The local Aboriginal community, represented by the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation (CHAC), hopes the Premier’s speech will open doors to a new approach for local Aboriginal people to manage and look after their own local heritage.

“There’s one Aboriginal group that speaks for the Tasmanian Aboriginal communities – but they don’t speak for us,” CHAC CEO Diane Baldcock told me. “We have our own voice.”

Currently, permission to access the area is required through the Tasmanian Land Council and Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre that run a site office a few kilometres up the coast at Preminghana (Mt Cameron West, Marrawah). The signs here indicate we are on Aboriginal land and we stop respectfully to ask permission. On a holiday weekday the building is closed with no one in sight so we continue to the lookout point at Preminghana.

Since the area was first discovered in 1933 by Devonport school teacher, A L Meston, Preminghana’s engravings have been recognised as “one of the finest displays of hunter/gatherer art in the world”. Even in the 1930s Meston referred to their advanced state of erosion, while a later paper by L E Luckman, published for the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1951, with photographs and maps of their location, also referred to “important material, much of which may be lost by erosion”.

By contrast, in the distance, the outline of Cape Grim is a permanent reminder of the massacre that occurred when shepherds ambushed a group of Aborigines, throwing their bodies over the cliff into the sea.

Diane Baldock, who’s lived at Circular Head for 36 years, explains how many local Aboriginal people have been denied access to their own culture for “many, many years”. “I know there are members of the community who have been to Mt Cameron and been prosecuted for being on site at Mt Cameron and gone through the courts even though they identify as Aboriginal people”.

“We’re not about claiming land or land hand-backs,” says Diane. “We want to be able to share our rich culture. It would be wonderful to have a plan in progress for access because it needs to be managed and controlled carefully so we can enrich our sites and be able to pass on our heritage to our young people in the community who will be our future leaders.”

Meanwhile, on the TAC website, CEO Heather Sculthorpe, disappointed with what she calls “Hodgman’s gimmick Aboriginality policy” threatens to “raise the attitude of the Premier at the next large gathering of the Aboriginal community where it is likely we will be told to cut off contact with the Hodgman government.”

Much has been written about the Black War. But in 2016, we fail ourselves in failing to fully connect with the awesome beauty, stories and culture of our First People. There is a right way to observe deep culture and all Tasmanians need to be shown how – be guided, not with signs of authority, closed doors, or threats.

It helps if you let someone take your hand – someone who wears history on their shoulders, and Aboriginality in their veins.