“Welcome to the land of the Nyungar People. Where we stand today would have originally been the river …” Walter McGuire greeted us in the language of his ancestors at Elizabeth Quay on the shores of Perth Harbour. Walter is a traditional owner of Nyungar Boodja (country), including the Whadjuk lands on which Perth city now stands. He runs GoCultural Tours and he was giving our group a talk on the history of the Nyungar (Noongar) people of Western Australia, their Dreamtime stories and how they lived in days gone by.
Walter sang an Aboriginal song, clacking together two boomerangs to create a hypnotic rhythm. In the past, a welcome ceremony could have taken days or even weeks. “The boomerang (kali or kylie) would traditionally have been made from mulga or Black Wattle. They were used for hunting, killing kangaroos and sometimes fighting. The ones you throw away and don’t come back are … sticks.” Walter and his partner Meg daubed a mark of white clay on our foreheads and explained how this would be used in ceremonies and also in artwork found in caves around Australia.
On the ground lay a kangaroo skin, on top of which was a basket full of intriguing objects. Walter and Meg proceeded to tell us about each one, and their significance to Nyungar everyday life. Wilgi (red and yellow ochre) was obtained from a site now occupied by Perth Railway Station and was used in all kinds of Aboriginal ceremonies as well as traded with peoples to the east of Australia, possibly as far as Uluru.
Walter passed round a curious piece of wood with a shiny, many layered surface; it looked as if it had been highly lacquered. “This is balga (xanthorrhoea). Nyungar people would use the spike of the plant as part of spear shaft and the resin is also used as an adhesive in spear-making. It can fix leaks, for example in a coolamon.” I’d come across a coolamon before, on a Bush Tucker Walk in the Northern Territory. It’s a curved container used to carry water, fruit, nuts, even babies, and is often decorated with attractive etched markings. A shaggy piece of bark, known as bibool (Swamp Paperbark) would be used as roofing for a mia-mia (shelter) or as a torch. Its bark has a high oil content. A fascinating insight into a totally different way of life, utilising every bit of nature around.
Sitting on the grass overlooking Perth Harbour, learning about Nyungar culture in spring sunshine from a knowledgeable elder, was a real privilege. Walter’s passion for his people’s heritage came over in everything he said. He spoke of the ‘Era of the White Man’ when James Stirling set up the Swan River Colony in the 1820s, which developed into vibrant Perth, the way his people were treated in the early days, getting the vote in 1967 and the pride he felt in his being the only ‘mob’ to be recognised as traditional owners of the city.
Finally we walked along the quay to a giant silver bird, wings outstretched pointing out across Perth Harbour. Called First Contact, it was created by Noongar (Nyangar) artist, Laurel Nannup. “First Contact is inspired by the Noongar people’s first visions of European settlers, whose distant sailing ships looking like floating birds bearing the white-faced spirits of their ancestors.” Walter picked up his boomerangs and sang a song of farewell, a fitting end to a fascinating tour.
Nyungar Aboriginal Greeting by Walter McGuire – Perth
I travelled to Perth, Fremantle, Rottnest Island and Margaret River courtesy of Tourism Western Australia #justanotherdayinWA. It was a memorable trip with some amazing experiences unique to this part of the world.