Indigenous tourism in Victoria set to shine
Budj Bim becomes first site in Australia to achieve World Heritage status for Aboriginal cultural significance.
The country around Lake Condah, out in the west of Victoria, is mesmerising. Windswept, rugged and eerily beautiful, it’s the kind of landscape that seems to go on forever. The enveloping peace is broken only by birdcall, the swoosh of tall grasses and the sight of the occasional snake enjoying the height-of-summer sun.
Walking through the Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape, the untrained eye can pick up mysteries without finding answers. Stone rings that occur too often to be coincidence hint tantalisingly at another story. More stones lining old waterways, arranged in a way that demonstrates purpose, rather than happenstance, deepen the intrigue.
But walk this country in the company of traditional owners Braydon Saunders, a Budj Bim ranger, and Tyson Lovett-Murray, project officer with the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, and the epic truth is revealed. Welcome to the land of the Gunditjmara people, the world’s first civil engineers.
It is here – on land that European settlers rebadged Mount Eccles until it was changed back to its rightful name in 2017 – that a large, settled Aboriginal community systematically farmed and smoked eels for food and trade 6600 years ago, and very possibly much longer. “We were the original sustainable farmers,” says Braydon Saunders. “We weren’t just hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors were looking after the landscape, taking care of biodiversity, doing planned burns and concentrating on the production of one species.”
Their Gunditjmara ancestors trapped short-finned eels in a complex system of channels, ponds and weirs. They sometimes fattened them up on kangaroo meat, separated the pregnant eels from the others, and captured them in intricately woven grass baskets. The reliable food supply allowed them to settle and build villages of stone huts where they lived year-round. They smoked eels in hollowed-out trees for trade, and stored food in sinkhole ‘fridges’ – all at least 4000 years before the ancient Egyptians built their pyramids.
In 2017, then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull travelled to Gunditjmara country to announce Budj Bim’s official nomination by the Australian government for World Heritage status; the first such nomination based purely on Aboriginal culture and heritage, and the culmination of 10 years of painstaking documentation by the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation. The site was granted World Heritage status on July 6, 2019, and its inclusion on the UNESCO cultural sites list is set to see visitation increase from 5000 visitors each year to at least 50,000 – and quite possibly double that number.