Bunjil’s Shelter

, , ,

Author: Jacob Hill

When James Cook first landed at Botany Bay in 1770, he encountered people on the shore – Aboriginal Australians. They clearly signalled that they didn’t want him to land and Cook interpreted their warra warra wai call to be hostile. It’s possible that he shot at them too. This was the first encounter between Aboriginal Australians and the British Empire.

But despite encountering people, Captain Cook declared the land Terra Nullius – empty land. This was because he hadn’t found evidence of cities, agriculture or settlement along any of the coastlines he explored. Australia seemed to be a big, empty landmass and Cook (and other explorers) estimated there were probably 4,000 Aboriginals at best.

But the explorers were wrong. As vast and sparsely populated Australia was (and still is), it was far from empty. Before the First Fleet arrived in 1788, there were 300,000-1,000,000 people living in Australia. Southeast Australia, the most habitable part of Australia, had ~250,000 Aboriginals alone. And they had been inhabiting the continent for over 50,000 years.

21st Century Jacobsweg: View of the Grampians from Big Hill Lookout, Stawell. The Djabwurung inhabited this land for thousands of years before Stawell was founded.
View of the Grampians from Big Hill Lookout, Stawell. The Djabwurung inhabited this land for thousands of years before Stawell was founded.

Much like American Indians, they comprised hundreds of clans with different cultural, spiritual and social traditions, e.g. Wurundjeri, Yorta Yorta, Pitjantjatjara and Wajuk. And like the term ‘American Indian’, the identity of ‘Aboriginal Australian’ only came about once colonisation happened. Aboriginals required a shared identity to separate themselves from European Settlers, but before then, they were just Yolngu, Bundjalung, Ngarrindjeri etc. They were never a monolith; No kingdoms or supranational political force were created Aboriginal societies.

Whereas Native Americans ranged in how sedentary or nomadic they were, Aboriginal Australians were mostly semi-nomadic in nature, moving around a certain area throughout the year to avoid depleting resources. There is evidence of small-scale agricultural practice and environmental management to keep the land sustainable, but there weren’t any fixed settlements on mainland Australia.

Aboriginal Australians may not have had cities, but they had rich and powerful spiritual traditions. Australians will be familiar with Dreamtime stories like the Rainbow Snake, Tiddalik the Toad and The Mimis. Unfortunately, many of these stories and traditions had been lost – it’s a miracle we know any of them.

I like Aboriginal stories and the way they blur the lines between land, people, time and spirit. I also like just how many stories there are to explain creation. In Victoria, particularly within the Kulin nation (a loose alliance of five Aboriginal groups around the Melbourne area), one creation myth is that of Bunjil.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Bunjil's Shelter rock painting, depicting Bunjil with two dingo companions resting in the Grampians.
Bunjil’s Shelter rock painting, depicting Bunjil with two dingo companions resting in the Grampians.

Bunjil is often depicted as a wedge-tailed eagle, the largest bird of prey in Australia and can be found anywhere in Australia. He is not a dangerous figure and overlooks all his creation from high in the sky. After carving the earth with his talons, his beak and picking things up and dropping them back down, he took off into the sky (or was blown up there by a powerful gust of wind). He also cut the animals into smaller animals (kind of like Ngurunderi creating the fish from Ponde) and created the first humans.

It is believed he took shelter in a cave near the Grampians during the Dreamtime (this is the tip of the Great Dividing Range). This scene is painted in a hollow in a boulder near Stawell. This painting, now known as Bunjil’s shelter, is the only known rock art site that depicts Bunjil, which makes this sacred site all the more sacred.

It’s authentic, but we don’t know how old it is, but estimates say it’s at least 1000 years old. It’s been ‘touched-up’ by Europeans since, which is obvious due to non-traditional Aboriginal methods and pigments being applied to it.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Bunjil's Shelter, protected by a cage to dissuade vandalism.
Bunjil’s Shelter, protected by a cage to dissuade vandalism.

Vandals have also targeted it over the years, which is why a huge cage surrounds it now. But in the stillness, it’s really a remarkable thing to behold. To look across and see the Grampians above the expanse of trees is incredible.

Lal Lal Falls is another significant site because its one of the places where Bunjil lives. Lal Lal is the edge of newer volcanic activity from 2.5 million years ago. It was first discovered by Europeans in 1837 and it became a popular location to visit. For eighty years, despite the sacredness of the site to Aboriginals, it became a place for race-meets and picnics. Non-native plants were sown and farms set up on and around the site, which damaged the environment and degraded the Falls.

But now it’s being restored as best as possible after years of damage, working with traditional custodians to conserve the site for future generations. In a way, Lal Lal could be a metaphor for the relationship between Aboriginals and Settlers.

The Europeans and Aboriginals had mutually exclusive attitudes towards land and its use, which quickly led to violent conflict. Generally speaking, Aboriginals lived with the land, Settlers lived off the land.

21st Century Jacobsweg: View from the Pinnacle in the Grampians. Lots of farms are visible in the distance. Bunjil's shelter is located in the hills past the lake.
View from the Pinnacle in the Grampians. Lots of farms are visible in the distance. Bunjil’s shelter is located in the hills past the lake.

Aboriginals didn’t see land or its resources as something that could be owned. They’re called “Traditional Custodians of the Land” because the land cared for them and they cared for it. The land is a living thing and everything was formed from the same substance by spirits and ancestors who continue to inhabit the world. Hence, you are related and connected to everything. In a way, the land and everything in it was family. You can see this in Aboriginal languages; a rock never ‘is’. Rather, it’s ‘sitting’, ‘standing’, ‘resting’, ‘stretching’ etc.

So when settlers erected fences throughout the country and declaring it to be theirs, Aboriginals found this confusing: ‘The land is us – don’t they know that this land is family?’

The Settler was equally confused when Aboriginals would regularly trespass even when asked to stop: ‘This land is mine – don’t they know that this land is private?’

Arguments naturally arose when Aboriginals would take or kill livestock. To the Aboriginal, a living thing couldn’t be private property, but to the Settler, the exact opposite was true.

Settlers retaliated against the perceived crimes of Aboriginals. In turn, the Aboriginals retaliated against the perceived unjust killings. A guerrilla war ensued with Settlers of different backgrounds on one side, and the previously disparate Aboriginal groups on the other. But the mass influx of Settlers and the technological disparity handicapped the Aboriginals.

21st Century Jacobsweg: Lal Lal Falls, one of the homes of Bunjil. It's a bit dry at the moment, but when it rains, it pours.
Lal Lal Falls, one of the homes of Bunjil. It’s a bit dry at the moment, but when it rains, it pours.

Upwards of 30,000 Aboriginal Australians and 2,000 Settlers died in intermittent, internecine frontier violence. And while there was never a centralised policy of violence or explicit endorsement, the colonial governments tacitly accepted the vigilantism against Aboriginals, since they were always seen as a problem.

As the traditional way of life became increasingly impossible, Aboriginal Australians were faced with an impossible choice. Some Aboriginals tried to adopt the new European lifestyle, but faced severe discrimination from both Settlers and Aboriginals adamant on maintaining the traditional lifestyle. The traditionalists continued to fight for the old way of living, but only in remote areas has a traditional lifestyle survived.

But no matter what choice they made, the problems only got worse once Australia federated (but that’s a dark, depressing rabbit-hole for another day).

However, only a minority of deaths of Aboriginal Australians can be attributed to deliberate killing. Settlers unwittingly brought across myriad diseases that the indigenous population simply didn’t have immunity for. When (prisoner) Settlers first arrived in 1788, they brought with them smallpox, measles and influenza. Once these diseases entered Aboriginal communities, it spread like wildfire throughout the continent.

 The area now called Victoria was not settled until 1803 in present-day Sorrento. This settlement was quickly abandoned and the land below the Murray was left unexplored for twenty years, save for the coastlines. Portland, the first successful British Settlement, was founded in 1834. Suffice to say, contact between Europeans and Victorian Aboriginals was minimal.

21st Century Jacobsweg: The city of Melbourne was founded in 1835, but diseases had destroyed the Aboriginal populations long before.
The city of Melbourne was founded in 1835, but diseases had destroyed the local Aboriginal populations long before.

But explorers who penetrated deep into Victoria found evidence of Smallpox in isolated communities who had never met a European before. After forty years, the Aboriginal population was reduced by 75% in Southeast Australia – before the area was colonised. By 1850, there were only 10-15,000 Aboriginals left in South-Eastern Australia.

Victorian Aboriginals had a difficult time fending off Settlers, already weakened by disease and destruction of traditional lifestyles. In 1850, Victoria had 76,000 Settlers, which had grown to over half a million by 1860 due to the discovery of gold.

By 1859, the Aboriginal Population in Victoria had fallen to fifty-six. You didn’t read that wrong – fifty-six. By 1891, this number improved to 565, but Victoria had nearly a million people.

That is awful, but at least some survived – the same can’t be said about Tasmania. But they kept their heritage alive and we’re lucky to have the stories around today (especially considering the Stolen Generations, but again, a story for another day).

Nowadays, Australians are trying to rectify the damage done to Aboriginals, their societies and their cultures. There’s a long way to go and it’ll be impossible to fix everything, but we’re trying our best to preserve the few remaining connections we have to the land, like Bunjil’s Shelter and Lal Lal Falls.


Subscribe to a monthly newsletter to receive all the latest updates and even receive exclusive content!

Email processed successfully. You're part of the Jacobsweg journey now!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: