There were always people here: a history of Yuraygir National Park

Cover of DECCW publication, There were always people here:  a history of Yuraygir National Park

Johanna Kijas, There were always people here: a history of Yuraygir National Park, (New South Wales Department of Environment and Climate Change: Sydney South, 2009).

After I finished writing my thesis I promised myself that I would read a wide variety of history.  Yesterday I had the pleasure of reading a history of a National Park in northern New South Wales written by Johanna Kijas and published by the New South Wales Department of Environment and Climate Change.  I was curious about this history for two reasons.  Firstly, history of place has always interested me but I have never read a history of a National Park and secondly, I was curious about how a history produced under the aegis of a government department would read.

Yuraygir National Park stretches along 60km of coastline in northern New South Wales (flagged on the map above).   It is bounded by mountains to the west which made it difficult for Europeans to access the area .  The dense forest on the fringe of the area was another impediment as were the swamps.  Consequently European settlement was slow to develop compared to other areas of northern New South Wales.

One of the features of this publication is the incorporation of both Aboriginal and settler histories into the narrative.  The custodial relationship of the local Aboriginal people to the land prior to European settlement, during the difficult period of colonisation through to today is recognised throughout.  Australian history did not start with European settlement, the Aboriginal people had lived here for thousands of years.  Acknowledgement of this is also reflected in the title – ‘there were always people here’.  We will never know how long Aborigines have lived in the Yuraygir National Park area but radiometrical dating of a large midden in the National Park has indicated that Aborigines were placing material in this spot about 1,650 years ago (p. 83).

This area was an abundant source of food for the local Aboriginal people, the Yaegl.  It is estimated that the population density prior to European contact was relatively high compared to other areas in the region.  It is ironic that Europeans found this same land so difficult to traverse and farm, thus fewer settled here than in nearby places.  However, the Commissioner of Crown Lands for the area noted in 1857 that ‘[t]he amount of outrage on the part of the Aborigines has far exceeded that which I have been accustomed to notice in Districts more remote than that of the Clarence River’ (p. 18).  While  violence is noted this history gives little detail about it.

Kijas provides an overview of the history of the area so it is a good entry point for someone like me who has no prior knowledge of it.  It is 107 pages with maps and photographs throughout.  Its size prevents the author from providing the detail that could be provided in a book but there is enough information for a reader who is interested in a particular issue mentioned in the publication to follow up more detailed sources through the footnotes and the extensive bibliography.

This is more than a synthesis of the work of others.  Kijas has sought to address the gaps in our knowledge of the history of the area.  The contribution that this publication makes to our knowledge is through the many interviews that Kijas has done with those people whose families made a significant contribution to the area, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.  I was fascinated to learn that catching and selling beach worms to fishers was a source of income for the Yaegl (pp. 32-33, 35, 54).  Timber felling and cattle grazing were the main sources of income for the settlers.  Some mining occurred, particularly sand mining from the 1920s.  I learned that bullocks ‘love burnt grass’ (p. 42) and that a family brought their bullocks to the area of the National Park each year for a ‘holiday’ (p. 47).  These two snippets made me think of the close relationship people had to their working animals.

Fire is an ever-present issue in Australia.  We know that Aborigines were systematically burning the country before European settlement, but this history refers to the constant burning conducted by European settlers which surprised me.  I had always thought that the Europeans were fearful of fire and did not understand its role in managing the Australian environment.

Rosemary worked beside her father, following on her horse as they rode out for a day’s muster.  She says he would always drop a match, any time of year, and it would burn to the next section which might have been burnt six months before…  These were the ‘ordinary fires – little and often’. (p. 47)

The farmers used fire to suppress the undergrowth thereby promoting the growth of grass for their cattle.  We know that different people can see the same landscape but perceive it in a markedly varied way, the same is true of fire.  Towards the end Kijas refers to Malcolm Gill’s comment that fire can be perceived as a hazard or as a tool (p. 91).

This history does not shy from acknowledging controversial issues and has an air of frankness which some might not expect from a government department, in this case the New South Wales Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (DECCW).  It acknowledges the criticism that the Department has received over its burning off policy, the anger and conflict surrounding the establishment of the National Park and the failure of the Department to acknowledge and work with the Yaegl people in the early days of the National Park.  The Department has a difficult task in meeting the expectations of residents of the region, visitors and taxpayers who have conflicting ideas about how this National Park should be managed.  It has to establish its own agenda amidst what at times can be heated public debate.  A publication such as this has to be diplomatic and promote the Department’s current views while not compromising the account of what has occurred in the past.  This difficult task is not unique to government organisations though.  Every person who writes history has to consider their responsibility towards those who will read it and those who they are writing about.  I think that Klijas did a good job of managing the ethical issues behind this history.

The foreward is important to read as it establishes the approach towards environment and heritage that the Department has now adopted.  It recognises that the relationship that people have to the land under its management is as important as the physical landscape itself, that ‘managing protected areas is essentially a social process’ (Foreward).  This history looks at the relationship people have to the land in the Yuraygir National Park.  If the reader is seeking a discussion about the physical environment in the National Park, they need to look elsewhere on the Department website.

I enjoyed delving into this history.  The addition of a general map such as the one I have included in this post would have been good.  While I have travelled from Wilson’s Promontory in the south to the tip of Cape York in the north, I have not travelled along the coast between Newcastle and Byron Bay so I do not know the area where the National Park is located.  I had trouble recognising the location of the National Park because I am not familiar with the towns mentioned in the history.  However, this history is directed more at people who live or visit this area and towards the National Park staff who are responsible for it, all of whom would have no problem understanding where the National Park is.

This history is freely available online.  At the same time you may want to check out the other historical publications produced by DECCW.

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2 thoughts on “There were always people here: a history of Yuraygir National Park

    • Thankyou very much Clarrie! Reading this history has renewed my wish to visit the north coast. It sounds like a great part of the world! I’ve checked out the provisional masters swimming calendar for next year and to my delight found that Clarence River Masters Swimming Club are planning a competition next year – so that will provide me a good excuse to get there. Exercise and visiting a place I have never been to before sounds great!

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